The government has turned down the military’s request to expand the acquisition of 36 fighter planes from Dassault Aviation SA to plug vital gaps, officials said, nudging it to accept an indigenous combat plane 32 years in the making. The air force wanted the government to clear an additional 44 Rafale medium multi-role aircraft on top of the 36 that Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced during a visit to Paris this year that are to be bought off-the-shelf to meet its urgent requirements.
But a defence ministry official said that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had told the Air Force that there weren’t enough funds to expand the Rafale acquisition and that it must induct an improved version of the indigenous Tejas-Mark 1A. “The IAF (air force) needs to have a minimum number of aircraft at all times. The LCA is our best option at this stage, given our resource constraints,” the defence official said. “The Rafale is our most expensive acquisition. The LCA is our cheapest in the combat category.”
Modi’s decision, in line with his Make-in-India policy to encourage domestic industry, is a blow for not only the French manufacturer but also others circling over the Indian military aviation market worth billions of dollars.
The push for India’s struggling Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) also comes at a time when the air force is at its weakest operational strength since the 1962 war against China, which is causing anxiety within military circles.
Since it took over last year, the Modi administration has repeatedly said its overriding goal is to cut off the military’s addiction to foreign arms which has made it the world’s top importer.
The Air Force says its requires 45 fighter squadrons to counter a “two-front collusive threat” from Pakistan and China. But it only has 35 active fighter squadrons, parliament’s defence committee said in a report in April citing a presentation by a top air force officer.