Indian Air Force faces risk as Pakistan, China modernise: report

Published February 19, 2015
A Rafale fighter jet. — Reuters/File
A Rafale fighter jet. — Reuters/File

BENGALURU: As China and Pakistan modernise air force at a rapid pace, Indian Air Force (IAF) faces risk without new western warplanes or the lack of local defence contractors ability to keep up with military needs in a timely manner, said a report published on IBN Live.

According to experts, due to its reliance on a fleet of ageing Russian-made MiG and French Mirage fighters, India was vulnerable in the skies. Furthermore, half of India's fighters are due to retire in the start of 2015 until 2024.

The Tejas light combat aircraft, which is India's first homegrown fighter, will be finally delivered in March, 30 years after it was conceived. However, senior air force officers privately said they were unimpressed. A former fighter pilot said that the plane was "so late it is obsolete".

"It could lead to humiliation at the hands of our neighbours," AK Sachdev, a retired air force officer, wrote in the Indian Defence Review journal in 2014.

He further added that an attack by China or Pakistan could stretch the Indian military. Defence strategists in New Delhi were asked to plan for this scenario, however experts said it is unlikely to take place.

When it comes to India's ties with China, the relations are still crippled due to a dispute over their Himalayan border which led to war in 1962.

New Delhi is also wary of China's close relations with Pakistan and its increasing naval presence in the Indian Ocean.

Multiple crashes

A paramilitary committee had said in December that IAF's strength has fallen below the government's approved strength of 42. There are 34 operational squadrons, down from 39 earlier this decade. Furthermore, in recent decades more than half of India's MiGs have crashed, the then defence minister said in 2012.

On the other hand, China is flying locally built fourth-generation J-10 fighters and testing two fifth-generation stealth fighter jets.

Meanwhile, Pakistan is upgrading its Lockheed Martin (LMT.N) F-16 fighter planes and also using JF-17 warplanes that were developed with China.

According to Pakistani and Chinese industry sources, Pakistan is also in talks to buy J-10s.

If it comes to war, India would still be victorious over Pakistan due to the sheer size of its air force. However, the slow modernisation means the win would come with heavy casualties, according to Richard Aboulafia, Washington DC-based vice president of analysis at the Teal Group, a defence think tank.

India is buying more Su-30s and upgrading other existing fighters to keep up.

"We do need to increase our defence preparedness," Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the opening ceremony of the Aero India airshow in Bengaluru on Wednesday.

A senior official at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) K. Tamilmani said that criticism of the Tejas was unfounded. DRDO is the defence ministry agency which designed and developed the plane.

"The Tejas has a safety record that is unbeaten," Tamilmani said adding it would provide a platform to develop more advanced fighters in the future.

Impasse over Rafale jets

The Rafale fighters are expected to replace some of India's existing Mirage jets and MiGs. However, defence military officials have said that India insists that Dassault takes full responsibility for production of the air-craft at a state-run facility in Bengaluru.

France has said it will help Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd with delivery schedules, however it cannot give guarantees of air-craft production at a facility that it has no administrative or expert control.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had said at the airshow that India will make a decision on the fate of this deal after March, when a committee of the defence ministry will deliver a report on the issue.

Chairman at Indicia Research and Advisory (a New Delhi-based defence consulting firm) Deba Mohanty said that cancellation would be "disastrous".

"It's a really tricky situation in which the supplier is unhappy, the bureaucrats are unhappy and the end user is disappointed," said Mohanty.

Over the last few years, India successfully introduced Boeing's (BA.N) C-17 and P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine aircraft along with Lockheed Martin's C-130J. Experts said thiss hows off-the-shelf solutions work best.

On the other hand, under Modi's "Make in India" programme, building a domestic defence industrial base is emphasised to reduce dependence on foreign supplies which led to India becoming the world's biggest arms importer.

Also read: Modi vows to end India status as top defence importer

As a result, the DRDO is working on the Tejas Mark II which is slightly larger than the original place and will feature more powerful engines and better radars along with updgraded avionics.

Local train jets, helicopter programmes and light transport aircrafts are also under way.

"People who fly planes want the best value for money, which means off-the-shelf," said Aboulafia. "People who want jobs and technology development schemes have different priorities. That's why the two groups don't like each other much."

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