India’s fighter jet conundrum

The Indian Air Force is trying to keep up its strength of fighter squadrons as its fleet struggles with the gradual phase-out of existing jets as well as delays in the order and procurement of new jets. It is also placing much hope in indigenously manufactured aircraft 

April 20, 2023 11:13 pm | Updated April 21, 2023 04:00 pm IST

Indian Air Force Light Combat Aircraft Tejas getting ready for take off in Bengaluru in 2021.     

Indian Air Force Light Combat Aircraft Tejas getting ready for take off in Bengaluru in 2021.     | Photo Credit: Murali Kumar K

Against the sanctioned strength of 42 fighter squadrons, we are today at 31 squadrons which won’t go up in the next decade, but on the contrary can go further down by 2029, an Indian Air Force (IAF) representative informed the Parliamentary standing committee on defence as per a report tabled in Parliament last month. This sums up the conundrum faced by one of the world’s largest Air Forces in modernising its fleet which has been beset with unending delays in procurement.

“As far as going from 31 to 42 squadrons, I will not be able to say by when it can be accomplished”, the representative added noting that they have been trying for the past many years to move forward, but there are certain procedures that have to be followed. If what has been ordered is delivered, and the case for 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) has progressed, then by 2030 we can be between 29 to 31 squadrons, the IAF rep said assuring that it will not go below that. The bulk of the heft to arrest the drawdown and ensure it doesn’t fall below 29 squadrons rests on the 83 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA)— MK1A, LCA-MK2 and MRFA. The decision on MRFA is essential to arrest this drawdown, the House Panel was informed.

Phase-outs and orders

It must be noted that of the 31 squadrons at present, the three Mig-21 squadrons will be phased by 2025. Also, the Jaguars, Mirage-2000s and Mig-29s will begin going out by the end of the decade. For instance, by 2027-28 the first of the MIG-29s, inducted in the late 1980s, will start going out and by early 2040s, when most of these types will be phased out, some of the earlier batch of SU-30s will also start going out.

The IAF has in total contracted 272 SU-30s. A deal to procure 12 additional SU-30MKIs to replace the ones lost in accidents as well 21 additional MIG-29s from Russia has been stuck, though both IAF and Russian officials state that it has only been delayed but is on track.

India has an ambitious plan lined up for the acquisition of over 500 fighter jets, a bulk of them to be indigenously designed and manufactured, with a majority of them being for the IAF. However, these are at various stages of development. Their manufacturing and timely deliveries are critical.

Speaking at an event in October 2022, IAF Chief Air Chief Marshal V. R. Chaudhari conceded that even with the LCA-Mk1A, LCA-Mk2 and the MRFA “we will still be at 35-36 (squadrons) by middle of next decade.”

Apart from the new inductions planned, the IAF is confident that increasing the low availability rates of Su-30 and other fighters in service will offset some of the shortfall in the interim. However, that could be potentially impacted due to the Ukraine war, which has already affected payments to Russia for deals underway as well as delays and uncertainty in timely supply of spares for equipment in service.

Indigenous fighter ecosystem

The LCA which is the fulcrum of the indigenous jet development programme, originally intended as a Mig-21 replacement, has seen a series of delays and has now come back on track. The LCA achieved Initial Operation Clearance (IOC) in December 2013 and Final Operational Clearance (FOC) in February 2019. The IAF had earlier signed two contracts with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), for 20 IOC configuration aircraft including four IOC trainers on March 31, 2006 and for 20 FOC configuration jets along with four trainers on December 23, 2010. On this, the IAF representative noted that they were supposed to get the 40 LCA from HAL much earlier but they are getting them now. Even now, we are two aircraft short of 40, the representative noted.

Two decades since the first flight, in February 2020, the Defence Ministry signed a ₹48,000 crore deal with HAL for 83 LCA-MK1A. The HAL officials said the project is on track to begin deliveries from February 2024. HAL will be delivering the first three aircraft in 2024 and 16 aircraft per year for the subsequent five years, the Defence Ministry has said. Last month, HAL inaugurated the third LCA assembly line, with the need now being to ramp up production rate.

In addition to the LCA-MK1A, an even more capable and a larger LCA-MK2, which received sanction from the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in September 2022 at a total cost of ₹9000 crore, is expected to be ready for production by 2027. Moreover, the fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is awaiting CCS sanction, the development of which would take 10 years after that, according to Dr. Girish S. Deodhare, Director General of Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA). The project cost of AMCA is estimated to be around ₹15,000 crore.

The LCA-MK2 will be similar to the Mirage-2000 in terms of capability and will be an important fillip as several jets currently in service begin going out. There is also a Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) on the drawing board for the Navy’s aircraft carriers. Dr. Deodhare had said that they are looking at six squadrons of LCA-Mk2, seven squadrons of AMCA and upto 100 TEDBF. At Aero India, HAL officials said that they expect an additional order for upto 50 LCA-Mk1A. A squadron typically has 18 aircraft. The TEDBF is expected to take first flight by 2026 and be ready for production by 2031. Speaking on the sidelines of Aero India, Navy Chief Adm R. Hari Kumar said that they may get upto 45 TEDBF by 2040. For the Navy, a decision for 26 carrier based fighters is expected shortly, a contest between Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet and the Dassault Aviation Rafale-M.

The other critical programme, the MRFA, is a reincarnation of the earlier Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) contest for 126 jets. The MMRCA began when the Request for Information (RFI) was issued in 2007 and dragged on for a decade only to end up in knots and give way to the emergency procurement of 36 Rafale jets, earlier shortlisted under the MMRCA, under a €7.87 billion deal with France. The RFI for 114 MRFA was issued in April 2019 to global aircraft manufacturers but there has been no progress and the project is yet to receive the Acceptance of Necessity (AoN), the starting point of the procurement process. Given the huge budgetary outlays committed for the indigenous programmes, it has to be seen how the finances for the MRFA, which involves the manufacturer to set up plant in India, would be managed.

Evolution of the LCA

While the LCA project did see long delays, it has also evolved in tune with the changing technological requirements. It was conceived in the 90s’, but what the IAF is flying today is very different from what was actually conceived at that point of time. According to the IAF, what was envisioned in the beginning and what we are flying today are two different architectures. “The one we are flying today is called federated architecture. If I can use the word, it is, plug and fly. You can integrate any new weapon or any new system much easily now”, the IAF rep said. Further, the House panel was informed that as far as avionics, airframe and other parts are concerned, we are very close to where the world is, except for some technologies like actuators, which are undergoing flight testing at the moment, according to the IAF. Also, critical technologies like flyby wire are not shared by anyone and were developed indigenously over time.

Stressing on indigenisation, the Air Force submitted before the standing committee, “If we keep buying them from the open market in the world, we will never become self-reliant. So, we need to give a push to our own industry also. We need to hold their hands and Air Force is committed towards that.”

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