The Indian Air Force Desperately Needs the MMRCA

Bharat Karnad’s article, “Impending MMRCA Waste”, published in The New Indian Express on October 3 is a clear attempt to keep the MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) pot boiling—it warrants a response only to sensitise the environment of the truth, just as the learned professor tries to undermine it with his needless ranting on the MMRCA. There seems to be a desperation that merits serious scrutiny—who or what is the guiding beacon behind his sustained attempt to force policy makers to take a re-look at an acquisition, the need for which was felt as far back as 2001? Is he batting for an outsider who is looking for a “window of opportunity” as the new government settles down, or is he pitching for an ill-informed brigade that seems to think that a “whatever there is to offer” approach, which will cause the IAF to dangerously slip into the “operational red” in a hostile environment is okay just because it gives a fillip to indigenisation.

Depiction of Dassult Rafale with IAF Roundel

Depiction of Dassult Rafale with IAF Roundel

The IAF has been trying to plug operational gaps over the past few years despite assiduous attempts by the likes of Karnad to throw in a spanner at regular intervals. In November last year, a few months after the new Basic Trainer Aircraft (BTA) was acquired by the IAF, the Pilatus PC-7 commenced operations at the Air Force Academy in Dundigal after years of attempting to set the HPT-32 right. Along comes an article from Karnad questioning the Pilatus deal. Worse still, despite numerous crashes on the HPT-32 and a gaping hole in our training preparedness, he wanted the IAF to buy a platform which he called the HJT-44 (actually the HTT-44) whose prototype had yet to be proven. One year down the line, cadets at the Air Force Academy are raving about the Pilatus PC-7, instructors no longer have to worry about extricating themselves from too many life-threatening emergencies and technical glitches, and more importantly, its operational impact will soon be seen when pilots trained in it make the transition to more sophisticated aircraft like the Hawk, Mirage-2000 and SU-30 with ease. Apart from its operational impact, the Chief of Air Staff (CAS) also wants to see less worry in the eyes of parents who send their young adult-kids into the tough world of military aviation—I wonder Mr Karnad if you have ever served as a pall-bearer and heard the last post sounded after a fatal crash involving a cadet under training and/or his instructor.

The CAS did some plain talking at his traditional pre-Air Force Day press conference and clearly highlighted the operational gaps that existed with the IAF’s current force and capability levels, particularly in the offensive domain. The main punch of the IAF revolves around the swing role capability of the SU-30 MKI which is experiencing some maintenance problems that are under resolution. The Mirage-2000 and MiG-29 are in the midst of major upgrades which have long implementation periods to fructify into contemporary capability. Our western adversary has acquired aerial weapons systems that allow it to punch above its weight, and the only way that the IAF can retain its decade-old aerial edge and counter it is by swamping it with a combination of SU-30 and an equally good or better platform. The Rafale emerged as a clear winner along with other ingredients (combination of pricing, life-cycle costs, technology transfer, etc.) that gave it a clear competitive edge over other contenders for the 126 aircraft MMRCA deal in what was an impeccably transparent evaluation process.

Prof Karnad’s contention that the procurement of 12 upgraded Qatari Mirage-2000s in the early part of the last decade was shelved to pave the way for a global tender for an MMRCA that would last well beyond the middle of the century; of course it was and why not if the IAF was getting a significantly superior platform? Karnad would like the public to believe that the purchase decision of the Qatari Mirages was scuttled by the then CAS. Technically, the CAS is not part of the procurement process which has embedded checks and balances at every level. He is not an “approving authority” in any procurement process and to attribute such influence to him is amazing, particularly when it comes from someone like Prof Karnad, who not so very long ago was part of government advisory bodies like the National Security Advisory Board and numerous other quasi-official committees. The accusation, unless proven, could rightfully be tantamount to mud-slinging.

Prof Karnad also attempts to frighten the daylight out of us by predicting a grounding of fleets and closure of manufacturing lines of aircraft like the Eurofighter (EF). How does the Eurofighter suddenly emerge in your target zone, prof? I thought you were targeting the Rafale! Inclusion of Eurofighter in this debate is a canard by Karnad. He rambles along disjointedly in his article about Raytheon, a US company being the manufacturer of the Eurofighter’s data fusion system and the probability of the US pulling the plug whenever they want and grounding the fleet. I think we have come a long way in our relationship with the US.

Air power in modern warfare is not just physical destruction of targets; it is more about affecting the mind of your adversary with coercive capability. A combination of the SU-30, MMRCA (Rafale) and upgraded M-2000 and MiG-29s as your frontline offensive punch is an intimidating mix by any standards. The flexibility that it will afford to mix and match between offensive and defensive missions will offer great security, particularly to the Indian Army as it increasingly looks to the IAF to clear the skies and cause significant attrition to the enemy’s combat potential before it comes into contact with own forces in the Tactical Battle Area (TBA). Smaller and legacy platforms like the LCA, Jaguar, Hawk and the remaining MiG variants will then contribute significantly to the joint battle as they put pressure on the enemy and cause destruction in and around the TBA. That, Mr Karnad, is how a battlefield is shaped if you have the necessary wherewithal—you cannot do it if you remain with 34 squadrons or less for much longer, or opt for platforms that do not meet the requirements of operational commanders. The IAF has always welcomed constructive criticism, but when Karnad dishes out such disruptive writing, he needs to be suitably countered!

Source: The New Indian Express

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