Given the state the IAF is in today, there is urgent need to induct modern fourth-generation combat aircraft in the numbers required and as soon as possible. Not only for the restoration of operational capability, but for financial reasons as well, it would be desirable that the IAF considers induction of a larger fleet of Rafale jets.
|By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)
Former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Training Command, IAF
On August 22 this year, the Indian media carried a report speculating on the likelihood of the Government approving the acquisition of 36 Rafale combat jets for the Indian Air Force (IAF). This will be in addition to a similar number already contracted for on September 24, 2016 with M/S Dassault Aviation of France. Earlier on, an identical report had appeared in the media on January 13, 2017 as well as during Aero India Airshow in February 2017. Delivery of the first lot of 36 aircraft contracted for, is scheduled to commence in 2019 and is expected to be completed by 2022. It is understood that the IAF has put up a proposal to the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for the procurement of another 36 Rafale jets.
However, the latest report in the media mentioned above has rekindled hopes for the combat fleet of the IAF that over the last decade, has suffered debilitating erosion in its operational capability on account of mandatory retirement from service of fleets of combat aircraft that have been overtaken by obsolescence. The problem has been compounded by the fact that attempts by the IAF to induct modern fourth-generation fighter aircraft to replace those being phased out, have not been successful. Besides, there has been inordinate delay in the operationalisation of the indigenous light combat aircraft Tejas and one still cannot be very optimistic about its prospects in the future. All these factors have led to a virtual crisis for not only the IAF, but for the nation as well. The escalating tension with China has served to aggravate the situation further propelling it to such a level that it has become a matter of national concern.
Given the state the IAF is in today, there is no doubt that there is urgent need to induct modern fourth-generation combat aircraft in the numbers required and as soon as possible. Today, the combat fleet of the IAF is deficient of 200 aircraft which is equivalent of around ten squadrons. With the retirement from service of the fleets of MiG-21 Bison and MiG-27 aircraft by 2005, the shortages will only increase and the deficiency figure could go up to 400. Induction of 36 Rafale jets already contracted for, will provide only partial relief for the combat fleet of the IAF as it will enhance the size of the fleet by a mere two squadrons. Just before demitting office, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, the previous Chief of the Air Staff had said that the IAF would need to induct around 200 to 250 Rafale jets if it has to retain the operational edge over the two adversaries.
Limiting the size of the fleet of Rafale jets to just 36 would translate into high per aircraft maintenance cost for the IAF in the long term.
The IAF has good reason to bid for additional Rafale jets. The contract for the first lot of 36 aircraft has a built-in Offset obligation of 50 per cent to be invested by the French original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in the Indian aerospace industry. As the OEM would have to establish facilities to manufacture components of the Rafale jet as also spare parts to meet with life cycle requirements, the quantum of investment required to be made by the OEM would be sizeable and somewhat disproportionate to the size of the contract if the number remains at 36. It is only logical therefore, that the OEM would like to do everything possible to enhance the size of the contract with the IAF for Rafale jets. For the IAF as well, apart from the need to make up for the deficiencies in the combat fleet, limiting the size of the fleet of Rafale jets to just 36 would translate into high per aircraft maintenance cost for the IAF in the long term. Not only for the restoration of operational capability, but for financial reasons as well, the IAF considers induction of a larger fleet of Rafale jets a pragmatic option.
What is of significance at this point in time is that the context in which the report of August 22, 2017 concerning the possibility of acquisition of additional 36 Rafale jets has appeared in the media, is somewhat at variance with that associated with the context of the report that appeared in January 2017. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has floated a Request for Information (RFI) for 57 twin-engine fighter jets capable of operating from an aircraft carrier. These platforms are required by the Indian Navy for the indigenous aircraft carrier named as INS Vikrant being manufactured by the Cochin Shipyard. The Indian Navy has two options in respect of choice of platform. There is the F/A 18 Super Hornet from Boeing Defence, Space and Security (BDS) of the United States as also there is the Rafale jet, both twin-engine platforms. Since the IAF is already in the process of acquiring 36 Rafale jets, it would be appropriate if the Indian Navy also selects this platform for INS Vikrant, taking the total number of Rafale jets to 93. If this happens, it will be easier for the IAF to procure another 36 Rafale jets or even more to take the total number to a figure that would make it a viable proposition for the OEM to manufacture the platform in India under the Make in India programme of the Modi-led NDA Government. This would also be in conformity with the pronouncements made by Manohar Parrikar, the former Minister of Defence that the Ministry would explore options for manufacturing twinengine fighter jets in large numbers for the IAF. This would help the IAF tackle the crisis it is facing at present.