Despite modernization drive, Indian Air Force faces humiliation



The Indian Air Force risks a major capability gap opening up with China and Pakistan without new Western warplanes or if local defense contractors cannot produce what the military needs in a timely manner.

A 2012 agreement to buy 126 Rafale fighters from France’s Dassault Aviation has stalled due to a dispute over the assembly of the aircraft in India.

India’s first homegrown fighter, the Tejas light combat aircraft, will finally be delivered next month, 30 years after it was conceived. But senior air force officers privately said they were unimpressed, with one former officer, an ex-fighter pilot, saying the plane was “so late it is obsolete.”

While the navy is undergoing an accelerated modernization drive, experts said India is vulnerable in the skies because of its reliance on a disparate fleet of aging Russian-made MiG and French Mirage fighters, along with more modern Russian Sukhoi Su-30s. Half of India’s fighters are due to retire beginning this year until 2024.

“It could lead to humiliation at the hands of our neighbors,” A.K. Sachdev, a retired air force officer, wrote last year in the Indian Defence Review journal.

A coordinated attack by China and archrival Pakistan could stretch the Indian military, he added. It’s a scenario defense strategists in New Delhi have been asked to plan for, Indian Air Force sources say, although experts say such an event is highly unlikely to happen.

India’s ties with China are still hamstrung by a dispute over their Himalayan border that led to war in 1962. New Delhi is also wary of China’s expanding naval presence in the Indian Ocean and its close relations with Pakistan.

The Indian Air Force has 34 operational squadrons, down from 39 earlier this decade and below the government approved strength of 42, a parliamentary committee said in December.

More than half of India’s MiGs have crashed in recent decades, the country’s defense minister said in 2012.

At the same time, China is flying locally built fourth-generation J-10 fighters and is testing two fifth-generation stealth fighter jets.

Pakistan is upgrading its Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters as well as using JF-17 warplanes developed with China. It is also in talks to buy J-10s, according to Pakistani and Chinese industry sources.

India would still win a war against Pakistan because of the sheer size of its air force, but the slow modernization means any victory would come with heavy casualties, said Richard Aboulafia, the Washington, D.C.-based vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, an aerospace and defense think tank.

To keep up, India is buying more Su-30s and upgrading other existing fighters.

“We do need to increase our defense preparedness,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Wednesday’s opening ceremony of the Aero India air show in Bangalore, in southern Karnataka state.

Criticism of the Tejas is unfounded, said K. Tamilmani, a senior official at the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO), a Defense Ministry agency which designed and developed the plane.

“The Tejas has a safety record that is unbeaten,” Tamilmani said by telephone, adding it will provide a platform to develop more advanced fighters in the years ahead.

The Rafale fighters are expected to replace some of India’s MiGs and Mirage jets.

But India is insisting Dassault take full responsibility for production of the aircraft at a state-run facility in Bangalore, Defense Ministry officials have said.

France has said it will help Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. stick to delivery schedules, but that it cannot give guarantees for production of the aircraft made at a facility over which it has no administrative or expert control.

India will decide on the fate of the deal only after March, when a Defense Ministry committee delivers a report on the issue, Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar said at the air show.

Any cancellation will be “disastrous,” said Deba Mohanty, chairman at Indicia Research & Advisory, a New Delhi-based defense consulting firm.

“It’s a really tricky situation in which the supplier is unhappy, the bureaucrats are unhappy and the end user is disappointed,” said Mohanty.

India has successfully introduced Boeing’s C-17 cargo plane and P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft and Lockheed Martin’s C-130J transport, all bought directly, over the last few years.

That shows off-the shelf solutions work best, experts said.

However, under the Modi administration’s “Make in India” program, there is an emphasis on building a domestic defense industrial base to cut dependence on foreign supplies that have made India the world’s biggest arms importer.

The DRDO, for example, is working on the Tejas Mark II, a slightly larger plane than the original, which will feature more powerful engines, better radars and upgraded avionics.

Local trainer jets, light transport aircraft and helicopter programs are also underway.

“People who fly planes want the best value for money, which means off-the-shelf,” said Aboulafia. “People who want jobs and technology development schemes have different priorities. That’s why the two groups don’t like each other much.”

  • Shrike

    Dear writer,

    Please think twice before writing such poppycock.

    May be your agenda is to push Rafale deal through.

    LCA is quite capable and its devp timeline is comparable to Rafale and Eurofighter.

    The NLCA has bettered it angle of attack and other critical parameters.

    The FOC version is quite close to the design specs.

    Only AI is complaining, Navy has whole heartedly embraced the beast.

    Also, Top AI flight testers have given positive reviews as per reports from Livefist and other dominant Indian Defense sites.

    Stop this lifafa journalism.

    Seems journos are the most corrupt lot after politicians

    • Dinesh Dutta

      LCA Tejas speed to low compared to other foreign fighters like Euro-Typhoon or Rafale buddy.

      • jigsaww

        no. tejas is better than star trek. why be a humble clown?

      • Shrike

        Height of stupidity.
        What can I say.

      • Shrike

        At 1 Lakh crore not counting the maintenance. Do you feel Rafale will be our saviour?
        Rafale is an unproven aircraft, None of he countries other than France operate it. Only time it was deployed was in Libya.
        Moreover France is an unreliable supplier. Take the case of Mistral ship which is built by France for Russia. The ship uses a Russian manufactured hull and Russia paid over 2 billion dollars for the delivery. The order has been cancelled due the sanctions on Russia by European union.
        We don’t want screwdriver TOT. And none of the countries including Russia is going to share the Turbofan jet engine technology. India has to develop it itself like China.
        LCA is shaping up as an excellent single engined fighter.The AF version has got FOC and Naval version has been tested successfully.

        As for speed, it uses GE F404 do you can guess and the LCA MK2 version will be using the more powerful F414.
        India has to learn it the hardway like cryogenic tech. There are no shortcuts.
        1 Lakh crore rupees if allocated to indigenous programs with the involvement of private companies will go an long way in helping India rather than off the shelf screwdriver assy products.
        Also, the devp timelines for Eurofighter, Rafale and Gripen is comparable to LCa Tejas (check online)

  • Maha Bharat (Greater India)

    This country has been managed by @$$h0les all d while thats why d armed forces management is in sorry state. This country is taking for granted despite powerful war mongering neighbors rattling their sabers. Will see where tis leads to.