To guard the Indian skies, the Indian Air Force (IAF) currently flies a staggering mix of fast jets which include the Hawk, Mig-21, Mig-27, Mig-29, Jaguar, Mirage 2000, Su-30MKI and Tejas. It will soon be flying the Rafale and is in the process of procuring another lightweight fighter, which could be the Saab Gripen E/F or Lockheed Martin F-16 ‘Block 70/72’. India is also in talks for procuring a fifth generation derivative of Rus-sia’s PAK is staggering—from extremely old and on their way to retirement aircraft to cutting edge and expensive multi-role aircraft, which pose daunting challenges with respect to training standardisation and logistics, besides the prohibitive expense of supporting and maintaining such a diverse fleet. But an even bigger challenge that the IAF is currently facing is the rapid rate at which its squadron strength is depleting.
fighter squadrons, the IAF is at present down to 32 squ-adrons—well below its authorised minimum safe figure of assessment by the Indian Government’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, even that number of squadrons is at risk of declining even further to service’s ageing and obsolescent MiG- 21s and MiG-27s are progressively retired before they can be replaced by the indigenously developed Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). Almost a quarter of the IAFs intended numerical strength has been lost to obsolescence in a little over a decade, even without considering normal attrition, which remains high in its older fleets. Noted American Analyst Ashley Tellis succinctly observed that the IAF is now “in crisis” as a result of its steadily declining fighter inventory. Earlier, concern was expressed by no less a person than Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, who as the Vice Chief of Air start of the firepower demonstration ‘Iron Fist’, “Our numbers [of active fighter squadrons] are not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front scenario.”
The Mig-21 has been the mainstay of the IAF for decades, but has long outlived its utility. It was an excellent interceptor in the 1960s and 1970s, but today stands outclassed by most hostile aircraft it is likely to meet in combat. It is slated for final retirement by 2020 and is to be replaced by the Tejas. The LCA programme was launched in the early eighties for two primary purposes. The principal and most obvious goal was the development of a replacement aircraft for India’s ageing MiG-21 fighters. The other objective was to give an impetus for an across-the-board advancement of India’s domestic aviation capability. The value of the aerospace “self-reliance” initiative was not simply the production of an aircraft, but also the building of a local industry capable of creating stateof- the-art products with commercial spin-offs for a global market. The LCA programme was intended in part to further expand and advance India’s indigenous aerospace capabilities.
After many hiccups, the first indigenous product flew in January 2001. The preproduc-tion versions that have been in flight trials ever since have been (which also powers the earlier versions of IAF continued to await—ultimately in vain—the maturation of a planned more powerful domestically-designed engine called the Kaveri. As a result, in its current configuration, the LCA is underpowered for its intended mission needs. For its part, the indigenous Kaveri engine development which was sanctioned in repeated failures. The programme for an indigen-ous engine was undertaken by the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) of DRDO for mastering one of the most complex technologies. It ultimately proved to have been so afflicted by both design problems and rampant inefficiency that the IAF finally gave up on it.
Making fighter jets is of course a difficult proposition, but making a jet engine is of Tejas progressed, the development of the Kaveri engine was marred with technical challenges. India’s problems lay in its lack of metal-lurgical expertise in making alloys that could withstand high temperatures. The nations which had this expertise were unwilling to part with such technology, forcing the a replacement. The Tejas was inducted FOC (Final Operational Clearance) with the same power plant. But all is not lost for the Kaveri engine as a consultancy
agreement with Safran of France is under negotiation to revive the project. .
Former Defence Minister Mr Manohar Parrikar confirmed at Aero India 2017 held in Bengaluruthat the Kaveri fighter engine project will be revived and that the DRDO is in discussions with Safran as part of offset clause under the Rafale jet deal, inked between India and France in September 2016. The DRDO is now hopeful that with the help of Safran, they will have the Kaveri engine running within a year. According to DRDOs Aeronautical Systems Director General C.P. Narayanan, an updated version of the engine will be developed, which will (prototype), now we are going to call it K9,” he said.
In early 2006, the IAF signed a contract with HAL for the delivery of 20 Tejas Mk I figh-ters to be ready for squadron service by 2011 once the aircraft passed its initial opera-tional clearance. That milestone was not met, however, owing to multiple recurring de-velopment problems and resultant schedule slippages that have repeatedly hindered the programme’s progress ever since. All that nowseems like a thing of the past. The Tejas is an excellent fighter aircraft which finally has been operationalised after 32 long years. It made its international debut in the Bahrain air show in January 2016 and proved its mettle there. Finally, on Squadron of the IAF.
If the present development and capacity enhancement plans go as per schedule, the Indian Air Force will have 123 indigenous Light Combat Aircraft a new assembly line and is also involving the private sector in a big way. As of now, HAL has the capacity to build eight aircraft per yearand the new assembly line will double this to 16 aircraft per year. To increase the production of the aircraft HAL has outsourced major parts of the jet, thereby transitioning into the role of an integrator from that of a manufacturer on the lines of global aircraft manufacturers.
two batches of which the first 20 will be in the Initial Operational Configuration (IOC) while the remaining 20 in the Final Operational Configuration (FOC). In November 2016, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) had given initial clearance with specific improve-ments sought by the IAF. But even if the induction of Tejas goes as per plan, it will have just six the IAF is scheduled to phase out all 11 squadrons of Mig-21 and Mig-27 fighters. And therein lies the concern of depleting fighter squadron strength. It was partially to offset this concern that India has gone in for the purchase of 36 Rafale aircraft,but that does not fully address the concerns of the IAF. The 36 Rafale swingrole fighters being procured directly from France will certainly help meet India’s air defence requirements, given the potent air superiority capabilities of the type, but it is too small a number to provide much of an answer to India’s requirements for defending its vast airspace from intruders and potential hostile strikes. The Government is expected to very soon begin the process to select another single fighter to be assembled in India with significant technology transfer as soon as the — much delayed — guidelines on Strategic Partnerships under the Defence Procurement Procedure are finalised.
India has every right to feel proud of the fact that Tejas is India’s indigenously devel-oped aircraft which is a worthy replacement to the Mig 21 and will also give a fillip to India’s fledgling aviation industry. But the IAF, based on past experience, has serious reservations on the ability of the DRDO to deliver the aircraft with the necessary up-grades and in the stated time schedule. On the positive side, Tejas was given the thumbs up by Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, after he flew the aircraft in May 2016 and subsequently declared it “a good aircraft and fit to be inducted into the IAF.” Also, re-gardless of the problems involved, India needs to have its very own indigenous aircraft, if its defence aviation base is to develop. The naysayers in the
IAF are well meaning when they posit that the LCA cannot become the IAF’s frontline fighter at the low end of the mix, nor can the IAF afford to look for a one-to-one replacement of its rapidly ageing MiG-21 fleet. Such assessments are however made on past experiences, which may not necessarily apply in the changed environment of today. Regardless of future pitfalls, it is in India’s interests to persist with the Tejas. The K9 Kaveri engine will hopefully be operationalised soonest and enhance the capability of the Tejas. Besides showcasing Indian capacity and capability in developing upper end fighter aircraft, it will reduce Indian dependence on foreign manufacturers and give the necessary fillip to the indigenisation effort.
Dinakar Peri is the Defence Correspondent of The Hindu newspaper. Views expressed are personal.