Arresting dwindling combat strength of the IAF will be a priority for Sitharaman. Each category of the aircraft has specific roles and only a naïve would suggest replacement of one category with another
By Pravin Sawhney
Arresting the dwindling combat squadron strength of the Indian Air Force (IAF) will be a priority of the new Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. This will not be easy since it would involve correcting a politically expedient decision; and, restoring the minimum possible mix of heavy, medium and light weight multi-role combat aircraft categories. To be fair to the Air Force, each category aircraft has specific roles and missions, and only the naïve would suggest replacement of one category with another.
The IAF wants 42 fighter squadrons (each with 18 plus two attrition aircraft) to be able to maintain a dissuasive posture on one front when the other is active. At present, it claims to have 33 squadrons, including the obsolete MiG-21, MiG-23 and MiG-27.
Adding to operational problems are (a) India’s lack of credible defence industry to provide timely logistics support, especially of spares and ammunition; and (b) the fact that both quality and quantity of aircraft in a desired mix would be necessary. Given this, the tender for 126 medium-weight aircraft (seven squadrons) was floated by India in 2007, where, after an excruciatingly long technical evaluation, twin-engine Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon were shortlisted in April 2011.
The IAF wanted twin-engine aircraft for three reasons: One, since these aircraft would be required to go on the offensive deep inside Tibet Autonomous Region, single-engine aircraft would be extremely vulnerable; two, given that civilian habitation has come around most Air Force stations, chances of bird and kite hits during peacetime training have increased impacting on the survivability of aircraft; and three, twin-engine is preferred for overall aircraft safety.
Since the politically-heavyweight AK Antony was not known to take timely decisions, it was left to the Narendra Modi Government to close the deal on Rafale. In the operationally bizarre decision, days before Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to visit France in April 2015, the Air headquarters was handed the fait accompli:
India would buy only 36 (two squadrons) Rafales. This added to the IAF’s woes. On the one hand, given the small numbers, it would be unviable to build maintenance and repair facilities in India. Sending aircraft to France would be costly and operationally risky since the service would have to fight with assets in hand at short notice. On the other hand, two squadrons would be dangerously inadequate for desired multi-roles and missions. According to sources at the Air headquarters, ‘the critical operational necessity is minimum five squadrons (90 Rafale aircraft) and ideally six squadrons (108 with no attrition aircraft)’. For this reason, Dassault Aviation chief executive officer, Éric Trappier, is now in talks with the Indian Defence Ministry for purchase of additional twin-engine Rafale aircraft.
In the light weight multi-role category with single-engine aircraft, the choice is between the US’ F-16 Block 70 and Sweden’s Gripen-E. The Defence Ministry is expected to issue the request for proposal for this category soon so that technical evaluations can begin. Simultaneously, as the IAF does its job, the Ministry could deal with the commercial and procurement policy (guidelines for strategic partnership) aspects. To be sure, time is of essence.
While sources at Air headquarters refused to share aircraft preference with this writer, they were willing to compare the two contenders. According to them, F-16 Block 70 is fourth generation proven aircraft which will be easy to evaluate and will cost up to 20 per cent less than its contender. And, with production line in India, they would be able to deliver up to 14 aircraft a year. Gripen-E, on the other hand claimed as fourth generation plus platform is an integrated aircraft which is still evolving.
Since all F-16 technologies are totally owned by the US, one source could decide expeditiously on what technologies can and cannot be given to India. Given that India is named as a major defence partner, and the US, under the Defence Trade and Technology initiative, is pushing for joint research, development and production, especially in engine technology, the possibility of technology sharing by the US is high.
Technology sharing is of three types: Transfer of know-how or assembling of kits; transfer of source-codes; and of object-codes. The source and object codes are akin to ‘before’ and ‘after’ versions of a computer programme. While source codes are the core which gives out the creation of a technology, the object codes give out the sequencing of the programme which would help in re-programming a computer to specific needs. To be sure, no nation will give away the source codes. However, bargain could be made for object codes with the US, which, in itself, would be a leap in technology for the Indian industry, especially for the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mark-1A and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
In case of Saab Group, the owner company of Gripen, technology sharing is a fuzzy area since it does not own nearly 30 per cent of the aircraft technology. It is powered by the United States’ GE-414 engine and uses the electronically scanned Selex Raven-05 radar (Leonardo Aerospace, erstwhile Finmeccanica).
While Saab claims that it has developed the Gallium Nitride Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar (incidentally, the US too has developed Gallium Nitride AESA, which is more effective than the present one. There are two issues here.
One, it has made sharing of Gallium Nitride radar technology conditional on India selecting the Gripen-E. Saab officials, who are upfront in saying that Sweden is a small country which needs India to sustain its growth, wants to be a part of LCA Mark-1A and AMCA. “It is all about business”, is what Saab India head, Jan Widerström said to the writer. And two, Widerström conceded that it would be ‘if and but’ regarding transfer of US technology used in Gripen since it would be guided by the US export regulations. What he did not say is that it would be a political decision.
On the viability of the F-16 airframe being four decades old, while it does not affect the manoeuvrability of the aircraft, the question is whether the airframe can sustain the structural developments. Following the US Air Force authorised F-16 Service Life Extension Programme structural modifications, the service life of the aircraft has been increased to 12,000 equivalent flight hours, far beyond the aircraft’s original design service life of 8,000 hours. The US Air Force can now safely operate even Block 40-52 aircraft to 2048 and beyond. Moreover, there is strong possibility of US sharing spin-off technologies of F-35 aircraft with India.
And, not to forget the political heft that F-16 will bring with it. Given this, the choice before India is between a partner nation which will be dependent on it; or the partner country, which, despite lows and highs, will remain a strategic partner in Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region.
The writer is editor, FORCE newsmagazine.