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IAF's depleting fleet: The choices India has

By Vikas Sv
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    The Indian Air Force (IAF)'s depleting strength of combat aircraft squadrons has become a very serious problem and steps must be taken to address it without any further delay. IAF is already down to 31 squadrons of fighter aircrafts against an authorisation of 42. To fight a two-front war, the Indian Air Force needs the optimum strength of 42-plus squadrons.

    Image for representation only

    The problem of shortage is not only with fighter aircrafts, but also with helicopters and other equipments needed by IAF. Broadly, the main assets needed by the IAF to effectively defend India's borders can be classified under - fighter planes, transport fleets, mid-air refuellers, trainers and helicopters.

    IAF is fifth largest airforce in the world and is also one of the highest purchasers of defence products from the foreign vendors. It can be said that IAF buys almost everything from foreign vendors.

    Reason behind foreign purchases:

    Many reasons can be given for IAF's (or for that matter all the three forces) over reliance on foreign purchases. But, blunt and straightforward reason is that ingenuously manufactured products are not good enough yet to carry on the advanced multi-task roles that a modern air force needs. Whether it is LCA Tejas or indigenous helicopters like Dhurv, Cheetah and Chetak, these are no match for the US, French or Russian made defence products. It is not that HAL is not no capable, HAL is trying its best to come out with world class products, but the time taken by it to develop a news product is just too high.

    For example, LCA Tejas has been in development for over a decade now, but it is yet to get Final Operational Clearance (FOC) to be inducted into the IAF. And by time it is ready, the other foreign competitors would have come up with products with much more advanced models.

    Fighter aircrafts: Single engine vs twin engine:

    Which is better - Single engine fighters or twin engine ones? Well, there is no clear answer to it as it depends on the requirements of intended use of the aircraft and to some extent the level of available technology. Single engine fighters cost less and require less maintenance. On the other hand, a twin-engine aircraft has a greater operational ceiling, high-altitude kinematic performance and can carry higher payload. 

    A single-engine aircraft's primary advantage is being relatively light-weight and often less-draggy airframe. While twin-engine aircraft gets the advantage of a lot more thrust, that is usually always to compensate the additional weight of the airframe/payload due to mission requirements.

    India's choices:

    It was thought that India's requirement for single engine fighters could be met with LCA Tejas. But due multiple problems encountered during Tejas's develpment and HAL's failure to meet the delivery deadlines has forced IAF to look at other foreign aircrafts.

    [HAL misses LCA Tejas' delivery target, mounting worries for IAF]

    Sometime back, reports had emerged that the Indian Air Force (IAF) was showing interest in Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II fighter jet. The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is a family of single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth multirole fighters. The fifth-generation combat aircraft is designed to perform a ground attack and air superiority missions. But on March 1, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa rubbished the reports and said that no such "request been made to the Americans."

    The other good single engine fighters that India can consider are F-16, Mirage, Gripen, other SAABs, Chengdu J-7, MiG-27, Su-7 through 17. India would not want a single engine aircraft from Russia as Russian engines are notorious for failure.

    Defence Ministry has made it clear that two separate "Make in India" programmes will be considered - the first for a single-engine type and the second for a twin-engine type. It has been speculated that the F-16 and Gripen will be in competition for the former category, while the F/A-18 and the Rafale will compete in the latter category. 

    Lockheed Martin is excited about the prospect of making F-16 fighter aircraft in India and making India a global manufacturing and supply base for the aircraft.

    There is legitimate concern that the choice of a new single-engine fighter type could jeopardize India's own Tejas project. This should not be an issue since the single-engine type being sought is to replace the MiG-23-MF/-BN and MiG-27ML aircraft in service, while the Tejas has been earmarked to replace the MiG-21.

    As far as twin engine fighter are concerned, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had in 2015 announced that India will buy 36 French-manufactured Rafale fighter jets off-the-shelf from Dassault, the French aircraft builder and integrator. The Rafale was chosen in 2012 over rival offers from the United States, Europe and Russia. The Modi-led BJP government, however, rowed back from the commitment of the last UPA government to buy 126 Rafales, saying the twin-engined planes would be too expensive and the deal fell through after nearly decade-long negotiations between India and France.

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