India's move to acquire 114 fifth generation combat jets impressive but leaves IAF vulnerable for years to come

Bikram Vohra
Fact is that this latest call to the world, while impressive, does not address the immediate paucity in the fighter frontline in IAF

The $15 billion deal to pay for 114 fifth generation combat aircraft, for whom tenders have been recently announced and bids are already coming in, is the biggest single military budget on the planet. And with India being the favoured shopper, cash strapped hardware manufacturers are naturally salivating to be counted.

Linking up with big business houses to make feasible the 85 percent indigenous manufacture that is a clause in the contractual obligation may sound impressive. But, if the Rafale deal is anything to go by, it could well be the stickiest part of the selection process. According to global media reports, Boeing is partnering with state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd and Mahindra Defence Systems Ltd for the fighter jet deal, offering its F/A-18. Lockheed will jointly bid with salt-to-software conglomerate Tata Group for its F-21 jets, and Saab will team up with billionaire Gautam Adani to offer its Gripen jets.

There will be many others joining the hunt. But seeing as how Indian military shopping expeditions are historically suspect, just getting the box ticked for the 'local' partner will be a long and arduous exercise for manufacturers, and has every possibility of getting drenched in a scandal. (Well, the cynicism is acquired over time and it goes with the territory.)

Then, we can hardly expect plane makers to produce combat aircraft within 36 months of signing the deal, which includes setting up the tooling and machining, the complex infrastructure plus assembling the materials. It is as impractical as it is impossible.

This is a green aircraft. Then there is the whole process to select missile firepower to augment the aircraft and that is another ball game. After which come extensive tests.

For a nation that never seriously went into aircraft manufacture and took 33 years to get its act together on the Tejas, the current plan is hugely ambitious. Even though Rs 8000 crores were sanctioned for the Tejas project in 2009 only sixteen are in service with 45 Squadron. With an across the board shortfall of 400 aircraft and literally a very weak wing in the air force might, this project may be massively grandiose as an announcement in Parliament but stretching over the next decade does not make for comfortable sleep at night. We are wide open to attack. By the time the first plane comes out, 'obsolete aircraft' in service will not even be a word to describe the fossils creaking into the air€¦ if they can take off at all.

Of course we are vulnerable. We cannot pretend otherwise. Of our two main adversaries China makes the FC-31 or the J-31. This is the second fifth-generation fighter jet that is going to be introduced into the Chinese Air Force after the Chengdu J-20. These are a formidable pair and backed by the ongoing J-17 Thunder project, they provide China with a massive air advantage. In fact J17s could well have been loaned to Pakistan and used in the recent confrontation to down an Indian MiG 21. Pakistan is now making this aircraft at home in a joint venture with China that is up and running and already introducing upgrades as it progresses.

We are so woefully behind that we had to rush to the Russians earlier this year to ask for an 'urgent shipment' of 21 MiG 29s to give us some starch in the spine.

Fact is that this latest call to the world, while impressive, does not address the immediate paucity in the fighter frontline. We need to either find a viable equivalent of the 'wet lease' hiring option used in commercial aviation or fall back on the stand in adequacy of the Su-35s and MiG 29s from Moscow. A temporary hiring is vital and with that must come the required firepower; for a jet is a toy unless it is armed. Merely announcing this high profile intent does not place jets in the sky. With only 36 Rafales en route but not yet in sight the situation is dire.

According to Lockheed the new fighter in the sky must have

€¢ Low-probability-of-intercept-radar, meaning it can avoid radar detection; €¢ High-performance airframes; €¢ Advanced avionics; €¢ Highly integrated computer systems capable of connecting to other systems for situational awareness.

Our current air force is not even in the frame.

Also See: IAF Tejas Light Combat Aircraft drops fuel tank midair near Coimbatore, lands safely at Tamil Nadu's Sulur air base

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