Hoping to seal the contract for the purchase of 36 French Rafale jets by the end of this year, the Indian Air Force has pinned hopes on struggling home-made solutions — Light Combat Aircraft “Tejas” and yet to be developed indigenous fifth generation fighter — to end the critical shortage of fighter jets.
IAF chief Arup Raha on Saturday sounded optimistic about the ongoing negotiations with the French government for buying Rafales but admitted that adding up numbers to increase fighter jet strength remains a challenge.
Speaking to reporters ahead of Air Force Day on October 8, Air Chief Marshal Raha said that IAF needs six squadrons (around 120 aircraft) of Rafale-type medium multi-role class of aircraft, clearly spelling out that the 36 fighter jets under negotiations are not enough.
The IAF has scrapped the plan to develop an upgraded version of LCA Tejas and will settle for six squadrons of the existing aircraft
He said all the options were available to fill the shortfall but it was still not clear if India will increase the order for Rafales or go for a new aircraft.
The air chief, however, claimed that the selection of Rafale jets was so impeccable that the French aircraft maker Dassault was able to sell the aircraft to many other countries riding on IAF’s strict evaluation.
IAF’s original plan to buy 126 Rafales was scrapped earlier this year by the Modi Government after the prolonged negotiations had hit a deadlock.
A fresh attempt, this time through direct negotiations with the French government, is underway to buy 36 jets.
The IAF needs to add 10 new squadrons by 2027 from the current strength of 32 squadrons.
The force also seems to have made a subtle rejig in its plan to strengthen its fighter jet muscle.
In a significant move, the IAF has scrapped the plan to develop an upgraded version of LCA “Tejas” and will settle for six squadrons of the existing aircraft with certain improvements — better radar, new electronic warfare suit, refueling capacity and improved missiles — in the existing form.
Sources said that existing LCA had 57 deficiencies out of which 45 have been addressed and with four key changes, it can be inducted in large numbers.
The training of IAF pilots on LCA has already commenced with a batch of four and the first aircraft is expected to be handed over by March next year.
Negotiations are underway to buy 36 Rafale jets
In the earlier plan, a more powerful LCA Mk II was proposed to overcome problems in the initial version.
Along with Tejas, development of advanced medium aircraft, an indigenous fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA), will be given impetus with the help of foreign consultant.
The IAF chief hoped that the country had 15 years to develop indigenous FGFA.
The project is crucial considering the fact that India’s joint development of FGFA with Russia has entered rough weather and only political intervention can resurrect the programme.