IAF chief defends Rafale, but looks towards Tejas for the long term

With controversy swirling around the purchase of 36 Rafale fighters from France, the Indian Air Force (IAF) boss, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa underlined on Wednesday the “two front threat” from China and Pakistan to argue that the Rafale is urgently needed.

“Pakistan has over 20 fighter squadrons, with upgraded F-16s and [it is] inducting JF-17s from China in large numbers. China has 1,700 fighters, including 800 fourth generation fighters. But we do not have the numbers, with fighter squadrons down to 31 from sanctioned 42,” said Dhanoa, addressing a seminar in New Delhi.

In this, Dhanoa was ironically on the same side as the opposition. Its main criticism of the government is that it purchased just 36 Rafale fighters (two squadrons), while cancelling an on-going tender for 126 fighters (six squadrons) that would have made up IAF squadron deficiencies to a greater degree.

Dhanoa sought to explain the cancellation of the 126 Rafale deal by stating that the plan to build 108 of them in India had “reached an impasse due to irresolvable differences between Dassault Aviation and HAL.”

The basis for Dhanoa’s contention remains unclear, given that on March 25, 2015, just 17 days before Modi announced the new deal in Paris, Dassault chief executive officer, Eric Trappier, told the press in Delhi that there was agreement with HAL on sharing responsibilities. Trappier said: “I strongly believe that contract finalisation and signature would come very soon.”

The IAF presentation on Wednesday defended the price paid for the Rafale, stating that it included: “Most modern sensors, best in class weapons, state of art EW (electronic warfare) and enhanced survivability, India specific enhancements, better price terms, better overall delivery terms and timeline, better maintenance terms, longer industrial support commitment, additional warranty and longer PBL (performance based logistics) commitment.”

Stating that the government had on several earlier occasions undertaken “emergency purchase” of fighters, he cited the purchase of two MiG-23MF squadrons in 1983 to counter Pakistan’s new F-16s, two squadrons of Mirage 2000s in 1985 and then two squadrons of MiG-29s.

On Tuesday, the opposition had sharply condemned what it sees as the government’s use of servicing officers to defend the Rafale deal. “Totally exposed, the Government is now shooting from the shoulders of the brave men and women in uniform,” stated a joint press statement by Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Prashant Bhushan.

Buying 12 more Tejas squadrons

For the first time, the IAF indicated that retiring MiG-21 and MiG-27 squadrons would be replaced by the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), not by medium multi-role combat fighters (MMRCAs) like the Rafale.

Dhanoa said he was looking at inducting 12 squadrons of the Tejas Mark II fighter, in addition to two Tejas Mark I squadrons and four squadrons of an improved version, the Tejas Mark I-A, which are already being processed.

That would add up to 18 squadrons of Tejas fighters of all types, making it the IAF’s most numerous aircraft, even more than the 13 squadrons of Sukhoi-30MKI fighters. 

The first Tejas squadron, called the “Flying Daggers”, is already being populated with Mark I fighters as they roll off HAL’s production line – albeit far more slowly than planned.

The Tejas Mark I-A is currently under development with five specified improvements over the Mark I. These include an“active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, an air-to-air missile with “beyond visual range” (BVR) capability, a “self-protection jammer”, air-to-air refuelling capability, and a sophisticated “software defined radio” (SDR). The defence ministry has initiated an order for 83 Mark 1-A fighters.

The Tejas Mark II is planned as a far more capable fighter, with its current General Electric (GE) F-404 engine being replaced by a more powerful GE F-414 engine, and a new generation of avionics developed in India. It will also feature a new-generation data-link – which could be the NATO standard Link 16, which India is now eligible to buy after signing the COMCASA communications security agreement with the US.

Dhanoa made it clear that implementing these capability improvements were a pre-condition for more IAF orders for the Tejas.

The IAF has also initiated the procurement of another 114 medium fighters from the global market, a tender in which the F-16, F/A-18, MiG-35, Rafale, Gripen E and Eurofighter Typhoon are competing. The bulk of those fighters are to be built in India under the Strategic Partner model.