No Alternative to Self Reliance

Procurement of combat aircraft for the IAF is not only becoming an expensive proposition bordering the unaffordable, but increasingly difficult as well.

Issue: 6 / 2018By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Illustration(s): By Anoop Kamath

Since inception in 1932, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has had to rely on platforms procured from foreign sources to equip its combat fleet. Beginning with the piston-engine Westland Wapiti and the Spitfire from the United Kingdom (UK), the IAF entered the jet age with the induction of the de Havilland Vampire, the Hawker Hunter and the Folland Gnat, all singleengine combat aircraft again from the UK. The IAF procured the Ourgaon and the Mystere from France in small numbers. Beginning in the mid 1960s, the IAF inducted large number of MiG and Sukhoi combat aircraft and a few Jaguar and Mirage 2000 of the third generation. Out of the platforms procured from abroad, the Gnat, Jaguar, MiG-21, MiG-27 and the Su-30 MKI have been manufactured in India under license by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), but unfortunately, without the benefit of transfer of technology. As a result, HAL has not been able to develop the capability to manufacture a credible combat platform indigenously. Sadly, this deficiency continues to plague the Indian aerospace industry even after seven decades of existence.

In 1956, HAL assisted by the renowned German aircraft designer Kurt Tank, embarked on the indigenous development a supersonic combat aircraft, the HF-24 Marut. The maiden flight by the prototype was undertaken in 1961 and the aircraft entered service in 1967, in just 11 years from launch of the project. Compared with this feat, even 50 years later, the Indian aerospace industry took 33 years to deliver the first light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas to the IAF. Unfortunately, the Marut proved to be failure on account of lack of a suitable engine to deliver the thrust required to exploit the full potential of the airframe that was designed to operate at speeds up to Mach-2. The project was abandoned and the Marut fleet was phased out in the 1980s, somewhat prematurely. As for future prospects for the Tejas, whether the IAF will be able to induct this indigenous platform in the numbers and in the time frame required, cannot be predicted with any degree of certainty.

Given the state of the indigenous aerospace industry, the IAF has no option but to continue to depend on procurement of combat aircraft from abroad. After the collapse of the USSR, the IAF began to explore options from global aerospace majors including Russian firms, for a fourth-generation combat aircraft in large numbers with the precondition of its manufacture in India in collaboration with HAL. Defined as the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), the tender for 126 aircraft was floated in 2007, the year in which the Ministry of Defence (MOD) initiated a project to develop a fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) through a collaboration between HAL and Sukhoi Design Bureau of Russia. The FGFA for the IAF was to be developed based on the Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA, a single-engine, single-seat, fifth-generation combat aircraft that was already under development in Russia. The new platform for India was planned to be a twin-seat platform and customised for the IAF.

The MMRCA tender of 2007 in which the Rafale was the winner, unfortunately encountered insurmountable problems and eight years later, it was cancelled leaving the IAF in the lurch and without a plan B. With the retirement of the obsolescent fleets of combat platforms acquired in the 1960s and the 1970s, the strength of the combat fleet of the IAF was dwindling rapidly and today, the number of combat squadrons stands at 31 as against an authorised level of 42. In 2015, Prime Minister Modi managed to arrange a direct deal with the French Government for 36 Rafale jets which will provide only partial relief. With the retirement of the remaining MiG-21 Bison and MiG-27 fleets, the strength of the combat fleet of the IAF will drop further and by 2030, if there are no inductions, will reduce to around 26 squadrons. There will be only a marginal improvement in the situation in the next five years with the delivery of the 36 Rafale jets contracted for and if HAL is able to deliver the number of Tejas ordered. After considerable dithering and delay, in the first week of April this year, the MOD issued a Request for Information for 110 combat jets covering both single and twin-engine platforms. This virtually appears to be a repeat of the MMRCA tender of 2007, hopefully with not the same ending. Unfortunately, attempt by the IAF to foray into fifth generation has failed as India has pulled out of the Indo-Russian programme to develop the FGFA. Indigenous capability of HAL to foray into fifth generation, is inadequate.

Experience over the last decade and a half has shown that procurement of combat aircraft for the IAF is not only becoming an expensive proposition bordering the unaffordable, but increasingly difficult as well. Unless the Indian aerospace industry develops the required level of self reliance in this domain and is able to indigenously produce the latest generation combat aircraft, the IAF is likely continue to be plagued with crippling shortages in this segment. Failure of the MMRCA tender and the FGFA programme ought to be a wake-up call.