AeroIndia 2017 opens in Bangalore Feb 14-18. It is restricted, apparently by design, to fighter aircraft that are only single-engined with special exception being made for the two-engined Boeing F-18. This order is hard to make sense of except as a ruse to keep the Russian combat aircraft out of the fray altogether possibly for fear that the Su-35 or the MiG-35 even would outshine the Western jets over Yerlenka AFB. Sure, other than the Su-30MKIs doing their flights, Russian planes will not be present, not even on static display at the premier Indian air show. So, we will see the ‘Super Hawk’ supposedly jointly developed by HAL and British Aerospace, the French Rafale, the Swedish Grippen E, and the American items — the less stealthy Lockheed Martin F-16 C variant without the conformal fuel tanks (in the variant E/SE sold to Qatar) being peddled to India, and the F-18.
The Bharatiya Janata Party government of Narendra Modi has decided on a decisive military turn Westward, finally and formally reducing its flagship ‘Make in India’ policy to the same old manufacture-under-license (MUL) of totally foreign imported combat aircraft. It is an outcome the Indian Air Force seemingly desperately desired, fearing that the combine of Modi and defence minister Manohar Parrikar would impose a future force inventory of the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft backed by the Russian staples — Su-30, MiG-29, and the upgraded Jaguars and Mirage 2000s. To keep Moscow from being miffed, the fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) Sukhoi T-50 entering Russian service by next year, is in the reckoning but just. Considering the desultory pace of negotiations and the tilt away from equipoise, there’s good chance this FGFA may not enter IAF after all.
While the Swedes are hopeful, the Americans confident that in the final analysis a Trumpian twist of Modi’s arm would fetch it a fortune for an assembly line that Lockheed Martin would otherwise have to tear up and throw away as the space in the Fort Worth, Texas, plant is needed for putting in place modern, up to-date production wherewithal for the F-35, and the French are delirious with the possibility not only of adding to the number of Rafales India has generously bought from Dassault that will keep that aerospace major from sinking, by selling 200 more off the same aircraft, off the shelf, if at all possible but, and this is a new avenue that’s suddenly opened up with the Indian Navy appallingly joining the IAF in ditching the navalized variant of the LCA under development — of fobbing off to India its ‘novi avion’ (naval) version as well.
The Modi regime’s somewhat skewed reason for opting for the MUL route for its Make in India programme is the belief that producing any of these aircraft — from the fairly new (Gripen) to the really old (F-16/F-18) in India, will turn this country into a global hub for sales and service worldwide for this warplane. It is a line all the suppliers have succeeded in selling to the GOI. The surprise is New Delhi has swallowed it hook, line, and sinker without so much as a show of discomfort! Then again, the armed services and MOD are habituated to decades of milking the armaments imports cow for the collateral gains, personalized goodies — long good time in Paris, Stockholm, …(fill in the blanks), personal “fund augmentation” and similar considerations that keeps everyone up and down the decision loop happy and lubricating and hurrahing the final deal along.
But, who’s to say India cannot afford its follies? It will be the third largest, multi-trillion dollar economy by 2030 don’t you know? But, in the here and now, there’s no money to buy these cost-benefit-wise wonky aircraft that will, for one reason or another, fail to come up to their billing. However, one thing is certain. In the context of severe resource crunch, this deal — a carryover from the half-baked MMRCA requirement conjured up by Air Hqrs, will be at the expense of the poor, expendable, home-made, Tejas LCA — lovingly designed into a beautiful aircraft that’s now orphaned, its future put in doubt despite having the real potential as huge revenue earner in the global arms market, by a government that talks desi but acts firang. And this is happening even as we hear not a squeak out of the ruling party’s minders in Nagpur.
But Group Captain Madhav Rangachari, CO, “Flying Daggers” 45 Squadron, the only Tejas unit in AF, based in Sulur, Andhra Pradesh will, as a consolation, be allowed to take up his locally designed and developed air defence aircraft to show the crowds below just what the country will miss seeing in the Indian Air Force — an LCA armada with the capacity to take out more exalted fighters in combat.