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Tejas and beyond: How short the IAF is of fighters, what options it has now

Beyond the politics of last week's Congress-BJP squabble over the deal to purchase Rafale fighters for the IAF lies the grim reality of an emaciated force that is well short of the strength required to face up to a two-front threat.

Can a cricket team be expected to win playing with just seven players? This is the situation the Indian Air Force (IAF) faces — four months from now, at the end of the current financial year, as two squadrons of old aircraft are decommissioned, the number of its fighter squadrons will fall to 31. The Air Force is authorised 42 squadrons of fighter aircraft, which is the bare minimum it needs to dominate a two-front conflict. To be prepared for a two-front collusive threat, from China and Pakistan, is the government’s mandate for the IAF.

Each squadron of the IAF has 18 aircraft; this number that can sometimes be a little higher depending on the number of trainers in the squadron. After prolonged gestation, India has developed its indigenous single-engine Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas; starting last year, five LCA Tejas have been inducted into the IAF. The obvious solution to the shortage of fighter aircraft that is hobbling the IAF, then, should be to quickly buy a large number of Tejas.

Not quite.

The five LCA Tejas supplied to the IAF by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), Bengaluru, are part of a contract for 40 aircraft, 20 in Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) configuration, and 20 in the Final Operational Clearance (FOC) configuration. But the FOC for LCA Tejas is yet to be attained; production is a long way away. The Air Force is also committed to buying another 83 LCA Tejas, for which a Rs 50,000 crore contract is likely to be signed soon. These fighters will be the improved Mark-1A version, which is still in the design stage.

Even for the first 20 LCA (of IOC configuration), HAL’s production capacity is low. By the end of next year, it is expected to produce five aircraft per year. Which means it is only in 2020 that the IAF will get its first 20 fighters, and if delivery of the next 20 starts in 2021, it will get them by 2023. And if everything goes as planned — a big if going by past experience — and HAL can produce 16 Mark-1A fighters per year, the induction of all 83 will not be complete before 2028.

Induction of foreign-made aircraft will not help this situation. The IAF is getting 36 French Rafale fighters (which is a double-engine aircraft compared to the single-engine Tejas), besides the balance Russian Sukhoi Su30MKI fighters. (The fifth generation fighter aircraft, being jointly developed with Russia, has been found uneconomical by the IAF, and is no longer being considered). Even if the induction of the Sukhoi, Tejas and Rafale aircraft are on schedule, given the obsolence of the IAF’s current aircraft and the schedule for their deinduction, the number of fighter squadrons will continue to fall. By 2032 then, the IAF will only have 27 squadrons, which will come down further to 21 in 2037, and 19 in 2042. This is a very alarming scenario.


What are the options, then?

The IAF would love to buy more Rafales. But it is an expensive aircraft and the government will have to dig deep for funds, which seems unlikely in the current scenario. The other option is to buy some other foreign single-engine fighter, and this is the route the IAF is currently exploring.

The American F-16 and Swedish Gripen are in contention for the supply of 114 fighters, 18 of which will come in flyaway condition, and the rest will be made in India. If the IAF can start evaluating the two aircraft by 2019 and the government takes a decision by 2020, the first 18 could be in service by 2023. If nine aircraft are produced in India per year, the IAF can have six squadrons of the foreign single-engine fighter by 2032.

The options at home include a plan to induct the LCA Tejas Mark-2, an improved version of the indigenous fighter, from 2027 so that the IAF has three squadrons of the Mark-2 by 2031. India is also developing the next generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), and the IAF expects to have its first squadron in service by 2032.

Should all of this work out, the IAF will have 37 fighter squadrons in service by 2032, instead of 27 — and 34 squadrons by 2042, instead of 19.

There is a view that the IAF could do with more LCA Tejas instead of foreign single-engine fighters. That would mean significantly augmenting HAL’s production capacity, which is not easy. Also, the development cycle of the LCA cannot then be delayed any further, which will mean a clean break from the past record. But even if both these hurdles are overcome, the aircraft itself has design limitations — and the IAF needs a better fighter.

An IAF test pilot, who has flown the Tejas’s early prototypes and who is currently a senior decisionmaker at Air Headquarters, said: “The LCA doesn’t meet our expectations. It needs to be escorted by more capable aircraft to come back alive.” Consider: The LCA Tejas Mark-1A can carry an external load of 3 tonnes compared to 5-8 tonnes of Gripen and 6.7 tonnes of F-16. While Gripen and F-16 have escort ranges of 520 km and 645 km respectively, for the Tejas it is only 300 km. The Tejas can loiter without mid-air refuelling for 59 minutes; Gripen can be out for 2.49 hours, F-16 for 2.51 hours. It takes more than 60 minutes to prepare Tejas for the next mission; for Gripen it is 23 minutes; for F-16, 21 minutes.

While India must develop and promote its indigenous defence industry and the IAF must remain committed to LCA Tejas, the nation’s security is paramount. A right balance needs to be found — a mix of LCA Tejas Mark-1 and Mark-2, AMCA, and some foreign fighter aircraft. A decision must be made before the IAF’s fleet has depleted to critical levels, and India is forced to make emergency imports at very high costs. The IAF last had its full complement of 42 fighter squadrons 15 years ago, in 2002, and it is not going to reach those numbers again for the next 25 years.

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