India needs a paradigm shift in aerial power | HT editorial
Rafale shouldn’t become an excuse to once again withdraw into a strategic cockpitUpdated: Oct 09, 2019 18:37 IST
Such is the tortuous history of Indian arms procurement that defence minister Rajnath Singh officially accepting the first Rafale fighter aircraft is front page news. The first Rafale fighters, four out of 36 ordered, will not actually land in India until March next year. But the present ceremony will at least mark an end to India’s pursuit of a 21st century fighter. The Rafales, supplementary to Tejas and Sukhoi purchases, and a bargain basement buy of some MiG-29s, will still mean an air force of about 33 squadrons by 2032.
The technical quality of this patchwork air fleet is another matter altogether. Much of it will be obsolete, for example, if the Chinese J-20 and J-31 stealth fighter projects come to maturity. Which is why the present lull in India’s defence purchases, partly enforced by budgetary constraints, may be a good time to ask whether India should be looking at a paradigm shift in the concept of aerial power. Two major technological shifts in winged firepower should be noted. One is connectivity. The future of airpower lies in converting fighters into flying computers which function as a set of nodes in a network. It will also mean buying aircraft of disparate varieties will make less and less sense. Two is the integration of drones and aircraft. A new generation of drones, like the American Valkyrie, will mean fighters will be accompanied by fleets of drone that will add more firepower but also have reconnaissance and jamming capabilities.
New Delhi’s determination to build an indigenous aircraft is laudable though probably overambitious. Perhaps such efforts should focus on leapfrogging to the next phase of airpower, system by system, technology by technology, leveraging India’s software capacities and being prepared to work with foreign partners. The Rafale and its ilk should not become an excuse to once more withdraw into a strategic cockpit.