Dear PM Modi, Air Force’s Needs Go Beyond Swedish Combat Aircraft

Modi’s Sweden visit may lure Saab into making Gripen in India, but the crisis of the Indian Air Force runs deeper.

7 min read
Recycling the failed MMRCA, however innovative the new RFI, will only exacerbate the crisis, with some vendors chuckling away.

While surely a high point during his Sweden visit, Prime Minister Narendra Modi piquing Saab’s interest in manufacturing Gripen aircraft in India under the ‘Make in India’ initiative is not enough. Coming on the heels of the new Request for Information (RFI), this bilateral understanding highlights the crisis in the India Air Force.

Let this now be told that the new RFI is a blundering repeat of the follies committed in the procurement rigmarole of the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) in 2007. The process and competitors, everyone believes, are the same, though Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra, at the Defence Expo last week told reporters the contrary. He also added that the process has just started and can take a long time.

Air Chiefs’ Crisis Conclave

Just a week before the RFI of 6 April, a group of former IAF chiefs and other strategic thinkers met at Delhi Forum For Strategic Studies to confront the IAF’s dwindling combat fighter strength, which would plummet from the present 27/31 squadrons to 24 combat squadrons by 2032. It was decided that former IAF chiefs would seek a meeting with PM Modi and apprise him of the growing crisis.

The request was to immediately order an IAF capability review against a two-front collusive threat, and simultaneously order a government-to-government ‘Make in India’ contract for the single-engine Saab Gripen of Sweden, for establishing a new production line integral with transfer of technology but avoiding the tedious MMRCA tendering process, which it has already gone through.

This route was explored tentatively in October 2016 along with Lockheed Martin’s F/16 but the project vanished mysteriously. This forum’s recommendations were given to the press and copies sent to the IAF.


History of a Crisis

On 6 April, the IAF issued an elaborate RFI (73 pages) for single/twin engine fighter against the one page RFI for 100 to 200 single engine fighters circulated in October 2016. The IAF, in its wishful thinking, expects the request for proposals (RFP) to arrive by the end of 2018.

The IAF has lived dangerously by doing little about the problem of maintaining sufficiency in combat squadron strength – 31 squadrons against the authorised 42 combat squadrons – for some time now. In 1983, with a view to reduce import of foreign aircraft, the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) was launched to replace the aging MiG fleet, and have an indigenous single engine light fighter. In 2007, when the LCA appeared to be going nowhere, the acceptance of necessity (AON) was secured from government for MMRCA.

The LCA programme is decades behind schedule – only nine aircraft have been inducted into 45 squadron, the first LCA squadron. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited  (HAL) will turn out double its capacity to produce 12 LCA per year. Meanwhile, with regards to the LCA MKI, it seems like for the IAF, a bird in hand is better than two in the bush. It is to be improved to MKI A, for which Aeronautical Defence Agency is demanding Rs 1,000 crore even as a new design mark II LCA is under consideration.

As a backup, there was the MMRCA Rafale, for which excruciatingly difficult negotiations had been going on for two years without any closure for 126 aircraft – 18 in fly-away condition and the remaining 108 to be license-made in India with TOT (transfer of technology).


Then, on 10 April 2015, like a bolt from the blue, PM Modi, invoking national security imperatives, announced that the contract for 126 Rafale aircraft was terminated. Instead, 36 Rafale would be bought in flyaway condition. How the government will make up for the residual 90 aircraft was not indicated, and even three years later, no one knew until the convoluted RFI was issued on 6 April.

A French Dassault Rafale fighter plane. (Photo: Reuters)
A French Dassault Rafale fighter plane. (Photo: Reuters)

The IAF is 10 squadrons short of the authorised 42 squadrons. Given the government’s operational directive to be prepared for a two-front war, it is in the words of the present Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa: “like playing a T20 match with seven players”. Today Pakistan has 20 combat squadrons and China, more than 80 fighter squadrons.

At Its Peak

The question is – why was the steady decline in combat squadrons not arrested earlier to avert the crisis confronting the IAF? From 1989-92, when the Indian armed forces were at their peak in outreach and capability, Time magazine had put India’s formidable military machine on its cover. It was symbolised by the picture of the aircraft carrier Vikrant. That was the first and the last time India’s military might had made it to the the cover of a foreign magazine, with the IAF inventory standing at 42 combat squadrons. Then the descent.

The 3 April 1989 edition of <em>Time</em> magazine was a tribute to India’s overseas missions and capability.
The 3 April 1989 edition of Time magazine was a tribute to India’s overseas missions and capability.
(Photo Courtesy: Time)

The Steep Descent

Between 2001-2005, the number had slipped to 39.5 squadrons, in 2012, it slipped to to 37 squadrons, and in 2018, it’s at its lowest-ever of 31 squadrons. By 2022, there will be two squadrons each of Rafale and LCA against the phasing out of seven to eight squadrons of MiGs.

By 2032, if additional replacements are not ordered or made besides the LCA, the fighting strength will plummet to 24 squadrons against an estimated 25 squadrons of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and 100 squadrons of People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). This air reality is not an exaggeration.

The progressive fall in combat capability will be due to the phasing out of ten squadrons of MiG 21/27. The situation has been exacerbated by cutting down the Rafale order from 126 to just 36. Two squadrons each of Rafale and LCA will be in the Orbat (order of battle) by 2022.

The LCA’s first squadron – number 45 – has nine aircraft but no two-seaters (trainers). One can expect 40 LCA by 2019 and another 83 LCA by 2025. The only other active production line will be Sukhoi Su-30MKI, which is the long-range mainstay of the IAF that will peak at around 272 aircraft in two years. The legacy aircraft like Jaguar and Mirage 2000 will have been decommissioned by 2032.


Gripen Comes to the Rescue?

Recently in the Parliament, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the IAF will have 32 squadrons by 2020. Remember, this government had inherited 34 squadrons from the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2014. By 2025, another 10 squadrons will be retired. Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa has said that the IAF will have its authorised strength of 42/44 Squadrons not by 2032 but much sooner. How this will happen from the present strength of the IAF, only saints will know. Dhanoa probably has the magic wand.

For making up numbers, cost, affordability and reliability have to be factored in. The predominant view among the IAF at the brainstorming last month was to select Saab Gripen for ‘Make in India’, and if possible, draw aircraft from Sweden’s inventory to fast-track the process.

Saab’s gripen aircraft.
Saab’s gripen aircraft.
(Photo: Reuters)
For acquisition of Saab Gripen, repeating the tendering process will be infructuous as it has been through the MMRCA route. At least three years have already been lost in stonewalling decision making. The cost of each aircraft will increase by Rs 50 crore every year.

The new Defence Procurement Procedure permits proceeding with single vendor situation in national interest, precisely what Modi unilaterally did in ordering 36 instead of 126 Rafale. Technically, the order for 36 aircraft was a new contract. Saab Gripen, like the Rafale, has experienced the turbulence of the MMRCA process and will have a lifespan of 50 to 60 years. In addition, India has to continue its pursuit of 5th generation fighter aircraft/AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) with Russia.


Neighbourhood Watch

Take a macro look at Pakistan, it has the Chinese-made war horse JF-17, which will soon be manufactured in Pakistan and is the backbone of the PAF. 150 aircraft are on order and currently seven squadrons of JF-17 are operational. The other aircraft with Pakistan are F16, Mirage and F7. China on the other hand has 86 combat squadrons including the JF20 stealth fighter and Su 30. In Tibet, PLAAF has four major air bases each with 5000m-long runways which can accommodate 16 combat squadrons and more.

The IAF is looking at an operational crisis, partly of its own making. Lack of focus has resulted in depletion of aircraft and squadron strength since the 1990s, that too at a time when the geo-politics of the region is fragile and unfavourable towards India.

The IAF has to convince the government that it has a case for 42 combat squadrons when the government has convinced itself there will be no war. People must understand deterrence at least!

The way out of this crisis is not reinventing the wheel. Recycling the failed MMRCA, however innovative the new RFI, will only exacerbate the crisis, with some vendors chuckling away.

(General Ashok K Mehta is a founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the Integrated Defence Staff. The views expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of The Quint or its editorial team.)


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