Trouble in the Skies

Slow pace of new acquisitions has not helped the IAF

Rohan Ramesh | Bengaluru

As the controversy over the Rafale deal rages on, the Indian Air Force (IAF) continues to be the victim. With squadron levels touching an all time low of 30, the IAF is walking a tight rope. The Rafale deal is just an immediate short-term fix for the situation.

IL-78 FRA’s refuelling the Su-30MKI

And that is not all. The punitive air strike at Balakot and the subsequent retaliation by Pakistan Air Force (PAF) showed gaping holes in India’s air defence structure. The retaliation by the PAF saw the IAF lose a MiG-21 Bison whose pilot was taken as Prisoner of War (POW) by Pakistan and released after nearly 60 hours in custody.

The IAF also claims that it managed to shoot down a PAF F-16 fighter jet. Yet, there is no circumstantial evidence to show that this actually happened. The IAF has released its own ‘proof’ in the form of radar images which show the F-16 was shot down while Pakistan vehemently denies it.

The US too is tight-lipped about the whole situation. According to the Indian Express, “The United States government has declined to share with India information on the use of F-16 fighter jets by the Pakistan Air Force during a recent dogfight.”

“Soon after we were informed by the Indian side about Pakistan using F-16 aircraft on February 27, we informed the Indians that we will not be sharing any information on the subject as it is a bilateral matter between the US and Pakistan,” a US official informed the Indian Express.

The newspaper further reported that India understood the US position, which was not India or Pakistan-specific. “If a third country tomorrow wants information about the C130 or C17 or Apaches that the IAF uses, our answer would be the same. It is a bilateral matter between India and the US,” the official added.

This brings us to the question of was it actually shot down? May be yes and may be no. If the IAF’s MiG-21 actually shot down the F-16 then it would be a hallmark in the history of modern-day aerial combat.

This again raises a point as to why the IAF is still depending on Soviet-era MiGs. The late Eighties and early Nineties saw the Indian government turn to austerity measures and cut down on purchase of military hardware due to economic issues.

This barren period continues to haunt the IAF as the obsolescence of the MiGs, and the delay in the LCA aircraft has posed a major problem. The attrition of aircraft due to 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 at all.

With the Lok Sabha election in full swing, the Rafale controversy has turned into an issue of mud-slinging and a matter of vitriolic hate between the country’s two leading political parties. 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.

Despite the botched original deal for 126 fighter jets and the quick fix to acquire 36 Dassault Rafale fighters from France, in 2018, India again floated a tender for the acquisition of 110 multirole fighters. According to the Diplomat, “The US defence contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin, Swedish aircraft maker Saab, French defence firm Dassault Aviation, and the Eurofighter consortium are expected to participate in the competitive bidding process, along with Russian aircraft maker United Aircraft Corporation.”

The Diplomat clarifies that according to the request for information (RFI), the IAF is seeking to procure 82-83 (75 per cent) single-seat fighter jets and 27-28 twin-seat variants (25 per cent). At Aero India this year, the Russians offered their latest multirole fighter - Sukhoi-35 for the 110 multirole aircraft tender.

Despite all these efforts the IAF will still face a critical shortage of aircraft even in the near future as it retires ageing MiG-21 Bisons and Mig-27s that it had procured from the erstwhile Soviet Union.

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