Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar early this week confirmed that India is on the hunt for a single-engine medium multi-role fighter to replace the aging fleet of the IAF. Parrikar outlining the details of the acquisition program said that a new production line would be started back here in India under the strategic partnership model. The government through this plans to augment the strike capabilities of the Indian Air Force (IAF).

Parrikar who addressed the media on the sidelines of a defence ministry engagement said “The second line for single engine requirement is felt, for which we are thinking of using the strategic partnership route. Very soon once the strategic partnership chapter is finalised we should start moving in that direction. During the current year the decision should be tentatively over. Maybe a few of them will come in ready-made status but the rest will be made in India increasing the Indian capability in aviation.”

Successive failures of acquisition programs have left IAF grappling with an aging and underperforming fleet. The indigenously developed LCA Tejas is years away from meeting the demanding needs of the air force. The ambitious MMRCA program which promised IAF with 126 able fighters crashed midway leaving it in abyss.

Even though India last year concluded a multi-billion dollar deal with France for acquiring 36 Rafales, the exigent need of the air force remains unanswered. Taking note of this blaring situation, the government in November, 2016 through its embassies had called up on Swedish based Saab, US based Boeing and Lockheed Martin, Dassault — manufacturer of the Rafales, Russian based Mikoyan and the EU consortium seeking their proposals to locally co-develop a fighter aircraft for the IAF.

Saab Gripen Fighter

Following this, several high-level delegation visits were made to South Block by Boeing, Dassault, Lockheed Martin and Saab. Boeing was the first to respond by offering its proven F-18 Super Hornet. It further sweetened the deal by offering to set-up a new production line in India. French based Dassault was optimistic that India would opt for its Rafale fighter which had outwitted other aircraft during the technical evaluation trials for MMRCA tender.

But with Parrikar now formally confirming that the need is for a single-engine fighter, the race has narrowed down to Saab manufactured Gripen-NG and the legendry Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter aircraft.

Parrikar has said that India would opt for a competitive government- to-government contract and that the selection of local working partners would be done through a transparent and well defined process. Also, financial strength and technical capabilities will be a priority for selection of Indian partners.

Speaking about the selection of foreign manufacturers who are designated OEM’s (Original Equipment Manufacturers), Parrikar said manufacturers with the best offer, transfer of technology and price will be preferred.

Need for Foreign Single-engine Fighter Aircraft

The primary role of the IAF is to guard the nation against any aerial threats and for this the air force is to operate 42 squadrons of fighter aircraft. However, IAF currently under its command has only 32 squadrons meaning a deficit of over 200 aircraft exists in the fleet. Further, the air force operates about 12 squadrons of aging MiG-21 and MiG-27s which are to be retired by 2022.

With successive acquisition programs failing there is no forthcoming replacements to the retiring squadrons. The MiGs were to be replaced by the indigenously developed Tejas aircraft. But with the aircraft years away from being forward deployed and with minimal choices, the air force is being forced to induct a foreign fighter to address the crippling capabilities.

Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighter

Tejas to fly Independent of the new program

Ever since, the government considered the option of opting for a second fighter, there have been widespread concerns about the future of the ambitious ‘LCA program’. Parrikar has rebuffed concerns of the indigenously built Tejas aircraft being shelved for the new fighter. He has reassured that IAF will stay committed to its plans of buying over a hundred Tejas Mk-1A fighter aircraft. The second fighter to be built in India will only be supplementing Tejas.

© Karthik Kakoor