EVER since the 1971 war with Pakistan, India’s defence strategy has relied on maintaining superior airpower relative to both China and Pakistan. In the event of a regional conflict, Indian air power would serve as the country’s critical war-fighting instrument of first resort. Due to delays in its defence procurement processes as well as accidents and retirements of older fighter aircraft, “India’s force levels have reached an all-time low of 29 squadron and the IAF [Indian Air Force] is not expected to reach the currently authorised force levels of 395 squadron before 2017. This growing and dangerous hole in the IAF’s capabilities comes as India’s neighbours are aggressively engaged in modernising their own air forces, making India’s need to expand its combat aircraft inventories all the more urgent,” says the author.
According to him the IAF is entering the final stages of selecting a new medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) with 126 aircraft costing 10 billion US dollars. Eight countries and six companies eagerly await the outcome of the selection process, which has garnered high-profile attention for its sheer size, its international implications and its impact on the viability of the key aircraft manufacturers. Once selected, the aircraft will play an essential role in India’s military modernisation as the country transitions from a regional power to a global giant.
The author is of the opinion that political considerations, however, will be the key in the selection process. In choosing the winning platform, India’s policy-makers will seek to minimise the country’s vulnerability to supply cutoffs in wartime, improve its larger military capacity through a substantial technology infusion and forge new transformative geo-political partnerships that promise to accelerate the growth of Indian power globally.
He feels that the Indian State is wading “through the welter of competing considerations”, when it should seek to do best by its air force. He cites the case of Scorpene submarine contract over which a decade was taken by the Ministry of Defence to come to a decision, or for that matter the procurement efforts for Hawk jet trainer or the airborne refuelling platforms. He advises that India should expedite its decision on the purchase of MMRCA when the dangers of a limited war in South Asia make the role of Indian air power ever more important than before. He also suggests that both bureaucrats and politicians should resist the urge to split the aircraft buy in order to satisfy multiple foreign powers who all have a stake in the success of their own platforms.
In his view the European machines are worthy of admiration and respect and may even be superior in terms of pure aggregate technology, but he seems to favour the relatively lower cost and “superb war-fighting capabilities of the American competitors.” He says that though IAF’s interests should be kept in the forefront, the Indian Government should select the least expensive, mature, combat-proven fourth-generation fighter for the IAF “as a bridge toward procuring more advanced stealth aircraft in the future.”
This book is meant essentially for government policy-makers and bureaucrats in the defence and foreign ministries.
(Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1779 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington DC 20036; CarnegieEndowment.org)