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F-16 for the IAF and F/A-18 for the Indian Navy

Ashley J. Tellis

During the last year, the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Navy (IN) confirmed what must have been the worst kept secret in New Delhi: that the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, for all its achievements, was unsuitable as a strike-fighter for their near-term modernisation requirements.

Where the IAF was concerned, the request for information (RFI) for a new single-engine fighter issued in the United States, Russia, and Sweden in October 2016 marked a further twist in its long-running saga to complete the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) acquisition that first began in 2001. After the aborted competition led to an off-the-shelf purchase of just 36 Rafales in 2015 — instead of the 126 aircraft originally intended — the question of how the IAF would overcome the deficit of the 90 remaining fighters was still unanswered. There were some in India who argued that the IAF should jettison the MMRCA requirement altogether and fill out the remainder of the force with more Su-30s at the high-end and additional Tejas fighters at the low-end.

Given the shortcomings of the Tejas — some, but not all, of which can be rectified — it is not surprising that the IAF finally threw in the towel and decided to seek an advanced foreign fighter to satisfy its MMRCA requirements, even if only partially. That the 90 aircraft now considered for acquisition will be single-engined suggests that this segment of the IAF may eventually end up bifurcated. The single-engine platform, which hopefully will be announced in the next year or so, will complement the 83 Tejas fighters already approved for procurement: together serving as replacements for the retiring MiG-21s in the IAF inventory. Because the 90 future selectees and the 123 Tejas aircraft that will eventually be acquired will still not suffice as one-to-one replacements for the MiG-21s, it is possible that the IAF may consider acquiring additional medium-weight twin-engined Western fighters down the line, if and when finances permit, in order to further strengthen the IAF for counter-air operations involving China and preserve the three-tier force that the service has sought to maintain more recently.

Obviously, there is nothing particularly sacrosanct about a three-tier force structure in the abstract. If the foreign single-engine fighter met the multirole requirement effectively, the IAF could simply expand its numbers to maintain a larger component that straddles the light- and medium-weight categories, as this new acquisition would in any case bring more to the air superiority campaign than a defensive counter-air fighter like the Tejas ever could.

The Indian Navy, in contrast, has moved in a different direction from what appeared to be initially contemplated. Although the navy has been the strongest supporter of India’s indigenous defence development efforts, the sea service too finally rejected the naval version of the Tejas that was originally intended for deployment aboard the INS Vikrant — Indian Aircraft Carrier-1 (IAC-1) — currently under construction. This decision is eminently sensible given the navy’s special requirements: because an aircraft carrier hosts a relatively small number of combat aircraft aboard a single-engine fighter is a risky proposition at even the best of times. The technological and operational limitations of the Tejas only implied that these risks would be magnified, even if it were to be deployed merely as a second-string complement to a more advanced strike-fighter, such as the MiG-29K, which has been bedevilled by serious serviceability problems of its own. Consequently, the IN has prudently chosen to seek a new advanced twin-engine fighter that hopefully will populate the entire combat air wing on the INS Vikrant and possibly the follow-on vessel (IAC-2) as well.

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