As claims and counterclaims over the financial terms of India’s deal to buy 36 Rafale fighter aircrafts from France continue relentlessly, the Indian Airforce (IAF) continues to be in desperate need of new fighter jets. The asymmetric inequalities between the IAF and the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) are set to widen.
For the IAF to attain the combat capability to counter and fight any future war or conflict vis-à-vis the PLAAF, the acquisition of aircrafts like the Rafale will be crucial to expanding its air combat capability.
36 Rafale Jets Not Enough for IAF
The IAF has consistently insisted that it needs the Rafale aircrafts to shore up its dwindling squadron numbers. It has projected a need for 42 fighter aircraft squadrons to be ready to fight a two-front war. That threat perception stems from a defence ministry directive. The Rafale with its India-specific enhancements, maneuverability, ability to super-cruise (fly at supersonic speed without using afterburners), and take on large weapons, outclasses most combat aircrafts that the IAF would have to face in the subcontinent.
The biggest mystery is how the government decided to go ahead with the procurement of 36 Rafale jets and not more, given the much larger requirement of the IAF.
The figure of 126 aircrafts was arrived at after much analysis to replace older generation Russian jets that were set to retire. The most significant downside of the arrangement made by Prime Minister Modi was its preclusion of any option for a follow-on procurement of any additional Rafales by India at the same price agreed to in principle – the contract the two countries signed on 23 September 2015 included no provision for any purchases beyond the 36 aircrafts already agreed to, meaning that any desired subsequent buy would have to be renegotiated at a new price.
While capability can’t be measured in numbers on a technology-intensive platform like the Rafale, 36 jets will not fulfil the IAF’s requirement.
A Potential Short-Term Alternative
After setting aside some plans for maintenance and availability of parts and training requirements, only a few aircrafts will be available operationally. Additionally, given the poor serviceability which plagues the Su-30MKI and the disappointing delivery schedule of the indigenously-built Tejas, the struggle with a significant number of obsolete second and third generation aircrafts like the MIG-21 and 27, it seems intuitive that India needs to consider a broader range of options beyond the acquisition of just 36 Rafales.
The further acquisition of a single type of combat aircraft would have potentially reduced the number of aircraft types and improved affordability by reducing cost of acquisition, operating, integration, and training costs.
Unfortunately, the current political climate rules out this possibility for the IAF, which was fairly confident of a follow-on order. The IAF’s originally declared requirement for 126 to 200 new fighters remains exactly the same now as it was at the start, when the MMRCA requirement was first enunciated over a decade ago.
One potential short-term alternative is to acquire an additional mix of up-to-date Su-30 MKI and a second batch of Rafales, while accelerating the development of the indigenous Tejas with requisite enablers like air-to-air refuelers (AARs) and AEW&Cs.
The IAF should also prioritise updating existing fourth generation fighters with high-speed standoff weaponry and electronic warfare capabilities, all of which will be key to survivability and expanding capabilities vis-à-vis threats from Chinese combat aircraft and air defence systems.
A Troubled Procurement History for IAF
Whatever course of action the IAF and the Indian government may ultimately choose to take in this regard, the stakes have become unprecedentedly high at a time when the IAF sorely needs such a continued recapitalisation effort to get its fighter squadron strength back up to a more reassuring level.
While the Rafale is in the process of scripting a troubled procurement history, this should not obscure the fact that the IAF will soon possess one of the world’s finest multi-role strike, air-superiority, and reconnaissance aircrafts.
The Rafale will fill a crucial gap left by diminishing combat-mass and ageing legacy fleets, and the late arrival of next-generation aircrafts.
(Pushan Das is an Associate Fellow & Programme Coordinator working for the ORF Global Governance Programme. He tracks and analyses developments in Indian foreign and security policies. He is currently working on issues related to Indian military modernisation. He tweets at @Pushan3012. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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