New Delhi: The Indian Air Force (IAF) could acquire midair refuellers on lease under the government’s new leasing policy, Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria said Monday.
Addressing his annual press conference two days before IAF Day, Bhadauria said “leasing” has got nothing to do with budget constraints but is an evolution of the defence acquisition processes and procedures.
It will give the service some flexibility, he added.
“We have been trying (to acquire midair refuellers) for a long time, our refuellers’ strength hasn’t gone up,” he said.
Bhadauria’s statement comes as the IAF plans to float a request for proposal (RFP) to purchase six refuellers. When inducted, the refuellers, also referred to as tankers, would prove to be a vital strategic asset and force multiplier as they will allow fighter jets to stay airborne longer.
The IAF has tried to procure midair refuelling aircraft twice since 2007, but the tenders had to be cancelled because of price complications.
Currently, the IAF operates a fleet of six Russian IIyushin-78 tankers that suffer from maintenance and serviceability issues, as pointed out in an August 2017 CAG report that studied the refuellers’ operations between 2010 and 2016. The tankers were bought in 2003-04 at Rs 132 crore per aircraft.
Under the new leasing policy, which features in the recently-unveiled Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) 2020, the Army, the Navy and the Air Force will have the option of getting equipment on lease rather than buying them.
At present, India operates a Russian nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) on lease, Chakra II. In March 2019, India also signed a $3 billion deal for the lease of Chakra III, which is likely to be in Indian waters by 2025.
Bhadauria said, in several cases, where a certain platform is low in quantity, leasing is possible.
“That is where it will come in handy,” he said, without naming other platforms the IAF is considering leasing.
In an interview to ThePrint in May this year, the IAF chief had talked about plans to address the shortage of flight refuelling aircraft (FRA), saying they have been worked out in a phased manner and “short- and mid-term solutions are being looked at”.
“As a long-term measure, we have initiated the process of procuring six more FRAs. Draft ASQRs (Air Staff Qualitative Requirements) have been prepared and the RFP is likely to be floated soon,” he had said.
Last week, the deputy Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Sandeep Singh said a financial crunch had led the IAF to rethink its plans to acquire mid-air refuelling aircraft, adding that they had received feedback that it would be possible to “dry-lease (without crew, ground staff etc)” these platforms through Indian firms allowed by the DAP 2020.
Bhadauria, however, made it clear Monday that the option of buying midair refuellers still exists.
‘Impact of budgetary constraints will show later’
Talking about the IAF’s budget, Bhadauria acknowledged there were constraints.
He said past contracts of the IAF are fructifying now, so the force’s current capability is not affected, but added that the impact of budgetary constraints will show in due course if the IAF does not put contracts in place through the next couple of years.
“We will need to reprioritise and that’s an exercise we have done… as to what (acquisitions) we can bring forward in the next two-three years, when this effect (budgetary constraints) will continue in some form or the other and thereafter when it normalises,” he said.
“There would be a re-prioritisation and shift, and we have done this exercise already. It (financial crunch) will have an effect but that effect will show later,” he said.
Emergency procurements, in terms of spares and weapons capability, are on and will fructify in the near future, he added.
‘Can’t touch 40 squadrons in a decade’
Bhadauria said the IAF will have 36-37 fighter squadrons at the end of the decade, by 2030, but won’t be able to touch 40 “even if we move at the fastest pace”.
“No way. If we get to 36-37 at the end of this decade it will be a good achievement,” he said.
Currently, the IAF has 30 active fighter squadrons, against a sanctioned strength of 42.
Bhadauria, however, said the IAF will have more than 450 indigenous aircraft in around two decades.
This includes 83 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mark 1, the deal for which will be signed by the end of the current financial year, with inductions to begin by the fourth year and end by the seventh or eighth year.
He also said two squadrons of the AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) Mark 1 and five squadrons of AMCA Mark 2 have been planned.
The AMCA is a 5th-generation-plus fighter, which would have a multitude of technologies borne out of the indigenous production of Tejas Mk-II and other contracts under ‘Make in India’.
For the AMCA, the DRDO has given a timeline of five to seven years, he said. It has to be decided, he said, that while the AMCA is being progressed, there should be a follow-up order of Mark 1A, another version of the LCA.
Even if the induction starts by the end of this decade, 14 to 16 aircraft get inducted every year over the next decade.
“In the long term, we will have LCA versions, the AMCA, which will be the mainstay, and whatever is finalised of the MRFA (multi-role fighter aircraft),” he said. Then there would be 56 AVRO (transport aircraft) replacement, he added.
The initial order for the Light Combat Helicopter of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) “is in place” and there would be follow-up orders and other helicopter fleet development will take place,” he added.