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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Failure to take off

Air chief has pointed to worrying absences in air defence.

Written by Inder Malhotra |
Updated: October 9, 2014 12:04:37 am
After the 1962 war, it was decided that India must have a minimum of 45 combat squadrons. Half a century later, the IAF has only 34. ( Source: AP ) After the 1962 war, it was decided that India must have a minimum of 45 combat squadrons. Half a century later, the IAF has only 34. ( Source: AP )

All those interested in the country’s security and defence have a duty to pay heed to what the chief of air staff, Arup Raha, had to say about the state of the Indian Air Force. It is worrying, to say the least. The air chief tried not to create panic by pointing out that things were likely to improve soon because the new government “meant business” and was “seized of the matter”. However, even if long-delayed decisions are taken day after tomorrow, desperately needed new acquisitions will take time, perhaps a couple of years, to materialise. This should underscore that the stark situation will persist for quite a while.

Immediately after the debacle in the brief but brutal border war with China in 1962, defence-planners had decided, and declared emphatically, that for its air defence, this country must have a minimum of 45 combat squadrons. Half a century later, this number ought to have gone up considerably, if only because of the massive increase in the military might of China, which is determined to give all help to its “all-weather” friend, Pakistan. But the dismal reality is that the number of combat squadrons of the IAF has dwindled to 34. To make matters worse, some of the fighter aircraft still in service are so aged that they will soon become unusable. At the present rate, it would be no surprise if the number of combat squadrons falls to 32 next year and plummets to 30 in 2016. By 2017, some new acquisitions would start coming in. Until then, the IAF will have to make do with whatever it has. For this purpose, it is trying to upgrade the Jaguars, which are deep penetration strike aircraft, not fighters.

According to Raha, a three-fold failure to adhere to firmly fixed deadlines is the source of the current woes. The first relates to the indigenous light combat aircraft (LCA), Tejas, which was to obtain “operational clearance” by December this year but will miss this deadline. Serial production of this aircraft is already delayed. Strangely, IAF pilots are yet to start training to fly the Tejas. Why? Because “flight manuals” have not yet been written!

There is a lot more to the LCA story. Its production was delayed badly because — in keeping with its tradition of wanting to reinvent the wheel — the DRDO wasted time trying unsuccessfully to develop an engine for the aircraft. Ultimately, at the height of the Cold War, Indira Gandhi persuaded US President Ronald Reagan to supply us the American G-404 engine. By now, the Tejas has become “under-powered”. So the air force needs only a few LCA-I squadrons for training. With the US engine G-414, the LCA-Mark II will be produced for operational purposes. Production will start perhaps by 2017.

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Second, and more importantly, the air chief complains that the decision on the purchase of 126 French Rafale fighters as India’s medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) has been delayed for too long. But he believes that the government is now in the “final stages” of negotiations with Dassault, the manufacturer. Even if the negotiations are clinched speedily, to raise the first squadron would take three to four years. In any case, only a limited number of MMRCAs will be available in flying condition. The rest will have to be produced under licence in India.

Obviously, the air chief is better informed than others about the government’s thinking on the subject. However, not only competing foreign suppliers, including the US and Russia, many Indians, too, are trying to persuade this country to change its choice of the Rafale. Their argument is that it is too costly and that an equally effective aircraft would be available at a lower price. Their suggestion is to go for the Swedish Viggen, which would be cheaper. The Swedes are also willing to give the entire factory to India for the Viggen’s production.

Third, though a fifth generation fighter aircraft, a stealth fighter, is being designed and developed jointly with Russia, negotiations have “hit turbulence on technical issues”. There has been a delay in signing the design contract. Nobody knows when this will be done, though everybody realises that the induction of the aircraft would take at least eight years after the design contract is signed. It is said that the Russians already have a design and they are insisting on its adoption.

The need of the hour is to decide on the appropriate structure of the management of national defence, which successive governments have brushed aside casually. In view of this, it is remarkable that Raha also appealed to the government to appoint a full-time chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee because all three service chiefs are agreed on it. This was strongly recommended by the Naresh Chandra task force on security. After sitting on it for two years, the UPA government rejected the idea a few days before losing the elections.

Against this backdrop, the Narendra Modi government has its task cut out. Throughout the election campaign, Modi promised quick and muscular decisions to enhance national security. This should be done as soon as possible. To begin with, Prime Minister Modi should appoint a full-time defence minister. To put this “additional burden” on the already overworked finance minister is not fair.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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