The past decade has seen the IAF in a bit of a limbo. The euphoria of breaking through the tactical hymen and projecting its strategic avatar in its first-ever transcontinental foray across the seven seas to participate in Exercise Cope Thunder in Alaska was crushed by the UPA’s inaction in alleviating the drawdown of fighter squadrons. Struggling to maintain a suitable operational posture by the last resort action of reducing to produce, the IAF has been late to admit that there may be some necessity to cut corners if operational viability was not to be compromised.

The situation is reminiscent of a bonded labourer, mired deep in debt with the moneylender, making two ends meet and keep his and his family’s head above water. The money-lender, the government, and the PSU(HAL)/ DRDO the extortionist have ensured that the labourer, the IAF, remains in that state. So who will bail out the poor worker? It should have been the indigenous defence industry but if that is virtually non-existent and has no ability to support and sustain, the situation is not good. Is the IAF destined to continue its existence on imported platforms and systems or will the “Make in India” thrust prove its worth and provide the sustenance?

The State of Flux

The depletion of assets and the consequent draw-down of fighter squadrons has been oft-repeated and really does not need elaboration. What is to be understood is that an average life cycle of a fighter aircraft has been 25-30 years, depending on the generation, and it gets extended by 5-10 years because of the upgrade.

As technology has advanced in leaps and bounds, the corresponding costs have sky-rocketed, leaving defence forces (especially the tech-intensive AirForces) and countries gasping, to make good the numbers. Because of the phenomenal costs of acquisition, every country, including India, has resorted to upgrading its fleets to prolong its service.

Given a rough thumb rule of the life cycle and the analysis of the wear and tear over two decades, one would feel reasonably confident that the IAF would have managed to sustain the squadron strengths and/ or increase them depending upon the everchanging strategic and threat environment. While many factors are at play simultaneously, two things will impede the progress and could actually compromise the operational potential of the most dynamic element of modern warfare – a restricted budget allocation or an acquisition process mired in bureaucracy.

Strategic Partnerships

The Soviet yolk was firmly established on India’s neck in the aftermath of the Chinese aggression of 1962. Without remorse, one must admit that the Soviet weaponry that was acquired more than adequately met the requirements of the Indian armed forces in the intervening years. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the steady rise in India’s stature in the comity of South/ South-East Asian nations saw the proffered outreach by the USA, France and surreptitiously, Israel.

The strategic partnerships that have been created have yielded multiple and multifarious dividends to the Indian armed forces, throwing up choices never imagined before. The state of the economy, as it grew, provided the financial security and confidence to foreign investors and offers started tumbling onto the doorstep.

Technology is not static and the corollary is that neither are its derivatives. Weapon systems appear to age before your very eyes because rapid technological increments are forcing obsolescence on the equipment. Threat perceptions for India have not changed, they have merely increased. Operating below the nuclear threshold, it has been a constant battle to maintain an edge over our primary adversary, Pakistan.

With an extended credit line and China, more than a willing provider of state-of-the-art systems, the Pakistan armed forces have not been found wanting. To counter the rising parity and stay ahead, India, the world’s biggest arms importer (because it remains unsupported by an indigenous defence industry) has had to maintain a steady procurement plan over the years. A complex procurement policy which is a windfall for bureaucratic delays and fears of breaching probity have ensured setbacks in the acquisition, leading to a situation of operational compromise.

Getting Up-to-Date

The life cycles of the platforms in the IAF necessitated firstly, replacement of the large numbers of legacy MiG-21s and secondly, supplement and enhance the precision strike and multi-role capability of the Jaguar and Mirage- 2000 which will reach the end of their service life in the foreseeable future. The direction was clear and the right steps are taken. The LCA was given the go-ahead and the SU-30 MKI was developed and delivered by the Russians with a corresponding transfer of technology.

In both cases HAL was the nodal agency to produce the fighters for the IAF, there is no other source in India. The tragic history of the 30 years (and on-going) development/ production programme of the LCA has been oft-repeated and dragged over the coals. Suffice to say that the IAF, anticipating the draw-down of fighter squadrons as a direct effect of the delay in the LCA programme, put up its proposal for the MMRCA (126 aircraft) in 2007. Approved and budgeted, the acquisition was touted as the “biggest arms deal of the century” – the dubious tag of the largest arms importer in the world labelled on India was just being endorsed.

But only we in this country understand how bureaucracy can undermine the hopes and aspirations of the people. For seven long years the process continued, the Dassault Rafale was selected but the programme stalled in a quid pro quo because of the escalated costs (naturally) and the fact that Dassault was expected to stand guarantee for the quality of Rafale jets which were to be produced by HAL under the licence agreement.

Had the previous government continued, we would have stagnated the deal and one doesn’t really know where it would have ended up. The announcement by the new government in 2014 that the MMRCA deal will be revived came as a breath of fresh air to the IAF and to pundits of national security. Frantic to and fro activity signified the resurgence and climaxed with the PM’s visit to France.

The Dilemma

The shock value of the Govt to Govt deal in the acquisition of 36 Rafale fighters off-the-shelf (against the 18 direct and 108 to be made by HAL) cannot be estimated. But it threw up a slew of interesting possibilities for the thinkers, strategists, aviation aficionados and analysts. What did it really mean? Was 36 going to be the final figure or would we go the Mirage-2000 way, buy an initial number off-the-shelf and follow up with some more?

The depletion of the fighter force could not be matched with this 25 % of the initial MMRCA proposal, so what do we do for the balance? To avoid compromising national security, do we procure a Does the LCA remain relevant when it is finally produced in numbers, or is there a move to curb the LCA at the two squadrons of Mark I and four squadrons of Mark II stage and instead look towards the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA)? So many questions, so many possibilities.

Agile War-fighting for the IAF

Technology has increased the capabilities of airborne platforms as well as increased its vulnerability to well-designed and well-honed firepower. The cat and mouse game is never-ending. In these scenarios, the IAF must define the expected role of its fighters and their respective tasks. Needless to say, the airpower maxim of “Flexibility” must be at the core of modern warfare, to cater to the rapidly changing environment all around.

Thus, acquisitions must revolve around the fact that fighter aircraft of tomorrow cannot be restricted to “mission specific” but must possess multi-role/ swing-role capability to exploit the ever-changing complexion of the air war. With this in mind and the fact that manned aircraft will continue into the near future, some of the likely roles that fighter aircraft of the IAF will undertake are:-

  • Air dominance
  • Deep strategic strike on centres of gravity.
  • Defensive /offensive counter-air.
  • Maritime strike.
  • Battlefield interdiction & strike.
  • Surgical strikes on high-value targets.

Across a simultaneous two-front threat (the worst-case scenario), this is a tall order. So there can be a little compromise for numbers, notwithstanding the multi-role/ swing-role capability of most aircraft at that time.


The Rafale is not really the replacement for the MiG-21. Its sheer capability provides the solution for the replacement of the Jaguar and Mirage- 2000. With the operationalising of the LCA Mk I and Mk II taking a long time, an excellent opportunity presents itself in the form of the Saab Gripen.

Already evaluated extensively, this highly capable agile multi-mission fighter with an excellent growth architecture factored in, would be the ideal gap-filler and it is waiting in the wings. The question is -will the IAF want to be saddled with another type on its inventory? The extensive TOT offered by Saab will certainly fuel “Make in India”, making it an attractive proposition for the government. The SU-30 MkI is here for the long run and its versatility must be exploited to the hilt.

Unlike the slow progress of the LCA, the AMCA is expected to move a lot faster, given the thrust by the present government and its keenness to promote indigenisation of the Indian defence industry. The AMCA is likely to debut probably just after India acquires the jointly developed Indo-Russian FGFA.

With features similar to the Lockheed Martin F-35, its defining properties of supercruise, stealth, high-manoeuvrability, etc will make it an extremely potent platform. The IAF goes into the next generation with a combination of fighter platforms which will provide strategic reach, flexibility, versatility and lethality across the spectrum of conflict.

Make in India

Is there a reason, one wonders, why India has continued to be the world’s biggest arms importer? Has the indigenous defence industry been kept in the background on purpose and not permitted growth? Was it the lack of confidence in a budding private industry post-independence that triggered the decision to make DRDO and the PSUs the sole agencies of all defence equipment manufacture?

With the burgeoning industrial growth since the ‘90s, did not the government feel the necessity of uplifting the indigenous defence industry, which was clearly floundering in most projects, by introducing private players to infuse fresh ideas and develop suitable infrastructure for the future? Well, while we cannot turn the clock back, the realisation that indigenous capability is the core to sustainability and effectiveness has come as a welcome change.

There are many apprehensions in the private sector because they will now be dealing with bureaucratic government machinery (and maybe corruption?) which does not pay on time for services ordered and expects all trials to be at ‘no cost no commitment’. Confidence must be infused into the private industry.

Because of the stunted growth of the private industry in the defence arena, there is no real infrastructure or the desired quality, save for the big names. But the aviation industry has become such an expensive proposition that most companies, however well established, are resorting to joint ventures and outsourcing, to cut costs.

This has proved a haven for those interested in the defence industry and its huge potential. While some medium players had forayed into the game and were producing components for the international aviation industry like Dynamatic Technologies and the Tata Group, the scope has increased manifold and provided opportunities all around.

The Prime Minister’s thrust on “Make in India” has added a further fillip and foreign OEMs and other manufacturers are looking for JVs and Offset Partners, buoyed by the economic stability prevailing at the moment. India must be ready to create confidence, without any scams discolouring the waters and be ready to absorb the huge amounts of technology being offered for transfer.

As amateurs in the game, we must not bite more than we can chew. Jumping into high technology which requires sophistication and stringent quality control may not be suitable at this stage. I should hope that they move in a progressive manner to establish standards and credibility. The newly established Confederation of Indian Industries National Committee on Aerospace (CIINCA) under the tutelage of Chairman HAL is expected to pave the way for providing the directions for collaboration with foreign OEMs, taxation issues, import strategy, supply chain management, etc.


There is light at the end of the tunnel. Realisation seems to have dawned with the present pro-active government at the helm. The Indian Air Force in the next generation will be proud of its inventory. In the coming years the technologically sophisticated airborne platforms that will provide the sword arm to warfare conducted by the Indian armed forces, be it on its own borders or otherwise, if so dictated, will have the agility and lethality of a most potent force.

Indigenisation in the defence sector has taken off with the clearance of private enterprises to participate. If the herd of white elephants like DRDO and the PSUs do not pull up their socks we may actually see their decline. The changing face of defence production in India will ensure the reliability and efficacy of the armed forces.

An ace fighter pilot, Qualified Flying Instructor and Fighter Combat Leader, Air MarshalSumit Mukerji is perhaps the only officer in the IAF, who has commanded units with Mig21, Mig 23 U, Mig 25, Mig 27 and Mig 29 aircraft. The Air Marshal has also served as the Indian Air Attache in the Indian Embassy at Washington. He retired from the IAF after 40 years of service in June 2011 as the AOC in C Southern Air Command.

Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji PVSM, SC, VSM

An alumnus of NDA and DSSC, Air Marshal 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Content

Share via
Copy link