The Indian Air Force (IAF) is in the news. Just when it shot out its Request For Information (RFI) for acquiring 126 aircraft to replace the strike force depletion that will be caused by the complete phasing out of MiG-23 and MiG-27 aircraft at the end of the eleventh defence plan (2012), the issue has got deeply entangled in diplomacy. Looking for a medium weight multi-role aircraft, the IAF had sent RFI to four contenders: France’s Dassault Aviation for Mirage, Russia’s MiG Corporation for Mig-29M2, US’ Lockheed Martin for F-16, and Sweden’s Gripen. Of the four, the IAF was certainly not serious about the F-16 and Gripen for two reasons: One, the IAF holds 26 different types of aircraft in its inventory of which only six types are new. Moreover, when the IAF inducted two squadrons (40 aircraft) of the delta-wing French Mirage 2000H, which endowed the IAF with true multi-role capability, the plans were to induct many more similar aircraft in the future. (At present, the IAF has three squadrons of Mirage) For this reason, huge amount of investment was made to establish the Mirage base to accommodate 150 aircraft. Even as these aircraft slots remain vacant, the IAF purchased the Russian SU-30 aircraft in 1996, and once again an expensive and complicated infrastructure was set up in Pune for the Sukhoi aircraft. However, there was a difference.
The Mirage and SU-30 aircraft are in different categories of medium and heavy weight respectively. But, buying an entirely different aircraft in the medium weight category will increase the IAF inventory of aircraft types and entail a huge expenditure on fresh infrastructure besides things like training and so on. And two, Pakistan’s experience with the F-16s shows that the US cannot be trusted with an assured product support. It will be instructive to note that Pakistan, under the 1990 Pressler Amendment, was denied even product support for its already acquired F-16s when it refused to compromise on its nuclear weapons programme. Even as the US was enticing Pakistan’s Premier Benazir Bhutto with goodies and assurances of more F-16s on her official visit to Washington in 1992, the then Pakistan Army Chief, General Abdul Waheed dashed US’ hopes by saying, “F-16s or no F-16s, Pakistan will not compromise on its national security (read, nuclear weapons).” The Pakistan Army that controls its nation’s strategic assets has consistently refused outside interference in its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programme.