New Delhi: Indian Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari Tuesday strongly pitched for 114 Multi Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA), under the Make in India initiative, rather than opting for another 36 Rafale fighter jets.
The IAF chief also made it clear that it would be wrong to assume that possessing the S-400 air defence system, the first unit of which will be inducted later this year, would mean that the force can cut down on its acute need of fighters, since offensive and defensive capability cannot be compared.
He further argued that despite all the planned acquisition, including that of 114 MRFA, 83 Light Combat Aircraft Mk1A and the indigenous 5th generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), the IAF will not be able to meet its target of 42 squadrons over the next 10-15 years.
The IAF chief explained that the next decade will see the phasing out of four squadrons of the MiG 21 Bison, Jaguar deep penetration aircraft, Mirage 2000 and the MiG 29s.
“We have catered for this. The acquisition plan is based on the 83 LCA, deliveries of which will commence from 2024. We are fully committed to the AMCA programme, for which an aggressive timeline has been set by the DRDO… We plan to start inducting the AMCA by early years of next decade,” he said responding to a query by ThePrint during his annual press conference ahead of the Air Force Day on 8 October.
The IAF chief, who took over last week, added, “However, to mitigate the gap of fighter squadrons and combat capability, the RFI (Request for Information) for 114 MRFA was mooted, for which responses have been received. Now we are waiting to move the case up further.”
Responding to another question, the IAF chief said squadrons of unmanned aircraft (futuristic armed drones) are different from that of the fighters.
Asked specifically if this meant that the IAF was ruling out the possibility of procuring additional 36 Rafale fighter jets, ACM Chaudhari said the Rafale is also one of the contenders.
“We are happy with the performance of the aircraft but I would not like to comment on whether it will be the main contender or not for the MRFA,” he said.
ACM Chaudhari comments come exactly a year after his predecessor, Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria, had indicated for the first time officially that the decision to buy two more squadrons of Rafale fighter jets was under consideration.
The new IAF chief also said that the Service is looking at having 5th generation and even 6th generation technology on board the MRFA in terms of modern weapons and Artificial Intelligence.
“In MRFA, most of the contenders have the 4.5 generation technology. One of the key features that we are seeking is the ability to integrate 5th and 6th generation technology. It will be a Make in India model,” he said.
Rafale the front runner even for MRFA
Sources in the defence and security establishment said that Rafale is likely to be the front runner even if the MRFA competition is held because the IAF is not looking at having multiple types of aircraft.
They said that a final decision would be taken by the government on whether to go in for a direct deal with the French or go with the IAF’s plan with competition for MRFA.
Sources have said that the timeline for the MRFA competition will be much shorter than the one for Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), since a majority of the aircraft in contention have already undergone various trials in the past.
Sources said that one thing is clear that the IAF is looking beyond just 36 additional Rafale, which will take it up to four squadrons of the aircraft.
But the IAF needs more numbers to beef up its squadron strength, since the last time the force had 42 squadrons was in 2002.