By Prakash Nanda
Compared to its two sister services (Indian Army and Indian Navy), the Indian Air Force(IAF), the world’s fifth largest, is not only the most capital intensive but also the most dependent on foreign supplies. Whether it is fighter planes or transport fleets or mid-air refuellers or trainers or helicopters, the IAF buys everything from foreign vendors. Our indigenously produced fighter aircraft, Tejas (Light Combat Aircraft or LCA) is yet to get Final Operational Clearance (FOC) to be inducted into the IAF. And our indigenous helicopters like Dhurv, Cheetah and Chetak (the last two are licensed products of the French designs), produced at the Hindustan Aeronautical Ltd, are not good enough yet to carry on the advanced multi-task roles that a modern air force needs.
This explains why usually the capital heading takes precedence over the revenue side in the total budgetary allocations for the IAF every year. That is why in the financial year 2015-16, in the Rs 56,107.74 crore that was allotted to the IAF (23 percent of the total defence budget), the ratio of the revenue and capital heads was 41:59. Of course in the previous 2014-15 budget, this ratio was better for the IAF – 39:61; but that does not dilute the point that the IAF spends more on acquisitions than on maintenance.
However, given the challenges that the IAF faces, the fragile security environment that it operates in, and given the possibility of meeting two fronts simultaneously in a future war (Pakistan and China), the allocations on capital front are much below the genuine requirements of the IAF. That has been the trend so far. Last year, the IAF wanted more than Rs 70,000 crore for capital budget while the amount actually allocated was Rs. 33,107.658 crore, which was less than half of the projections. And here, the point to be noted is that of these allocations, there was a negligible amount earmarked for ‘New Schemes’ (less than Rs. 300 crore), the rest being meant for the previous schemes.
As pointed out in a previous piece in this series, the Annual Acquisition Plan (AAP) of each Service is a two-year roll on plan for capital acquisitions and every AAP draft has ‘Part A’ comprising of carry over schemes from AAP of the previous year and approved schemes and ‘Part B’ that talks of new proposals. And it so happens that more than 90 percent of the capital budget goes on committed liabilities, leaving little for fresh acquisitions.
It may be noted that the IAF has a long list of projects planned for induction. This includes the likes of 36 French Rafale Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (which alone will cost more than Rs 60,000 crore), Jaguar Re-engineering, additional Cheetal Helicopters, Medium Lift Helicopter Upgrade, additional Aerostats(radars), additional Dornier(light utility, mainly transport aircraft), additional Flight Refueling Aircraft(FRA), Additional Airborne Warning and Control System(AWACS), Additional Air Command and Control System (IACCS) Nodes, attack helicopters, heavy lift helicopters, Modernisation of Air Field Infrastructure (MAFI) phase II and very short-range air defence systems (VSHORADS).
In addition, design development of Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft with Russia is under progress. We have also initiated the development of our very own Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft called Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). Since obsolescence management as well as capability enhancement is a continuous process, the AMCA is planned to be inducted when some of our current fighter aircraft are reaching the end of their life. All this requires huge money.
It is to be noted also that almost half of the fighter planes currently in use by the IAF are set to be decommissioned over the next nine years. Presently, IAF has 35 active fighter squadrons (this is what the IAF Chief, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha had told me in an interview recently) against government authorised strength of 42 Squadrons (going by IAF’s estimate, India actually needs 45 squadrons), though, according to the latest Parliamentary Standing Committee report on Defence, the actual strength may be down to 25 squadrons. No wonder why the Air Chief was very particular in emphasising that the “shortfall” in fighter aircraft strength must be made good through induction of the remaining contracted Su-30 MKI(with Russia), LCA, Rafale and other suitable fighter aircraft.
The IAF is desperate to achieve the sanctioned strength of 42 Fighter Squadrons as soon as possible. This is all the more so when great number of MiG crashes over the past decade have depleted the fleet (1960 vintage Soviet-built MiG-21 combat jets formed hitherto the backbone of our air power) to ensure that its force levels do not diminish drastically.
In other words, the procurement needs of the IAF are very high, both for acquisitions and upgradation plans. But, not much is being done about it currently, thanks to poor budgetary allocations.
If the past trend is any indication, similar is also the story as far as the revenue budget (broadly for the salaries, perks and maintenance of the existing assets) of the IAF is concerned. The amount projected by Air Force was more than Rs 30,000 crore last year while the actually allocated amount was Rs 23,009.094 crore. This year, the expectation will go up, given the Seventh Pay Commission report. So more than 50 percent of the revenue budget will go to meet the salary requirements alone.
The resultant constraint will certainly impact procurement of spares and fuel and maintenance of older systems (which generally needs more maintenance). Incidentally, spares are crucial for the IAF as there is already a huge shortage of air fleet from the sanctioned strength; without spares there will be a terrible shortfall in serviceability, which, in turn, will impact the operational capability of the IAF adversely. Then there are some unforeseen expenditures that the IAF meets from its revenue head; these include disaster relief (as was the case in Uttarakhand and Jammu and Kashmir).
In sum, whether it is the capital heading (so crucial for the modernisation of the IAF, or the revenue side (so critical for the operational effectiveness of the IAF), the budgetary allocations are abysmally inadequate. All the more reason why the IAF needs an empathetic, not sympathetic, finance minister. Will Arun Jaitley be one such minister, given the fact that he was Narendra Modi’s first defence minister, even though for a short time?