Initial euphoria over the culmination of a Euro 7.8-billion agreement for 36 Rafale fighter planes has given way to accusations that India has inked an expensive deal that falls short of meeting the expectations of its air force.
Back in 2001, the Indian Air Force (IAF) sought at least 126 jets to replace ageing Soviet-era planes. Today, as a political dog fight unfolds over Rafale jets, the Congress says the 36 fighters are not enough to check the erosion of the IAF’s strength.
The party has warned of a looming crisis in the IAF, whose fighter fleet has shrunk to 33 squadrons compared to a desirable 45 to respond to a joint threat from China and Pakistan.
Strategic affairs expert Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak (retd) says the IAF needs to induct up to 90 more Rafale-like jets on an emergency basis. “There’s no turning away from that reality,” he adds.
Shortage of fighter planes is not the only concern.
Gaps in mid-air refuelling capability, shortage of advanced warning platforms, high number of jets under maintenance and upgrading air defence systems are some other challenges lying ahead of the world’s fourth largest air force.
IAF spokesperson Wing Commander Anupam Banerjee says the air force has plans in place to effectively utilise the available aerial platforms and weapon systems. “Any shortcoming will be made good in a short period of time to further enhance our capability,” he points out, adding all international air forces had a mix of modern and ageing aircraft.
Then, there are issues with the IAF’s ageing utility helicopter fleet. The IAF finds itself stretched due to shortage of heavy-lift and attack choppers — and its transport capability needs to be enhanced swiftly.
“India’s neighbours, especially China, have pressed the accelerator on modernising their air forces,” warns former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Fali Major. “The capability gaps will keep increasing if we don’t hasten things up.”
A $2-billion deal to buy midair refuellers to expand the IAF’s strategic reach is stuck, as India and Airbus have not agreed on the price. “The tankers are required urgently if we have to stay prepared to counter China in the eastern sector,” a senior IAF officer points out on the condition of anonymity. “The deal has dragged on for over seven years.”
The air force needs to ramp up its airborne surveillance capability to detect enemy planes and missiles. It has only three AWACS (airborne warning and control system) aircraft, though the requirement is higher.
The numbers are not enough if China and Pakistan pose a collusive threat. “The capability will play a significant role in terms of covering the eastern and western fronts during offensive operations,” says former IAF vice chief Air Marshal KK Nohwar (retd).
The IAF will induct three Brazilian Embraer airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) system aircraft in 2017, six years behind schedule. The AWACS is a more robust monitoring system that provides 360-degree coverage, compared to AEW&C’s 270-degree capability. The AWACS also has superior range and endurance.
Besides shortage of combat squadrons, another glaring hole in the IAF’s capability is low availability of fighter planes to carry out missions at any given moment or serviceability in military parlance.
India has a fleet of nearly 200 Su-30 fighter jets, but just half of them are ready to undertake missions at all times. “Barring the Mirage 2000, the IAF is struggling to improve the availability of most fighters,” says Kak.
IAF officials say aircraft availability should be around 75% during peacetime.
Fixing gaps in air defence is crucial to stave off threats from missiles and fighters. Major says deploying the Russian S 400 Triumf air defence system and the Israeli SPYDER low-level quick reaction missiles should be one of the top priorities for the IAF. India is yet to hammer out a plan to collaborate with a foreign partner to co-develop and co-produce a multirole transport aircraft (MTA) after an Indo-Russian project failed to take off.
The IAF is betting on US-origin Chinook heavy-lift helicopters to fill another capability gap, but deliveries will begin only in 2019. It currently operates a solitary Soviet-origin Mi-26 chopper to deliver payloads to high altitudes. India’s new attack helicopters — the AH-64E Apache Longbow — will also come after three years.
The IAF is hoping for quick execution of a $2-billion project to build medium-lift transport planes in India to replace the ageing Avro fleet.
Pilot training has been hit by a lack of intermediate jet trainers. The project was sanctioned in July 1999 but it has still not materialised, forcing the IAF to use old Kiran Mk-II aircraft for training.
The Pathankot and Uri attacks have exposed the vulnerability of military bases. Experts say India should fast-track the security upgrade at sensitive airbases with smart fences, vibration detection systems, mini-drones, thermal cameras and night vision equipment.