In September 2016 India signed an agreement with France for the procurement of 36 Dassault Rafale at the cost of ₹59,000 Crore. After 36 months of contract signing, Dassault started delivery of the first batch of Rafale fighter aircraft in October 2019.
Since independence, India is dependent upon foreign countries for fighter aircraft. Most of the requirements of IAF were filled by Russian and French jets.
The most recent purchase of fighter aircraft for IAF with an foreign vendor is the procurement of Rafale jets and it seems like Rafale is going to be the last foreign aircraft in IAF inventory.
Nearly 70 years after independence, for the first time it seems like India could finally become self-reliant in developing fighter aircraft, if the government continues to give a push on Make in India.
What about MRFA ?
IAF is planning to acquire 114 Rafale like fighter aircraft under MRFA tender. But with every passing day, MRFA is getting complicated. Currently around 8 fighter aircraft from American, Russian and European companies are participating in MRFA.
At least 3 aircraft under this tender are meeting General Staff Qualitative Requirements of IAF. They are F/A-18 Super Hornet from Boeing, Typhoon from Eurofighter and obviously Dassault Rafale.
Under these types of the tendering process, the Armed Forces awarded a contract to the company who placed lowest bids and in this case it is Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet. While Dassault is the highest bidder.
So by the tendering process Boeing has the favourite company who can win MRFA. But IAF cannot purchase any fighter aircraft other than Rafale under MRFA.
Currently, IAF operates around 600+ fighter aircraft including Jaguar fighter bomber, which is around 33-35 squadrons and for only 35 fighter squadrons we operate 7 different types of jets.
For comparison, the United States Air Force has around 2,000+ fighter jets and for such a large inventory USAF operates just 4 different types of jets which is F-15, F-16, F-22 & F-35.
Diversity in the equipment of the Armed Forces is not an ideal choice for any Armed Forces. If India purchases a different fighter jet under MRFA it will just add an extra pressure in already complicated logistics.
In order to ease the logistics, IAF has to purchase Dassault Rafale but purchasing Rafale under MRFA even when it is the highest bidder will again drag the contract into controversies.
Not only this, as Rafale is the costlier aircraft and sensing the economic conditions of India, procuring it in a big number is not a viable option for IAF especially when India has in-lined various indigenous fighter jets program.
The most logical option for IAF is to scrap MRFA and purchase another lot 36 Rafale directly from Dassault under government to government deal. The next batch 36 jets will be cheaper than the last contract as India has already paid various one time costs during the last contract.
What about IAF future requirements ?
IAF currently required a single engine fighter jet to replace its current fleet of Mirage, MiG-29 and Jaguar. The Air Force also needs fifth generation fighter jets to tackle Chinese J-20.
And to fulfil both the requirements, Indian Defence industries is working on two fighter jet programs.
To replace MiG, Mirage and Jaguar, ADA, DRDO and HAL are working on a plan to develop a new variant of Tejas fighter aircraft. Tejas MK2 intends to fulfil all the requirements of the Air Force and IAF also committed that it will purchase at least 170 MK2, if it meets expectations.
Metal Cutting is already started for MK2 and the first Limited Series jet is set to roll out by August 2022 and the aircraft will take its first flight in August 2023. Tejas MK2 to complement Rafale and SU-30MKI of IAF.
If we talk about fifth-generation fighter jets, fortunately AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) is also running on track. ADA has completed the Detailed Design phase of AMCA and if everything goes by plan then AMCA will roll out in 2024, first flight in 2025 and induction by the decade end.
The timelines for upcoming indigenous fighter aircrafts is very ambitious and time has come for Indian Defence industries to rise and meet these requirements of IAF on time. India can no longer depend upon foreign countries for Defence equipment.
Seeing confidence and excitement in the indigenous defence industries it seems like industries are going to meet the timelines. But the existing government and upcoming government also need to keep pushing self reliance India to bring confidence in the industry. More and more private players are in need of the time and they will only enter defence manufacturing if the government keeps pushing Make in India, not only in ‘Jumla’.
The SU-30 MKI of IAF will start retiring from 2035-37 and ORCA (Omni Role Combat Aircraft) an Air Force variant of TEDBF can replace MKI’s.
Replacing all fleets of MKI with AMCA is not an ideal approach for IAF as maintenance of these fifth generation fighter aircraft costs very heavily on the pockets of any country.
This is the same problem even the super power of the world the US is also facing. As per 2017 data, even after having the biggest defence budget in the world the availability report of F-35 is just around 54% and for F-22 it is even lower than 50%.
Having an availability rate of just around 50% is not a good record for any fighter aircraft. This is the reason that US now wants a cheaper option to replace their big fleet of F-16. This shows the amount of labour and cost goes in maintaining these highly advanced fighter jets that even it is not a viable option for the biggest economy in the world.
ORCA is a better choice for IAF to replace its fleet of SU-30MKI. As it is clearly seen that there are indigenous options available to meet each and every requirements of IAF in the coming future and there is no need of foreign fighter aircraft if the government and industry keep running on the right path.