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SOURCE: THE WIRE

Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadhauria’s recent declaration that the Indian Air Force (IAF) would, over the next decade, concurrently design, manufacture and licence-build over 320 aircraft of three – if not four – combat types, worth lakhs of crores, appears somewhat incredible.

At his annual press conference, three days before Air Force Day on October 8, ACM Bhadauria detailed the IAF’s plans to make good its fast depleting fighter squadrons, whose numbers had dropped to a perilous 28-29, from a sanctioned strength of 42. Over the next two to three years, these are expected to decrease even further to around 25 squadrons, as the IAF retires 4-5 squadrons of its 100-odd legacy MiG2 ‘BIS’ ground-attack fighters, sharply reducing the force’s numerical platform superiority over Pakistan, leave alone China.

The air chief, however, conceded that the IAF would be unable meet its goal of operating 42 combat squadrons by 2030, but would manage 36-38 squadrons by then.

But he did not elaborate on how the colossal funds, technological input and industrial capability needed for these additional assets would be sourced. Bhaduria also tellingly admitted that the IAF would face budgetary constraints in ‘due course’, which under India’s enduring severe economic downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic is, by all considerations, a gross understatement.

Besides, at a conservative estimate, the additional 320-odd fighter types that Bhadauria has planned for the IAF, would cost upwards of $ 45 billion, or around 68%, of the annual defence budget of $65.9 billion for the fiscal year 2020-21. And though, admittedly, this entire amount would not need to be discharged all at once – as it would be spread over several years – it still remains an inordinately large amount for a solitary weapon platform in a developing country’s military, especially one that badly needs a plethora of other assorted equipment.

This includes multi-role utility and attack helicopters, tanks, infantry combat vehicles, aircraft carriers, warships, submarines, minesweepers, armed and unarmed unmanned aerial vehicles and varied missiles and ammunition, amongst other critical materiel.

“The Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the IAF will desperately need to create additional financial, design and manufacturing capacities by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to achieve the goal of acquiring hundreds of new fighters,” said military analyst Air Marshal V.K. ‘Jimmy’ Bhatia (retired). There is no possible way this can be achieved under prevailing conditions, he added.

Other serving officers concurred, affirming that the IAF’s impecunious state militated against such ambitious future acquisition plans.

In late 2019, for instance, the IAF had sought an additional Rs 400 billion from the MoD to procure fighters and transport aircraft to upgrade its capabilities and defray payments for other previously acquired platforms. It stated that its capital allocation of Rs 393 billion in the annual budget for FY 2019-20 to acquire new platforms was ‘grossly inadequate’ to fund its long-deferred modernisation from a tactical to strategic force.

The IAF also claimed that it had a ‘committed liability’ of Rs 480 billion for FY 2019-20 for assorted equipment bought earlier, which was responsible for ‘severely depleting’ its allocation, leaving little or nothing for new programmes.

It had to make advance payment for 36 Dassault Rafale fighters and five Almaz-Antei S-400 Triumf self-propelled surface-to-air missile systems, in addition to disbursing instalments for 22 Boeing AH-64(I) Apache Guardian helicopters and 15 CH-47 Chinook heavy lift rotary aircraft, acquired in 2015, along with two types of US transport aircraft procured earlier besides a host of additional kit.

In response, the MoD allocated the IAF some Rs 55 billion, or an eighth of what it had demanded. But to add to its woes a few months later in February 2020, the IAF was apportioned Rs 432.82 billion in FY 2020-21 as its capital outlay, some Rs 15.87 billion less than the Rs 448.69 it had received for the same purpose the previous year, further beggaring the force.

And though the military emergency prompted by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) occupying Indian territory in eastern Ladakh had galvanised the IAF into conducting air domination sorties over the region, greatly boosting its media profile, its future procurements outlined by Bhadauria remain hostage to a crippled economy and a problem-ridden HAL and ADA plagued by inefficiencies. “The services, including the IAF continue to reflect a disregard for fiscal reality in planning their equipment buys,” said Amit Cowshish, former defence ministry financial advisor on acquisitions.

No country in the world can possibly afford to acquire so many fighters, even over a prolonged 10-15 year period to the exclusion of all other defence equipment, he cautioned.

In his presser, ACM Bhadauria declared that the force would operationalise the second No. 18 ‘Flying Bullets’ Tejas Mk1 light combat aircraft (LCA) squadron at Sulur in Tamil Nadu, equipped with full operational clearance (FoC) platforms by 2022.

This would supplement the earlier No. 45 ‘Flying Daggers’ squadron, established in 2016 with some 16 single-seat Tejas fighters, but only with Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) that was secured haltingly in two stages- IOC-1 in January 2011 and IOC-2 in December 2013 for an aircraft that had been under development since 1983 and remains little better than an advanced technology demonstrator. .

But these IOCs too were accorded with 53 waivers – of which 20 would be permanent even after the platform secured its FOC – with regard to the platforms drop tanks, airframe fatigue test and assorted weapon system configurations. Of the 40 MK1s, however, eight would be tandem-seat trainers that would subsequently join their two squadrons after all single-seat platforms had been delivered at the rate of around eight fighters per year. The IAF has been pressing HAL to double this output to 16 LCAs, but this remains a trying work in progress.

In the meantime, Bhadauria said the IAF would sign a deal with HAL for an additional 83 upgraded Tejas M1A fighters that remain under development and would not be ready for series production till 2022-23, as two prototypes have still to undertake some 200 test flights. The Mk1A is expected to feature several capability enhancements over the Mk1 model that include an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, modern electronic warfare systems and aerial refuelling capability.

It would also be around 1,000-kg lighter than the Mk1, weighing 6,500 kg, and feature modified internal systems, under a ‘panel-in-panel’ arrangement, for easier maintainability. The 83 Mk1A deal- that includes 10 dual-set trainers-is costed at round Rs 390 billion, negotiated down over two years from Rs 500 billion that HAL had initially demanded for the tender.

But like the Mk1 model, the Mk1A variant too would be powered by USA’s General Electric F404-GE-IN20 engines that generate 80-85 kN (kilonewtons) thrust, which restricts the fighters angle of attack to around 21°, limits their range to 350-400km and weapons-carrying capability, to around three tonnes.

Meanwhile, to bridge the shortfall of fighters, till the indigenously Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) joins the fleet 2029 onwards, Bhadauria stated that the IAF would pursue its long awaited procurement of 114 Multi-role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA).

Under the long-pending proposal, one of seven shortlisted single or twin-engine fighters would be manufactured domestically under the Strategic Partnership (SP) model outlined in the newly released Defence Acquisition Procedure, 2020. Under the SP model, a domestic private sector company would partner an overseas original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to deliver the selected platform.

The IAFs April 2018 request for information or RFI for these fighters had elicited responses from seven OEMs: Eurofighter (Typhoon), France’s Dassault Aviation (Rafale F3R), Sweden’s Saab (Gripen-E), Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation and Sukhoi Corporation (MiG-35 and Su35) and USA’s Boeing and Lockheed Martin (F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and F-21).

The deadline for this programme, costing not less than $ 20 billion, is unspecified, as a not even a request for proposal or tender has yet been issued. This will be eventually succeeded by a technical evaluation of the responses, followed by user trials and complex price and technology transfer negotiations lasting, at a conservative estimate 3-5 years. This, in turn, would be followed by the domestic company creating manufacturing facilities and developing a product support system. Thereafter, all else being equal, the first of the 96 licence built fighters could roll out around 2029-30 at the earliest, said officials associated with the project, expressing little or optimism for the project’s future.

In tandem, the IAF also aims to begin inducting the first of seven indigenously designed and built squadrons of 125 twin-engine AMCAs 2029-30 onwards. Of these, the IAF envisages the first two squadrons would be powered by the US General Electric GE-414 engine with a 98 kN thrust, and the remaining five by a locally designed engine with enhanced 125kN thrust developed in collaboration with a foreign OEM.

If that were not enough the ADA-HAL combine plans on simultaneously developing a twin-engine LCA Mk2 variant powered by the more powerful General Electric F414 GE-INS6. Envisaged as an eventual replacement for the IAFs upgraded Mirage-2000H fighters, HAL aims on series building some 200-odd LCA Mk2’s, making it eventually a grand total of some 324 LCA variants alone for IAF induction.

The IAF is also in advanced negotiations with Russia for 21 additional second-hand MiG 29 ‘Fulcrum’ fighters and 12 Sukhoi-“Flanker’ Su-30 MKI’s multi-role combat aircraft which HAL will licence build, once it has completed the 272 it is currently constructing. The twin engine MiG-29 fighters that were lying in an ‘unassembled and mothballed’ state in Russia were being acquired for around $850 million and would supplement three squadrons of 60 similar platforms inducted into the IAF 1986 onwards.

With such an embarrassment of combat aircraft riches proposed by ACM Bhadauria at such tremendous cost, it appears as if only the IAF has a monopoly on the lion’s share of India’s declining defence budget.

Perhaps, the army and navy too have an opinion.