The Indian Air Force is scrambling to acquire old jets for spares to bolster its existing fleet of fighters. The idea here is to boost the operational viability of an ageing fleet till new fighters are inducted. For example, the IAF has 118 Jaguar fighters today. It began acquiring them way back in 1979 from the UK. This was followed up by licensed production of around 150 fighters by Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL).

However, over the years the fighters became obsolete in their original form and had to be given progressive upgrades of avionics and weapon systems. But this in turn made the fighters overweight leading to several accidents and loss of lives.

Currently IAF and HAL are finalizing the long-awaited $1.5 billion project to re-engine and upgrade five Jaguar squadrons. And once the fighters get their new F-125IN Honeywell engines, they should be able to fly beyond 2035. But the truth is this is nothing but Indian ‘jugaad’. None of this would have been necessary had procurement and induction of modern fighters gone ahead in a timely fashion. IAF is down to just 31 fighter squadrons when at least 42 are required. This number is slated to decline further as several squadrons of MiG-21s and MiG-27s retire by 2024. Add to this the continuing delay in production of the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft, and the IAF is looking at a serious shortfall.

This can’t be addressed through simply cannibalising old jets for spares to extend the operational life of existing fighters. Such an approach poses a huge risk to our airmen — as exemplified by the several MiG crashes in previous years — and severely dents our operational capabilities. We have been trying to paper over the cracks for far too long. It’s time to completely revamp the process of acquiring and inducting fighters on an urgent basis. While attempts at indigenous production can go on, no effort should be spared to acquire modern foreign fighters. It’s just as well that India has re-launched the $20 billion competition for acquiring 114 fighters. The ‘Jugaad’ approach must stop now.