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Indian Air Force chief BS Dhanoa said the air force has paid with the lives of its pilots and engineers to take homegrown projects further.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has sought to dispel any notion about its so-called fondness for imported platforms, including fighter jets, at the cost of indigenisation.

IAF chief BS Dhanoa said that while many people “pontificate about indigenisation”, the air force has paid with the lives of its pilots and engineers to take homegrown projects further.

He was delivering a talk on ‘The Role of IAF in the Changing Security Environment’ at Delhi-based think tank Vivekananda International Foundation on Thursday. The IAF operates 32 platforms sourced from nine countries.

Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa said since independence, 17 test pilots and engineers had lost their lives in air accidents during the testing and evaluation of indigenous planes such as Marut, Kiran, Ajeet, Saras and AWACS (airborne warning and control systems) prototype aircraft.

“It is the IAF’s endeavour to achieve self-sufficiency through focused, sustained and evolved indigenisation programs,” the air force chief said, making a mention of the locally produced Tejas light combat aircraft, Akash surface-to-air missiles and a string of advanced radars.

Dhanoa stressed that it was “existing superiority in capability” that afforded a country the luxury of time to pursue totally indigenous solutions. Military industry experts often argue that the navy has achieved a higher degree of indigenisation than the air force.

“It’s unfair to compare only an aircraft for its indigenous content versus an entire ship. Compare aircraft with a SAM (surface-to-air missile) system or carrier-borne airpower for indigenous content,” the air force chief said. He said while a naval destroyer as a fighting unit had an indigenous capability of 55%, in the case of the IAF, if the air base, infrastructure, missiles and aircraft were counted, the figure would come to 52%.

Giving the example of Brazil, Dhanoa said if a country had a “low external threat perception,” it could wait longer for new platforms to be inducted. He said Brazil hammered out a contract for the development and production of 36 Gripen NG aircraft in October 2014 but deliveries to the Brazilian Air Force will run from 2019 to 2024. Some of these aircraft will be built with Brazil’s participation.

On the other hand, India signed an $8.7-billion deal with France for 36 Rafale jets in September 2016 as an emergency purchase and all planes will be delivered in a flyaway condition between 2019 and 2022.

The point that the chief is trying to make is that if India too had a low external threat perception, it could have waited longer for the new fighters that could have been made with Indian participation.

The IAF is struggling with a shortage of warplanes — compared to an optimum strength of 42-plus units required to fight a two-front war, the count of the IAF’s fighter squadrons has shrunk to 31.