As the Indian Air Force completes 87 glorious years on October 8, that was attained through “blood, sweat, toil and tears”, it cannot afford to rest on its laurels and past glory. It must aspire for and pursue ceaseless brilliance, along with the heartbeats of 1.3 billion Indians.
From all accounts, though the professionalism of our air warriors is par excellence and exemplary, yet a major reduction of its assets over the years, owing to gross failure of successive Indian governments to do proper advance planning constitutes a major self-created threat to India. Indians have failed the IAF, thereby pushing the country into a state of despair, in the face of a multi-dimensional Sino-Pakistani threat. Air Chiefs have come, and Air Chiefs have gone, yet India’s air warriors, with their imported, vintage machines continued, and still continue, undaunted. There lies the singular achievement of the IAF.
Reality, therefore, bites — as all fighter aircraft (barring the still “under-trial” indigenous Tejas) of the IAF are of foreign origin. All of them have been imported at a huge cost to the exchequer, paid in foreign currency, out of sheer compulsion. Of course, not all news is bad news. The twin-engine French Dassault Rafale multi-role fighter is being inducted into No. 17 Squadron on IAF Day, October 8. Yet, the fact remains that at 87, the IAF still looks outwards to foreign manufacturers. This is not desirable for operational preparedness, or for the overall security of the state.
I recall having written two years ago that the IAF also stands for “Imported Air Force”, and that the sooner Indians try to come out of their present “flight envelope” of being a “buying” to a “building” force, the better it would be for safety, security, technology and economics of a state of 1.3 billion heads. In this context, one could emulate Chinese enterprise, notwithstanding the fact that Beijing still isn’t an ideal neighbour. The erratic frequency of Beijing’s gross irrational behaviour on the high table as well as hostile acts in hot terrain doesn’t inspire the desired level of trust, faith and confidence — the enhanced and increasing bilateral economic, banking, commercial and trade intercourse along with one-way profit accrual to China notwithstanding.
A comparison and contrast between the 87-year-old IAF and the ongoing fighter production and types of future indigenous combat aircraft induction into the Chinese PLA Air Force, therefore, would be in order; as things are too stark to be ignored. And too real not to be dealt with through sustained Indian initiative. Urgently, as the qualitative gap between indigenous Beijing fighters and the imported aircraft of New Delhi may become permanently unbridgeable with every passing day. India certainly can’t wait in uncertainty for fighter jets to fly in from across the sea, as each of its own enterprise faces cost and time over-runs.
Two years ago, the world aviation almanac reported 22 multi-role fighters in the lines of production — with China and Russia each working on five projects; followed by the United States, with four; India with two (single-engine Tejas and drawing board programmed twin-engine advanced medium combat aircraft). There were six more — one each of/by France, Italy, Sweden, South Korea, Japan and the four-nation Eurofighter.
The world now sees the total number of multi-role fighter ventures going up from 22 to 24, with all fighter producing states, barring China, holding on to their old projects. Beijing, however, is the sole state to increase its programme from five to six; and the new market entrant Turkey trying to put in place its conceptualised twin-engine TAI TFX multi-role fighter. That’s interesting and intriguing. When top guns like the United States, Russia, France and the European consortium dare not begin new fighter jet projects, the Chinese addition of one more project to its existing fighter development programme is undoubtedly worth studying.
Yes, China does deserve appreciation for its foresight. Until the 1990s, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) “relied heavily on numerical superiority”. Today, “things are changing, as an impressive diversity of new aircraft come online. The PLA Naval Air Force’s capabilities (too) are being built up at an impressive pace”. (Jane’s, 2012-2013). In short, all-round fighter aircraft development programmes are going on in China, thereby making it self-reliant as the People’s Republic turned 70 on October 1.
Hence, a cursory glance through the Air Force inventories of New Delhi and Beijing makes for a depressing scenario, especially for India, all owing to the visible failure of Indian decision-makers and some invisible factors and hidden hands.
The question, therefore, is — what’s to be done now? How? First, come what may, the Indian-made Tejas must be inducted in squadron services at the earliest; and incremental improvement thereafter is sine qua non. The Tejas platform should be used to develop various models for multi-missions, like what the Russians did from the 1950s — the single-engine MiG-15, followed by 17, 21, 23, 27. In between, Moscow had the twin-engine MiG-19, the dual-role MiG-25 ultra-high altitude reconnaissance/fighter and the twin-engine MiG-29 in the medium multi-role aircraft under 20-ton max take-off weight category.
The United States too developed a mix of single and twin-engine fighters. Thus, whereas the F-14, F-15, F-18 and F-22 are twin-engine, fulfilling different roles, the single-engine F-16 “Fighting Falcon” has been consistently tried for improved mission/role with various blocks like 30, 40, 50 and 60.
This writer has long advocated that since the IAF is the sole customer of the Bengaluru-based Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd’s fighters, it is time to revisit and replan since the concept of producer, distributor, consumer/customer and buyer-seller relations are getting blurred. In India, HAL is a monopoly producer and IAF a monopoly buyer, user and customer. It is high time to amalgamate the two before HAL gets destroyed by some private player, and protect whatever convenient route of acquisition the IAF still does have at this point.
If Air India and Indian Airlines, both being under the ministry of civil aviation, could be merged by the government, there is no valid reason why HAL could not be part of the IAF’s fighter, transport, bomber and helicopter production units. Further, HAL must be headed by a serving three-star air marshal; either an ace fighter (test) pilot or an eminent aeronautical engineer. And, to avoid friction, and promote fraternity; both an engineer and a pilot could be made HAL’s CMD by rotation for a three-year tenure. They need to constitute an aviation team par excellence.
Finally, to make things feasible, India must immediately name a full-time Cabinet-rank defence production minister, reporting directly to the Prime Minister. If the department of space could be under the highest office of the government, combat aircraft acquisition and production needs to find a similar position. It’s time for “Made in India” fighters, for otherwise the Indian economy will soon go bust; over-spending on its “Imported Air Force”.