IAF’S MiG-21 Problem

| Updated: 03 August, 2022 5:42 pm IST

With the crash of another MiG-21 Trainer, the media blame game shall once again commence with great gusto. Everyone from politicians to panwallahs will offer expert advice on what to do. The media will further muddy the waters by fielding an array of experts whose quality may range from retired Air Marshals to loquacious loudmouth self-proclaimed experts of dubious qualifications.

In an era of heightened tension with China, replete with the traditional Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) flypasts that repeatedly intrude into contested airspace accidentally on purpose, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is in a fix of everyone’s making, including its own. The premium that IAF places on anything that is foreign-made is something that has today come to bite it dearly. Instead of joining the clamour for some more foreign-made planes to assuage the hurt feelings of the sunny side experts on TV and Twitter, let us discuss the ways out of this ever-deepening morass that the IAF finds itself in.

The last of the four operational MiG-21 squadrons are still taking its toll on experienced trainers and rookies alike. Even if the IAF’s promise of retiring these squadrons by 2025 is to be taken seriously, we are still looking at a body count of seven-eight pilots if the current average of a pilot dying every four months is allowed to continue. Today thanks to the tension on the Northern border, IAF is flying Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) and Barrier Combat Air Patrol (BARCAP).

The falling squadron strength in the IAF is a two-decade-old problem of the Indian Defense set-up. The deaths in MiG-21 crashes have been going on since the early nineties, almost a three-decade problem. With an estimated strength of 30 squadrons, once the four squadrons are retired, the IAF is flying on fumes, in terms of combat-capable planes. The Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender saga since 2006 has allowed only two Rafale squadrons to be inducted in the last 16 years. The latest iteration is at some embryonic stage or the other since 2015.

MiG-21 represents the failure of the IAF, the governments and, more importantly, the bureaucracy to adequately stock India’s air force with combat-capable and war-winnable jets. It must not take 16 years to decide which type of foreign jet India will buy to replace its older inventory. It must not even take seven years since the short-term Rafale jet deal for India to decide which jet it will procure for the rest of the original 126 planes.

The IAF-Babu-Neta combine has been procrastinating, fiddling while Rome was burning and even tilting at windmills all at once, while the IAF loses its edge over Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and the gap with PLAAF widens every month. India’s defence leadership on the other hand have buried their collective heads deep in the sand, refusing to understand the changing realities over the years.

The IAF’s indigenous fighter jet acquisition cannot be further sped up at this moment. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) will need the time it has asked for to make the first flight of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mark-1A. However, India can ensure that the company is well funded and more importantly well prodded in time to build additional assembly lines for Tejas aircraft. Only by increasing production per year to 24 jets, can the HAL complete its production run for 83 aircraft by 2027-28, which though difficult, is eminently doable.

HAL needs to reinvent itself as a systems integrator in the case of Tejas and shift the load of manufacture of LRUs and Sub-assemblies to vendors. All of this requires capital to make advances to subcontractors and that is where the Government should step in with an innovative credit scheme for Defense manufacturers.

The addition of four fighter and one training squadron of Tejas Mark 1A shall offset the MiG-21 retirement even if only after two years of the last MiG-21 squadron retiring. India’s LCA Mark-2 project also needs a massive financial and technological boost. Adequate funding should be provided to allow for a fast schedule of the First flight and testing of the Mark-2. Also needed is a separate Mark-2 assembly line so that production of at least eight jets a year can be started in 2028-29 irrespective of the completion of the Mark-1A production run. This can allow quicker production of Mark-2 jets to the tune of 32 jets a year once the Mark-1A production is completed.

In the most optimum scenario, IAF shall be able to induct at least 250 HAL Tejas Jets of both Mark-1 and 2 types in around 14 squadrons by 2032. If this comes to pass, IAF can field 38 squadrons of largely new and more capable aircraft (15 Su-30 MKI, 14 Tejas Mark-1A and Mark 2; two Rafale and seven Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRFA) squadrons) and have air-worthy jets among Mirage 2000, MiG-29 and Jaguar in active reserve.

The MRFA which shall be IAF’s final foreign purchase needs to be done on a G2G basis, to enable timely delivery and avoid runaway costs. The present field of competition includes the Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Boeing F-15 EX, the Lockheed Martin F-21 (a variant of F-16) and the SAAB Gripen. Since India would not prefer any more Russian jets, there is little chance of Su-35 or MiG-35 entering the competition.

Induction of an aircraft superior to anything the PLAAF possesses can restore balance over our northern borders despite our lower squadron strength. While Rafale and F-15 EX are asymmetric additions to IAF’s capabilities, with the PLAAF’s J-20 in full production there is a chance that at least 300 such planes may be inducted over the next five years. It is for this reason that India must look for the acquisition of F-35 jets especially since they cost the same as F-15 EX and are lower than Rafale and since their operating cost is expected to soon be the same as F-15 EX and again lower than Rafale. The procurement of 123 F-35 jets will not only allow a production line in India for the jets but also allow for an ancillary industry which can help the HAL during the production of Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) Mark-2.

Induction of F-35 jets will negate the advantages that the PLAAF possesses with J-20 while also giving the IAF the capability to enter Chinese air space at will. Indeed, this is the only way that India can hold on its own against the Chinese. The F-35 shall allow for more effective utilization of the SU-30 MKI since the former can be used for initial SEAD and DEAD missions and once enemy air defences are decimated, the Air to Ground capabilities of the heavy-weight Su-30 MKIs can be brought down in full force on the Chinese PLA Army. F-35 procurement today is crucial over the next 15 years for the IAF as it shall cement the Indo-US defence partnership and improve India’s access to Jet and Marine Engine Development and A2A/A2G/SAM missile technology. An F-35 production line can allow for the replacement of other jets like Jaguar, MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 jets in the future in case the LCA Mark-2 and the AMCA projects get delayed or fail to take off.

India can avoid defeat in any war with China only if it has the F-35. In any other scenario, the inability to take control of the skies shall allow the Chinese to rapidly position heavy firepower at all borders and make rapid gains, especially in Ladakh and Uttarakhand where India is traditionally weak. The vastly superior firepower and infrastructure of the Chinese must be negated in a war, and this cannot be done by cruise or ballistic missiles alone, especially with the low stocks that India traditionally maintains, compared to the Chinese. India must therefore secure a production line for the F-35 no matter what it takes. This line can indeed provide a ready-made solution for the Indian Navy’s Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) project with the F-35 B for INS Vikrant or F-35C for future aircraft carriers of the Indian Navy.

The death of a soldier is always painful, but the death of a fighter pilot causes even more pain with the loss of talent, skill and experience that the Air Force suffers. It is high time the government decides enough is enough and goes for the quick acquisition of a ready-made jet that is good enough for the world’s most powerful Air Force, instead of indulging the fatal narcissism of the uniformed bureaucracy.

(Chiranjeevi Bhat is a journalist. His writings are focused on security, politics, distortion and appropriation)
(Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own)

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