No Time to Waste

Acquisitions and approvals for fighter squadrons must be fast-tracked

Rohan Ramesh

Bengaluru: The acquisition of the French Rafale aircraft may have turned into a controversy, but like every controversy, it also has served a purpose. It has focussed attention on the criticality, needs and options of the Indian Air Force (IAF).

Rafale twin-engine, multirole-fighter aircraft (MRCA)

The IAF has been a key element of India’s defence and in time to come its role will be even more enhanced as India’s security challenges get more heightened and demanding. The political and security scenario in India’s neighbourhood is becoming more intriguing and complex. India’s neighbourhood to the west and north is hostile and its neighbours to the east and south may not be as friendly as before.

The US foreign policy is becoming more unpredictable under the Trump administration, a global trade war between the US and China is threatening to take a military edge, the situation in Afghanistan is unforeseeable, and a Pakistan-China axis places more pressure on India’s defences than ever before. China’s influence in the neighbourhood is growing, and India will need to beef up its defence.

With China entrenching itself in Gwadar, it can interdict the transit lines for India’s oil-importing routes. India has to look at force projection and strike capability beyond its shores, and that calls for innovative choices of both diplomacy and hard military thinking.

This is where the roles of IAF and the Indian Navy become important, the IAF more so. Is the IAF ready to play its designated role? The answer is: Not in its present shape. The force has suffered acute attrition due to phase out of its MiG-21 and MiG-23 squadrons. A decade ago, the squadron strength had fallen below 40, and now it is around 31, an alarming situation.

The obsolescence of the MiGs and the delay in the LCA aircraft has posed a major problem for the IAF. The attrition of the aircraft due to the bane of every air force – crashes, adds its own angle to the story. The sad saga of the Rafales and the political battle raging over it hasn’t helped the IAF any better.

However, the IAF has to make its case with the political establishment and get its due, only because its role is critical to India’s defence. The acquisitions are happening, but the slow pace of approvals by the defence bureaucracy continues to be worrisome.

Transport, flight refuelling, and maritime reconnaissance aircraft have been acquired, but the fighter strength is a case of acute concern. A close look at the current state of the IAF, particularly in the area of new acquisitions, may be in order.


Fighter Acquisitions

The IAF’s biggest problem has been its depleting fighter strength. The Rafale saga has only accentuated the problem. While the acquisition of 36 Rafales, which will be delivered during the time-frame 2019-23, will ameliorate the situation somewhat, the squadron strength will still be alarmingly worrisome.

To overcome its depleting fighter strength, the IAF will have to acquire the aircraft as soon as possible. Over 10 squadrons of MiG-21 Bisons and MiG-27 Floggers will be retiring by the end of 2019.

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