Finally, Yeh Jo India Hai Na… it's getting the Rafale, a 4.5 generation fighter jet.

Dassault Rafale is Indian Air Force's most advanced fighter jet with:

  • Most Advanced AESA Radar System
  • Anti-Detection System, Spectra
  • BVR Meteor Air-To-Air Missiles
  • Air-To-Ground Scalp Cruise Missiles

It’s great for air-to-air combat, ground support, deep strikes, anti-ship and nuclear deterrence missions. The Rafale is that fully state-of-the-art medium multi-role combat aircraft that India has needed for years.

And literally, it has taken many many years. India’s hunt for a 4.5 generation Multi-Role Combat fighter started in 2004. It was to be acquired by 2011. Instead it took 16 years. Even now, it’s just 5 aircraft. India’s first full-strength, fully equipped, fully operational Rafale squadron of 18 aircraft will only be ready in March 2021, and the second squadron, only by April 2022.

India's MRCA Hunt Ends After 16-Years

Writing for The Quint retired Air Marshal M Matheswaran sums up his disappointment saying, firstly, in the tradition of India’s chronic delays in defence procurement, which in the Rafale’s case also included a lot of political squabbles, this deal too took 10 years extra.

Secondly, we’ve bought just 36, instead of the projected need of 126, 16 years ago, which has today gone up to at least 200 such aircraft.

And thirdly, the deal has no ‘make in India’ aspect, no local manufacture, no technology transfer.

Not Just LoC with Pak, Focus On LAC With China Too

Now let’s talk about not the elephant, no, the dragon in the room – China. Over the decades, the Indian Air Force has been mainly west-facing looking towards Pakistan. Our deployment of combat aircraft, our estimation of the numbers needed, our strategies, all dictated by the need to deal with Pakistan.

But now, along with the LoC with Pakistan, India needs to pay active attention to the LAC with China too.

42 Squadrons Enough To Take On Pak & China?

Clearly the China challenge before Indian Air Force is huge and so, to just deter China, not catch up, as that is no longer a realistic goal, here is what our Air Force just has to do.

First, a point that many have made – the air force needs more aircraft. More operational squadrons. Urgently.

The air force has a sanctioned squadron strength of 42. But in fact, over the last 30 years, we have dropped steadily down to just 30 squadrons. Why? Because as our aircraft get obsolete and are phased out, we’ve been slow to replace them. Even among the fighters in service, the MiG-21 Bison and the Jaguar are both senior citizens now, begging to be retired.

But with China now turning active at the LAC, we should be asking - are even 42 squadrons enough? If not, then what is the new assessment? 45 squadrons, 50 squadrons or more? As we can see, it will take 2 years just for 2 Rafale squadrons to be fully operational.

We also know it takes years for these aircraft deals worth thousands of crores to be negotiated. So clearly, we have to take decisions on massive additional aircraft purchases now and only then will we inch back to a strength of 42 squadrons, perhaps, by the year 2035.

More Aircraft To Be Added To IAF

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has signed off on a purchase of 33 new fighter aircraft including 12 Su-30MKI and 21 MiG-29s.

We’re also depending heavily on our own HAL’s Light Combat Aircraft, the Tejas, to rebuild our numbers. An initial order of 40 Tejas Mark 1 aircraft is gradually becoming operational. Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria says another 83 Tejas Mk-I and IA fighters will be ordered, and their deliveries may start in 3 years' time. Then another six squadrons of Tejas Mark II and eventually we also hope to get a fifth generation plus Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft or AMCA from HAL.

While this sounds great, the problem in the plan is HAL or Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. The sluggish Sarkari plane factory took over 30 years to design and deliver the Tejas, and so, defence experts are sceptical about depending only on HAL.

With a new Cold War having started between the US and China, and with China turning unilaterally aggressive, India needs heft urgently. Just 36 Rafales are not enough. We have to look to Europe or the US to add more cutting edge to our fighter jet fleet. We had to do this yesterday.

In the meantime, the other realistic step we have to take is upgrade!

These upgrades would include:

  • Adding superior air-to-air beyond visual range or BVR
  • Missile capability
  • Superior radar and avionics systems

On the ground too, we need far more sophisticated air defence missile systems. Even a massive upgradation of the maintenance infrastructure at all our fighter air-bases, a re-skilling of those airmen servicing these new, hi-tech fighter jets – all this is needed.

We also need more fighter pilots. Snehesh Philip writing for The Print, a year ago, pointed out that while Pakistan has 2.5 pilots per aircraft, India has just 1.5.

In a conflict situation, when your fighter jets fly multiple missions in a day, you need fresh pilots to man them. Fewer pilots means more fatigue, which can make the difference between life and death in the air. Again, this cannot happen overnight, it takes years, but we must start now.

Yeh Jo India Hai Na… we need to shake out of the excitement of finally acquiring the Rafale jets and truly get our act together.