A reality check on Indian Air Force’s multi role fighter aircraft programme
Gp Capt. A.K. Sachdev (retd)
Cyril Northcote Parkinson, the British naval historian who wrote the famed book ‘Parkinson’s Law’ is attributed with the equally famous words, “Delay is the deadliest form of denial.” The ongoing lack of activity on the procurement of 114 urgently needed Multi Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) for the Indian Air Force (IAF) is a matter of concern as these aircraft are critical to the IAF’s dwindling strength, and the delay is tantamount to denial.
The MRFA project (if one can call it that) has been trundling along for almost six years now with no signs of its culminating into an actual fighter being inducted into the IAF’s combat aircraft fleet, despite the pressing need.
The IAF’s combat strength currently includes two squadrons of Rafale (the last aircraft arrived in December last year), 12 of Su-30 MKI, three each of MiG-21, MiG-29 and Mirage 2000, six of Jaguar and two of Tejas (which are of limited operational capability and lack a trainer); these total up to 31 but some resources put that figure at 30.
Of these, the three MiG-21 squadrons are to be phased out over the next three years, while the Jaguar fleet would be phased out between 2025 and 2032, following the First In, First Out norm. By then, the MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 squadrons, whose induction began in the 1980s, would be finishing their lives and being retired from service, unless of course, the IAF is forced to flog them beyond their useful lives. The MiG 29s and Mirage 2000s would be out of service by 2040. The Jaguars, MiG-29s and Mirage 2000s are already operating on extended lifecycles.
Thus, it can be seen that the squadron strength is going to reduce further; how much further it falls and when it starts rising again depends on how the shortfall is met over the coming years. The current figure of 31 is far short of 42, the sanctioned strength. The chief of air staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari is on record as having stated that, “It will be impossible to keep watch and do combat air patrol across the country with the given number of 31 squadrons.” However, it is not just air of the nation’s territorial extent that the IAF is charged with the responsibility of; the IAF must also meet offensive and defensive tasks associated with a war that might be thrust upon our nation—possibly on two fronts simultaneously.
The CAS is also on record as having said that the IAF requires five to six new squadrons of fourth-and-half generation aircraft to meet its immediate requirements. Can this requirement be met indigenously? In what time frame?
Make In India
The government’s constant and strident refrain about Make in India and Aatmanirbhar is taken as a prompt by every politician, government official, media and so-called strategic analysts to constantly glorify and parrot these two slogans. By itself, that is a laudable and patriotic-sounding war cry. But is it the solution in the context of the IAF’s perilous fighter aircraft shortfall?
The 40 Tejas Mk1s (two squadrons) already inducted into the IAF do not meet its operational requirements as the Mk1 is more of a testbed for the Tejas Mk1A. In June 2021, the IAF ordered 73 Mk1As along with 10 Mk1 trainers (which were not developed along with the Mk1). Of these, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is to deliver the first three aircraft in 2024 and, thereafter, 16 every year for the next five years, thus taking the total to 83.
The Mk1A will come with more composites (and hence reduced weight), enhanced Electronic Warfare (EW) capability and the indigenous Uttam Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, which the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is to make available by the time the 17th Mk1A is to be fitted with it, as the first 16 Mk1As are planned to be fitted with the Israeli ELM 2052 AESA radars. It will also carry the locally assembled, European missile producer MBDA’s Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM) and the indigenously developed Astra Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile. It will also have some other improvements including a probe for air-to-air refuelling which will give improved range. However, the Mk1A also would not be the fourth-and-half generation aircraft that the IAF needs.
Further away on the horizon is the Tejas Mk2 (hopefully a fourth-and-half generation fighter) which is expected to be flight tested in 2025 and be a Medium Weight Fighter (MWF) (although sharing the common name of Tejas with the LCA) with an increased Maximum Take Off Weight (MTOW) of 17.5 tonnes compared to Mk1A’s 13.5 tonnes, a more powerful engine (although still a General Electric (GE) engine as the future of India’s aeroengine is uncertain), a larger payload of 6.5 tonnes compared to a little over four tonnes for Mk1/Mk1A. The CAS has reportedly said the IAF has committed to acquiring six squadrons of Tejas Mk2 and that it will decide on further numbers once production commences.
To summarise, the projected induction of 73 Mk1As is expected to stretch from 2025 to 2029 (although HAL’s past record does not assure one that this time frame would be adhered to) while the Mk2’s future is uncertain.
The Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is planned to be a twin engine, fifth-generation aircraft. It was originally envisaged as a Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA) with MTOW of 15 tonnes but subsequently, its nomenclature was changed to AMCA and its MTOW upped significantly to 25 tonnes (with the Tejas Mk2 sliding into the 15-tonne space). Reportedly, the design has been frozen and metal cutting began on 13 July 2022 but the uncertainties related to the aeroengine remain the biggest impedance despite the GE deal. The officially declared date for the first flight of the AMCA is 2025 but, considering the major problem areas yet to be overcome, the first flight of a substantial AMCA could slide to 2030 and the earliest induction to 2032. The IAF plans to procure seven squadrons of AMCA, the first two squadrons in Mark1 configuration, equipped with a GE engine, and the remaining five squadrons in Mark2 configuration with an indigenous engine. However, as of now, the AMCA is a distant dream and would not be of much use in remedying the IAF’s current shortage.
To summarise, the induction of an indigenous, fourth-and-half or fifth generation fighter does not look likely for another decade or so. To invoke the Make in India or Aatmanirbhar mantra and insist on an indigenous fighter would be a disastrous decision that would debilitate the IAF. What is definitely needed is the expeditious induction of a fourth-and-half fighter so that the IAF can move up from 31 towards its sanctioned figure of 42 squadrons.
The CAS is on record as stating that the IAF needs six squadrons of MRFA in a hurry, although in deference to the government campaign for Make in India and Aatmanirbhar, he keeps adding that the MRFA programme must embrace indigenisation. To contextualise MRFA, a look is required at its predecessor—the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA).
The LCA project was initiated in 1983 as an indigenous replacement for the MiG-21 but it ran at a snail’s pace. During the Nineties, anticipating serious shortfalls, the IAF proposed going in for more Mirage 2000 aircraft to be produced under license by HAL in India. That decision would have catered to the foreseeable shortfall but, after the IAF carried out meticulous planning and time-consuming diligence, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) scrapped the whole idea in 2003. Instead, a Request for Information (RFI) was floated in 2004 for the purchase of 126 MMRCA possessing fourth-and-half generation capabilities with the stated intent of inducting the first aircraft by 2010.
There were several delays due to bureaucratic procrastination but finally, the IAF shortlisted the Rafale in 2012 and in March 2014, HAL and Dassault signed an agreement for licensed production of the Rafale in India. However, in April 2015, Prime Minister Modi announced during an official visit to France, that India would acquire 36 Rafales from France in a fly away condition; a move which surprised the IAF and the ministry of defence (MoD). The Parliament was officially informed later by the defence minister that the 126 MMRCA deal had been scrapped altogether. Thus, all the toil that went into the diligence for the 126 MMRCA from 2004 to 2015 was negated in one fell swoop and instead, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed in 2016 for 36 Rafales, which have since been received. However, this number was 90 short of the original figure of 126 and the shortfall further increased during the decade-long wait for the MMRCA.
In April 2018, an RFI was promulgated by the MoD for the acquisition of 110 Multi Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA). The figure was later revised to 114. There is much merit in the suggestion that the deal should favour the Rafale, as that will afford economy of scale in terms of training, equipment and spares, while permitting speedier negotiations as both sides are already aware of the basic facts and figures. Incidentally, the Navy is also looking at Rafales. However, there does not seem to be a great deal of urgency around the processing of this deal. It was originally being processed through the strategic partnership framework which implies that an Indian company partners with a foreign supplier to manufacture major platforms in India. However, with lukewarm interest from foreign OEMs and keeping in view the poor success that other strategic partnership attempts have had, the government veered towards the Buy Global, Make in India approach.
Meanwhile, with eight contenders in the field, the IAF has finalised Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (ASQR) and has had comprehensive discussions with the eight Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM). In December last year, the Parliamentary Committee on Defence tabled a report in the Lok Sabha which disclosed that the MRFA procurement is being progressed under the Make in India framework and recommended that, if there are delays in the process, procurement of 5th generation fighters may be considered. However, whether the Committee’s recommendations will be heeded by the government remains to be seen as the DAC approved purchases of INR 2.23 trillion last year but did not grant Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) for the 114 MRFA proposal.
There are sporadic reports that the MRFA project is also destined to be smothered by the government as was the MMRCA. Hence the crying need to reiterate the following: the IAF critically needs at least six squadrons (as a starter) of fourth-and-half or fifth generation to meet a confidence level commensurate with its assigned roles and tasks; an indigenous fighter of that capability is at least a decade (or maybe more) away; and a foreign acquisition by way of consummating the 114 MRFA project is the only way out of the current critical shortfall situation (more foreign MRFA may be required if the Tejas Mk2 does not come up to fourth-and-half generation level).
The government’s procrastination in the MRFA deal will neither eliminate that requirement of the IAF nor see the appearance of an alternative solution. It is in national interest that the deal be put on a fast track (like the 36 Rafale deal in the past) and the IAF be provided 114 MRFA to avert the real risk (in the event of a war) of an ignominious blot on its otherwise glorious record.