The combat jet dilemma
Interim order for more Su-30MKIs may be best option to augment IAF fleet
Recent reports indicate that the Government of India may have scrapped its proposed plan of producing 114 single-engine combat jets in India in collaboration with a foreign vendor for which F-16 and Saab Gripen were possible contenders. Instead, the MoD (Ministry of Defence) may come out with a new tender for production of jets in India which may not be restricted to just single engine jets but may also include twin-engine platforms.
Selection process: Going in circles?
The moot question, in that case, is that even if the MoD comes out with new RFI in the next few months, how long will it take for IAF to replenish its depleting squadrons with a new fleet of combat jets made here with foreign collaboration? A back of the hand calculation goes like this: Expanding the scope of new RFI to twin-engine crafts would mean that the same combat jets which had earlier participated in the MMRCA project would be participating again. This would invariably include Boeing F-18 Hornet/Super Hornet, Russian Mig-29/35, F-16IN Block 70, and Saab Gripen as also possibly Eurofighter Typhoon. It is unlikely that Dassault would pitch Rafale in this project and instead may be more interested in pursuing separate negotiation with India for a follow-on order.
Incidentally, all these platforms were earlier tested by the IAF as part of MMRCA project from where Dassault Rafale was finally selected and contract negotiation had started with Dassault. Later it was scrapped for an off the shelf deal for 36 Rafale jets packed with considerable India specific customisation and weapon systems. Therefore, doubts remain as to whether IAF would once again test all the platforms and if it does then what additional wisdom IAF would gain out of it. It would nevertheless be highly unlikely that IAF would take anything less than 2-3 years to shortlist a final platform for contract negotiation committee to start negotiations all over again.
From then on, it is beyond the IAF and entirely up to how much time the MoD takes to finalise the contract. Even if that takes another year to the least, even on an optimistic note, then, too, it would take some more time before the final deal is signed by the government. From then, it may take around four years, as is the norm, before the first of the crafts is rolled out from the factory. Thus, even from a conservative point of view, it would take nothing less than 8-10 years before India can expect its medium combat jet replenishment programme to yield results. The question then that must be asked is whether IAF can afford that much delay.
The Options before the Government
Medium combat jets category fall in between the heavy combat jets with deep penetration strike capabilities like Su-30MKI and Dassault Rafale at one end of the spectrum and light combat jets like the LCA Tejas on the other end. Thus, medium combat jets with multirole capabilities including air superiority and medium strike competence, need not be as powerful as Su-30MKI or Rafale but surely better than LCA Tejas. Purely from that perspective an F-16IN Block 70 or Saab Gripen would have served the purpose good enough as a second layer of combat craft behind the Sukhois and Rafales. F-16, in particular, is a battle-tested craft. If the objective of the Government is to promote Make-in -India, both Lockheed Martin and Saab are already committed to it. But, if, instead the Government wants a twin-engine craft to fit into that role, then why not opt for more squadrons of Sukhois or Rafales instead of repeating this time wasting ordeal of a new tendering process which is not expected to yield any additional benefit in any case?
Is more Rafale a possibility?
Going ahead with additional procurement of Rafale is one option but buying another 36 or so may not compensate for the large number of Mig-21s, Mig-27s, Jaguars, and other craft that IAF would have to retire in the next two decades. In a wartime scenario, numbers matter a lot because of expected combat-related attritions. Further, the government may not be willing to risk political controversy by going ahead with another deal with Dassault in quick succession given the needless political heat created by an overzealous opposition on the first deal. With general elections barely a year away, this option can be put on the backburner for the time being even though there are genuine benefits in having more Rafale. Some reports indicate that India may have spent a considerable amount in making India specific customisation of the Rafale fleet ordered for. Thus, follow-on orders may be cheaper and preferable in the long run. Additionally, taking too many different kinds of platforms is always a cumbersome affair for any Air Force to manage. The preference is always for larger fleets of the same type as it leads to developing more efficiency in spares management and training. If Dassault eventually decides to make Rafale in India in lieu of a larger order, then nothing like that. But that too cannot happen soon enough.
Sukhoi option: Viable and time-saving
The other option for India is certainly to have more squadrons of Su-30 MKI. HAL has a state of the art Sukhoi production facility in Nashik which is on the verge of finishing the licensed production of Sukhois that India earlier contracted for from Russia. Considering that the Tejas LCA Mk 2 is still quite a few years away from being on the production line, this production facility can be most prudently used for additional manufacturing of Sukhois. HAL has developed reasonable competence in rolling out Sukhois and given that the production facility is already available coupled with the fact that IAF is now well-equipped to fly and maintain them, from cost and time perspectives, too, it would be far more effective to produce more Sukhois than going in for an altogether new platform. Rarely any twin-engine craft in its category is as effective as Su-30MKI.
Can HAL deliver Tejas Mk 2 on time?
The Government of India, meanwhile, has also reposed its faith in Tejas Mk 2 and expects HAL to roll it out at the earliest as also increase the production rate of Tejas Mk 1. While after much delay and excuses HAL may eventually be raising the production rate of Tejas Mk 1, on the issue of rolling out Mk 2 version, given the track record of HAL, can India expect it to be delivered on time?
Recent reports indicate that the IAF has committed to take 201 Tejas Mk 2 aircraft apart from 123 Tejas Mk 1. In that case, even if the government puts all its might behind Mk 2, is there any guarantee that DRDO and HAL would be able to bring out the prototype by 2022 and get it to production line by 2026? Does the track record inspire such confidence? Even if it does, how many will it be able to deliver annually? And how long before IAF will be fully replenished of its depleting squadrons by Tejas Mk 1 and Mk 2? If IAF is committing for 201 Tejas Mk 2 does that mean that there would be no intermediary acquisition of any other craft to be made with foreign collaboration in India? Or is it that the two would be interlinked?
As of now, there are many unanswered questions and speculations but one thing is for sure that irrespective of whether India goes ahead with a new tender for acquisition of jets in lieu of MMRCA or puts all its might behind Tejas Mk 2 or both happens simultaneously, in all cases IAF would continue to suffer from depleting squadrons for the next one decade, to the least, before the tide starts turning. Given the rising possibility of a two-frontal war, one wonders how the IAF would confront the challenge and what Plan B the Indian Government would have for the interim period.
Time is running out for IAF
While in the long run, Tejas Mk 2 may prove to be a game changer and India's quest for Make-In-India programme of a combat jet with foreign collaboration with transfer of technology, may help in developing the indigenous aerospace capabilities, for the interim period the best way forward for India would be to order an additional 50-70 Su-30 MKI from Russia to be made by HAL in India. It would not only be cost-effective but would also make sure that production can start the moment the green signal is given by Government since the production facility is already there waiting for more orders. Above all, this approach would be least politically controversial and easily acceptable. The other option of choosing between F-16 and Gripen also need a relook since as intermediary medium combat crafts they are better suited than twin-engine heavy combat crafts. The ball is in Government's court. But one thing is for sure: inordinate delays by India in quickly replenishing IAF squadrons will only put India in a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis China and Pakistan.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)