IAF’s imperative need for fighter aircraft.

The Indian government recently hurdled the beginning of a global tender through which, it eventually plans to acquire a combat aircraft. Through its embassies, the government is believed to have forwarded a letter asking global aircraft manufacturers, their interest in manufacturing an aircraft with an Indian vendor.

The letter lists the need for a medium ‘single engine powered multi-role’ aircraft. The letter according to ‘Business Standard’ was forwarded to Saab, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Mikoyan. These companies have been keen to do business with India.

As the multi-billion dollar deal takes shape, the nation questions why was a tender floated even when India’s Tejas is being hurriedly prepared by HAL?

For answering this, one needs to have an insight into the operational capabilities and needs of IAF. In charge of guarding a vast country like India against any aerial intruders, mandates the air force to operate an efficient and lethal force.

IAF under its command has 34 squadrons of fighter aircraft. It falls well short of the mandated 45 squadrons, which are deemed necessary to repel a two front war. As hostile neighbours embrace each other worries for IAF is increasing.

Line-up of Sukhoi Su-30 MKI aircraft at Lohegaon Air Force Base, Pune, Credits - T S Ashok/ Rastrapathi Bhavan.
Line-up of Sukhoi Su-30 MKI aircraft at Lohegaon Air Force Base, Pune,
Credits – T S Ashok/ Rastrapathi Bhavan.

These 680-odd fighters form the core of IAF’s offensive capabilities. Su-30 MKI aircraft is the mainstay fighter of the air force. Apart from these, IAF operates Mirage-2000, MiG-29 UPG and MiG-21 aircraft for maintaining aerial dominance. Jaguar and MiG-27 serve in ground attack roles.

A detailed study of the squadrons reveals several glaring facts. Even though Su-30 MKIs are the mainstay fighters, the fleet grapples with reliability issues. The rate of availability stands at a dismal 47%, meaning only 110 Sukhoi’s of the total 240 aircraft are capable of getting air borne. The rest are down for maintenance.

The Mirages and MiG-29 UPGs, which India procured in 1980’s are capable aircraft. IAF has about 57 Mirages and they proved their might during the Kargil episode. Flying around 515 sorties they bombed multiple bunkers. Both the aircraft have undergone midlife upgrades, which warrant them to serve for at least another two decades.

The MiG-21 aircraft were procured in 1964 and have served India for over five decades. IAF operates about 12 squadrons of MiG’s, which are staring towards imminent retirement by 2018. They have well crossed their shelve-life and are now restricted to interdictory missions.

Jaguar and MiG-27 aircraft are the sole air-to-ground attack platform of the air force. These aircraft were introduced in the 80’s. The MiG-27’s are fast inching towards retirement. The aircraft itself is flawed and overtime, air force has restricted it for training sorties.

Air Force by 2022 is expected to lose at least 16 squadrons. Meaning only 18 of the current squadrons will be in service. IAF has to find replacements to retiring platforms to maintain aerial dominance it has enjoyed traditionally in the region.

IAF had planned two major procurements to replace aging MiG-21, MiG-27 and Jaguar aircraft. LCA programme was floated in 90’s to develop a single-engine powered multi-role fighter that would replace MiG-21s. After years of struggle, India developed LCA Tejas, which is considered to be one of the most advanced light fighters.

The program has matured brilliantly, but it is still not in a stage to address the demanding needs of the air force. ADA and HAL, prime partners for the program are manufacturing around 8 aircraft per year. This is expected to go up to 16 aircraft per year following the awarding of FOC. Government plans to double this to around 32 aircraft /year by setting up a second line by involving private sector.

For replacing 12 squadrons of MiG-21s, IAF will need 240 aircraft. IAF has committed itself to Mk-1A aircraft that is expected to be rolled out only by 2020. Thereon, HAL will need at least a decade to manufacture the required number. Also, the MiG’s will be decommissioned rapidly after 2018. The operational gap left behind will be huge and air force surely cannot wait for another decade.

MMRCA fiasco has only compounded these issues. Floated in 2005, IAF under MMRCA tender was to procure 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft. These were slated replacements for MiG-27, Jaguar and MiG-29 aircraft. Dassault won the tender with its Rafale aircraft, but very little progress was made. Eventually in 2015, the tender was scuttled and India opted for buying 36 Rafale off-the shelf.

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With IAF’s almost all procurement programs falling through the need for a capable fighter is imperative. IAF through the current program is looking for a fighter to replace aging MiG’s. The world has now moved on to ‘multi-role or swing-role’ concept that mandates a single aircraft to engage aerial and ground targets simultaneously. A multi-role aircraft thus procured will replace MiG-21 as well as MiG-27s.

The decision to opt for a single-engine fighter is to make the procurement process cheaper. Also, single-engine powered aircraft are more manoeuvrable and the maintenance cost is fiscally viable. There exists a need for medium combat aircraft; however that is not as imperative as the need for a light fighter.

This new tender will provide global firms with an opportunity for setting-up a lucrative business arena in India with a learning opportunity and addressing the needs of its air force.

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