The Government needs to appreciate the urgency of acquiring the 114 combat platforms that the IAF needs and move the plan forward without further delay

by Air Marshal BK Pandey (Retd)

If there is one serious and agonising problem that the Indian Air Force (IAF) has been battling with over the last two decades, is its inability to maintain the strength of the fleet of combat aircraft at the currently authorised level of 42 squadrons. The impediments to its efforts encountered so far, have proved to be insurmountable. With the sanctioned strength of 18 aircraft per squadron, the total strength of the combat fleet of the IAF would be in the region of 756 aircraft. In the days of the bi-polar world, the majority of combat aircraft the IAF consisted of MiG and Sukhoi fighters procured initially from the Soviet Union and later from Russia. Combat platforms inducted from Western sources were the British Vampires, the Jaguar from the Anglo-French firm SEPECAT, the Ouragan (renamed in India as Toofani) and the Mystere, both from Dassault Aviation of France. Compared to the procurements from the Soviet Union and Russia, numbers procured from Western sources were significantly lower.

The Last Major Induction Program

The last major induction of combat aircraft from the traditional source Russia, was the Su-30 MKI air dominance fighter. The exercise to procure the fleet of Sukhoi Su-30MKI commenced with the signing of a $1.462 billion deal with the Russian firm Sukhoi for 50 of this combat platform that were to be supplied by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in fly away condition. Thereafter, over the years, several contracts for this platform were signed with the OEM, totalling to 222 aircraft – all to be manufactured under license by the Indian aerospace major Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) at their facility in Nasik in the state of Maharashtra. With all these acquisitions, the IAF will finally have a total of 272 Sukhoi Su-30MKI aircraft, equivalent of 15 squadrons. However, in June 2020, it was decided by the IAF to place an order for 12 more Sukhoi Su-30MKI aircraft essentially to compensate for losses due to crashes so that the strength of the fleet does not fall below the sanctioned strength of 272. Currently, the Sukhoi Su-30 MKI that is also endowed with the capability to carry nuclear weapons, is the backbone of the combat fleet of the IAF.

 Acquisition of 36 Rafale Jets

As the large part of MiG-21 fleet, that was inducted beginning in the mid 1960s, were becoming obsolescent and would have to be retired from service in the near future, the IAF initiated a case for the procurement of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) through a global tender floated in August 2007. As per the terms spelt out in the tender, the first 18 aircraft would have to be supplied in fly away condition by the OEM winning the contract. The remaining 108 aircraft would have to be manufactured by the OEM in India in collaboration with an Indian firm selected by them as their partner. From the six combat platforms that joined the competition for the tender, the Rafale jet from Dassault Aviation of France was identified by the IAF as the preferred platform. This induction would have added seven squadrons to the combat fleet significantly boosting the combat potential of the IAF. This contract would also have provided a golden opportunity for growth to the Indian aerospace industry. Regrettably, the eight years of effort proved to be fruitless as the tender encountered insurmountable problems on account of which it failed and was finally cancelled in 2015.

The nation needs to be adequately prepared for the possibility of a two front war involving both China and Pakistan

Since the failure of the MMRCA tender, more of the older fleets of combat aircraft have been retired from service on account of which, the strength of the combat fleet has dwindled to 30 squadrons as against the newly authorised level of 42 squadrons, short by 12 squadrons or 216 aircraft. As an emergency stop-gap arrangement, in response to an urgent request by the IAF, the NDA Government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, negotiated a deal for the direct purchase of 36 Rafale jets that would be supplied by the OEM in fly away condition. This would equip just two squadrons as against the seven if the MMRCA tender for 126 aircraft had succeeded.

Indigenous Aerospace Industry

In the intervening years, the Indian aerospace industry has provided the IAF with one squadron of the TEJAS MK-1 and the second squadron is currently in the process of being equipped and is expected to be fully operational in not too distant a future. The total order for the TEJAS MK-1 has been restricted to 40 as the IAF was not quite satisfied with the performance of this platform. The IAF projected the requirement of as many as 43 improvements on the platform which HAL has accepted and has firmed up plans to bring out an improved version designated as the TEJAS MK-1A. On January 13 this year, the Cabinet Committee in Security (CCS) cleared the proposal by the IAF to acquire 83 of this version which will equip five squadrons. However, unless the rate of production of the TEJAS MK-1A is beefed up to 16 aircraft per year as claimed by HAL, the time frame for the availability of the proposed five squadrons to the IAF, will continue to be plagued by uncertainty. The IAF thus will not have the confidence to bank on the proposed five squadrons of the TEJAS MK-1A to help arrest the ever increasing deficiency in its combat fleet.

Deficiency In The IAF Combat Fleet

With the 36 Rafale jets that are expected to be delivered by the end of this year and two squadrons of TEJAS MK-1, the strength of the combat fleet of the IAF will increase to 34 squadrons – still deficient by eight squadrons. Besides, the six squadrons of MiG-21 Bison and six squadrons of the Jaguar are becoming obsolescent and will have to be retired from service in a decade or so. If there is no further induction by then, the strength of the combat fleet of the IAF will reduce to 22 squadron. This will be disastrous for the IAF especially in view of the escalating tension with China in Ladakh that is likely to worsen in the coming years as also the never-ending conflict with Pakistan. Besides, the nation needs to be adequately prepared for the possibility of a two-front war involving both China and Pakistan.

Proposal For Acquisition of 114 MRFA

As the IAF is not really in a position to depend totally on the indigenous industry to provide capable combat aircraft in the numbers needed to build up the strength of the combat fleet to the authorised level and that too in the required time frame, it becomes a critical necessity for the IAF to look for the possibility of procurement of combat platforms from foreign sources that can be delivered in a respectable time frame. In this context, the proposal to procure 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) with at least fourth-plus generation capability in order to regain and maintain its combat edge over the People’s Liberation Army Air Force of China and its strategic partner, the Pakistan Air Force, becomes highly significant. To push forward this acquisition plan, the IAF issued a Request for Information (RFI) in 2018 to which response was received from six global aerospace majors offering their platforms namely Boeing F-15EX, Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon (renamed as F-21), Dassault Aviation Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, SAAB Gripen and Russian United Aircraft Corporation’s MiG-35. Unfortunately more than two years have passed since the issue of the RFI but there has not been any significant progress in the project after receipt of response from global vendors.

The Government needs to appreciate the urgency of acquiring the 114 combat platforms that the IAF needs and move the plan forward without further delay.