Chandigarh: The first five of 36 Dassault Rafale fighters that arrived at Air Force Station Ambala, north of New Delhi on Wednesday, amidst widespread hysterical media and official fanfare, are without doubt advanced pieces of lethal hardware for the Indian Air Force (IAF).
But in the mad frenzy that greeted the Rafales’ arrival, not only on television news channels featuring retired IAF chiefs of staff and fighter pilots, but by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his home minister, Amit Shah as well, there is one critical aspect that ostrich-like, many have opted to wilfully disregard or ignore.
It is that the Rafale becomes the IAF’s seventh fighter type, which will operate simultaneously with six other categories of combat aircraft, adding hugely to the overall logistics and maintenance costs for the already financially overstrained force.
These include Russian Sukhoi Su-30MKI’s, upgraded MiG-29M’s and the French Mirage 2000H, retrofitted to Mirage 2000-5 standards, all of which fall into the third or fourth generation categories. The IAF’s other fighters include Soviet-era Mikoyan MiG-21’s – nearing retirement – ground attack Anglo-French SEPECAT Jaguars and the indigenously developed Tajas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) that for now is little more than a technology demonstrator.
Consequently, the Maintenance Repair and Overhaul (MRO) bill for all these different fighters, including Rafales, becomes not only a logistical nightmare for the IAF, but also incredibly expensive and one that often adversely impacts their operational availability, which for years has averaged 55-60%.
Successive Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) and defence parliamentary committee reports have castigated the IAF for poor operational readiness of its platforms, especially fighters, its high rate of aircraft on ground (AoG) and limited flying hours, but to little avail.
Senior IAF officers said these shortcomings were caused ‘almost exclusively’ by MRO complications, severely hindering IAF attempts at evolving from a largely tactical force to a strategic one, capable of power projection and executing out-of-area exigencies.
The perennial problems of spares for the twin-engine MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’ and Su-30MKI ‘Flanker’ fighters, for instance, highlighted Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s Moscow visit last month, in what remains an unchanged litany.
“The usual promises were made and protocols signed like earlier, but the situation on the ground simply does not seem to alter,” said a retired three-star officer, declining to be named. The operational serviceability of fighters, he lamented, remains a chronic problems for the IAF that seems difficult to beat.
For decades the IAF has faced recurring problems of maintaining its Russian military equipment, especially fighters that form its ‘sword arm’. This is because obtaining spares and other sub-assemblies for them has posed a formidable challenge.
This was exacerbated further, following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, after many of the defence manufacturing units and factories were now located in the breakaway republics like Ukraine, that were inimical to Moscow.
This, in turn, spawned a severe paucity of spares, which were not only difficult to source, but also prohibitively expensive, as some of the production lines had closed down due to little or no demand. It resulted in India’s military, including the IAF, obtaining spares of doubtful quality from the open market which, in some instances even led to equipment failure.
Industry officials said these sourcing problems could have easily been mitigated by the indigenisation of critical spares, but this did not fructify and remains a work in progress. Instances of fighters being grounded for months for lack of spares, or equipment being hauled to Russia for overhaul at inflated costs, endure.
However, the frequent predicament of maintaining assorted fighters and other IAF platforms is directly linked simply to financial resources, which are a rapidly depreciating asset.
In the fiscal year 2020-21, for instance, the IAF was allocated Rs 299.62 billion in revenue expenditure, of which, Rs 91.10 billion was apportioned to stores. This amount includes MRO for all of its platforms. But astonishingly this stores outlay was Rs 6.08 billion less than the Rs 97.18 billion allocated to stores in FY’19-20, further aggravating the IAF’s financial woes with regard to its MRO commitments.
Analysts anticipate that the IAF’s logistical troubles will magnify manifold after it eventually acquires 114 additional medium multi-role combat aircraft and 83 Mk1 Tejas LCAs in accordance with existing plans to make up for rapidly depleting fighter squadron numbers.
Instead of its sanctioned strength of 42 fighter squadrons, the IAF at present operates merely 28. This number is expected to shrink further over the next two to three years after some three to four squadrons of over 100-110 MiG-21 BIS fighters are ‘number-plated’ or retired.
Meanwhile, in comparison to the IAF’s assortment of fighters, the US Air Force (USAF) operates 11 combat and bomber types, the Russian Air Force 13, the French Air Force three and UK’s Royal Air Force, two fighter types.
“This veritable museum of IAF fighters is expensive to sustain and maintain,” said Amit Cowshish, former defence ministry financial advisor on acquisitions. Standardisation is the solution, but that is unlikely to come about for many decades, he warned, adding that this will necessitate better management of meagre resources.
Similar MRO handicaps also persevere for the IAF’s helicopter and transport fleets, along with attendant knock-on serviceability problems. But that, as they say, is another story and one that so far has failed to exploit a business opportunity under the much touted rubric of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘atmanirbharta’.
In the meantime, the remaining 31 Rafales, armed with a raft of advanced short and long range missiles, that will join service in Ambala as part of No 17 ‘Golden Arrow’ Squadron and subsequently No 101 ‘Falcons’ Squadron at Hasimara in the east by mid- 2022, will indisputably add impressive firepower to the IAF’s capabilities.
Categorised as a 4.5 generation platform for its radar-evading stealth profile, agility and ‘payload fraction’ that enables it to carry almost two-times-and-a-half its empty weight of 10 tonnes in fuel and weaponry, the Rafale is exponentially more advanced than the IAF’s other frontline fighters.
Accordingly, so will be its MRO.