India's advanced light fighter jet HAL/ADA TEJAS

by Air Cmde Prashant Dikshit (Retd)

There seems to be widespread scepticism among military air power experts in India regarding the future of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) combat worthiness. At the heart of the matter is the process and speed of the induction of combat aircraft in the fleet. The uncertainties lay at the government’s doorstep, which had commenced with India signing the deal with the France for the purchase only 36 aircraft in fly away condition with the costs seemingly having multiplied several times over.

There were no explanations for the slashing of the numbers from the 126 aircraft envisaged in the original Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) proposal. The decision to downscale the numbers was taken by the Indian prime minister whilst on an official visit to France in April 2015, and the two countries agreed to “conclude an Inter-Governmental Agreement for supply of aircraft.” The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) cleared this US$ 8.8 billion Rafale deal only in August 2016, nearly 16 months after the prime minister announced its procurement in April 2015. Although the prime minister does have the authority to take such a decision, as per the government’s own procedures, there exists an acquisitions committee tasked with providing its recommendations. Bereft of this advice, is it advisable for the prime minister to conclude that only 36 aircraft need to be ordered, no more, no less? The time lost in the process is crucial.

Additionally, under the current contract, which was finalised on 23 September 2016 after numerous hiccups, India is set to pay US$ 8.8 billion for only 36 aircraft, compared to the US$ 8.4 billion that was previously negotiated for the purchase of 126 aircraft—marking an approximately 250 per cent increase in costs. The media had reported that the decision had been hastened to obtain the aircraft sooner, but ironically, the delivery of the aircraft is expected to commence from September 2019 and hopefully be completed by April 2022—supplied by the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) in flyaway condition but seven years later (from 2015).

Meanwhile, the IAF’s predicament continues. With no news on inductions on the cards, three years since the announcement regarding the Rafale aircraft, the IAF issued yet another request for information for approximately 110 more fighter jets, both single and twin engines, in the hope and pursuit of replenishing its rapidly dwindling fleet. A close scrutiny of the this 72-page document, which seeks a reply in a duly filled form by 6 July 2018, reveals that it is nothing but a repetition of what was contained in the MMRCA proposal issued in 2007. The only significant point of addition is that the “Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) should convey with adequate clarity, their ‘Technology of Transfer’ offer for indigenous manufacture of the aircraft in India towards ‘Make in India’ initiative of the Government of India.” This is a re-entry into the realm of completely opaque timelines. Given past experience, the prospects cannot be assessed with certainty.

Moreover, the contract for the 36 Rafale aircraft did not include technology transfer and neither did it follow with an ‘offsets’ contract. An ‘offsets’ clause is considered a powerful tool to promote technology permeation within the Indian technology realm and in the case of the Rafale, this expenditure was touted at 50 per cent of the total outlay. Its absence in the Rafale contract remains a mystery.

Meanwhile, in April 2018, the government withdrew from the co-development and production of the Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), also known in India as the Perspective Multi-role Fighter (PMF)—but not before India had sunk nearly US$ 293 million and 11 valuable years in this venture. The challenges of this project were expected to imbue Indian engineers with enhanced design experiences that were otherwise not feasible in a licensed manufacture. Above all, it was to add 127 FGFAs to the IAF fleet.

In April 2018, India’s Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told parliament that India was planning to launch a programme to develop a stealth fighter called Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) and that a feasibility study for the programme had already been completed. The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) of India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) was to initiate the AMCA technology demonstration phase before launching full-scale production.

In a significant change of venue, the ADA was looking to test the AMCA at Sulur on the outskirts of Coimbatore instead of Bangalore. Sulur was chosen due to saturation at the HAL Airport in Bangalore and also because it has an IAF flying base which houses India’s first Tejas squadron. However, the venue change would result in a situation where the Next Generation Technology Demonstrator (NGTD) would have to be transported to Sulur each time and then brought back to the ADA in Bangalore. Unless parallel facilities are established in Sulur, the current situation would result in increased expenses and time.

Meanwhile, the ADA proposed private participation in this project. On 16 February 2018, it invited expressions of interest in providing an NGTD. The private participants would have to manufacture, assemble and equip two aircraft. Setting a new precedent, the entire sector was to have been participating at various stages including the design, fabrication, and assembly of the craft. The replies to ADA were to reach by 15 March 2018. It is the realisation chart contained in the ADA projection which sparks intense speculation. It is utopian because it gives the private participant only a period of 3.5 years for the first NGTD and a total of six years for completion after flight testing. Above all, it is a ‘Make in India’ venture. But even if this were possible, the first AMCA can only be available by 2030.

What must the IAF do until then?