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CASTLES IN THE AIR

One feels morally constrained and convinced, to counter the rising “anti”-MiG-21 public opinion seeking the grounding and speedy replacement of the old warhorses of the Indian air force. Understandably, the loss of any type of combat aircraft in peacetime should ring alarm bells for defence planners and operators alike. Nevertheless, the bigger challenge today is to give constructive suggestions rather than merely criticizing. Assuming, without conceding, that the MiG-21 of the IAF fleet is obsolete, archaic and accident-prone, a substitute aircraft needs to be thought of too. But what about the repercussions of this for the defence preparedness of the nation'

To understand the problem and take remedial action, let us look at some facts furnished by the Military Balance 2002-2003 of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London. The IAF consists of “30 Fighter ground attack and nine Fighter squadrons”. A total of 39 squadrons, therefore, consisting of 665 frontline combat aircraft. It further reveals that 33 out of 39 squadrons are aircraft of Russian origin — the MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-25, MiG-27 and Sukhoi-30 and only six squadrons of Jaguar (four) and Mirage 2000 (two) are of non-Russian variety.

Since the public opinion in India is usually based more on feelings and less on facts and figures, let it now be known (from published figures, of course) that 19 out of 39 IAF squadrons consist of MiG-21 aircraft, making it 48.71 per cent of the total squadron strength. Numerically too, the number of MiG-21 aircraft in the IAF inventory stands at 186 out of a total of 665, thereby constituting 27.9 per cent of the total strength.

Surely one can now ask the leaders and pleaders of “Down with the MiG” slogan, what happens (to a country) if 48.71 per cent of its operational squadrons are grounded and the fliers attached to them disbanded overnight' What happens to the morale of a force of 145,000 uniformed men to find that 27.9 per cent of their frontline flying machines are not allowed to operate owing to non-military pulls and pressure exercised by arm-chair generals, aviation experts and strategists' Is the “non-combatant expert” of Indian defence really concerned about the solution to the IAF’s woes' Clearly, the prospect of grounding 186 frontline fighters in one stroke would imply searching for a suitable replacement for the Indian MiG-21 from the world aviation market.

What then is the market' Who are the manufacturers' What about the “price” tag' What happens to “political clearance”' And the “technology transfer” or the after-sales service and logistics' What are the available options for the government of India'

For a country of India’s size, population and brain-power, the best option perhaps would have been self-sufficiency in indigenous fighter production. However, that is unlikely to be achieved in the near future owing to the delay in the completion of the light combat aircraft project. Hence the “LCA for MiG-21” proposal is not operationally feasible yet.

What next — Asia, Europe or America in terms of acquisition of new fighter aircraft' The choice surely exists, but quick decision and acquisition may either be difficult or aborted by the “dynamics of arms bazaar”. Three Asian manufacturers exist in the fighter market. First, the People’s Republic of China, with its sprawling military aviation manufacturing facility. But China has strong export links and shares technical knowhow with Pakistan, the arch enemy of India. Given this history, a Sino-Indian aerial combat collaboration will perhaps remain a utopic idea.

Among the two other Asian aircraft, South Korea’s A-50 (advanced jet trainer-cum-light attack aircraft) is yet to be fully developed, and Japan’s F-2 (attack) fighter, manufactured by Mitsubishi, costs Rs 475 crore (or $ 99 million) per unit which makes it an absurd financial proposition for India.

From Europe’s arms bazaar, the most sophisticated and multi-purpose fighter is the Eurofighter (or Typhoon), jointly manufactured by the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Spain. With one basic unit of Eurofighter costing close to Rs 200 crore, this too appears beyond the reach of the IAF.

France has traditionally been a reliable aviation partner of India for the last 50 years. From the Ouragons and Mysteres in the Fifties and the Sixties to Mirage-2000s in the Eighties, along with the AMX-13 main battle tanks, the French have managed to maintain a steady, though not spectacular, flow of defence hardware to the IAF. However, the French have always matched their “performance technology” with a suitable price tag. Thus the state-of-the-art Rafale multi-role fighter of French make today costs close to 300 million franc per aircraft. Although the IAF today flies two squadrons of Mirage-2000, the prospect of possessing a unit of French Rafale in future looks like a financial mirage.

About 30 years ago, Sweden’s SAAB Aerospace was one of the bidders for its multirole fighter for the IAF. Sweden still produces, uses and exports its JAS 39 Gripen. But the Bofors scandal of the Eighties appears to have put a temporary brake on a direct Indo-Swedish defence relation. However, Jane’s International Defence Review of March 2003 makes an interesting revelation — “Gripen International, the jointly owned venture by BAE Systems and SAAB for international sales of the Swedish JAS 39 Gripen fighter, is targeting India, Slovakia, Switzerland and Thailand…as the next batch of potential Gripen customers…India would have by far the biggest requirement, for no fewer than 126 multirole fighter aircraft to complement the Sukhoi-30 programme. A request for information is expected to be issued by the IAF this year to Gripen International as well as to French and Russian contenders”.

That leaves the aircraft market to the two Cold War rivals, the United States of America and Russia. Without doubt the US manufactures some amazing combat aircraft. However, it is also true that the US has never treated India as a potential customer in its combat aircraft market. India could use the US built DC-3 (Dakota) or C-119 Fairchild Packet, Lockheed Super Constellation or Boeing 707 and 737 for non-combat missions, but India could not be given the F-4 and F-86, F-14 or F-18, F-15 or F-16, F-104 or F-5. Even in future, the possibility of the IAF using Lockheed Martin twin-engine air superiority fighter, F-22 Raptor or the single engine multirole fighter F-35 (also known as a joint-strike fighter), looks remote, both politically and financially. Politically, India continues to be “too hot and independent” to handle, and financially, any bid for an F-22 or F-35 is sure to result in a huge outflow of hard-earned foreign exchange besides causing political turmoil.

This narrows down the market to only aircraft of Russian make for India. In fact, for close to 50 years, Russia has faithfully and sincerely served the IAF. Comparatively cheaper Russian machines may have had their deficiencies in certain sectors, but their usefulness in combat crises has been unquestionable and unmatched both in performance and price. But the people of India, as well as its political leaders, should realize that it is neither possible nor desirable to ground 186 frontline aircraft in one go and replace them in a flash with improved ones. Also, the availability of an aircraft in the market does not necessarily mean an automatic acquisition of it.

In the ruthless arms bazaar of today, the best possible way to serve one’s defence is through steady indigenization. And that is not an overnight job. Developing a self-sufficient national defence in the air is a long, arduous and treacherous flight. But only in working patiently and steadily lies the road to an effective and successful defence.

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