The Indian Air Force is the 4th largest air force in the world. The inventory is vast (especially of the fighter aircraft) and so varied as on date that other nations wonder how the IAF has been able to manage a mammoth running successfully given the demanding logistics and maintenance cycle for eight different types of fighters. Each fleet has its distinct role and has been used in service of the nation whenever required. The progressive change is visible. There was a time when MiG-21 was the back bone of the IAF, with its number and role against the adversary’s air power. Now Su- 30, as a potent aircraft with its multirole capability is thwarting any danger to nation’s security. It recently demonstrated its air dominance capability in a vast area during Exercise “Gagan Shakti 2018”. Indigenous Tejas aircraft also has proven its suitability and been put on fast track production line and soon its fully operational version will prove its metal. We all are witness to the modernisation of the IAF but the dwindling figures of the front liners aka first responders and ‘required versus actual versus predicted’ numbers of squadrons, has again become a hotly debated topic at a time when the IAF has just issued a request for information (RFI) for 110 multi role fighter aircraft raising many eye brows.
Before looking into the future, let us take a quick peep into the past. In the decade of 80’s, the IAF developed an idea of replacing its backbone fighter, the MiG 21, which was becoming due for replacement in the next decade or two. After discussions with the IAF, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), the Government of India (GOI) decided to build an indigenous fighter as a replacement, rather than import one. This was a very sensible decision (though Marut in 60’s was a good indigenous product but the project was stopped for many reasons), as no country can hope to achieve any form of strategic independence, without an indigenous capability to manufacture weapons required for its armed forces. Also, the gap between international aviation technology (like glass cockpit, use of carbon fibres in airframe, fly by wire and synthetic aperture radars etc) and Indian capability had increased manifold mainly because of relying on imported aircraft (technology in nutshell… literally). Thus emerged the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme, which was very demanding, given the requirements of the time and capabilities of agencies involved like HAL, DRDO and ADA at that time. Added to that were other factors like India’s poor economic performance, lack of infrastructure like an aviation complex, lack of R&D knowledge and international bans after Pokhran tests etc.
Despite that, the first prototype flight took place in 2001. Since then, the LCA has come a long way and has proven to be a worthy machine (this statement is based on interaction of media with Tejas pilots). Off late, with the emphasis on indigenisation by the present government, HAL has been able to deliver 8 LCAs so far and the project is gaining more momentum. As per Air Marshal P. Rajkumar (retd):
“Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative is a much needed shot in the arm for the Tejas programme. A flying fourth generation fighter made in the country is available and crying out for further development. It is hoped that right decisions will be taken and the Tejas programme’s growth potential will be fully exploited. India never did that with the Marut programme and fell behind by three decades.”
Coming to the present scenario, we are aware that the IAF requires a minimum strength in terms of number of fighter squadrons, but its present holdings are below that number. Hence there is a requirement of more number of aircraft (built/purchased or purchased and then built), keeping in mind the time frame because with time the existing fleets are also ageing. The question then arises, why was the MMRCA deal of 126 aircraft which was almost finalised cancelled, when IAF had gone through detailed trials of each aircraft that participated?
The answer is simple and is also the reason why the LCA got delayed: Lack of suitable infrastructure and expertise. If we had a decent and capable infra to absorb the technology transfer (most important part of the MMRCA deal), maybe we would have been seeing Rafales along with FOC version of Tejas in Indian skies by now. Another reason could also be the will of having better terms of technology transfer in order to boost indigenous aviation industries — and hence the latest RFI for 110 aircraft.
Presently, the IAF has MiG 21s, Bisons, Mirages, MiG 29s, few MiG 27s, Jaguars, Hawks and many Su-30s. All these, including LCAs have participated with full gusto in the recently concluded Exercise Gagan Shakti, which conveyed the required message across the board. Yes, there were few issues and many questions, but which air force does not face same issues (that’s the knowledge shared on defence news portals of many countries). Yes, the old aircraft are giving serviceability issues but few are being upgraded as well. Yes, we need faster delivery of fully operational LCA but the rust of procrastination and blame-game is old and takes time to go. The present rate of delivery is 8 per year which is better than 1 per year in past. So obviously, something is working and it is not all doom and gloom!
Now let us take a look at the future of fighter aircraft inventory. “IAF pushes for faster production of Tejas after Gagan Shakti-2018,” was the title of a column from www.defencenews.in published on 25 April 2018. This was also stated by the CAS on 26 April in an address to an August gathering at the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), a well known think tank based in Delhi. Besides being better than the best replacement of MiG 21s, the LCA has the capability to boost the Indian aviation industry like never before. It is more than just a replacement because it has a much better avionics suite, upgraded weapon carrying capacity and much better endurance while having fly by wire controls. In short, LCA is going to prove its worth in defence of the nation’s skies within its allotted role if nurtured well in terms of financial, technological and moral support.
Now, coming to the 110 multi-role fighter jets entering the inventory within three years of signing the deal. The numbers will add to the modernised IAF muscle power and the multi-billion dollar deal’s terms will add maturity to the adolescent Indian aerospace industry through involvement of ‘strategic partner’. With the favourable terms of technology transfer and boosted up investment in R&D sector, India can become a strategic independent power in defence sector. And if the supply chain management is laid out clearly, it will resolve issues pertaining to spares/maintenance once and for all. It is not difficult to also visualise the Indian Navy flying indigenous product of this deal in future, like the indigenous vessels they already are plying successfully in the Indian Ocean and beyond.
That is why we need a higher defence budget from 2019 onwards, not for the import of weapons but for investing in the Indian private sector to give assurance of ‘no risk involved on condition of better output’ and in R&D sector to absorb the technology transfer so that we can reproduce the so called finesse which generally becomes the deciding factor while importing any product. The reason why the old MMRCA deal was done away with was because it was not fruitful for us. It was not strengthening the core of IAF i.e. maintenance, spares and logistics chain; it was not boosting indigenisation as expected (Make in India theme) and it was not making competitive private sectors participate in defence sector. The 110 multi role fighter jet deal can thus be a real win-win for everyone.
Another ‘win’ factor we are looking at is already conceptualised project – Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). The knowledge, the technology and the experience which will come with this 110 ac deal will have to be used for development of AMCA; and please do not forget the confidence factor in local players and investors which since independence was lacking and has come to light recently with some good initiatives. But a lot is yet to be tapped, nurtured and motivated. The fifth generation twin engine stealthy aircraft AMCA with super cruise capability and advanced avionics is ready to be born. Sincere and persistent effort in AMCA will have us standing tall in our region, with capability of deterring any misadventure attempted by any unfriendly neighbour.
Air Chief Marshal B. S. Dhanoa had stated in his talk at the VIF that if Pakistan’s fighter jet JF-17 is an aircraft of the present, then indigenously developed Tejas is the future. This future, along with upgraded inventory — Rafales, 110 MRCAs and AMCAs will definitely place the IAF on a pedestal it deserves. All we need is constant, unwavering will and support from all the role players. In an article on ORF online forum, Mr Justin Bronk said, “A victim of political interference in procurement efforts, the IAF has been relatively unsuccessful in convincing politicians to move towards an air power-centric approach taken by most global powers, and it still competes for funding with a huge Army and an increasingly strident Navy with blue water power projection ambitions.” This has been an impression in the past and few also say that the IAF has not been constant and specific in demanding what it wants. Meanwhile, few capable PSUs might be taking benefit of this blame game and procrastinate the desired outcome in favour of the country. Of late, the interests of political authorities and IAF are visibly amalgamating and results in form of production are improving. It also has the factor of competition from private sectors that has come in action after revised DPP, which is likely to up the ante for erstwhile solitary stake holders.
Some people still compare old figures with new and express their worry about depletion of various types of aircraft we had like AD aircraft, Strike/Bomber aircraft, Free Escort/Tied Escort, Decoy aircraft. While they try to paint a grim future depending on what we have today, emphasis on the word ‘multirole’ is required here. The MMRCA has the word and AMCA has the word. Present inventory has maximum multirole aircraft which means that the role of two to three different aircraft earlier, can be performed now by a single aircraft.
When we look at the future inventory, full of multirole aircraft with different weight and range category, we should not be as pessimist as we tend to be. Instead of looking at just two fronts we should rise above and think of having a formidable presence in the IOR which can make us capable of being true ‘Net Security Providers’ as our geographic, economic and diplomatic stature demands. As demonstrated in recent exercise, we already have the range across the Indian Ocean and with further procurement of tankers we can ensure fastest connectivity to any friendly nation in need, be it a natural calamity or crisis of any kind. The IAF can easily adapt to the role of spearhead of the concept SAGAR.
As the saying goes “Better late than never”. We have learnt a few important lessons in this staggering journey of having a successful Indian made aircraft. If we let this opportunity go, quoting some impending urgency (which has been the case in past), we will never be really independent.
Wg Cdr Vikas Kalyani is a Senior Research Fellow at India Foundation. The views expressed are personal.