Competition has begun behind the scene among the world’s top aviation firms to convince the Government of India about the superiority of their fighter jets as the Indian Ministry of Defence explores the possibility of setting up an assembly line in India with transfer of technology for the production of combat aircraft. An indication came from Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, Chief of the Air Staff, Indian Air Force (IAF) during media interaction prior to Air Force Day when he said: “The offers are on the table and we will have to see who gives us the best deal.” In the first week of October this year, the government had written to some of the global aerospace majors seeking their views on relocating their assembly lines to India. The exact nature of the communication, however, remains unknown.
As things stand, the fleet of combat aircraft in the IAF today has plummeted to just 33 squadrons as against the newly authorised strength of 42. In terms of numbers, it means that the IAF is currently short of around 180 to 200 fighter jets. With some variants of the older fleets of MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircraft that have been overtaken by obsolescence and are somewhat overdue for retirement from service, the IAF will lose another 100 or so combat platforms by the end of the decade. The strength of the fleet of combat jets will thus reduce further to 28 squadrons. This means that the combat fleet will effectively be down to 66 per cent of its authorised strength. There is a possibility of partial relief in the event that the Indian aerospace industry is able to provide the IAF with six squadrons worth of the light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas by the year 2017 as planned. However, the LCA Tejas is still to be granted final-operational clearance and hence it may not be prudent for the IAF to place total reliance at this juncture on this aircraft to revitalise its operational potential. The IAF may therefore prefer to have options that provide better levels of certainty in the fructification of plans for induction of modern combat aircraft.
Given the evolving geopolitical situation in the region and the increasing belligerence on the part of Pakistan and China, the challenges to national security that the Indian armed forces will be called upon to contend with will certainly be quite formidable especially in the event of a two-front war. For the IAF, the dwindling fleet of combat aircraft has therefore become a matter of serious concern as efforts by the organisation to induct fourth-generation combat aircraft in the numbers required, have only been partially successful. The LCA Tejas may not be able to provide the long-range offensive capability that the IAF badly needs to be ready for the next air war.
In this context, there is no solution other than to explore options to procure combat platforms from foreign sources and that is precisely what the government seems to have opted to do, that is to identify a proven combat aircraft of the latest generation and get the global aerospace major responsible for its production to manufacture the aircraft in India under the ‘Make in India’ scheme. It goes without saying that in conformity with the philosophy of ‘Make in India’, the global aerospace major selected to set up facilities in the country to manufacture combat aircraft will be free to exploit the markets outside India as well. The proposal to transfer the production line to manufacture combat aircraft in India is likely to be appealing to global aerospace majors as India is on the road to becoming a major global aerospace hub. Also, the low cost of labour coupled with better technological capabilities especially in the private segment of the Indian aerospace industry are factors that a global aerospace major would like to benefit from by the transfer production line to India for the unfettered production of combat aircraft in India.
There has already been considerable forward movement in respect of global aerospace majors collaborating with budding Indian firms for the manufacture of components and aerostructures. In the rotary-wing regime, Sikorsky in collaboration with Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) has been manufacturing cabins for the S-92 helicopter in Hyderabad. Boeing has been working with Dynamatic Technologies on the P-8I since 2010 and now has included manufacture of parts for the CH-47 Chinook. Boeing has also signed an agreement with TASL to manufacture aero-structures for the AH-64 Apache helicopter. Airbus Industries has inked up with Mahindra Defence to manufacture helicopters in India and will collaborate with TASL to produce the Airbus C295 transport aircraft for the IAF.
The Minister of Defence has stated in the recent past that the government will select one or two fighter aircraft for production in India. As per information available in the public domain, there are three options, the F-16 from Lockheed Martin, the F/A-18 from Boeing – both from the US — and the Gripen from Saab of Sweden. Each of these platforms has its set of advantages and disadvantages. As the Chief of the Air Staff has stated, the government is evaluating proposals and will go for the “best deal”. The F/A-18 being a twin-engine platform fits in well with the staff qualitative requirements projected initially by the IAF for a medium multi-role combat aircraft. Besides, this platform can also be inducted into the Indian Navy for carrier-borne operations. The IAF can now look forward to better days ahead!