Even as India mulls over what fighter aircraft to invest in following Prime Minister Modi’s purchase of 36 French Rafale jets in January, a U.S. expert on India’s air capabilities has said that the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) “falling end strength and problematic force structure, combined with its troubled acquisition and development programs, threaten India’s air superiority over its rapidly modernising rivals, China and Pakistan.”
In a report to be unveiled on March 28, Ashley Tellis, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace specialising in international security, defence, and Asian strategic issues said that air dominance was vital for India if it were to have deterrence stability in southern Asia and for preserving the strategic balance in the wider Indo-Pacific region.
>Mr. Tellis’ report, “Troubles, they come in Battalions: The Manifest Travails of the Indian Air Force,” is a sharp analysis of the current state of the IAF’s preparedness to face down threats from potentially troublesome neighbours and it finds the country’s aerial fighting force to be inadequate on a number of parameters.
For example, the report notes that as of early 2016, the IAF was weaker than the numbers suggested, and “At nominally 36.5 squadrons, it is well short of its sanctioned strength, and many of its frontline aircraft are obsolete.”
On the other hand China and Pakistan have apparently fielded close to 750 advanced air defence or multirole fighters against the IAF’s 450-odd equivalents, and by 2025, China may well be in a position to deploy anywhere between 300 and 400 sophisticated air craft against India, in addition to likely 100 to 200 advanced fighters by Pakistan.
With India facing this regional threat matrix Mr. Tellis argues that the IAF’s desire for 42–45 squadrons by 2027, which is the equivalent of around 750-800 aircraft, was “compelling,” yet the likelihood of reaching this goal was “poor.”
The main barriers to embarking on a successful acquisition and modernisation drive, according to the Carnegie report is the fact that the IAF is “stymied by serious constraints on India’s defence budget, the impediments imposed by the acquisition process, the meagre achievements of the country’s domestic development organisations, the weaknesses of the higher defence management system, and India’s inability to reconcile the need for self-sufficiency in defence production with the necessity of maintaining technological superiority over rivals.”
Earlier this month The Hindu noted ( >Embracing America’s war machines ) that a rare offer to produce F-16 fighters on Indian soil may be forthcoming from the aircraft’s producer, Lockheed Martin, and that there were several risks but many advantages to considering this option as the IAF presses on with its expansion.
If the IAF chose to avoid this approach it may have to continue relying on the Sukhoi and MiG platforms and the expected incoming 36 Rafale aircraft, and then cover any shortfall in capability with the indigenous Tejas.
While this approach may make sense from a cost perspective in that India could save money for a theoretical future purchase of the F-35 instead, a stealth-capable, fifth generation fighter, it may also slow India’s progress in building up its force posture in the manner envisioned by the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender, under which another 90 advanced fighters are still required.
In the context of the Tejas, the Su-30MKI acquisitions and the PAK-FA co-development programmes, however, the Carnegie report is clear in identifying technical shortcomings, and it notes that “All three tiers of the IAF are currently in trouble.”
Specifically the Tejas Mark 1 was handicapped by significant technological deficiencies; the prospects for expanding the MMRCA component to compensate for the Tejas’s shortcomings are unclear; and the IAF’s reluctance to proceed fully with the PAK-FA program could undermine its fifth generation fighter ambitions, the report argues.
Regarding recommendations for the IAF the report urges that it be “cautious about expanding the Tejas acquisition beyond six squadrons and consider enlarging the MMRCA component with the cheapest fourth-generation-plus Western fighter available;” and India should also seek to expand its investments in advanced munitions, combat support aircraft, electronic warfare, physical infrastructure, and pilot proficiency “while being realistic about its domestic capacity to produce sophisticated combat aircraft.”