With the declared delivery of four Rafale fighter aircrafts to the Indian Airforce by end of July, 2020; the nation is anxiously waiting for the arrival of this force multiplier.
Amidst the global pandemic of COVID-19, where the entire world is deploying each and every of its resource to tackle this unprecedented menace; India on the other hand is coping with other threats apart that from COVID-19, that include national security issues, and issues concerning cross border infiltration, and border disputes with its neighbors.
India shares 3,488 Kms, and 2,240 Kms of borders with both China and Pakistan, respectively. A border that covers a whole variety of terrain, ranging from the dry heated desert on the western front, to the snowcapped mountain ranges in the north, and to the tropical hills and ravines on its north-eastern borders.
With the change of terrain and topography, there exists stiff challenges from the weather, ranging from a skin burning 50 Degree Centigrade right to a bone chilling -40 Degree Centigrade; from a bone-dry desert to swamp lands and flash floods. Under these extreme environments, the locus of keeping the Indian borders safe, lies in the hands of the very able Indian Security Forces.
The Indian Army, as of today is the largest standing army in the world. As per latest statistics released by globalfirepower.com; the Indian Army today comprises of 1.44 Million active soldiers, with a reserve strength of 2.1 Million personnel. However, the challenges of guarding our borders, and keeping them safe are extremely immense, and the ground forces need to be backed up with air support. Arial support provides our ground forces the vital intelligence pertaining to terrain, enemy troop positions and movement, infiltration activities, illegal migration, insurgency, and a host of other intelligence inputs; from a safer distance; that otherwise would have exposed our ground troops to additional danger.
The other air support activities of course do include transportation, supplies, evacuation, emergency relief, and humanitarian aid. But, the most critical role of our air defense warriors is the protection of the Indian skies. The Indian air force has several assets in its arsenal to fulfill this duty. These are various type of attack, defense and multirole platforms.
Currently, the Indian air force approximately has at its disposal several variants of multi role aircrafts that are capable of performing both attack and defense activities. These include:
However, with the current squadrons of the MIG-21, to phased out by the year 2021-22, and the Mirage 2000(s) along with the Jaguar(s), to be rendered out of service by 2030, wherein both of these platforms are capable of delivering nuclear strikes. The Indian air force has been planning for this phase out and upgradation plan. The average lifespan of an aircraft is considered to be 30 years of operation, the SU-30 has been in operation with the air force since 2016, and has a lot of years in service. The MIG-29 series has also been recently upgraded and will serve the air force well for over a decade. The air force has a total sanctioned strength of about 42 fighter squadrons, and is currently operating at the strength of 31-32 combat squadrons, with each of the squadrons comprising of 16-18 aircrafts.
This shortfall of 9 squadrons, along with the phasing out plan of the three existing platform namely the MIG-21, Mirage 2000, and SEPECAT Jaguar by 2030, where the MIG-21 is planned to be phased out by 2021-22; it is critical for the air force to replenish it fighter aircraft inventory with a renewed seriousness. The MIG-21, is seen to be replaced by the Tejas family of fighter jets. Currently, it is the Tejas MK IA version that is in production, and one squadron has already been inducted in the air force.
However, the upgraded Tejas MK II, whose first flight is scheduled in 2023, is slated to fullfill the void that would be left by discontinuing the services of Mirage 2000, Jaguar, and even MIG-29.
Currently the air force has about 525 fighter jets at its disposal, roughly comprising 31 squadrons. With its current sanction of 39.5, and proposed to be increased to 42; the air force has a total requirement of about 714 aircrafts. Making it a shortfall of 130 aircrafts, if the squadron strength is taken to be 39.5; 180 aircrafts, if the proposed squadron strength of 42 is to be considered. This implies that in less than a decade, before the MIG-21, Mirage 2000, and Jaguar squadrons bid adieu, to the air force; the air force has to ramp up its procurement process.
In fact, by 2022, the 3 odd squadrons of the MIG-21, need to be replenished as early as possible. With little less than 2 years for this deadline, there lies a mammoth task of upgrading the production lines both at HAL, which has a production capacity of 16 Tejas aircrafts currently, and also the production capacity of Rafale in France, which is presently producing 8 aircrafts per year. Bringing the combined production of both units to 24 aircrafts per year, provided both of these units are dedicated to produce aircrafts for the Indian air force. This would be a touch and go situation.
Whereas, the requirement is that of 54 aircrafts to be produced per year to meet the 2022 deadline.
The possible solution to this lies in the capability of the Indian private sector, to gear up for defense production, where in component manufacturing not only is localized, but quality components are delivered on time, and in sufficient quantity.
This would enable HAL, and maybe to a certain extend Rafale also, to focus on assemble, rather than on manufacturing, and speed up the process. However, for the aeronautic enthusiast, below is a table of Tejas and Rafale that outlines their respective capabilities. Both, cannot be compared with each other, as they are distinct platforms, meant to fulfill different objectives.