As its fleet strength gets depleted even as India’s, security environment worsens, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is in desperate need of inducting more medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). In fact, the early acquisition of a good number of these aircraft has become an urgent necessity for the IAF. After a long process of flight tests and tests for suitability of the aircraft in India conditions, the French Rafale was selected. But negotiations between Dassault, its manufacturers, and the Indian Government have been dragging on for years. Meanwhile, there has been a heavy cost escalation. The original deal was for 8 billion dollars for the supply of 126 aircraft. It has now gone up to nearly 14 billion dollars. Further delay in clinching the deal will mean more cost escalation.
The exact reasons for the delay in clinching the deal are not known. Even after the visit of the French Defence Minister’s meeting with his Indian counterpart in Delhi late last month (Le Drian came for the specific purpose of finalizing the deal), doubts and uncertainties remain. One reason for the delay is said to be the ‘unreliability’ of Dassault as a supplier. The company had entered into an agreement with Russia for the delivery of some aircraft but started delaying its obligations when France came under heavy pressure from the USA and Germany in the wake of the strong Western disapproval of the Russian stand on Ukraine. The IAF developed strong reservations about the French company after this.
Now India is reported to be seeking an alternative to Rafale. One obvious choice is the Russian Sukhoi (Su-37), which is said to have more maneouverability as an MMRCA, equipped with an upgraded avionic suite and fire-control system and its remarkably good thrust-vectoring nozzles. This aircraft recently gave demonstration of its performance at Bangalore along with other countries’ aircraft. The point is that whatever the final choice – the French Rafale or the Russian Su-37 – the decision has to be taken quickly and the required number of aircraft inducted into the IAF without any avoidable loss of time. Assuming that a possible war into which India might be forced will be conventional, not nuclear, the role of the air force in neutralizing the enemy will be crucial and supportive of the ground forces. Prime Minister Modi should intervene to ensure that the acquisition of these vital aircraft is not further delayed.