INDIAN Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa Wednesday said that the depleting fighter strength of the Indian Air Force (IAF) was its “main concern” which cannot be allowed to go below 30-31 fighter squadrons. In this context, he said, the procurement of Rafale fighter aircraft from France and the S-400 missile shield from Russia are “like a booster dose for the IAF”.
Addressing the annual press conference ahead of Air Force Day on October 8, ACM Dhanoa said that the IAF “had been consulted at an appropriate level” when the government took the decision to procure only 36 Rafale aircraft and cancelled the 126 MMRCA proposal. “We had reached an impasse in the MMRCA negotiations. We had only three options: wait and hope for the best, withdraw the Request For Proposal (RFP) and start over again or do an emergency purchase…,” ACM Dhanoa said.
He added that the government then took the “bold step” of buying 36 Rafale aircraft from France. He gave the example of procurement of Mig23, Mirage 2000 and Mig29 where only two squadrons were procured when there was no licensed manufacture of those aircraft in India. He also said that the IAF could not have possibly told the government to import all 126 aircraft as whenever such a large number of aircraft have been procured in the last two-three decades, they have always been made in India with Transfer of technology (ToT).
In the case of the Rafale deal, “the main issue of ToT was not sorted out”, the IAF chief explained. ACM Dhanoa did not delve into the issue of the comparative cost of the 36-Rafale deal and the 126-Rafale proposal referring all these questions to the price difference claimed by finance minister Arun Jaitley and MoS for Defence Subhash Bhamre.
He also said that other claims about savings were “guesstimates” as inflation and exchange rates were variable, whereby “overall cost of ownership will only be known once all payments have been made”. Defending the Contract Negotiation Committee (CNC) for 36-Rafale deal which was led by the IAF, he said: “How can you assume that they will sign a deal with a cost which is more than the cost already known (for the 126-Rafale proposal)?”
He stressed that “while the IAF has a plan B” which was tested in Exercise Gagan Shakti, the “main concern is the depleting strength of the IAF”. He said that IAF fighter squadron strength “cannot go below 30-31 squadrons”. IAF has made plans to upgrade existing aircraft but “only LCA Tejas Mark2 has the capability to replace the Mig29, Mirage2000 and Jaguar aircraft” and thus needs to be inducted quickly.
ACM Dhanoa said that the Rafale aircraft and the S-400 air defence missile systems — a deal for which India is likely to sign with Russia this week — are “like a booster dose for the IAF”. He said he hoped that CAATSA (Countering Adversaries of America Through Sanctions Act) is not going to come in the way of getting the S-400. He confirmed that the CNC for S-400 had been completed and the decision to buy the system was to be taken by the government now.
ACM Dhanoa confirmed – as reported by The Indian Express on Tuesday — that there was a three-year delay in the supply of Sukhoi Su30 MKI by public-sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), besides a six-year delay in Jaguar, five-year delay in LCA Tejas, two-year delay in Mirage-2000 and five-year delay in supplying HTT40 aircraft by HAL.
He, however, said that the IAF was able to conduct Exercise Gagan Shakti because of the support provided by HAL. ACM Dhanoa clarified that the offset partner for a deal is chosen by the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) and handled by the Defence Offsets Management Wing which comes under the Secretary of Defence Production, who is also in-charge of HAL.
He said that of a total 47 offset contracts worth $11.48 billion given by the defence ministry, 28 contracts worth $9.73 billion were given by the IAF. Of that, only $427 million worth of offsets have gone so far to HAL, the IAF chief said.