Indian Air Force has been undergoing a robust modernisation program to phase out its outdated and ageing equipment. It has been procuring various new-age aircraft and other linked technologies. India aims to upgrade the aircraft purchased from the Soviet Union which form the main part of the Air Force.
Prime Minister Modi’s push for erecting a domestic industrial base and ‘Make in India’ campaign, has encouraged India as a manufacturing hub. Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-16 and Saab AB’s Gripen were the two prime runners to supply 100 single-engine jets as both the firms had proposed to build the planes in partnership with domestic Indian companies. However, the Indian Government is inclined towards a twin-engine aircraft and is reviewing Boeing’s F/A Super Hornet which is nearly finalised for $8-9 billion contracts of 57 fighters. A Request for Information will be soon sent by the Ministry of Defense which is the first stage of a procurement process. This has opened the avenues for both single and twin-engine fighter jets and has brought a huge opportunity for Boeing.
The recent spate of events has highlighted the slow and ineffective procurement process which has failed to fill the glaring need of acquiring new defence technology. Indian Air Force at present only has three-quarters of aircraft it actually needs. The HAL Tejas which is a single-engine jet with immense agility due to its tail-less design is not-operational even after 35 years since it was first proposed. Tejas was a product of a Light Combat Aircraft programme which had begun in the 1980s primarily to replace MiG-21 fighters. Thus, there is a critical need for fighter jet procurement in India as the operational strength of the branch has fallen to just 33 squadrons which is the lowest in last four decades. In the latest report, by the Parliamentary defence committee, 13 more squadrons are slated to be retired as their aircraft are ageing or out of service.
Although Lockheed, US and Saab, Sweden have been caught unawares due to the revised requirements, they have stated that no formal communication has been made so far. The new requirements also place Dassault Systemes SE’s Rafale, Typhoon and Russian aircraft also in the list of contenders.
Indian Air Force requires both single and twin-engine jets but the annual procurement budget of $14-15 billion for defence has to be divided across all three wings namely airforce, navy and army in addition to R&D.