A Fine Balance

The Indian Air Force is striving to maintain its combat edge

Atul Chandra

It will be another Indian Air Force Day Parade this year without the presence of the air force’s long cherished Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) on display. It has now been almost four years since it was announced that Dassault’s Rafale ‘Omnirole’ combat aircraft had emerged as the winner for the Indian Air Force (IAF) requirement for 126 combat aircraft.

The Indian Air Force is striving to maintain its combat edge

The IAF, which would have been the first foreign operator of Dassault’s highly capable but expensive twin engine fighter, has now been pushed to third on that list with the Egyptian Air Force (EAF) and the Qatar Emiri Air Force (QEAF), both having placed orders for 24 aircraft respectively. The EAF was also the first export customer for the Mirage 2000 and has already taken delivery of its first three Rafales, a mere five months after contract signature. The Indian order when contracted for will take total Rafale orders to 84. The IAF will have to be content with an initial order for 36 airplanes, though knowledgeable sources suggest that a final combat fleet of 60 Rafales are sufficient considering the lethality, survivability and strike power of the aircraft and the affordability factor.

Hectic negotiations have been underway between the Indian and French teams, with a key sticking point as the offset obligations being negotiated. The offset requirement is a double edged sword, while meant to ostensibly increase the capability of Indian defence industry; the stringent requirements have delayed projects, often by years and also lead to cost escalations.

“Offsets are extremely expensive and the buyer pays, not the seller. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has not been able to leverage offset work into anything more useful. India needs intra-country competition if it wants to make offsets work,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president, Analysis at Teal Group. He added, “But most of all, India's government needs to have a frank and open debate: does it want weapons procurement of effective systems at a reasonable price, or does it want greater in-country capabilities and jobs? The two goals are not compatible.”

One could also argue that the acquisition of weapons systems vitally important to national defence capability, needs to be to immune from delays caused by vested interests. Former IAF chief, FH Major said, “Given the example and huge success in government-to- government agreements in the procurement of platforms such as the C-17 Globemaster, C-130 J Super Hercules, P-81 etc; I firmly believe that this is the way to go.” Once a platform or weapon system (which cannot be indigenously designed, developed and manufactured in India) is identified, evaluated and selected - a government-to- government discussion, followed by an agreement by the parent government of the manufacturer, must become the mandated process to procure military platforms/weapon systems, especially of a strategic nature.

The IAF is today down to 34 combat squadrons and the service says it needs at least 45 combat squadrons. The draw down in the combat fleet is likely to be acute till 2020, since the Rafale buy as it stands today has been reduced by one third. The large numbers of MiG-21s and MiG-27s that remain in service will be retired by 2022. A few MiG-21 and MiG-27 squadrons are slated to be phased out over the next few years, on completion of their Total Technical Life (TTL) / Total Calendar Life (TCL).

The IAF currently operates nine squadrons of the venerable MiG-21, including six squadrons of the upgraded MiG-21 BISON. The replacement for the Six BISON squadrons would ideally have been the Light combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mk II which was sanctioned in November 2009 at a cost of Rs 2,431 crore with Probable Date of Completion (PDC) of December 2018.

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