Two new Rafale squadrons are fine, but IAF's dwindling fighters a worry: Former Air Marshal Gogoi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi might have pulled a rabbit out off his hat while visiting France, when he decided to buy 36 Rafale fighter aircraft in fly-away condition for the Indian Air Force.

At a time when the country is facing an alarming shortfall in fighting squadrons - the IAF has been left with only 34 squadrons against a sanctioned strength of 42 - this is welcome relief, even though it means the old UPA deal for 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) is now dead.

To find out the pros and cons of the NDA's Rafale deal, Firstpost spoke to former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, South Western Air Command, Air Marshal Anjan Kumar Gogoi, in an email interview. Edited excerpts:

 Two new Rafale squadrons are fine, but IAFs dwindling fighters a worry: Former Air Marshal Gogoi

Air Marshal (Retd.) Anjan Kumar Gogoi. Image courtesy IAF

With the $20 billion deal for 126 Rafale fighter jets with Dassault Aviation hitting a dead end, how is the off-the-shelf purchase of 36 jets going to help the Indian Air Force?

The Rafale deal has been stuck for years. Thirty-six aircraft being inducted into the IAF is good news for the IAF. It will certainly give a big boost to the present IAF capability. The timeframe for the induction is critical. The earlier it happens, the better. But what is practically possible is a big question.

A study conducted by IHS Jane's Aerospace and Defense Consulting found that the cost per flight hour for Rafale is $16,500. If expenses are a worry weren't these costs kept in mind earlier?

The IAF did a commendable job of professionally evaluating the contesting fighter aircraft and selecting the Rafale. I fully endorse this selection, including the lifecycle cost assessment. The figures that you quote about the operating cost of the Rafale were taken into account while making the 'lifecycle cost' assessment.

While the sudden decision to buy two squadrons in fly-away condition won the government applause, the truth is the rigorous selection process through which Rafale was selected was also negated. Being a former air warrior do you find this decision professionally good?

It is based on the assessment which I had mentioned above that the government of India now has decided to procure the 36 Rafale aircraft through a different route - government-to-government agreement instead of the normal tendering route. This change in the process of procurement can only be answered by the Ministry of Defence.

With no transfer-of-technology happening, won’t it be difficult to maintain these aircraft?

Maintenance of an aircraft and transfer of technology are two separate aspects. Yes, by inducting the 36 aircraft through "off-the-shelf" procurement there would be no transfer of technology. Other aspects like 'Make in India' as well as 'offsets' would also have to be worked out when the contract is signed. This aspect also can only be explained by the Ministry of Defence.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar recently said that the Rafale jets were never meant to replace the ageing MiG 21s and the MiG 27s. Is it a new development or was this line of thinking always there?

I do not remember the exact types of aircraft the Rafale was supposed to replace (when you make a case for new procurement this is specified in the proposal). But the LCA Tejas was supposed to replace the MiG 21s.

There was a Reuters report recently saying that Sweden's Saab and the US Lockheed Martin might pitch in with their Gripen and F-16 respectively as replacements for the ageing MiG fleets. Should the IAF go for foreign shopping or allow the LCA Tejas to take its own sweet time?

I am not aware of the Reuters report that you are referring to. But I believe that the Tejas aircraft would be a good replacement for the MiG 21s. We need to support the Tejas programme so that the aircraft is operationalised at the earliest. There is very little left (though long overdue) to fully operationalise the Tejas.

Is India now completely dependent on the Sukhoi Su-30s when it comes to guarding the skies. Will increasing the Sukhoi squadrons considerably provide us with some kind of deterrent against enemies?

The Su-30 MKI is a fantastic aircraft but a generation behind the Rafale in technology. The Su-30 MKI is fully capable of not only guarding our skies but also delivering a very good punch to the enemy. It is truly a multi-role aircraft -- maintenance-intensive but a true deterrent in the real sense.

Instead of focusing largely on getting its 4th Generation fighter aircraft fleet okay, should India get more serious on developing its 5th generation fighter aircraft programme in collaboration with Russia?

The Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) is a developmental aircraft and is still a few years away even for the Russian Air Force. The IAF is quite involved in its development and I am sure when operationalised, the FGFA would serve the IAF well. But that is still, in my opinion, five to 10 years away.

In 2011-12, 12 (5 MiGs), in 2012-13, four (two MiGs), in 2013-14, six (four MiGs) and in 2014-15 up to 25 February, six (03 MiGs) crashed, killing 11 personnel. Despite such heavy loss of men and machine why is there no synergy between the Ministry of Defence and the IAF?

This is a very old and often repeated question. Yes, in the recent past the MiG 21 has had a history of accidents. But there are many factors which contribute to this statistic. A lot has been said and written on this topic. Personally I can vouch for the MiG 21 as a safe and very capable aircraft having flown the MiG 21 for over 2,500 hours (all accidents free)!

Diminishing strength of fighter aircraft squadrons is a real concern for the IAF. But that is where management of resources and well thought out deployment plans to meet the twin contingencies as well as other sub/non-conventional threats come to the fore. I am sure the IAF has ingenious plans to meet these eventualities. But there is a limit to what can be achieved with dwindling resources! Hence the urgency to induct new types of aircraft like the Rafale.

What is the biggest impediment to modernising the IAF? Is it lack of political will, lack of funds or something else?

Modernising the IAF cannot be viewed or done in isolation. IAF as an instrument of national security must be in sync with other instruments of national security. Procurement of aircraft and systems for modernisation of the IAF is only one aspect of modernisation. There are other aspects like improvement of infrastructure (airfields, maintenance and logistic infrastructure and training). The IAF has progressed and achieved a lot and so has the country. Having been part of many multinational exercises and operations with all major air forces of the world I would like to assure you that the IAF is second to none in professionalism and operational capability. I do not believe that there is lack of funds or political will in modernising the IAF. However, the process is slow because at times there is lack of synergy among various departments and agencies responsible for modernising the IAF.

Find latest and upcoming tech gadgets online on Tech2 Gadgets. Get technology news, gadgets reviews & ratings. Popular gadgets including laptop, tablet and mobile specifications, features, prices, comparison.

Updated Date: Apr 23, 2015 16:02:14 IST