The widening gap in the combat fleet of the IAF needs to be filled up as quickly as possible with the induction of modern fourth and fifth generation platforms
In the recent past, the media had carried a report that the Indian Air Force (IAF) has virtually given thumbs down to the proposed advanced versions of the indigenous light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas. Instead, the IAF has been pitching for the acquisition of a large number of a proven single-engine fighter aircraft that is proposed to be produced in large numbers in India through a joint venture between a foreign original equipment manufacturer and the selected partner from the Indian aerospace industry in the public or private sector. The project is to be executed under the ‘Make in India’ programme and the Strategic Partnership policy crafted by the government currently in power. The piece of news about the LCA Tejas could easily be misinterpreted to mean that the IAF has virtually rejected the LCA Tejas driving the last nail in the coffin of this indigenous platform. The fact is that the IAF has placed orders for a total of 123 Tejas Mk I and IA, but is not in favour of the Indian aerospace industry undertaking the development of its Mk II version.
The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), responsible for the LCA project, had received a serious blow earlier on when on December 02, 2016, Admiral Sunil Lanba, Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS), rejected the long-delayed naval variant of the LCA Tejas Mk I. He stated that “The LCA Navy in its present form, is not up to the mark and does not measure up to the operational capability required by the Indian Navy”. This singleengine aircraft which is powered by a General Electric F-404 turbofan engine, does not provide the thrust-to-weight ratio necessary for operations from the deck of an aircraft carrier with the required fuel and weapons load. The Director, ADA who is responsible for the LCA Navy programme, was quite understandably, distressed at the stand taken by the service concerned. In the meantime, the Ministry of Defence has gone ahead and issued a Request for Information for 57 multi-role combat aircraft for the indigenous aircraft carrier currently under construction.
Lunched formally in 1983, it took 32 years for the Indian aerospace industry to formally hand over the documents of the first LCA Tejas Mk I to the IAF at a ceremony at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Bengaluru, that was formal but understandably at somewhat low key. The Initial Operational Clearance accorded was not acceptable to the IAF and as such, the LCA Tejas had to be put through the exercise a second time. The aircraft was finally inducted into squadron service, but without Final Operational Clearance. Ironically, the very same Indian aerospace industry that had commenced design and development in 1956, of its very first fighter aircraft dubbed as the HF-24 Marut, was able to launch the platform on its maiden flight five years later in 1961 and achieved service entry in 1967, just 11 years from launch of the project. In comparison, the LCA Tejas project has taken more than three times that long to fructify. Also, with the retirement from service of the ageing MiG-21 family of fighters, the strength of the combat fleet is dwindling rapidly and currently stands at 32 squadrons as against the authorised level of 42 squadrons. With around 20 aircraft in a squadron, the IAF is currently short of around 200 platforms. With the remaining MiG-21 and MiG-27 due to be retired from service in the next few years, the deficiency would go up to 300 platforms. In another five to ten years, the fleets of Jaguar, MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 aircraft will also be reaching the end of their extended technical life and would have to be phased out enhancing the deficiency to around 500 aircraft. The continuously widening gap needs to be filled up as quickly as possible with the induction of modern fourth and fifth generation platforms for the IAF to restore and retain its operational edge against the two adversaries. By about 2025, the IAF will be left with 15 squadrons of the Su-30MKI, two squadrons of the Rafale and four squadrons of the LCA Mk I and IA. Given the time taken for the Indian aerospace industry to develop a new aircraft and the low rate of production, the IAF is not in a position to bank on the LCA Mk II whose development may take decades.
Unless the Indian Aerospace Industry transforms itself into vibrant and efficient agency capable of delivering quality product in the time frame required, the IAF or for that matter, the Indian Navy too, cannot repose any level of confidence in the organisation to meet the requirement of combat or other platforms in the future.