by Aug 22, 2022Defence & Foreign Policy0 comments

India is facing a crisis with crashes of older fighters, falling squadron numbers, and delays in acquisition programmes. But, this news has been in the media for over two decades, and the situation has not improved.

The Indian Air Force’s (IAF) capability gap is growing larger due to the partial replacement of fighters for depleted squadrons. Part of the problem lies with the Hindustan Aeronautics too. HAL is known for a bureaucratic approach, not owning any issues that arise as no one is held responsible, and of course, it does not has any time-bound plans. Currently, HAL does not has a full-time Chairman too.

With the purchase of French Rafales, the explanations started emerging that these fighters are so advanced that they can do the work of about two fighters, so the capability is intact. Quality was the mantra then and not quantity. However, the adversaries are acquiring better quality and also in quantities. China began flying their fighters close to the perceived Line of Actual Contact (LAC), requiring more sorties from the already limited number of aircraft. These technologically superior aircraft spend more money per sorties than those with less quality like the MiG-21. Fortunately, the IAF has announced the phasing out 4 MIG-21 squadrons by 2025.

The IAF operates about 170 Su-30 MKIs in its fleet. It wants 12 more from Russia, but the purchase has not taken place yet, leading to the assumption that it may be due to U.S. pressure because of the Ukraine war. This leads to another issue with Su-30MKI upgrades. The planes have to be upgraded. There is no sign of the Su-30MKI upgrade program, either by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) or by Russia. We must remember that these planes have a mix of Indian, Russian and Israeli equipment. The job will be tough. India and Russia do not yet have an AESA radar to fit into a Su-30MKI, and it is not likely to be available for nearly a decade.

The crisis is underscored by the fact that more than 440 of 890 ageing MiG-21 fighters to be substituted by the delayed Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) have crashed to date. LCA had become more capable than MIG-21s almost a decade back and has not crashed even once so far. But, IAF wants an even more capable LCA.

A lack of a strategic plan, financial constraints, bureaucracy, a fixation with Make in India, and kneejerk acquisitions have led to this crisis.

IAF has around 30 fighter squadrons, despite a mandate for 42. Following the phase-out of another four MiG-21 squadrons by 2025, the next decade will see the IAF fielding around 35 fighter squadrons, comprising the LCA, LCA Mk1A, LCA Mk2, Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft and Medium Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA).

Even as India continues side discussions about the F-35, an acceptance of the necessity for the MRFA is yet to be released. Meanwhile, the MRFA requirement has been cut by half to 57, while the Indian Navy needs 27 carrier-borne fighters. A common bid for the two services makes economic sense. It will help drive a hard bargain, leverage access to critical technologies, and get technology transfer on our terms. But the flip side is why the Navy should put up with an aircraft that the IAF dictates. Carrier requirements are very demanding, and so is IAF operational needs. Besides, a sanction like the ones India has faced previously will bring down the entire fleet. The U.S. is notorious for imposing sanctions, but the French, too, have shown that they can sanction and are not trustworthy. On the other hand, Russia has many issues such as spare parts supply, sanctions on their military-industrial complex, etc. IAF’s indecision is legendary, which is also a factor that will drag down the Navy.

HAL has delivered only one squadron worth of 40 LCAs ordered by the IAF. An order for 83 upgraded Mk1As – 19 with an ELM-2052 radar and the rest with India’s Uttam AESA radar – is to be delivered by 2030. The delivery of LCA to the IAF is not a stand-alone case. IAF needs more LCA conversion trainers too.

The IAF is putting a lot of hope in the LCA Tejas, but production is slow.

LCA Mk2 is in planning in by the HAL. Powered by a General Electric F414-INS6 engine, the fuselage is longer, and its aerodynamics differ. There is even a proposal for canards, and avionics are moving towards indigenisation. Production is expected in 2030 and beyond. Hopefully, HAL will keep the timeline.

HAL is working on Lead in Fighter trainer (LIFT), an entirely new category for the IAF. IAF should consider Hindustan Lead-in Fighter Trainer (HLFT-42) in the mix. Combat Air Patrol (CAP) can be delivered by LIFT at an even cheaper cost during peacetimes and can supplement air to air roles in combat. A Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) from the Chinese side leads to the scrambling of a very costly to-fly aircraft from the Indian side.

IAF may not be able to stabilise the dwindling numbers situation for the next one and a half decades due to slow decisions and a reluctance to induct the existing indigenous capability and add more later. Hopefully, it will learn in the future, and so should HAL.

[The author is a Aerospace & Defence Analyst and Director, ADD Engineering Components (India) Pvt Ltd (An Indo-German Company), Bangalore]

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