February 03, 2014
Credit: Sitanshu Kar
With general elections expected before May, corruption scandals over high-profile defense deals, and a deflated rupee, Defense Minister A.K. Antony, who has cultivated an image of integrity, has taken a go-slow approach on vitally needed equipment projects.
The slowdown has taken hold as India is expected to spend approximately $100 billion on military modernization in the next 10 years, to boost its military capability as a hedge against neighboring rivals China and Pakistan (see pages 73-76). Defense officials are grumbling about the pace of upgrades given the gap between the country's security goals and its force strength.
“The minister's obsessive quest for an unblemished procurement process has delayed several programs, mainly the acquisition of fighter aircraft,” says a senior Indian defense official, adding that the country has underinvested in all kinds of military equipment over the last three decades.
The Indian air force, which receives more modernization funding than the other military services, has experienced some of the most severe contracting delays. That includes the contract to buy 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) Rafales from Dassault, which won the competition in January 2012. The delay could extend until the end of this year and has forced the air force to extend the operational life of aging aircraft through continued upgrades. In part because of the falling Indian rupee, the cost of the deal is expected to soar to $25 billion. The request for proposals had estimated the program cost at $10.6 billion, or $82.3 million per fighter.
A $3 billion proposal to acquire 56 transport aircraft to replace the air force's antiquated HS-748, or Avro, transport aircraft and the operational clearance for the indigenously produced Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas also have been delayed. After cancellation of the AW101 helicopter deal due to a procurement scandal, the government also put on hold the proposed acquisition of 197 light utility helicopters (LUH) to replace the vintage Cheetah/Chetak fleets.
The air force is technically supposed to have 42 fighter squadrons but has only 34, each consisting of 20 aircraft. Six squadrons use aging MiG-21 fighters.
“All MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircraft will be phased out by 2018-20, leaving 26 squadrons consisting of six Jaguars, three MiG-29s, three Mirage 200s and 14 Sukhoi Su-30s,” writes army Lt. Gen. (ret.) Ashok Mehta in The Pioneer newspaper. “With LCA Tejas Mark-I awaiting final operational clearance, the advance Tejas with upgraded GE 414 engines can materialize by the end of the decade. Under this phase-out plan, any delay, or heaven forbid, cancellation of the MMRCA contract by the new government will leave the Indian air force in operational lurch.