Build The Fleet to 42 Sqns

The French Defence Minister, Florence Parly, projected the induction of the Rafale jets into the IAF as “A new chapter in bilateral defence ties between France and India”

Issue: Aero India 2021 SpecialBy Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Illustration(s): By SP’s Team

The tender for 126 medium multirole combat aircraft (MMRCA) for which the Rafale from Dassault of France, was identified by the Indian Air Force (IAF) as the most capable amongst the six aircraft in the race, failed in 2014. This was indeed an extremely distressing experience for the IAF and a disquieting setback as the strength of the combat fleet had already dwindled considerably with the retirement from service of the obsolescent fleet of the earlier versions of the MiG-21 that had been inducted beginning in the mid 1960s. Failure of the MMRCA tender was a factor that had an adverse impact on the operational capability of the IAF which in the context of the ominous politico-military developments involving the two enemy nations in the neighbourhood, was particularly disconcerting.

Fortunately, there was partial relief for the IAF when the contract for the direct purchase of 36 Rafale jets consisting of 30 single-seat fighter aircraft and six twin-seat trainer version platforms from the French aerospace major Dassault Aviation, was signed in September 2016 between the governments of India and France. Nearly four years after the inter-governmental agreement was signed, the first batch of five Rafale jets arrived at the IAF airbase in Ambala on July 29, 2020 at a time when the nation was devastated not only by the COVID-19 Pandemic, but was also trying to cope with an escalating conflict on the borders with China in Eastern Ladakh. Under these circumstances, the five Rafale jets were then formally inducted in a much publicised glittering ceremony attended by a host of VIPs from both India and France. The induction ceremony was marked by an aerial display by the Rafale combat jet that featured a variety of breathtaking manoeuvres. In addition, the indigenously-developed Tejas light combat aircraft and the Sarang helicopter aerobatic team of the IAF too displayed a range of aerial manoeuvres demonstrating their agility.

The remaining 31 Rafale jets will be delivered in batches every two months and all 36 aircraft should be with the IAF by the end of 2021 or latest by early 2022. These 36 aircraft are meant to equip two fighter squadrons which will be a very minor gain for the IAF as currently, the deficiency in the combat fleet stands at 11 squadrons. The induction of Rafale jets is the first acquisition by the IAF of combat aircraft over two decades after the arrival of the Su-30 MKI, the last major purchase from Russia. Induction of the Rafale is being projected as a major boost to the operational capability of the IAF as also a significant enhancement in the air power of the nation.

In her brief address, the Minister of Defence of France, Florence Parly, projected the induction of the Rafale jets into the IAF as “A new chapter in bilateral defence ties between France and India”. She went on to describe the induction of the Rafale combat jets as “A very important step in the light of the prevailing security condition that has been created along India’s borders.” Rajnath Singh, the Indian Minister of Defence described the induction of the Rafale combat jets as being a game changer and termed it a very important step in the light of the prevailing security situation especially along the borders with China. He also described the induction of the Rafale jets as “A strong message for the entire world, especially those eyeing India’s sovereignty”.

The acquisition of a fleet of 36 Rafale combat jets for the IAF is undoubtedly a welcome development given the fact that all attempts hitherto by the IAF to revitalise its dwindling fleet of combat aircraft, had failed. However, the national euphoria that has been generated by the public functions and ceremonies related to the induction of the first batch of five Rafale jets, could well mislead the nation to believe that the IAF is now equipped well enough to face the challenges to national security. This is nowhere close to reality as induction of just 36 Rafale jets cannot make up for a deficiency of around 180 combat platforms as of now. Besides, over the next decade or so, the IAF will have to retire from service another 12 squadrons, six of MiG-21 Bison and six of Jaguar, total of 216 aircraft. Dassault wants to manufacture Rafale jets in India provided the order is large enough. But India will take a call after the delivery of the first 36 Rafale jets.

The impediments experienced by the IAF in its attempts to procure modern combat aircraft from foreign sources is a clear indication that unless the indigenous capability in the domain of aerospace and defence industry is developed to an extent that it is able to design and manufacture combat aircraft that qualitatively match global standards and help build up the strength of the combat fleet in the IAF to the authorised level of 42 squadrons from its current level of 32, the IAF will be seriously handicapped and will not be in a position to meet with the operational challenges in the event of a war on both the Western and Northern fronts simultaneously.