Managing the “fighter gap” - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 5 November 2018

Managing the “fighter gap”

Will the controversy over Rafale further slow down the defence ministry’s procurement process?

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 6th Nov 18

The unfolding controversy over the Rafale fighter throws up a deeply worrying question, quite separate from the Opposition’s vocal charge that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government arbitrarily bought too few aircraft, for too high a cost, to benefit a particular industrialist. The question is this: Will the political name-calling, court cases, audits and investigations around the Rafale further clog the defence ministry’s already ponderous decision-making and bring fighter aircraft procurements to a complete standstill? Does the Indian Air Force (IAF), which already makes do with just 31 fighter squadrons against an assessed requirement of 42, now stare at the prospect of squadron numbers dropping into the twenties, before indigenous Tejas Mark 1A production kicks in to restore some respectability? Just as the Bofors corruption allegations derailed the procurement of badly needed artillery guns for a quarter century, is the Rafale controversy likely to cause defence ministry decision-makers (wags say this is an oxymoron!) to shy away from making decisions on the purchase of all new fighters.

A further fall in squadron numbers now seems inevitable. The IAF should already have retired eight squadrons of obsolete MiG-21s and MiG-27s, and this cannot be put off longer than the next couple of years. To replace them, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is building the last two squadrons of Sukhoi-30MKIs at Nashik and two squadrons of Tejas Mark I fighters in Bengaluru. Then there are the two squadrons of Rafale fighters that must be inducted by mid-2022. That adds up to just six incoming squadrons against the outgoing eight, whittling down the IAF’s combat strength to 29 fighter squadrons – of which, three Mirage 2000 squadrons operate fewer fighters than their authorised 18. The IAF, therefore, faces a “fighter gap” of 13 squadrons – more than 30 per cent of its authorised strength.

If 42 squadrons are the inescapable minimum needed to defend India, the IAF would be caught seriously short in a two-front war – the worst-case planning contingency in which China and Pakistan attack India simultaneously. Some have argued that India’s defence no longer requires 42 squadrons, given that contemporary multi-role fighters carry more weapons and are far more capable than yesterday’s aircraft; and those capabilities are further enhanced by force multipliers such as mid-air refuelling aircraft and airborne warning and control systems (AWACS). The previous NDA defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, had indicated that the IAF could get by with fewer squadrons. In January 2015, he told India Today TV that “if 35 (fighter) squadrons can be brought to a proper shape, that would give us more time to increase the strength.” And on April 13, 2015, three days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in Paris that he had asked French President Francois Hollande to sell the IAF 36 Rafale fighters, Mr Parrikar stated on Doordarshan: “Forty-two squadrons is the strength approved. We should have at least 37-38 very active squadrons.” Yet, even with these scaled-down numbers, there will be a “fighter gap” of eight-nine squadrons after 2022. For enemy planners, this provides a predictable window of opportunity.

Towards bridging this shortfall the government initiated in April the procurement of 110 new fighter aircraft – or six new squadrons. Even if these contracts are processed with unprecedented speed, the fighter gap will remain. That is because the 110-fighter proposal envisages the first squadron being delivered, fully built, only after five years, or by end-2024. The next five squadrons, which are to be built in India, will come on stream in five-12 years from the contract signing, that is between 2024 and 2032. And this assumes that the contract is signed by end-2019.

Nor is the proposed Tejas Mark 1A likely to enter service fast enough to bridge the fighter gap. In December 2017, the defence ministry sanctioned Rs 33,000 crore (Rs 330 billion) for building 83 Tejas Mark 1A – or four squadrons of fighters – starting from 2020-21, with HAL’s production line churning out 16 fighters, or almost one squadron, every year. But, typically, the Tejas Mark 1A is already being delayed by mounting IAF demands. Initially, the Tejas Mark 1A was to have four capability enhancements to the current Tejas Mark 1 – including active electronically scanned array radar, an electronic warfare suite, a self-protection jammer, mid-air refuelling capability and easier repair and maintenance. This year, the IAF additionally demanded “smart multi-function cockpit displays”, a “combined interrogator and transponder” to differentiate between friendly and hostile aircraft, a digital map generator and an improved radio altimeter. Integrating these systems onto the Tejas Mark 1A requires comprehensively redesigning its mission computer -- a delay of three-four years.

Such amateurish planning stems from a worrying inability within the military and the defence ministry to anticipate equipment retirements, and to identify, evaluate, budget for and procure the equipment needed to fill those gaps. Instead of launching a new competitive procurement initiative for 110 fighters on exactly the same lines as the failed procurement of 126 Rafale fighters, there is a need to step back and examine our procurement record.

Historically, India has been successful in only three categories of procurement. First, in the purely indigenous development of strategic weapons systems like ballistic missiles, where watertight international sanctions forced Indian technologists to indigenise practically every dimension of these systems. With no option available for import, the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) conceived the Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme (IGMDP) and translated it into four successful missile systems – the Agni and Prithvi ballistic missiles, the Akash air defence missile and the Nag anti-tank missile. The second successful procurement model has involved the DRDO working with foreign technology partners and India’s private sector, with the latter two compensating for gaps in the DRDO’s own capability and capacity. Examples of such successes are the Indo-Russian BrahMos and Indo-Israeli Long Range Surface to Air Missile (LR-SAM), the Pinaka rocket launcher, Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS) and the Arihant-class nuclear submarine. The third successful procurement model has involved government-to-government deals, such as the T-90S tank, C-17 Globemaster III aircraft and a myriad of combat aircraft, such as the Sukhoi-30MKI, Mirage 2000 and numerous MiG-series fighters. In these procurements, the government jettisoned ambitious multi-vendor contests and instead consulted the relevant service to identify suitable weapon equipment. Trials were conducted where necessary and the deal then concluded with the vendor country – for either an off-the-shelf purchase or for building the equipment in India with transferred technology.

With the first model irrelevant and the second model already adopted for the Tejas Mark 1A, an expeditious purchase of 110 fighters could best be executed through the government-to-government model. There is little time for cumbersome technical and trial evaluations of multiple fighters on offer, which, in any case, ignores broader factors such as the simultaneous procurement of 57 naval multi-role combat aircraft for India’s aircraft carriers. Bunching these two procurements together would provide a better deal, something that has been ignored so far. Additionally, aspects of strategic and technological partnership must feed into this multi-billion dollar decision. To a government already burned by the Rafale allegations, this may seem fraught with peril. But all it requires is intensive consultations with the military, rather than the political unilateralism that has proved damaging to the government in buying the Rafale.


  1. If we can think out of the box, there could be multiple plays from different corporates and political parties coming together... even someone does cost-benefit analysis.... by racking up all these controversies its the following who would benefit

    1) opposition parties - to show that the current govt is corrupt
    2) USA - using this opp they would put forward a proposal on alternatives
    3) Russia - same like USA, but in a better state to offer more su's an alternative arrangement (i know it's not the same role aircraft)
    4) HAL - as a lost opp, could be a pawn in the game

  2. Let us wait for CAG audit report .
    Right now we have allegations flying around about Rafael.
    Something serious must have been wrong in MMRCA1 for Govt to decide and go for emergency purchase of 36 Rafale.
    Then issue new RFI and RFQ (no other option to this step).
    No one has seen all the decisions and documentation in the flies.
    Let us get 36 Rafale operational as highest priority.
    HAL need to get LCA Mk1A up and running quickly.
    Then manufacture 20 per year.

    Yes merging IAF and IN makes sense on paper, but we need to see priorities and specifications.
    For IAF fighters are highest priority.
    For IN anti submarine helicopters and mine sweepers would be. Certainly not fighters.
    If IN and IAF agree, this (ironically for Rafale baiters) will make Rafale a front runner.
    The only other aircraft in competition would be F 18 E
    with new technology F414 EPE engines.
    This one flown is only by US navy not USAF/Marines.

  3. In Rafale too GoI has jettisoned competition and after intensive consultations with IAF gone for Rafale .
    So history follows.
    Let us see how succcessful with RFP for MMRCA 2 will be,
    IAF and MOD say they have learnt valuable lessons from failure of MMRCA1.

  4. Your logic is impeccable. The IAF ought to go in for a G-to-G procurement, perhaps a larger number of Rafale squadrons which could be clubbed together with the 57 needed for the Navy. The Rafale is a proven naval combat aircraft. But such a solution seems a pipe dream, given the bungled current 2-squadron procurement of the Rafale and the fuss kicked up by the opposition. I also lament the poor leadership in the IAF who have failed to nail down the Tejas 1A specification and seem to care little for speedy replacement of the retiring fighters, despite their protestations to the contrary. Unlike the Navy, the IAF seems unwilling to go the whole hog in supporting development of an indigenous capability.....which is shortsighted because the prohibitive cost of imported aircraft put them beyond the reach of the IAF..... that is what derailed the earlier MMRCA procurement effort, but these guys learn no lessons.

  5. Yes 36 needs to be enhanced to 126. Plain vanilla Rafales at cheaper rates .. so that our pilots get experience on this new platform....which can be enhanced later in 2025.

    Lets also order more sukhois on which our pilots have decent comfort levels and flying experience.

    The f16 and the Gripen will now have to wait while we enhance our fighter strength to take on China/Pak who will soon have stealth technology on hand.

    While the Tejas should be inducted as a defensive platform mated to the brahmos. It will provide the defensive counter punch in any kargil like misadventure.

  6. So if India were to buy approximately 200 Rafales either directly imported from France or made in India under a partnership we would be looking at a bill of approximately 30 Billion USD. The moot question then is can India afford it and even if it can, why Rafales when F-35 is actually cheaper than Rafales on outright purchase. Refer the Belgium procurement decision couple of weeks back.

    Another data point to consider is why does India need an all in fleet of twin jet heavy fighters considering we have 272 Sukhoisand 36 Rafales coming in

    Buying a single engine jet like the F-16 will shave off 40-50% of the purchase price

    Either way a decision needs to be taken and fast. Which is the biggest hurdle to criss

  7. As you sow, so shall you reap. If govt is unable to go in for direct purchase, it has only itself to blame for its past actions were strictly not above board. If it cannot produce more than 16 Tejas a year, then all the mighty Modi govt with brute majority needs to do is to appoint 4 dedicated ministers solely to take care of indegenious defense production.

    Even God will help us then.

  8. NSR says ---

    India definitely needs to do Government to Government deals to secure their defenses in a timely fashion … No need to repeat the same circus again and again...
    They must do the following G2G deals in a hurry...

    1. First G2G - Buy additional 36 or 54 India specific Rafales in a hurry and station them in 3 strategically located airbases... Rafale with Meteor is a formidable defensive and offensive weapon... The new Rafales will be cheaper as the development of India specific cost is already built in so it makes them cheap to procure... Above all IAF is happy with them …

    2. 2nd G2G - Buy some quantities of Super Sukhoi versions from Russia and HAL with complete TOT ... This will not only continues the production but starts new upgrade cycle to keep them abreast of new tech developments...

    3. 3rd G2G - Buy F-35 for IAC-1 if USA is willing to do so... If not go for F/A-18 Block III or Rafale-M for carrier requirements... IAC-1 is an Indian carrier so USA may be willing to sell … It has no match in its class and it is a 5th Gen force multiplying war-fighting machine...

    4. 4th G2G - It depends on what India picks up for their carrier fighters...

    5. 5th G2G - Get maximum TOT to help Tejas-IA, Tejas-II, AMCA, etc when selecting the above fighters...

    Forget about the selection and negotiation circus …
    Whole world already knows what they can do or do not do...India only needs to make sure that they select systems that offer maximum lethality...

    Good luck but hurry up ….

  9. Good article as usual.

    What I simply don't understand is, why in the world is the Government hell-bent on ordering 110 foreign jets to be licensed manufactured in India (with sham ToT etc), when 110 Tejas Mk-2s can just as well be manufactured ?

    If Ambani and Adani are ready to make Rafales and Gripens, why can't the Govt. tell them to make a 110 Tejas Mk-2 ?

    Pahaad toot padega kya ?


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