As fighter aircraft are high-tech, high-cost, high-maintenance, high-speed and high-risk operating machines, one must constantly assess the ambience where the Indian Air Force has its operating flight envelope. In flying jargon, it’s got to be within and “beyond visual range” (BVR), or even “beyond the horizon” (BTH). Today, where does the IAF, which turns 90 on October 8, stand? How should it move forward?
According to Military Balance 2022, Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft and Jane’s World Air Forces, the IAF has 31 active squadrons of “combat-capable” fighters. There are three Russian-origin squadrons of MiG-29 interceptor/air defence aircraft (inducted 1986); four Anglo-French Jaguar ground attack/strike squadrons (commissioned 1979); six MiG-21 Bison multi-role fighter squadrons (upgraded since 1999); three French-made Mirage-2000 interceptor/air defence squadrons (delivered 1985); 11 Moscow-sourced squadrons of Sukhoi-30 MKI multi-role fighters (joined 2002), two squadrons of the French Rafale DH/EH and two squadrons of the indigenously-produced Tejas multi-role fighter in the IAF fleet. The Tejas and the Rafale are the latest additions.
Understandably, the foreign-origin combat aircraft have always dominated the IAF fleet, despite New Delhi’s attempts to make indigenous fighters for over 50 years. Since 100 per cent success is yet to be achieved despite steady progress, India’s dependence on West-made fighters is unlikely to change any time soon, as the IAF has to remain prepared to tackle a two-front threat, from China and Pakistan.
With large tracts of Indian territory remaining in the illegal occupation of Pakistan’s military and China’s People’s Liberation Army for over six decades, while New Delhi remains helpless in the face of the disinterest and inability of the West-led UN to do anything about it. In fact, the hypocrisy of US and its allies is starkly evident. They are now on an all-out offensive against Moscow over the forced occupation of Crimea and Donbas, but just stood by when Indian territory was similarly occupied. This is why New Delhi has no option but to increasingly build its own fighters as no nation, particularly one of India’s size and expanse, can be eternally dependent on the goodwill of foreign manufacturers for the latest, technologically superior fighter jets.
The fighter jet situation for India in future will get even more critical. About 15 years ago, there were seven nations manufacturing fighter jets, with India placed eighth, with its Tejas prototype, conceived as a light combat aircraft (LCA) in 1983. Russia, with eight types of fighters, was followed by China (six), the United States (five), France (two) and one each in Japan, Sweden and South Korea. In addition, there was a four-nation consortium building the Euro-fighter
For India, understandably, the stratospheric expenditure to buy fighters was a major financial challenge, forcing it to be a parsimonious pacifist. To produce and operate an indigenous fighter was no longer a matter of choice for New Delhi, but an economic-foreign exchange compulsion.
India’s chronic bête noire, the CPC-PLA, understood well that it needed to adopt any means for a home-made fighter, through espionage, theft, cybercrimes, etc, on the West. And it clicked!
The result is visible today. Globally, China produces six fighter variants, including a strategic bomber and an Awacs (airborne early warning and control system). Russia’s production fell from eight to six variants, while the US maintained the status quo with five. The rest — Sweden, Japan, South Korea, India, France and Italy — have one fighter each in production. Europe’s four-nation Euro-fighter continues, but slowly.
In the ruthless marketplace of combat craft, once a fighter attains initial operational capability, it is all trade and commerce, where no one yields an inch on profits. It takes 10-20 years, often longer, to take a fighter from conception to squadron commissioning. The French Rafale took 19 years from design (1982) to service entry (2001).
America’s multi-role joint strike fighter F-35 Lightning’s “request for proposal” (RFP) was issued in December 1995. It’s in use with several Western air forces, as well as in Japan and South Korea. Yet, over 25 years after the RFP, the F-35 still has “teething problems”. Despite France and America being aviation pioneers, the US’ vast resources still keeps it technologically ahead in building
Given Beijing’s unrelenting hostility towards India across the Himalayan highlands, which poses an existential threat to New Delhi, with Chinese garrisons positioned within Indian territory, Indian needs to make the indigenous production of fighter jet is a national mission, not just a mere trading enterprise to earn quick profits. The gestation period for fighter production is long, as can be seen from the French and American examples, and therefore there is no time to be lost. Cash for trade doesn’t win aerial combat, industrial production does.
The challenge for India — and in particular for the IAF — is, therefore, as formidable as one can possibly imagine in a world where at least seven nations have marched ahead of New Delhi in manufacturing and marketing fighter aircraft. So, what should be the long-term strategy on strengthening the depleted foreign-origin IAF fleet? To this writer, at least two things must be imbibed from the state that is inimical to India. First, the expertise on reverse engineering on imported aircraft. Second, to boost the power of the indigenous fighter engine for better operational performance in combat. It’s because no foreign manufacturer will ever give a buyer like India the latest and the best of its fighter power plants for its own market survival and profit. After all, the combat aviation industry is commerce for cash and is worth billions of dollars.
The dictators who ran the Communist Party of China and its military arm, the People’s Liberation Army, were determined from the very beginning to go in for indigenisation of their fighter fleet and for engines which powered the aircraft. Initially, they imported from Russia and Ukraine in bulk quantities and thereafter kept a few machines for exclusive research and development. After gaining experience and expertise in the Moscow-Ukraine machine, Beijing targeted America’s tech industry and came down hard through any and every means; most of them illegal. Can New Delhi chalk out an actionable time-bound programme and make a determined bid to indigenise and augment the depleted numbers of its Air Force squadrons, which have been thinned out over the years in which the fleet has not been upgraded? A buyer’s force may be a tactical (short-term) success, but can never be durable in the long term as a strategic state asset. It’s got to be a builder’s fighter.