Up In The Air!

tsi_05may2016_24India’s quest to build fighters through the “Make in India” initiative may not be realistic in near future due to a significant fund crunch and the lack of in-house building capabilities. The Indian Air Force (IAF) will continue to rely on imports because India’s domestic programs will continue to face delays, say officials and defense analysts.

The government wants to build over 250 fighters in the next 20 years at a cost of over $200 billion which will cover the life cycle cost of these fighters as well, said a source in the Indian Ministry of Defense (MoD).

India is yet to sign the contract to purchase 36 Rafale Fighter Aircraft from France. Moreover, the serial production of home-grown Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mark-1 cannot achieve its operational clearance without foreign support.

The co-development and joint production of Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) with Russia faces uncertain delays. The FGFA program may run slow but will not stop. There is still no clarity on future home-grown fighter aircraft like LCA Mark-2 and Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). As per the current IAF projections, the fighter aircraft strength is down to 25 squadrons as against the required strength of 45 squadrons. In addition, 14 squadrons equipped with Russian made MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters will also be phased out by 2024.

“We are not sure if we will be satisfied with only 36 Rafale fighters; and there is also uncertainty when 120 LCA Mark-1 will be inducted,” said the IAF official, adding that India certainly needs additional Rafale fighters to boost the strength of its fighter base. At the current slow pace of induction, IAF will need at least two decades to attain its authorized fighter strength of 45 squadrons.

Another IAF official said that it is now for the government to decide if it would opt for more Rafale fighters or jointly produce single engine 120 LCA Mark-1 aircraft and accelerate the FGFA project with Russia. He also noted that by 2032, IAF must have 810 fighters in its authorised 45 squadrons.

IAF will eventually have to also induct a few dozen squadrons of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) to meet the two way threat it faces from both the East and West.

Analysts too are bewildered about how India will meet such ambitious targets.

tsi_05may2016_25The domestic private industry is still not mature enough to produce LCA Mark-1 or LCA Mark-2 and AMCA because the supply chain is still being discovered. If the government funds the private sector under the Make in India initiative as per the upcoming defense procurement procedure (DPP 2016), the government will still face the risk of the programs going through heavy cash crunches.

“Political compulsions will prevent [allocation of] huge funds for home-grown AMCA,” says Anil Arora, retired IAF Wing Commander and a member of Defense Consultants Society of India (DCSI).

“India will have to mitigate this risk by either giving repeat orders to France for additional Rafale aircraft or it may have to re-invite fresh offers from countries wanting to make fighters within India. Both the options “Indian Make in India AMCA” and “Foreign Make in India Medium Fighter” will have to be kept open. The Indian industry will surely benefit in either case, whichever option is finally chosen,” he added to good measure.

However, retired IAF Air Marshal Subhash Bojwani says, “I think the question assumes that AMCA will be an unqualified success, thus closing the door on ‘medium’ fighters from overseas vendors. At this stage, even before the blueprints are far from complete and the first AMCA metal is yet to be cut, it’s totally premature to guess what might happen in this regard.”

Arora further adds, “Where are the final specs of LCA Mark-2? And what is the weaponisation scheme of LCA Mark-2 as compared to LCA Mark-1?  How much of LCA Mark-1 is Indian as of today?”

There may be a possibility of LCA Mark-2 being allocated to the private sector due to the expected shortage of funds. At the same time, can India depend on state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) for the LCA Mark- 2 and wait for another 30 years?

Bhojwani on the other hand says, “I am not a great fan of FGFA and stealth technology in general – not because these are undesirable but because they require too many compromises in aerodynamic performance – the case of F-117 and F-35 is well known.  My wish list would include a mixture of manned and unmanned combat aircraft with the latter being employed for the more hazardous missions.  If AMCA makes the cut, I would be happy to have it on my inventory of manned aircraft.”

If funds are available with the government, then LCA Mark-2 will see the light of the day in 20 years. Some also forward the possibily that the public-private-partnership (PPP) model could be a better idea to boost the Indian industry. The LCA Mark- 2 will be successful if India gets some export orders; in addition to IAF requirements, a new joint venture with overseas help may well have to be created for fructifying the strategic partnership for this project.

As of right now, it seems a long shot that the IAF will be able to procure its authorised 45 squadrons in the expected time.