India's requirement for Fighter Aircraft to supplement its depleting fleet has emerged as an unsuccessful tale of two decades. On the flip side, whopping imports figure and financial crunches have made it even more critical. The need-of-the-hour is to take an early decision to fulfil the gap, to safeguard the country's interest.
The depleted fleet of fighter aircraft has become the nightmare for the Indian Air Force. Top of that, the flip-flop in GSQR and the budgetary constraints have made the issue even more complicated. The way MoD has gone about the procurement of fighter aircraft over the last two decades proves its ineffectiveness in defence procurement. Overall, India's hunt for fighter aircraft is a tale of long procurement processes, delays, changing decisions at the drop of hat and disappointments amongst the participants.
Present Fighter Fleet
The Indian Air Force (IAF) currently operates 33 fighter squadrons against a desirable level of 42 squadron. The existing fleet includes about 30% squadrons equipped with ageing and virtually obsolete MiG-21s and MiG-27s. The snapshot of the present fleet, phasing-out plan and expected induction of fighters is depicted in the table on the next page.
By 2022, some MiGs would retire and IAF would induct 13 squadrons of Sukhoi-30MKI fighters and two squadrons each of the Rafale and the Tejas Mark 1 to fulfil the gap. Tejas would only be remain aircraft under single-engine by 2027-28, as almost all single-engine aircraft including Jaguar and Mis-29s would retire.
Any order of fighter aircraft now would take approx 10 years to get the delivery. unless new planes are bought, the numbers could drop to 25 in 2027, as 8 squadrons of Mig-21 and Mig-27 aircraft (approx 200) to retire by 2022. From 2027 to 2032, nine squadrons of Mig 29 and Jaguars will be retired. The IAF would need around 300-350 aircraft more by 2032, to maintain the fair squadron strength of fighters, if no other deal is signed. Also, the existing equipment needs proper maintenance, obsolescence management, upgrades and acquisition of new equipment without compromising safety.
The IAF ordered 123 HAL build Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), out of which 20 Tejas fighters in the Initial Operation Clearance (IOC) configuration, order of 20 fighters in Final Operation Clearance (FOC) and 83 aircraft more in December 2017, of Mark-1 configuration - an improved version of the single-engine fighter, which is still in the design stage. Indian Air Force intends to order 201 more upgraded variants to arrest a sharp decline in its combat capabilities.
Recent decision to acquire 36 Rafale combat aircraft in flyaway condition equipped with the latest missiles and weapon systems at an estimated cost of about $8.7 billion (Rs 59,000 crore). Out of which, 28 fighters will be single-seat and eight twin-seat. The first aircraft is likely to be inducted by 2019 and rest within two years. Afterwards, India again showed it's intended to procure 36 aircraft more, which eventually got stuck.
On April 7, 2018, IAF issued a Request for Information (RFI) to procure 110 Fighter Aircraft. Out of which about 75% would be the single seat and rest twin-seat aircraft. The procurement should have a maximum of 15% aircraft in flyaway state and the remaining 85% aircraft will have to be made in India by a Strategic Partner/ Indian Production Agency (SP/ IPA).
The aircraft are intended as day and night capable, all-weather multi-role combat aircraft which can be used for - Air Superiority, Air Defence, Air to Surface Operations, Reconnaissance, Maritime, EW missions, Buddy Refuelling etc. A bit ambitious for a single platform.
The RFI has been issued to the six contenders F/A-18 Super Hornet, F-16 (Block 2), Gripen-E, Mig-35, Eurofighter and Rafale. The project cost will be over $206.
The RFI, seeking state-of-the-art technology to boost India's indigenous design and development, production and maintenance capabilities for the country's indigenous programmes is bit ambitious. No one is likely to be willing to offer state of the art design and development technology and critical technologies.
The procurement is likely to be under Strategic Partnership policy which is intended to institutionalise a transparent, objective and functional mechanism to encourage broader participation of the private sector, in addition to DPSUs / OFB, in the manufacture of defence platforms and equipment. The policy lays down detailed guidelines for the selection of Indian companies as "strategic partner" in a systematic manner based upon the criteria laid down in the policy to ensure a level playing field for private sector companies, defence public sector units (DPSUs) and ordnance factory board (OFB).
Keeping in view of the requirement of Fighter Aircraft the Indian industry has formed a partnership with Foreign OEM as under:-
- Lockheed Martin-Tata.
- Boeing with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and Mahindra Defence Systems (MDS)
Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL), the sole intended recipient of major technology and production work under the erstwhile MMRCA program, had been specifically kept out of India's new Strategic Partnership model, which looks to build similar capacity and capability in the private sector. Russia's MiG and Airbus/Eurofighter are yet to formally designate their private sector partners for the Indian fighter contest.
By scrapping the single-engine fighter process and including twin-engine fighters, the competition has muddied once again.
Building the fighter in India under 'Make in India' is to move away from foreign procurement and build an indigenous aerospace eco-system for job creation and skills development and indigenisation. The long, arduous route to indigenisation with investment in technology transfer, production infrastructure and skill development is seems to be hazy.
Indian Defence is already going through the financial crunch and is planning to focus on main items. Manufacturing 100 odd fighters in India may not be economical, as setting up an assembly line would cost the exchequer to pay double or triple the sum as compared to import cost of the aircraft bought off the shelf.
Another issue is that by the time India fulfils its demand of fighters and think of exporting, the technology would become obsolete. Again difficult to make them cost-effective.
In nutshell, due to India's stretched financial budget, it would be impossible for India to induct expensive foreign fighters in large quantity. The Rafael deal was itself cost Rs 59,000 crore and Tejas Mark-II still remains on the drawing board, which will fulfil the single-engine fighter requirement of the forces. Therefore, the current tender to buy 110 fighters is crucial for India as it will pave the way to uplift the declining strength of Indian Air Force.