The steady draw-down of fighter squadrons of the IAF have been a topic of conversation in defence circles, among strategists and has been extensively covered by the media for a couple of years now. Depletion of assets in any field, due to wear and tear is a tangible entity which is factored into the planning process of an organisation. Military equipment follow a predictable path. But in no other business can a lack of timely repair or replenishment have such disastrous or catastrophic consequences as in defence. National security cannot be compromised, at any cost. It is in this context that the draw-down of fighter squadrons in the IAF needs a serious consideration.
The time tested (literally!) system of planning equipment turnover, is a system that takes into consideration various factors such as current life cycles, possible upgrades, redundancy of systems, mean time between failures (MTBF), time periods of the procurement procedure till contract finalisation, the gestation period thereafter, operationalisation of the equipment and the ironing out of the logistics and replenishment chain, to name but a few. The 126 MMRCA requirement of the IAF, touted as the ‘defence deal of the century’ elicited much interest. After a predictable delay the GoI finally settled for the Dassault Rafale as the MMRCA of its choice. Negotiations were typically mired in controversy and the process was delayed due to various counts but most notably, the fact that the GoI expected Dassault to stand guarantee for the Rafale jets slated to be manufactured by HAL, under licence. Given the unholy reputation of HAL and its products, it was a non-resolvable issue.
The delayed decisions did not help in the steady draw-down of the fighter squadrons, which, in fact, the acquisition was to stem. On the other side the LCA Tejas, a product of the DRDO and HAL was not seeing fruition in the predicted time frames. The combination did not bode well for the IAF. The announcement by the new government of the acquisition of 36 Rafale jets in a Govt to Govt (G2G) strategic transaction took everyone by surprise. But what was more intriguing was the fact that the GoI refused to reveal ‘what next’. Does the 126 MMRCA proposal which had gone through an entire process become defunct? If so, what happens to the remainder 90 aircraft which were so essential to the IAF? After a strategically (?) deafening silence the GoI finally indicated that the 126 MMRCA proposal was history. But defence deals, especially those of epic proportions, are not easy to execute and it has taken more than a year for the contract to be inked (in the final stages at the moment).
Sharks in the sea may lose a particular meal to another shark but their hunger remains undiminished. In this Rafale deal the sharks have sensed a new opportunity. All the players in the original fray are back, baying for blood. Even before the agonisingly under confident rollout of the first two Tejas, it was evident that the IAF would need an intermediate arrangement to stem the gaping hole in the armoury. To augment their belief, in a recent event the Raksha Mantri announced that “India will choose at least one more aircraft besides the Tejas for the IAF through the ‘Make in India’ route.”
The possibility of garnering such a lucrative deal is enough to boost any country’s economy and market viability. Unsustainable production lines can be given a new lease of life. But from the RMs statement it may be surmised that he is looking at a light fighter rather than one of the heavies. So a logical guess would narrow down the completion between Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block-70 and Saab’s Gripen-E. Lockheed Martin has offered to move it’s production line to India and make it a centre for meeting global needs of that aircraft. Saab, in turn, has offered to not only move it’s production line but offered to design, develop, produce and maintain in India as well as provide technical assistance to improve the Tejas or any future project. Right now it is a game. A tense game of knots and crosses. In my opinion the players or favourites are only two but the canvas is wide open. The “Make in India” card will undoubtedly play a dominant role in the decision. In the final analysis, never underestimate the Russian bear scratching on the back door.
An alumnus of NDA and DSSC, Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji has served the IAF as a fighter pilot with distinction He has commanded three units, a MiG-29 Sqn, a MiG-25 SR Sqn and TACDE (considered the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF) and also served as the Air Attaché in Washington DC. He retired in 2011 as the AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command.