Old can be gold

The government must take seriously Indian Air Force (IAF) chief BS Dhanoa’s recent lament that the IAF was still flying 44-year-old MiG-21 fighter jets, a vintage far older than the cars people currently drive. With Defence Minister Rajnath Singh listening on, this was an unmistakable indictment of the defence ministry’s tardy procurement system, which compels the IAF to make do with just 29 squadrons of fighter aircraft, against the 42 that defence planners say the country needs. The IAF will have to manage with even fewer squadrons, because the MiG-21 fleet will retire soon, and only a handful of Rafale, Sukhoi-30MKI and Tejas Mark 1 fighters would be inducted in their place. Further, as this newspaper has reported, the IAF has decided against extending the service life of four Jaguar squadrons, which means even more fighters will become due for retirement. The defence ministry has commenced the purchase of six fighter squadrons but, going by past experience, they could take a decade and a half to come. All of this was foreseeable, but has still come to pass.

Notwithstanding the real crisis in fighter numbers, the IAF chief’s complaint does not reveal the full picture, which is that combat aircraft routinely remain in service for many decades. The US Air Force, unarguably the world’s most cutting edge, continues to fly several aircraft that are over half a century old. The B-52 bomber has been in service for more than 60 years, and the KC-135 Stratotanker has been refuelling American fighters for over half a century. The T-38 Talon supersonic trainer has trained close to 60,000 US pilots over the last 50 years.

The IAF should know this, because it is procuring American combat aircraft that have crossed the half-century landmark. The CH-47 Chinook, which began entering IAF service earlier this year, has already flown in combat for 57 years. The US Air Force plans for the Chinook to remain till 2050, by when it will be 90 years old. The C-130 Hercules, which the IAF happily bought, has completed 50 years of service and will continue for another 30 years. The AH-64 Apache, which will enter IAF service next month, is not far from its golden jubilee.

There is a lesson for the IAF in how these “vintage” American aircraft remain at the cutting edge even today, even as Indian MiGs become flying jalopies much earlier. The US military works with the American defence industry in developing its own aircraft, and then incrementally upgrades them, and progressively introduces new technologies that improve combat capability, without obsessing about flying performance. The F-16, which is also close to its half-century age landmark, flies today much like it did in the early 1970s.

However, its current airborne radar, data links, communications and weaponry make it far superior to its initial variant. The IAF too has upgraded its MiG-21s, MiG-27s and MiG-29s, largely with Israeli avionics. However, there are limits to the extent of upgrading a foreign aircraft, whose design parameters and software source codes are not known. The answer is to introduce indigenous aircraft into service early, and continually upgrade them, keeping them combat-worthy for decades. This is the most economical way of structuring an arsenal. The Tejas light combat aircraft would be a good place for the IAF to start.

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