The government has turned down the military’s request to expand the acquisition of 36 fighter planes from Dassault Aviation SA to plug vital gaps, officials said, nudging it to accept an indigenous combat plane 32 years in the making.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision, in line with his Make-in-India policy to encourage domestic industry, is a blow for not only the French manufacturer but also others circling over the Indian military aviation market worth billions of dollars.
The push for India’s struggling Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) also comes at a time when the air force is at its weakest operational strength since the 1962 war against China, which is causing anxiety within military circles.
Since it took over in 2014, the Modi administration has repeatedly said its overriding goal is to cut off the military’s addiction to foreign arms which has made it the world’s top importer.
The air force wanted the government to clear an additional 44 Rafale medium multirole aircraft on top of the 36 that Modi announced during a visit to Paris in 2015 that are to be bought off-the-shelf to meet its urgent requirements.
But a defence ministry official said that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had told the air force that there weren’t enough funds to expand the Rafale acquisition and that it must induct an improved version of the indigenous Tejas-Mark 1A.
“The IAF (air force) needs to have a minimum number of aircraft at all times. The LCA is our best option at this stage, given our resource constraints,” the defence official said.
“The Rafale is our most expensive acquisition. The LCA is our cheapest in the combat category.”
India’s air force says it requires 45 fighter squadrons to counter a “two-front collusive threat” from Pakistan and China. But it only has 35 active fighter squadrons, parliament’s defence committee said in a report in April citing a presentation by a top air force officer.
With the drawdown of Soviet-era MiG 21 planes under way, the air force would be down to 25 squadrons by 2022 at the current pace of acquisitions, it told the committee.
Cleared by the government in 1983, the LCA designed by the government’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) was meant to be the backbone of the air force due for induction in 1994.
Instead, it suffered years of delay and chaos with scientists trying to build the world’s most modern light combat aircraft from scratch, including the engine.
Eventually they scrapped the engine, turning to GE Aviation and lowering their ambitions for a state-of-the-art fighter. So far, only one aircraft has been produced and even that is awaiting final operational clearance, now delayed to early 2016.
“In January this year, they had given one LCA … which had not completed its flight testing. They handed over the papers to us. We do not make a squadron with one aeroplane. That is where we are,” said an air force officer speaking on condition of anonymity.