The most senior officer of the Indian Air Force, Air Chief Marshall Arup Raha, set to retire on December 31, told reporters on December 28 that the service needs to add 200 to 250 new aircraft in the medium-weight fighter jet category to maintain its edge over regional rivals.
“Over the next 10 years, we must have 200-250 aircraft. It has to be balanced out. In the heavy-weight spectrum, we have enough. But in the medium-weight category, we need to have more. Yes, about 200 will be very good,” Raha said.
The IAF is currently operating 272 Sukhoi-30 MKI heavy-weight fighters. India and Russia are also in talks to upgrade the aircraft to ‘Super Sukhois’ beginning in 2017, which will entail fitting the Su-30s with new weapons systems and more advanced avionics.
The light-weight combat aircraft spectrum is also covered by the induction of 123 Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) in two variants, according to Raha. “In November 2016, the Indian MoD cleared the purchase of a first batch of 83 Mark-IA LCA. The IAF is also currently slated to receive 40 Tejas Mark-I aircraft by early 2018,” I explained in December (See: “India’s Newest Fighter Jet Completes Maiden Flight”)
The IAF head expressed his biggest concern over the shortage in medium-weight fighter aircraft. Referring to a $8.2 billion deal for the sale of 36 off-the-shelf medium-weight Dassault Rafale twin-engine fighter jets, the air chief marshal said that 36 “will not do as we require much more.”
The Dassault Rafale is “tremendously capable in all its role. It is a multirole aircraft and can be used very effectively. It can prove its worth in any situation,” Raha said. “But we have just ordered 36 aircraft and we require more aircraft in this middle weight category to give entire spectrum of capability,” he added.
The IAF currently fields 33 fighter squadrons. That number is supposed to increase to 42 by 2027. The number of squadrons is based on a hypothetical joint threat from China and Pakistan. The IAF will need at least six additional squadrons of medium multi-role combat aircraft. This increase in squadron numbers can only partially be accomplished by increasing the serviceability rate of combat aircraft currently in service.
New acquisitions will be necessary.
Consequently, the Indian MoD issued a Request for Information to global aircraft makers alerting them that there will be a new competition for the building of a single-engine fighter aircraft in October. As I explained previously:
U.S. defense contractors Boeing and Lockheed Martin [next to other aircraft makers], along with their F-16 and F-18 aircraft, were outbid in 2011 under the now-scrapped $20 billion MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) project by French aircraft maker Dassault Aviation, with India opting for Dassault Aviation’s Rafale fighter instead in January 2012. However, the MMRCA project was cancelled after years of difficult negotiations in July 2015.
India has already received proposals from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Saab to build the Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70, Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, and Saab Gripen E fighter jet locally in India. It is unclear when the Indian government will make its final selection.