With general elections expected before May, corruption scandals over high-profile defense deals, and a deflated rupee, Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony, who has cultivated an image of integrity, has taken a go-slow approach on vitally needed military equipment projects.
The slowdown has taken hold as India is expected to spend approximately $100 billion on military modernization in the next 10 years, as a hedge against neighboring rivals China and Pakistan. 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,” a senior Indian defense official says, adding that the country has underinvested in all kinds of military equipment over the last three decades.
The, which receives more modernization funding than the other military services, has experienced some of the most severe contracting-related delays. That includes the program to buy 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) from , 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 value of the 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 antiquatedHS-748 transport aircraft and the operational clearance for the indigenously produced Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) also have been delayed. After cancellation of the helicopter deal due to a procurement scandal, the government also put on hold the proposed acquisition of 197 light utility helicopters to replace the vintage Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) Cheetah/Chetak fleets.
The air force is 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 advanced Tejas with upgradedF414 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 the operational lurch.
“If the MMRCA contract is signed in 2015, the first of 18 aircraft will be delivered after 32 months in 2018 and the last of the remaining 108 aircraft, to be made in India, will become operational in 2025,” Mehta writes.
The air force’s desired combat strength, based on a two-front war scenario, would require around 50 squadrons.
Before retiring on Dec. 31, former Indian Air Chief Marshal Norman Browne warned that the country cannot afford to delay the MMRCA deal beyond this year. If the MMRCA does not become operational by March 2017, force levels will rapidly decrease, he said.