In a seminal move which was well anticipated by Security Risks Asia, Indian Air Force Chief Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhari announced in Spain at the Air Bus complex on receiving the first C 295 transport aircraft that the IAF plans to order another 100 LCA Mark 1A fighter jets as a follow on of the 83 which are on order.
“The LCA was developed from the ground up for replacement of the large MiG series fleet including the MiG-21, MiG 23 and MiG-27 aircraft. With the phasing out of all these aircraft, it is essential that we have adequate numbers of the LCA class aircraft in our inventory. So, apart from the 83 LCA Mark 1A that we have already contracted for, we are moving a case for around 100 more aircraft," said Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari as per a report in the Times of India apart from multiple other media sources.
The IAF proposal is reportedly with the Ministry of Defence as per the Air Chief and a positive decision should be in order given the thrust for indigenization of key platforms given by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the follow up by the Ministry of Defence.
LCA Mark 1 A is the advanced version of the LCA of which 40 are being supplied to the IAF. The first of the 83 LCA Mark 1 A will be delivered to the IAF in February 2024, just about five months away. This may see the much talked about programme for acquiring 114 single/double engine fighters through the Strategic Partnership Programme and in which several foreign companies had invested huge sums in the initial marketing of their respective projects with Lockheed Martin even producing an advanced version of F 16. the F 21 specifically to meet the IAF being given a short shrift. This was not unexpected given that there was no forward movement in this project for years now with occasional media snippets.
In case the IAF does induct the 183, LCA Mark 1 A followed by around a 100 LCA Mark 2 which is a follow up – the Tejas class of combat fighters will be form the largest component of its fleet.
Indeed, the move by the IAF will be welcome yet there are multiple risks that would have to be managed which need consideration at the very outset so that these can be mitigated.
Here is a short list-
Firstly, timely induction of combat fighters is essential for the IAF as the squadron strength of fighters is depleted to just 66 percent or lower of the authorization which has been scaled down from 45 to 42. This would imply that the induction rate of fighters would have to keep pace if not remain ahead of the curve of number plating of squadrons in the offing.
Secondly, as reliance is on a single manufacturing agency Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is envisaged the ability of the public sector enterprise for timely delivery will have to be ensured given past records. The HAL is presently able to deliver between 8 to 12 aircraft each year. This will have to be upgraded to at least 16 if not more if the number of fighters in the IAF is to be kept optimal. Massive investments in HAL would be essential, is the government willing to do so given this is a defence public sector undertaking remains to be seen, alternately other models such as raising more equity or debt would have to be examined on priority.
Thirdly supply chain issues need to be resolved particularly critical components as aero engines, AESA radars, air to air and air to ground missiles and avionics where technology partnerships will have to be perforce with foreign firms and government to government agreements are essential. Presently HAL has contracted F 414 engines from General Electric for the 83 LCA Mark 1 A. Will the next tranche of LCA Mark 1 A be powered by the same given the lower power capacity or should it graduate to the next level. Much will also depend on the indigenization of the programme. If indigenization has been achieved to a substantial extent in actuals in terms of technology and not just in terms of cost, HAL could well have to go in for the F 414 with some upgrades. Would this be enough to power the next tranche of LCA Mark 1 A only the IAF can answer.
Fourthly a steady stream of funding will be essential not only to acquire the fighters but also to boost production and create an aerospace manufacturing base in the country. The government so far has been reluctant to invest in defence despite much brouhaha over percentage increase in defence budget each year which is barely able to keep up with the inflation, discounting of the rupee and the large portion that is hived off for the revenue budget.
Fifthly and finally the most important facet is the technology parameters that are ingrained in the LCA Mark 1A will this take the IAF to the next two to three decades with suitable upgrades or it will lag contemporary air forces as the PLA Air Force amongst other adversaries.