IAF is bedraggled with obsolete Soviet/Russian era fighter jets

Ever since the Narendra Modi-led BJP government decided to buy 36 twin-engine Rafale fighter jets, a murky political slug-fest alleging non-transparency over their purchase has followed these aircraft every step of the way. So sweeping has this offensive been that it took nearly two years for the government to wake up to the depleting Indian Air Force (IAF) squadrons. Compounding the problem is Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) continuously missing critical deadlines for delivery of single-engine fighter jets Tejas even as the Centre has vehemently insisted on its promotion as part of its 'Make in India' initiative. Questions arise, then, if India's attempt to resurrect its public sector defence undertakings have come at the cost of national security?

Addressing the 10th ‘Jumbo’ Majumdar International Conference at the Centre for Air Power Studies in New Delhi', the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa on Friday said that IAF's efforts to support HAL have affected the force's fighting abilities. He goes to the extent of asking, "Will the enemy make any concession for us when we face them in battle?"

Dhanoa's strong retort comes after IAF's repeated warnings to the government over the past few months that a slow HAL is impacting its air combat strength.

Dhanoa's statement came on a day when a deadly crash of an IAF Mirage 2000 trainer fighter aircraft crashed at the HAL airport in Bangalore, leaving two pilots dead. According to reports, the trainer aircraft was upgraded by HAL and was going through acceptance trials. The IAF said that an investigation has been launched.

According to reports, the IAF is not too keen on inducting Tejas into its fleet since it has an "endurance" limit of only an hour and its radius of action is up to 400 kilometres. While Tejas has a weapon-carrying capacity of three tonnes, other single-engine fighter jets like the Swedish Gripen-E and the American F-16 have two times its capacity and triple the endurance.

A report in The Economic Times states that efforts to develop a basic trainer under the HTT 40 programme are running five years behind schedule with the HAL trainer aircraft unlikely to be certified for flight even by 2021. The force currently relies on the Pilatus PC-7 turbo trainers for the first stage of training. In 2012, 75 of these aircraft were bought on an emergency basis but attempts to purchase 38 more has been on hold as the Swiss manufacturer is facing corruption charges in the deal. It also reveals that another indigenous programme to develop an intermediate jet trainer (IJT) is delayed by over 14 years. More so, all efforts to prove the aircraft fit for service has failed and HAL is believed to have consulted a US-based firm to rectify the aircraft at a cost of Rs 90 crore.

It has been estimated that the IAF will be left with an alarmingly low 26 squadrons of fighter aircraft by 2022, reported The Indian Express. Also, by that time six squadrons of the Soviet-era MIG aircraft will be decommissioned and only one squadron of the French Rafale and another of Tejas will be inducted.

But before the recent rhetoric about HAL delays and a serious need for government intervention into it, former IAF chief NAK Browne had pulled up HAL in 2013 for its inability to deliver the IJT.

Authorities at HAL, on the other hand, have blamed unpaid bills of around Rs 14,000 crore by the IAF and raised doubts if it can carry-on servicing the defence force's aircraft after a month or two. Speaking to The Hindu, chairman and managing director (CMD) R Madhavan had earlier said that their main worry was the 'liquidity position'.

In the challenges hiding between political rows and counter arguments between IAF and HAL, India might be undermining its lack of effective defence mechanism.