Better late than never, seems to be the watchword at South Block as the government finally issued the long-delayed global tender for providing the Indian Air Force (IAF) with a new fleet of 126 lightweight fighters last Tuesday. The document reportedly outlines requirements in areas like technology transfer, licensed manufacturing and through-life support arrangements for the Multi-role Combat Aircraft that will replace the ageing MiG-21 interceptors. The government has been sitting on the IAF’s request for these aircraft for an inordinately long while now. Former Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi even wrote to then defence minister Pranab Mukherjee warning that “if corrective measures were not taken immediately”, India would lose its air superiority over Pakistan.
It is no secret that at the rate at which the IAF’s combat force levels are declining, it is just a matter of time before the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) draws level — and edges ahead. Most estimates suggest that the PAF will have some 26 squadrons by 2010, as against the IAF’s depleted strength of 26.5 squadrons by 2015. This would neutralise the superiority of the IAF, which always enjoyed a 2.5:1 advantage in air power over the PAF, in numbers and quality of aircraft. This apparently leaves the IAF no choice but to buy 40 more Sukhoi 30 MKIs from Russia, besides the 126 new aircraft for which the tender has now been floated.
New Delhi should also address the issue politically by urging Russia to stop China from selling Pakistan J-10 and JF-17 fighters that have Russian engines. But then the real concern for the IAF is obviously not just about dwindling numbers of aircraft, but also the urgent need to upgrade the existing fleet of MiGs and Jaguars and refurbish the ageing transport fleet of IL 76s and AN 32s. Unfortunately, the situation has been complicated by the controversial Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), which adamantly refuses to leave the drawing board. So the acquisition bid comes not a moment too soon, given the urgent need for new aircraft, midlife upgrade, and force multipliers that could potentially handicap the IAF’s regional deterrence value.