IAF Is Relying On Junkyards & Warehouses To Keep Its Fleet Afloat
Given its precipitously declining numbers, the Indian Air Force’s plan to acquire a squadron plus (21 aircraft) of MiG-29s that were lying unassembled and moth-balled in a Russian facility, is actually a smart move. Earlier the IAF acquired 35 old airframes and spares of the Anglo-French Jaguar strike aircraft, 31 from France, and two each from UK and Oman, so as to cannibalise them for spares to keep their existing fleet, of some 118 or so Jaguars, flying.
Clearly, beggars cannot be choosers, and the IAF, which, in the past, had a propinquity for buying the best and most expensive aircraft, has been forced by circumstances to look at various options to maintain their combat profile and numbers
Acquiring the MiG-29 Fighters
The IAF will get the MiG-29 fighters upgraded to the latest standards by Russia, and get them at virtually throwaway prices, reportedly Rs 200 crore per piece. They will augment the 62 MiG-29 fighters that are in the IAF’s fleet which are also being upgraded to give them an all-weather multi-role capability. In fact, there are reportedly 15 more such aircraft, so, the IAF would be well advised to get all of them.
They are already equipped with more powerful engines, fly-by-wire flight control systems, as well as the same radar as those of the MiG-29UPG standard, and will only need to install some India-specific avionics. They could well join squadron service in India within a year.
The Jaguar air frames from France, Oman and UK are essentially for harvesting spares of the aircraft which is no longer in production, or even in service in the countries of its origin—UK and France.
India is currently holding some 118 of these aircraft, and the IAF has determined that their air frames will be flight worthy till the 2030s, and so they are also being upgraded with better engines, a new cockpit and mission electronic suite, as well as some India-specific defensive avionics.
As a result, the upgraded Jaguar would be a formidable all-weather strike aircraft that can carry precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and be effective in providing close support to the Indian Army.
The IAF had also ordered 43 Tejas jet fighters with another 83 planned for the Mark 1A version. However, though there is a value in procuring them to encourage domestic R&D, these aircraft are simply not capable of combat flying. The present version of the Tejas is an excellent aircraft as a Lead-in fighter trainer (LIFT), but the IAF doesn’t set much store by this concept, unlike most advanced air forces. It remains to be seen just what the Mark 1A will be capable off, once it is actually developed.
The Indian Air Force’s problems with numbers is no secret, It has been plagued by poor decision-making, poor acquisition strategy and shoddy quality control and contract delivery.
For example it has yet to get 25 Su-30MKI that were to be delivered by 2017 by HAL. Upgrades, such as that of 47 Mirage 2000s have also been delayed. Likewise none of the 61 Jaguars which were to have been upgraded have yet joined service. The LCA, is, of course, a story of its own marked by delays and performance problems. In addition, in the last 10 years, the Air Force has 90 combat aircraft have crashed.
Govt Yet to Give Formal Approval for Acquisition of New Fighters
All this comes on top of issues relating to the acquisition of new fighters. The IAF’s travails with the Medium Multi-role Aircraft (MMRCA) are well known, as well as the fact that instead of buying 126 of the Rafale’s decided-upon, the government suddenly decided to get just 36. Yet, a year later, it put out a Request for Information (RFI) for the acquisition of 114 fighters.
But the government is yet to give a formal approval for the acquisition, but it could well end up in the farcical situation where the same five fighters – MiG 29/35, Rafale, Eurofighter, Gripen, FA-18 and the F-16 compete, and if the requirement is for a fighter similar to the MMRCA, the Rafale could again emerge as the winner, as it would ease the IAF’s logistical nightmares relating to the operation of seven different types of fighters.
But the government probably has no intention of hurrying up at this stage. That is why the formal approval of the Acceptance of Necessity (AON) is yet to be given. And now we are in an election year.
The Interim Defence Budget provides little hope that money will be forthcoming for any new acquisitions. This year, the IAF wanted Rs 75,000 crore for capital acquisitions, but it was only allotted Rs 39,347 crore which cannot even take care of its committed liabilities. The payments it has to make for past acquisitions amount to Rs 47,413 crore. The IAF will have to make do with combing junkyards and warehouses in the hope of getting spares to keep its fleet going.
The Air Force has only itself to blame for this state of affairs. Its philosophy has been to go for the best, instead of the most economical solution. So now we are stuck with a situation that it may have priced itself out, in the reckoning of the government.
The Indian defence system needs to have a deep look at the projected requirements of 42 squadrons which arise out of the government’s political directive of taking on China and Pakistan simultaneously.
While there may be the so-called “collusive threat” the idea of an all out war with Pakistan and China is far-fetched. But instead of planning to fight the kind of limited informationised war it may confront in the future, the Air Force is planning to fight a modern version of WWII.