India’s Fighter Deficit Conundrum: A Look at the South Korean Model
The deficit in combat fighter strength of the Indian Air Force (IAF) is now well known. Against a redacted 42 squadron requirement the IAF is fielding 30 to 32 squadrons which include the dated MiG 21 Bison upgraded which is on the way out.
Extensive deliberations on making up the fighter squadron strength have been carried out and some practical propositions are underway – the options being LCA Mk 1 A, LCA Mk 2 and AMCA and a 114 fighter competition which includes some of the top global vendors.
The latter may not be taken up now given the emphasis of the government on Atma Nirbhara Bharat unless the sweetener includes establishment of a manufacturing line by the concerned foreign vendor and transfer of technology in toto, always an “if”.
While progressing the indigenous programmes to a logical conclusion which should be undertaken post haste rather than the normal ambling through the corridors of acquisition managers military and civil in the Indian procurement system, a look at what the Republic of Korea (ROK) or South Korea facing a similar predicament of having to shed off legacy fighters is doing to shorten replacement by three to five years may be in order.
The details provided by the website Aviacionline which quotes a local Korean language source News2day may be revealing.
Here is a look at the details provided of deliberations that were held during the Korea Security and Defense Forum on May 04.
South Korean Plan for Fighter Accretion
South Korean Air Force has about 240 legacy fighters F4 Phantom II, F 5E and F 5F which need to be replaced as these are becoming obsolete.
The web site states that Choon-song Choi, chief of the Air Force Headquarters’ Planning and Management Staff Department has proposed a three pronged action plan, incidentally which may also be in tandem with the Indian proposals. Choon Song’s plan includes the following-
1. Increasing production of the domestic F A 50 light fighter.
2. Seek a second contract of Lockheed Martin F 35 A.
3. Increase the number of KF-21 Boramae fighters – South Korea’s homegrown machine that is being developed with joint funding from Indonesia.
India may consider a similar three pronged approach to include which has some parallels as outline below-
1. Increasing production of LCA Mk 1 A from 8 to 16 is underway, at a faster space. This can be gradually expanded to 24 and beyond in tandem with the LCA Mk 2. Simultaneously fasten progress of development and fielding of LCA Mk 2.
2. Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) has indicated good progress being made on the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
Accelerating the process of development in mission mode is critical with ADA and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) acting in tandem.
Indeed, developing the AMCA or even the LCA Mk 2 is a complex process which will require extensive collaboration with a number of agencies Indian and foreign which needs to be provided impetus.
3. Place a contract with Dassault Aviation for 36 or more number Rafale fighters.
While the first tranche of 36 was delivered to India in quick time, the second may face some delays given that the order book for the French fighter is now overflowing with Egypt and Indonesia joining the club amongst others.
Given India’s “blue blood,” strategic partnership with France which was evident with the short visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to greet French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on May 05, moving a government-to-government contract may not be very difficult.
Of course, cost will be a factor, and this may go against the Government’s thrust on Atma Nirbhar Bharat, but the urgency of making up deficit of combat fighters of the IAF needs emphasis.
The war in Ukraine has proved that finally combat potential of the armed forces alone can ensure national security and territorial sovereignty.
India Ministry of Defence and the armed forces thus need to accelerate their capability and capacity building to ensure high level of operational readiness is achieved in reasonable time frame.
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force has a plan to be regionally dominant by 2035.
The IAF must catch up by then to make the strength to at least 35-40 squadrons of front line 4.5 generation fighters adopting a multi pronged approach identified herein or any other alternate plan that can show a light at the end of the modernization tunnel.