by Sandeep Unnithan

The defence ministry has once again announced its intent to buy multi-role fighter jets to shore up its fast-depleting squadrons, the third such attempt in almost two decades. The April 6 Request for Information (RFI) issued to six global manufacturers for 110 fighters worth $20 billion (Rs 1.25 lakh crore or nearly half the annual defence budget) is India's largest ever defence deal. It revives a decade-long process to buy multi-role fighter jets that was scrapped by the government in 2015.

The participants this time around are the same as before. Besides France's Rafale, there is Russia's MiG-35, the Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70, Boeing F/A-18, Sweden's Saab Gripen and the Eurofighter Typhoon. The winning firm will build the aircraft in collaboration with an Indian partner under the MoD's 'Strategic Partnership' policy notified last year.

The new purchase aims to bridge the gap caused by the impending retirement of 11 squadrons of Soviet-era MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighter jets and the delay in the induction of the home-built Tejas. The Tejas LCA programme, launched in 1983 to replace all the MiG-21s, has made very slow progress. There are 83 Tejas Mark-1As on order, but at the current production rate, it will be a decade before they can be delivered. A Mark-2 Tejas variant, with an improved engine, radar and payload, is still further away. This delay and the alarming drop in squadron numbers has been the crux of three previous interim solutions beginning in 2001 when the IAF debated buying over 100 Mirage 2000-5 jets. That attempt was overturned with the government opting for a global contest pitting six fighter jets from the US, France, Russia, Europe and Sweden. The winner, the French Rafale, was never bought. A limited number was, however, purchased in a government-to-government deal in 2016. Even this buy couldn't assuage the IAF's worries. The 'contest' for the 126-plane order was scrapped. The force has a depleted strength of 31 squadrons (each with 18 jets) against a requirement of 42 squadrons needed to handle a collusive threat from China and Pakistan.

As its numbers dwindle to less than 600 fighters, the IAF is looking at vastly superior numbers across the border-the PAF has 400 fighter jets and the rapidly modernising PLAAF has over 1,500 fighter jets, including a core of 600 fourth-generation fighter jets. As per a 2016 study by Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the problem is far deeper as "all three tiers of the IAF's air/defence multi-role force-the light, medium and heavy components-are in trouble". The new fighter tender, thus, is critical for the IAF to achieve its goal of 42 fighter squadrons by 2027. The $20 billion price tag, spread over the 12 years of the life of this contract, seems a formidable investment, and the MoD hopes to offset this by getting the foreign firm to share technology with the Indian partner. The new bid is ambitious in that it attempts to create a defence aerospace ecosystem. The other imponderable is time, which the IAF is running short of.

Air Marshal P.S. Ahluwalia, former C-in-C of the IAF's western air command, believes a contract can be signed in less than five years because all the aircraft have been evaluated by the IAF during the MMRCA contest. One unknown area is the Strategic Partnerships. "This is a challenge as it has never been done before. Several issues are yet to be clarified," he says. Nothing, it seems, is a given when it comes to the IAF's fighter buy.