With a deal for 36 Rafales for her service at the heart of a political storm, the Indian Air Force chief was prepared for a barrage of questions that have lately seen his senior leadership at the frontlines of defending the deal. Today, he took it upon him. But amidst the storm over the high end fighters was a crucial confirmation that will have far reaching repercussions for India’s aviation complex.
We’re looking at 12 squadrons of the Light Combat Aircraft Mk.2, Indian Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa said today at an air power conference in India’s capital, confirming months of reports suggesting the IAF was looking for over 200 of the fighters. The chief stipulated, expectedly, that such an order would only come if the improved LCA Tejas — which will feature a more powerful engine, radar and electronic warfare and avionics — met the expanded expectations of the IAF.
While the LCA Tejas’s baseline version, the Mk.1, entered service with the IAF in 2016, with about half a squadron flying now with the ‘Flying Daggers’ unit and a total order of 40 jets, the IAF is also on the books for 83 of an improved version called the Mk.1A. Livefist has reported in detail the configuration of this improved jet. The Mk.2, which will be a significantly modified jet, where the current GE F404 engine is replaced with the more powerful F414 turbofan, in addition to a near full replacement of sensors and systems, is currently under development, with the prototyping phase to hit the ground early in the next decade.
Unlike the LCA Navy Mk.2 program that has the moment been de-linked from concrete requirements of the Indian Navy, in March this year, the IAF’s LCA Mk.2 program got a major push, with Indian defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman declaring the MoD was looking forward to the project delivering at the earliest.
The Mk.2 is basically aimed at defeating all of the issues encountered with the Mk.1 — it will be more powerful, more easily maintainable, more survivable, with longer legs, higher payload capacities and with more useful weapons delivery options. The Indian Air Force’s troubled run with the Tejas has turned over the last few years, with squadron service finally giving the IAF a sense of the aircraft’s qualities.
To supplement numbers, the Indian Air Force is also looking for over 100 Indian-built foreign fighters as part of the Make in India campaign. It is unlikely, however, that the process will move forward significantly before next year’s national election in the country.
Owing to the raging controversy over India’s Rafale deal, a conference by the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS) in Delhi this morning became a media scrum, with reporters descending on an event that usually passes without such overt attention. Expecting such a turn-out, the IAF chief was prepared to take on questions on the Rafale. But in his opening address, he dealt first with squadron numbers.
Pushing forward India’s war on two fronts theory — which envisions any full-scale war to be between both China and Pakistan, owing to their close alliance — Dhanoa said, “What we do not have are the numbers, against a sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons, we are down to 31. Even when we do have 42 squadrons, we will be below the combined numbers of two of our regional adversaries.”
Invoking the squadron strengths of China and Pakistan, Dhanoa said, “Pakistan has over 20 fighter squadrons, with upgraded F-16s, and inducting J-17 from China in large numbers. China has 1,700 fighters, including 800 fourth generation fighters. But we do not have the numbers, with fighter squadrons down to 31 from sanctioned 42.”
He went on to defend the Rafale deal too, saying, “By providing the Rafale and S-400, the government is strengthening the Indian Air Force to counter the short falls of our depleting numbers.” He added that ’emergency’ purchases of fighters were not without precedent in the country, citing earlier orders of a pair of squadrons each of the MiG-29 and Dassault’s own Mirage 2000.