The ignominious drubbing of 1962 was a shock for Indian military which was unprepared for a war due to its being ill-equipped and its having shortfalls in war making materials and munitions. However, lessons from the setback, despite detailed reports and commissions to educe them, have never been fully absorbed. In 1999, the Kargil episode sent the nation into a flurry of emergency imports of badly needed ammunition from Israel and South Africa, at exorbitant prices. The causes for the shortfall in our preparedness to engage with Pakistan, and the accountability therefor, have been obscured by bureaucratic iterations. Two decades later, we are again frenetically scurrying to address our shortfalls to take on China after it decided to prod us where it hurts in April last year. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has had to invoke the Fast Track Procedure (FTP) enshrined in the Defence Procurement Procedure to expedite import of badly needed, long standing shortfalls of ammunition, missiles and ordnance worth over Rs 10,000 crores. For high value equipment, like combat aircraft, the lead time is substantial and currently, the Indian Air Force (IAF), which is woefully short of adequate number of combat aircraft, is on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand it is trying, through repeated iterations, to convince itself and the nation that it is ready for a two front war, and on the other, it is desperately hoping that it will get some combat aircraft in the near future to acquire a fighting edge in such a war. This article underscores the dire urgency of procuring combat aircraft for the IAF.
As far as the IAF is concerned, its approach to the challenge posed by two long standing inimical neighbours is simple. It consists of quantitatively and qualitatively assessing the extant threats from China and Pakistan, framing a strategy for the different scenarios that can play out in the future, and planning force structures to prepare for those scenarios. However, the acquisition of the assets that constitute those force structures is not within the IAF’s powers and is dependent on the nation’s civilian establishment under whose control the military works. The politicians and the bureaucrats who make up that establishment are capable of comprehending the military rationale for the acquisitions but disregard it and have a different approach to the problem of keeping our neighbours at bay. Their mode appears to rely on diplomacy, economic leverage, foreign policy initiatives, international alignments and other instruments of state policy to deter aggression against India. Endowing the military for executing the military option to defend the nation against hostile military action is not a priority for the government whose confidence in non-military initiatives is supreme. By extension of that logic, its approach is to dismiss military threats as distant possibilities, with the philosophy being that response to them will be considered when they actually come. We have been consistently ill-equipped whenever kinetic military action actually had to be performed in the past. Despite that, peacetime investment in the military segment of national security has always been postponed indefinitely — effectively leading to denial, while proximity to possible war has brought knee jerk reactions by way of announcing ‘quickie’ purchases. The latest such transmission in July last year, more for public consumption than immediate IAF benefit, was the decision to buy 21 more MiG-29s and 12 Su-30s (the fact that these procurements had already been under consideration for a long time was glossed over in the statement). Also not clearly expressed was the fact that, due to the time frame involved, these acquisitions have nil probability of being effective in any aerial operations in context of the current Chinese threat in Ladakh. The Ladakh misadventure by China could peter out in a few weeks or escalate to limited military action in the near future but it has definitely served to highlight the urgent need to bring the IAF’s combat aircraft fleet to a figure commensurate with the roles and tasks it is entrusted with by the nation.
To comprehend the urgency of procuring 114 MRFA, it is useful to view some background information. The current alarming shortfall of aircraft was anticipated by the IAF in the 1990s when it decided to go in for more Mirage 2000 aircraft to be produced under license by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in India. As is the wont of our system, after industrious diligence had been carried out by the IAF and after detailed plans for the project had been drawn up, the whole idea was scrapped by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) in 2003 in favour of a global tendering process. A Request For Information (RFI) was floated in 2004 for purchase of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) possessing 4.5 generation capabilities with the stated intent of inducting the first aircraft by 2010. The IAF reached its decision on the comparative merits of six candidates but bureaucratic delays and indecisive governments delayed the process inordinately. The Rafale was shortlisted finally in 2012 and in March 2014, HAL and Dassault signed an agreement for licensed production of the Rafale in India. However, protracted contract negotiations and wrangling about accountabilities of time schedules and warranty liabilities dragged on interminably. Meanwhile, the electoral win of BJP brought in a new government and sounded the death knell of the 126 MMRCA deal. In April 2015, during an official visit to France, Modi announced in a move (which surprised the IAF and the MoD) that India would acquire 36 Rafales from France in a fly away condition. A couple of months later, the Defence Minister informed the Parliament that the 126 MMRCA quest was over and the 36 Rafale deal in progress. Eleven years of sweat and toil (commencing with the 2014 RFI) were brought to naught by burying the MMRCA rather inelegantly. In effect, the IAF’s need for combat aircraft, perceived in the late 1990s, was repudiated after almost two decades of acquisition processes with seriously deleterious effect on the IAF’s combat potential and with its shortfall of combat aircraft gaining acute dimensions.
In January 2016, India and France signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the 36 Rafales. The number was far short of the 126 aircraft shortfall perceived two decades ago (with the shortfall having grown even more with the intervening years) but the IAF was eager to get whatever fell in its begging bowl, even if the numbers did not assuage its shortfall satisfactorily. Despite many faults being exposed by the opposition, the deal survived public scrutiny, a public interest writ petition in the Supreme Court, and a no confidence motion against the government in Parliament as the government (and Modi) put its entire weight behind it. Delivery of aircraft began last year and is expected to be over by end 2023.
However, the shortfall figure has been rising steadily and alarmingly and in October 2017 Indian embassies abroad sent out feelers to combat aircraft OEMs for seeking willing partners of Indian companies in building a medium, single-engine fighter with significant Transfer of Technology (ToT) to the Indian entities. The number floated in the queries was a vague 100 to 200 and there was no formal RFI. No concrete response appears to have been elicited. An RFI was released in April 2018 by MoD for acquisition of 110 aircraft (the figure was later revised to 114). The RFI was 72 pages long and prescribed six roles for the multi role aircraft without specifying whether it was a single engine one or a twin engine one. Two and a half years have passed since then but there appears to be no urgency attached to this 114 aircraft quest which can be termed as a selection for Multi Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) for the IAF. Moreover, as the RFI does not preclude twin engine aircraft, there is a misgiving that the MRFA pursuit may become a repeat of the MMRCA one. Meanwhile, as far as the IAF is concerned, the dwindling numbers are alarming.
Since the late 1990s the IAF has been projecting its needs for combat aircraft and, in the years since then, its constant refrain has, instead of becoming a warning call, developed into a background hum not loud enough to be an alarm. In the 1960s, the IAF was authorized a build up to 64 combat aircraft squadrons; subsequently, this figure got trimmed down to 45 and later to 42. The highest strength ever achieved was 39.5 squadrons. The current strength is around 30 squadrons which is going down steadily with old aircraft reaching supersession and some more old aircraft meeting with age-related accidents. The attrition is expected to be roughly around two squadrons per year. Former Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa has reportedly stated that, “We need 42 squadrons for full spectrum of operations. But it does not mean that we cannot fight a two-front war with the existing strength. We have a Plan B for reduced strength, there are ways in which we can carry out the task.”
The figure of 42 is cited frequently but is itself under an interrogation mark largely because it is dated. Sporadically, the argument is doled out that the figure 42 was arrived at when we had third generation fighters and the figure ought to be pruned down due to upgraded generations of fighters we are looking at now which also have multi role capabilities. The frailty of this argument is two-fold. Firstly, the enemies also have acquired (and are acquiring more) multi role aircraft and that needs to be borne in mind when comparing numbers. Secondly, aircraft need to be deployed at spread out air bases in sufficient numbers for their own protection. From this point of view it is plainly better to have more squadrons (if required, of smaller aircraft). We also need to consider that, out of the existing 30 squadron inventory, the MiG-21s and Jaguars are aged and their efficacy reduced, and the Tejas likely to remain half-cocked for many years until the Mark 2 is inducted. Moreover, the Su-30 MKIs have an unenviable serviceability record of around 55%. All these facts indicate that the figure of 42 needs an upward revision but possibly the IAF and the government are not talking about a higher figure because even 42 appears unachievable even in the next two decades.
The present CAS has accepted during interactions with media that there is no possibility of reaching the 42 figure even by end 2030, a decade away, and that the best that can be hoped for is 36 to 38 squadrons. It was also mentioned that, if the 42 squadron figure is to be achieved even by end-2040, another 450 combat aircraft need to be inducted by then (keeping in mind the expected attrition and exit from service of aging fighters). Where will those 450 aircraft come from? The answer is not very reassuring; around two hundred variants of Tejas are expected to be the major constituent (40 Mark 1 already ordered, 83 Mark 1/1A in the pipeline, and another hundred odd Mark 2s in the hazy future), while another hundred are expected to be fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) to be produced indigenously. The current versions of Tejas do not inspire confidence and are yet to be proved as operational aircraft while the future ones are veiled by uncertainty. The AMCA project is viewed sceptically by most analysts on account of the record of its predecessor — the Tejas, which has taken more than three decades to fly but even now is not an operationalized fighter. Taking into account the 33 aircraft planned to be procured (21 MiG-29s and 12 Su-30MKIs) there is still a gap in the 450 aircraft arithmetic into which the 114 MRFA procurement dovetails. Notably, while the operationalised Tejas and the under development AMCA are nebulous projects, the 114 MRFA envisages purchase of proven fighters from contending OEMs falling over each other to prove each is the best for India and can meet India’s requirements in a hurry. That is why the 114 MRFA procurement is a vital imperative that needs to be pursued with vigour and momentum.
Even before Covid-19 assailed our nation, the fiscal challenges facing the government were daunting and indeed, may well have been the underlying cause of the termination of the MMRCA deal. The budgetary capital allocation for IAF has been grossly inadequate over the last few years, in some years falling short of the committed expenditures. While the IAF is raring to modernize its force structure and acquire new aircraft to meet its shortfalls, the budgetary support is not commensurate; the capital allocation for FY 2020-21 was less than that for FY 2019-20. Indeed, the gap between the funds demanded by and allocated to the military, has risen 4.4 times from Rs 23,014 crore a decade ago to Rs 1,03,536 crore in the current financial year. Requests for additional allocations have been rejected outright or met fractionally so that modernization plans are not being actioned and the combat aircraft numbers also continue to decline alarmingly. The decision to buy only 36 Rafales instead of 126 MMRCAs is a reflection of this fiscal reality.
The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, recently came out with some proposals to reduce salary and pension bills for defence personnel. While the motivating factor may have been that these two heads now account for more than 50% of the defence outlay, the attempt to create the impression that there is a trade off between salaries/pensions and modernization is misleading. We need to decide whether the nation’s military needs are justified or not, and if they are, then to meet them at whatever fiscal trade off necessary to do so. The salary and pension payouts are unlikely to reduce in the near future and the decisions to delay and diminish One Rank One Pension disbursements will only defer payments, not eliminate them. So the funds for capital outlay have to be found elsewhere; maybe it is time for the government to reprioritize some of its projects and programs. As an illustration, the services capital budget for FY 2020-21 is only Rs 3,340 crores more than the previous year but, had the Central Vista project been postponed to a later date, the increase may have been Rs 20,000 crore more! True, all of Rs 20,000 crores are not being expended in this FY, but the issue is prioritization!
There is also sporadic talk of leasing military equipment; last year India leased US MQ-9 Reaper drones and there was a flurry of expectation that the model may be extended to fighter aircraft. While the urgency of getting more modern fighters is gripping and critical, leasing of these aircraft would be a step that would put shackles on India’s plans to acquire indigenous aerospace manufacturing capabilities as no ToT would accrue from a lease arrangement. Also to be taken into account is the fact that in the long run leasing is more expensive per unit aircraft than outright purchase. Shopping around for second-hand fighters out of fiscal compulsion is also not a good idea, largely due to its postponing India’s indigenous capability quest further.
Make In India
Despite all the hype behind Make In India and, more recently, Atmanirbhar, the actual contribution of either of these — beyond sloganeering — has been negligible as far as Indian aerospace is concerned. The public sector, notorious for its internal inefficiencies, continues to plod along at its lumbersome pace while ensuring private sector gains no foothold in its (aero)space! A few months ago, the CDS made a statement that all future combat aircraft we induct would be indigenous. Hopefully, the ridicule his statement invited has brought the realization that an indigenous fighter of the leading edge variety would take India two decades or more to produce provided, and that is the key stipulation, we get quality ToT as our own R&D has proved to be mediocre, at best. Our Kaveri aeroengine is unlikely to be strapped on to our aircraft in the near future despite two decades of massive investments in Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE). The only way defence R&D can approach leading edge technologies is by letting in the private sector and even after that is done, it will take time as it will be a fresh start (with investment in HAL and DRDO so far having more experience in license production than in original research). What is needed is for private sector to start the uphill climb and, to help it, ToT is made a mandatory offset feature of new fighters we procure (not possible with leasing or second hand purchases). Thus the 114 MRFA deal acquires even more urgency.
IAF’s size and India’s geopolitical aspirations mandate the modernisation and enhancement of IAF into a truly strategic air force but the nation’s fiscal deficit, its supreme (but misplaced) confidence in foreign policy to prevent military altercation with our neighbours, and the historicity of civil-military relationship with the bureaucracy viewing military with antipathy, are factors that continue to impede much needed and critical military modernization. The 114 MRFA quest is critical to the IAF — for both, meeting its precarious numbers of fighter squadrons, and for acquiring new technologies. It is critical to arrest the rapidly diminishing squadron strength; the low numbers are bad for the morale of the force (as also the other services and the nation) and also inhibit the IAF from carrying out its roles and tasks. There is no doubt that, when pressed into action, the IAF will do the nation proud with its professionalism and optimal use of scarce combat aircraft inventory in a Plan B scenario. However, meeting its urgent needs will help it to execute a resplendent Plan A; fast tracking and procuring 114 MRFA is the first and urgent step towards that distant dream.