It appears that India is in a perpetual state of search of fighter aircraft—an important arsenal for the Indian Air Force (IAF), which is woefully short of its sanctioned strength (of 39.5 squadrons). Although calculations available in the public domain vary—ranging from the sanctioned 39.5 squadrons to an ambitious 42-46 squadrons for the IAF to maintain its combat edge—the slightly over 30 current squadrons with the fast-depleting MiG fleet has put the IAF in a difficult spot, despite braggart assertions from the highest-level military commanders about India’s growing military aerospace prowess.
While complementing assets such as reconnaissance, surveillance and transport systems of the IAF are getting relatively regularly replenished or strengthened through acquisition in smaller numbers, the combat component as the core of the IAF is deficient, to say the least. This is problematic and worrisome for the state and the IAF. Nowhere in the world the tender for a big-ticket item such as fighter aircraft in such a large number had been placed until India did it in 2004, when it floated a Request for Information (RFI) for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) at a cost of `43,000 crore—to which six aerospace producers from four countries (the US, Russia, France and Sweden) and one continent (Europe) responded to the Request for Proposal (RFP), which was floated in 2007.
An RFI normally precedes elaborate national military acquisition planning, a process that, ab initio, commences from each of the services’ weapons and equipment directorates. Given India’s previous records, it would not be wrong to assume that the necessity for such a tender must have been factored into the IAF’s planning since 2001-02. In sum, the IAF is without a single new combat machine for the last 18 years. This 126 MMRCA tender underwent rigorous technical trials and, subsequently, commercial negotiations through 2012-13 when the Rafale fighter aircraft, produced by the French Dassault Aviation, was declared the eventual winner.
A bout of allegations on a series of large-scale commercial cases, including the MMRCA, followed. The new government subsequently scrapped the MMRCA deal and signed a one-off 36 Rafale deal, signed in 2017, the decision and processes of which are being questioned by the Opposition now—a time when all the political parties are gearing up for the forthcoming national elections in 2019. If India’s military procurement history is of any indication, the IAF may receive a Rafale or the indigenous Tejas individually or simultaneously not before 2020.
In sum, again, the IAF is without a new fighter for two decades. It is now reported that a fresh tender for 110 fighter aircraft (hereafter, MMRCA 2.0) has commenced. Although the details are yet to emerge, the latest tender—the RFI for which was sent, interestingly, to the same bunch of producers—is expected to proceed at a usual pace, and it is assumed that the RFP for the tender could well be sent to the vendors by mid-2019, a time when the current regime could either continue or even change, depending on the outcome of the mood of the country.
If military acquisitions go beyond political regimes—and often times they do—the procurement process for the 110 MMRCA can only be adjusted after the next regime comes to power. And even if the procurement process is shortened (the 643 technical parameters for the earlier 126 MMRCA tender be reduced/supplemented, the time for technical trials is reduced, and the time for commercial evaluations is drastically reduced for the 110 MMRCA tender), it is reasonably assumable that the final contract may not be signed any time before 2022-23—that would be the time for another national election, in 2024, when the Opposition could oppose the decision of the government, once again.
In sum (again), the IAF may get a few Rafale or Tejas, but a quarter century of military preparedness would be lost due to delayed acquisition—a situation that the IAF can ill-afford in the fast-paced aerospace technological environment and increasing multidimensional threats from non-state actors as well as the fluid global security situation. So, whom should a citizen blame for such a mess? I cite four actors—the state (government machinery), the armed forces (in this case, the IAF), the watchdog (Parliament and watchdog agencies like Comptroller and Auditor General of India, or the CAG), and the media. First, at the highest political decision-making level, a large military procurement is approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), presided over by the Prime Minister.
The ministry of defence acts as the processing/implementing machinery in the whole process. The mess and the colossal loss of public money are, therefore, attributable to the state and its bureaucracy in the first place. Second, the IAF is the originator of the demand and the final recipient of the product. Much depends on how the IAF looks at it in a wholesome manner—from threat perception prisms to the eventual induction of the demanded system. Therefore, defence planning comes as the second factor, which needs scrutiny. Third, Parliament is the highest-level institutional watchdog, which has the authority to question the state wisdom, in a proper manner, and hence must question, through its multidisciplinary/multiparty existence, as to what ought to be done to stem the rot in military procurement.
Powerful multidisciplinary institutions such as the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, along with accounting watchdogs like the CAG, can play a decisive role in questioning state wisdom. And last but not the least, the national media is the only connect between state wisdom and ground reality, a task that it has performed miserably for the last several decades on defence issues. Engaged citizenry is the force that can make the state accountable.