Depending on what media you access, the price of the Rafale, the new “bird” of the Indian Air Force (IAF), ranges between $10 billion and $18 billion. Clearly, while the IAF will fly the Rafale, the media is flying kites! However, for the IAF there is plenty of turbulence to deal with.
The deal has been delayed, even though it was trumpeted as the fairest in India defence procurement history, thanks to earlier objections raised by Rajya Sabha MP, Mr M.V. Mysura Reddy. It took the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the IAF well over five years to initiate final negotiations. These negotiations will take a further year to close if all goes off well with the inquiry the Defence Minister has ordered.
In this one-year period, the cost could rise by at least 25 per cent, combining inflation and the depreciating rupee. Thus, a seemingly fair procedure has come at a very high cost. Meanwhile, Rafale has developed new radar and added some avionics and airframe capabilities.
WHAT ABOUT TEJAS?
Maintaining its fighter squadron strengths to the minimum mandated level is the biggest challenge for the IAF. Even with the addition of the proposed SU 30s and the Rafaels, the strength of the fleet is unlikely to reach the desirable 42 squadrons that it plans by 2020. The IAF will retire more aircraft (such as the Mig 21s and the Jaguars) over this period than it will induct. Thus, the air force is likely to be short of optimum strength in fighter planes well into the next decade.
The lack of squadrons is directly related to war preparedness and results in a domino which includes lesser sorties flown in peacetime, constrained war wastage reserves and a bigger part of the fleet in overhaul and maintenance.
Lost in the cacophony surrounding the acquisition of the Rafale is the fate of India’s own light combat aircraft — the Tejas. The aircraft has been under-funded from its inception in 1983 — the actual funding for the programme came almost a decade later in 1992. The Indian defence acquisition strategy is at variance here from that of China, which has focused on indigenous aircraft development since the 60s.
The LCA Tejas has, as yet, not got simple clearances, such as an all-weather-capability and lightning strike clearance. The strategic role of this aircraft is in question, although it has world-class avionic capabilities. It is unlikely to be inducted in effective numbers till 2018 or even later.
Thus, the IAF has a missing middle — a single-engine new aircraft that can act as the bulwark — even as it gets very expensive twin-engine-heavy Sukhois and Rafales at the top end.
The IAF does not have a basic trainer aircraft on which to hone the skills of rookie pilots. The IAF is probably the only air force in the world that puts pilots directly on a jet rather then a turboprop basic trainer. Even the jet trainer is of a model from the 1970s. The Hawk aircraft have come a decade too late and the interim has caused loss of precious lives and compromised training.
The MoD has belatedly approved the acquisition of the Swiss Pilatus trainer. Even if its procurement procedure goes forward, it will be five years before a fleet can be put in place. This is because acquiring the aircraft is only the beginning. Instructors have to be trained on the new aircraft and the equipment protocols put in place.
Till such time, the safety record of the IAF is likely to suffer all the more. The IAF lost 46 fighters in the last six years. Alarmingly, the losses include not just aging MiG 21s, even ultra-modern SU 30s were lost.
The IAF does not even have hangar facilities for majority of the SU 30s. This came to light when exposure to foreign elements was believed to be a cause in the last major crash of an SU 30.
If basic infrastructure on the ground such as a hangar is unavailable in requisite numbers one can only imagine the state of more advance airworthiness procedures.
Some years ago the IAF damaged half a dozen frontline Mirage 2000s in Gwalior when a hangar complex housing them collapsed apparently due to sub-standard construction. No lessons have been learned.
The list of woes is endless — from Russian air-to-air missiles, that as a CAG report pointed, under-perform both in range and in accuracy during operations, to the fact that by the IAF’ s own admission there are major gaps in radar coverage across India.
It is time that these matters were discussed in Parliament and the public domain, even as the Ministry of Defence mandarins pretend it is business as usual and bask in undeserved glory.