Air Marshal Arup Raha, who will take over as IAF chief from Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne on December 31, has his task cut out. His topmost priority will have to be faster induction of new fighters, grappling as IAF is with just 34 fighter squadrons when at least 44 are needed for "effective dissuasive deterrence'' against China and Pakistan.
The government's formal announcement on Tuesday that Air Marshal Raha, commissioned into "fighter stream'' in December 1974 and currently the IAF vice-chief, will succeed ACM Browne came as no surprise.
But as the man in the hot seat, Air Marshal Raha will have to contend with the fact that IAF has been forced to delay the already long-overdue retirement of its ageing MiG-21s and MiG-27s to ensure the number of its fighter squadrons (each has 16-18 jets) does not fall below 34. IAF will continue to fly its 110 upgraded MiG-21 "Bisons'' (of the total 260 MiG-21s still in its combat fleet) till 2025 to meet the shortfall.
Given its fast-eroding combat edge, IAF's topmost priority is the almost $20 billion MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) project to acquire 126 fighter jets. The long-drawn MMRCA technical and commercial evaluation process began in August 2007, with the French Rafale fighter finally emerging the winner in January, 2012.
But the project — under which the first 18 jets will be imported and the rest manufactured under licence by defence PSU Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) over six years — is still nowhere near being inked.
ACM Browne, earlier this month, had held the IAF has "no back-up plan" to the MMRCA project. "It is the only option, and is highly doable. If we sign it by next year, the first MMRCA should come to us by 2017. We cannot delay it any further. The MMRCA and the first two squadrons of Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (the indigenous fighter project sanctioned in 1983 but still to fully fructify) are very critical for us to maintain our deterrence capability,'' said ACM Browne.
Air Marshal Raha, who has clocked over 3,400 hours of flying and commanded the Central Air Command and the Western Air Command during 39-year career, will have his hands full during his almost three-year tenure as the IAF chief. - Times of india