The Buzz

India's Incredible Shrinking Air Force

By my calculation, about 79% of India's combat aircraft squadrons and 96% of its main battle tanks are of Soviet-design, a legacy of New Delhi's close relationship with Moscow in the 1970s and 1980s. A country's defense choices can define the shape of its armed forces for decades to come. This is an important lesson for Indian leaders to heed as they consider the future of the Indian Air Force (IAF), a service that set out a highly ambitious doctrine in 2012, but appears to be shrinking ineluctably year by year. What is especially troubling is that problems are visible across the low, medium, and high end of the IAF combat fleet.

At the high end is the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), part of Russia's PAK-FA program (pictured) whose first prototype flew in 2010 and has been in testing since. India is notionally co-developing the aircraft, with some suggestions it's willing to invest tens of billions of dollars into the project. In practice, India's role has grown increasingly limited to particular areas of the aircraft like tires and radar coolant.

In recent years, there have been growing signs of discontent in India: “the Russians treat Indians like they are children and the IAF officials with the gold braid on their caps are used to being treated with excessive deference and the Russians do not do that.” Others were concerned about turning the IAF into an all-Russian fleet for another generation, the risks of betting heavily on an unproven platform, and more specific doubts over the aircraft's engines, stealth features, weapons carriage, radar, and safety. Unsurprisingly, then, in September 2014, the IAF reportedly slashed its prospective orders from 10 squadrons (around 220 aircraft) to 6-7 (126- 147 aircraft) and then, in August 2015, to just three (63 aircraft) – in total, a 70% drop in numbers for what is supposed to be the stealthy apex of Indian air power in the 2030s and beyond.

Things are looking just as confusing at the middle end of the spectrum. India had planned to buy 126 French Rafale aircraft as part of its long-running tender for Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender. But that deal dramatically changed shape in April 2015, when Indian Prime Minister Modi – reportedly cutting out Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar – agreed a deal to buy just 36 Rafale in flyaway condition, cancelling the overall tender in July.

That raised two big questions. First, would even this rump deal survive? There have been numerous reports that the two sides are stuck on the price and other issues, while Paris' hand has been strengthened by agreements to sell the Rafale to Egypt and Qatar. Second, what happens to other 90 aircraft that were part of the original deal: will India just settle for fewer jets, or make up the difference somewhere else?

Sweden has offered the lighter and cheaper Gripen, which was part of the original MMRCA competition, while Parrikar has even suggested, intriguingly, that “some of it can be replaced by even proper stockpiling of missiles.” Two scholars at India's Observer Research Foundation (ORF) have recently written a report on India's indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), but this project is probably a good quarter century away from completion and of little relevance to the medium-term problem.

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