New Delhi, Oct. 4: The head of the Indian Air Force, Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne, has warned that the fighter aircraft fleet could drop to “critical levels” unless the government sanctioned pending acquisitions.
The most important of the proposed acquisitions is the French-origin Rafale fighter aircraft, selected by the IAF for the requirement of a medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA).
The proposed contract to acquire 126 of the aircraft was being discussed for the past 19 months but neither the air chief nor the government could give a timeline on whether the acquisition would be possible within the term of the current government that expires in May 2014 — or in another seven months.
The deal could cost as much as $20 billion (Rs 124,000cr), making it the largest military contract of its kind in the world.
“We have an authorised (fighter aircraft) squadron strength of 42. We are currently much less than that number,” Browne said.
Over the next seven to 10 years spread over two plan periods, the IAF’s major effort would be to “maintain our force-level”. It is only from 2022, or about 10 years from now, that the IAF fighter fleet may start increasing.
An unofficial source said the IAF currently had 31 fighter aircraft squadrons. This is not deemed adequate by military planners because of long disputed boundaries with Pakistan and China.
Asked if the IAF had a reserve plan in the event that the MMRCA deal did not come through in the current year, Browne was emphatic.
“We want it settled immediately. There is no back-up plan. We will go astray if we do not stick to one plan. And I think it is highly do-able,” he said.
Currently, talks are on between French manufacturer Dassault Aviation and Indian public sector firm Hindustan Aeronautics (that will have to integrate the aircraft under a transfer of technology pact).
“There is no second option. The government is fully aware of the requirement. But we cannot short-circuit procedure,” he said. Even if the contract were to be signed immediately, the first aircraft would be available only in 2017.
The air chief said there were budgetary constraints for all the armed services but he expected the government to have “catered for” the depreciation of the rupee. He expects tight budgets over the next two years and said it was unlikely that contracts for heavy-lift Chinook and Apache attack helicopters would be signed soon.
In the meanwhile, squadrons of the older fighter aircraft, like the MiG21 type-77, would have to be de-commissioned.
Browne said with the induction of the light combat aircraft Tejas, being developed by HAL and Defence Research and Development Organisation, behind schedule, the IAF would have to “extend the life” of outdated aircraft.
Ironically, the IAF is losing fighter aircraft because of obsolescence faster than it can add newer planes even as it is modernising and re-activating airfields.
Browne said the cabinet had sanctioned Rs 720 crore to upgrade seven advance landing grounds (ALGs) in the Northeast, near the China frontier, after which they could be used for night landings and takeoffs. This would enable faster deployment of troops and munitions in the event of hostilities.
In addition, the IAF is turning an ALG at Nyoma in eastern Ladakh into a full-fledged airbase. The estimated cost of about Rs 2175 crore would be used to extend its runway and erect hangars that could house all kinds of aircraft — fighters, transporters and helicopters.
The Nyoma airfield at 13,300 feet is at a higher altitude than Leh and Thoise but lower than Daulat Beg Oldi near which the Indian and Chinese armies were engaged in a face-off earlier this year.
Browne said squadrons of the IAF’s Sukhoi 30 Mki fighters aircraft were also being based at Tezpur and Chabua in Assam, Halwara (two squadrons) and Sirsa in the north and Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu.
The six new squadrons were expected to be raised in five years. The chief said the plan was to have 13.5 squadrons of the Sukhoi 30 Mki. Each squadron would have about 20 aircraft.