By Bikram Vohra
For the past 70 years since Nehru promised a tryst with destiny, India’s armed forces have been captive to Soviet and then Russian armament. To a point where spare parts had become a bargaining chip and used to keep India in line, a nonaligned alignment that no longer serves its purpose.
While the government has been weighing new options since it came into power in 2014, there is now an escalation in its shopping spree. With the Indian Air Force (IAF) celebrating its inception on October 8, this vital Service is a perfect example of the new intent.
While the 36 Rafales are just the starting evidence of India being the world’s favourite hardware customer, moving away from Moscow is now tangible. You can blame the Ukraine war, the crippling of supply chains or credit the government with finally breaking that shackle. In May this year, India cancelled a deal for 48 Mi 17 V helicopters, a backing off that would not have been on the cards ten years ago.
Last year, Airbus indicated it was a strong contender for offering a Medium Transport Aircraft (MTA) with a carrying capacity of 18 to 30 tonnes with its A400M transporter. It has actively responded to the Indian Air Force’s Request For Information (RFI). This sortie includes two other contenders, the Lockheed Martin C-130 and Embraer C-390. The MTA could potentially replace the smaller AN-32s and even the larger IL-76 currently in service.
These are just the first major steps that mark the shift. From the initial post-British rule’s melange of Toofanis, Mysteres, Canberras, Gnats and Hawker Hunters to an era of Russian super control, finally, the decisions are being made to fortify our aerial defences and go state of the art. The major dent in this canopy is the shortage of fighter squadrons. Our full strength is 42 squadrons. Less than a year ago, Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari stated that the “squadron strength is down to 31” and that “fighter shortage is now critical.”
For a chief to go on record requires great courage and conviction and must certainly be seen as a patriotic act. Any delays in building up the squadrons would be counterproductive. If India is to keep China at bay and meet her on equal terms, a strong air force is the most important deterrent.
Indigenous initiatives like “Make in India” and “Aatmanirbhar Bharat,” aimed at encouraging domestic production and collaboration with foreign manufacturers, Joint Ventures (JV) and co-production agreements, are commendable but not enough. By the time India gets to par even with foreign collaborations, it will not be before 2042. So, in parallel, the need for buying is mandated. Being on the back foot for a decade is truly sanctifying vulnerability.
Let’s look at some realistic options and how signatures are already on the dotted line.
Dassault Rafale (France): India signed a deal with France to acquire 36 Rafale multi-role fighter aircraft, with deliveries ongoing. More to come. The Rafale marine version for the carriers is under evaluation.
MiG-29 (Russia): India has been upgrading and procuring MiG-29 jets to modernise its air force. Sharper combat capability gives it relevant muscle.
India operates the Mirage 2000, a versatile multi-role fighter aircraft from France, also being upgraded and given a more powerful performance envelope.
Sukhoi Su-30MKI: India has been procuring and manufacturing the Su-30MKI, a highly capable multi-role fighter jet, also from Russia. It forms a significant part of the IAF’s fleet, and manufacture should be continued not because of a Russian arm twist but because it serves our purpose admirably.
HAL Tejas (India): The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas, designed and manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), will be a good addition at 100 units, of which 50 have been built.
In the present condition, India’s best bet to reach full fighter strength is to engage in collaborations and procurements from multiple agencies.
The United States comes to the party with the F-16, F/A-18, and F-35. Collaborating with the U.S. is now a probable scenario. It suits Washington’s desire to keep a balance of power in this hemisphere and rein in China.
France is now jockeying into being the favourite store for New Delhi, especially after the deal to buy three Scorpene submarines and another 26 Rafale M fighters.
A dark horse could be Israel. It’s F-15I availability or a collaboration on upgrading existing platforms. Israel has been a significant partner for India in defence deals and JVs. To quote: “The F-15I is the product of unparalleled collaboration between Boeing, the U.S. Air Force and the Israel Air Force,” said Mike Sears, Boeing president of the McDonnell Aircraft and Missile Systems group. “Soon, the F-15I will take to the skies in protection of Israel’s peace. And when it does, its performance will be a dramatic testament to this team’s aggressive drive for perfection,” he had said.
This is the right time to explore markets we have seriously entered. Emerging defence suppliers like Sweden (Saab Gripen) and South Korea (KAI KF-X) could boost our technology and add to the diversification.
The one factor that we need to be cognizant of is the fleet mix and what, in civil aviation, is the twin basis of mixed fleet flying and cross-crew qualifications. Close similarities between planes allow for a shorter crossover. Compatibility may not be the same in fighter aircraft as it is in the 737 and 320 families, but training pilots is not cheap, and the more kinds of aircraft, the higher the cost of pilots and maintenance.
India arguably brings out the best pilots, almost as if there was something special in their DNA. Pilots in air force lore have met the enemy in the sky with inferior aircraft and come out on top. In 1971, the Keelor brothers, in their dated Gnats, had the drop on the Pakistani Sabre jets, and their skill and talent have been repeated by a thousand pilots.
As many as 295 accidents have occurred since 1963. On this day, it is only right to remember the 170 pilots who died in MiG 21 crashes, salute them and in their honour, never put men and women in flying machines that are obsolete or aged.
Bikram Vohra is the Consulting Editor of Indian Aerospace & Defence