On 8 October 2019, the first Rafale for the Indian Air Force was handed over to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh. This delivery is the latest in a series of much-needed yet perennially delayed steps taken to bolster the Indian Air Force’s combat capabilities. The IAF has historically been the largest and best-equipped force in the region — reliant principally on license production of Soviet aircraft types to make up mass, and a privileged relation with Moscow to ensure access to high technology. The twin sticks of numerical and technological security have allowed the IAF to deter outright conflict in many cases and outfight its adversary when war became inescapable.
History is replete with examples of the Indian Government taking swift and decisive action to maintain the IAF’s overall edge in the region, from the decision to induct and produce hundreds of MiG-21s from 1962 onward, to the emergency procurement of beyond-visual range MiG-23MF interceptors in 1982 to outmatch the early-model F-16s that Pakistan was receiving.
Somewhere in the past two to three decades, this decisive, if admittedly reactionary procurement system gave way to the morass of today. The aerial bombing campaign over Kargil in 1999 resulted in more widespread adoption of precision guided munitions and a renewed focus on better avionics across platforms. But when the IAF requested expanded procurement of the undisputed star of the conflict, the Mirage 2000 multirole fighter, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) asked for a competitive evaluation that has not resulted in a procurement to date. There was no reaction from New Delhi when the Pakistan Air Force inducted upgraded F-16 Block 52s with AMRAAMs that outrange every active radar missile in the Indian inventory.
Upgrades to keep the small Mirage 2000 and MiG-29 fleets relevant in the face of evolving technologies were delayed to the point that Russian missiles had to be mated to the Mirage in order to keep its air-to-air capabilities intact. The contract for 36 Rafale to be delivered ‘fly-away’ is an admission that the vaunted Defence Ministry ‘processes’ do not deliver the required outcomes. General Ved Malik’s defiant statement during Kargil — “we will fight with what we have” — should have been a jolt to the Ministry, but has instead become the new normal.
The Rafale finally provides the IAF with something more than makeshift “what we have” capability, and in a manner unlike any procurement before it, embodies operational capabilities refined after a great deal of reflection, both at the technical and operational level. Much has been made of the cost of the aircraft, but the simple truth revealed by the MMRCA evaluation was that while no aircraft met the complete set of Indian requirements, the Rafale was easiest and cheapest to bring up to spec via the so-called ‘India Specific Enhancement’ (ISE). The only issue is the limited numbers. While budgetary pressures are unavoidable, it can certainly be argued that it is in fact fiscally irresponsible not to procure at least an additional 36 units. Having spent the unavoidable non-recurring costs on basing and maintenance infrastructure in-house, as well as on the ISE modification and certification, subsequent aircraft will have a lower per-unit cost than the first batch.
Manpower management, sustainment, training, and overall force efficacy require a certain critical mass, and two squadrons is not it. Lessons from the past clearly illustrate this, with the two-and-a-half Mirage 2000 squadrons in service soaking up disproportionate resources in sustainment due to poor economies of scale. Early MiG-23MF and MiG-23BN aircraft had to be retired well before their airframe lives expired due to difficulties in managing boutique fleets with diminishing operational returns.
At the other end of the IAF’s force modernisation efforts is the HAL Tejas, which although dogged by certification and production issues, is by all accounts a significant step up from the aircraft it is intended to replace. There is little a Tejas cannot do as well or better than a MiG-21 or MiG-27. Although both legacy MiG types remain airworthy and are in service, it is entirely reasonable to doubt their efficacy in combat compared to any modern aircraft.
The issues with the Tejas center then on timing more than anything else — constantly missing certification and production deadlines places the programme on the back side of the technology curve. The IAF is loath to induct anything less than the highest technology platform, because with everything that is known about procurement speed and the pace and cost of aircraft upgrades, it is a safe bet that upgrades will not be carried out in a reasonable time frame. Even when deficiencies are identified early and solutions are readily available (as was the case with the Mirage and MiG-29), actually contracting and executing a fleetwide upgrade will be next to impossible.
This thinking has led to the Tejas Mk.1A — a variant that retains most of the physical and kinematic limitations already flagged by the IAF, but vastly improved under the skin. This compromise is essentially a mid-life upgrade, but conducted in the type’s infancy instead of in the late-2020s by which time it would be all but irrelevant. The large initial order of 83 aircraft (the IAF has not placed a larger single order for fighters in the past thirty years) signals a commitment to the improved type when compared to the forty-aircraft order placed for the initial variant. The Mk.1A also provides a useful hedge against delays in induction of a new foreign fighter, and development of the future Tejas Mk.2 and Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), where the base Mk.1 might not be seen as a sufficiently capable alternative.
The Rafale and Tejas on their own, however, will not be enough to solve India’s air power conundrum. The IAF’s present fighter fleet stands at thirty squadrons, of which six are obsolescent MiG-21/27 and one is a fledgling Tejas Mk.1 unit. The force stands to lose at least six fighter squadrons over the next 5 years. Meanwhile, in terms of firm contracts, the IAF will add a total of only six new squadrons over the same time frame — three additional Su-30MKI units will be raised by 2022, the first of two Rafale squadrons will stand up in early 2020 followed by another in 2020-21, and a second Tejas squadron will probably be established in 2020. Induction of an additional squadron of upgraded MiG-29s is planned, but has not been contracted yet. This clearly indicates no net force accretion is anticipated before 2024, and in fact, if any squadron retirements are accelerated, the IAF could dip below 30 fighter squadrons for the first time in around half a century. This puts it dangerously close to the PAF’s 20-odd squadrons, and certainly outnumbered by the combined PAF-PLAAF threat.
The coming influx of modern fighters in the form of Rafale and Tejas are at best a salve for the broader force structure issues facing the Air Force. To offset the reduction in combat mass against its sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons, the IAF needs to invest heavily in force enablers and multipliers, as well as weapons and technology that enhance the capabilities of existing platforms. New air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons are already in the works, and rapidly expanding their development and induction would pay off more meaningfully in the near term than chasing fighter procurement.
While the incredibly complex Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) is an undeniable success story, networking and communications shortcomings remain a key area of concern. And finally, a networked force is only as good as its ‘sensors’ and ‘shooters’ — airborne surveillance assets would go a long way in addressing the first aspect, and aerial refueling would dramatically enhance the persistence of the latter. Despite affecting the application of air power much more widely than just fighters, both are areas that have seen severe under-funding.
Angad Singh is a project coordinator with ORF’s Strategic Studies Programme. Views are personal.
This article was originally published in Observer Research Foundation.
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