Get the feeling that India’s ‘Make in India’ fighter project(s) have gone cold over the last two months? Well, for one thing, you’re not alone. For another, you’re right — it definitely feels like they’re on the proverbial backburner. And there are good reasons. We begin the first of this week’s special two-part deep dive on the Indian Air Force’s Make In India fighter projects by bringing to you a breakdown distilled from a range of conversations over two weeks with several officers leading the acquisitions and plans processes at the IAF and Ministry of Defence.
1. As we speak, a quiet, hard-nosed process is on at the Indian Air Force Headquarters. Budget constraints are nothing new to the IAF. But under its present chief, Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa, the acquisitions and plans wing is conducting a no-nonsense re-ordering of acquisition priorities that will, in the words of a senior officer, ‘see many projects quietly disappear into thin air’. This is almost certainly going to mean blood for high value acquisitions that can be reasonably put off or cancelled.
2. There’s no doubt that fighter acquisitions remain a top priority for the IAF, and the current priority shake-up won’t likely kill any pipeline plans. However, the IAF will almost definitely prioritise funds to add more fighter numbers quickly to the force. This could manifest in a series of ways: (a) A reconfiguration of the Make In India foreign fighter projects to include a definite number of quickly deliverable flyaway units, (b) Fast-tracking the addition of Rafale orders beyond the 36 on contract.
3. By all accounts, the departure of erstwhile Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has come as more than just a speedbreaker in proceedings that require a heavy political foot on the gas pedal at all times. There is no reason to believe that Parrikar’s successor Arun Jaitley won’t shepherd plans onward. But there’s no doubt in the minds of officers on the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), the MoD bureaucracy or at the very top of the IAF, that precious impetus has been abruptly lost with the exit of Parrikar, a rare intangible commodity that must now be rebuilt from scratch.
4. Livefist has learnt that in the weeks and months ahead, a far more realistic acquisition ethic is to become apparent from the Indian Air Force’s requirements wing. The re-ordering of modernisation priorities mentioned above will produce a new list that expunges several declared ‘big ticket’ acquisition plans. Top sources indicate that a clinical pruning (or ‘rationalisation’) of the IAF’s surface-to-air missile requirement, for instance, could be chief among this series of moves.
5. The Indo-Russian FGFA programme appears to be inching its way out of years of a troubling stall. A 5-member Indian committee tasked with identifying and defining what’s in it for India is all set to submit its report to the MoD in a week. In the meantime, reports suggest the two sides are set to conclude a ‘milestone’ design agreement on the FGFA/PMF. While the IAF’s interest in the FGFA remains, Livefist can confirm that the IAF has, at the behest of the erstwhile Parrikar-led MoD, wargamed an acquisitions scenario that envisages the total collapse of discussions with Moscow.
6. The Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP), a tri-service capability roadmap and wishlist produced by the Indian MoD under minister A.K. Antony in 2012-2013 has been an exercise in waste. Top sources say it is no longer even a broad, tentative touchstone for modernisation at any level. Unprioritised and without any committed budgetary support, it remains a sumptuous compilation of presentations with literally no concrete actionable elements to guide force additions.
7. Under Parrikar, the Indian military were able to arrive at the most specific definition of what they needed to be prepared for in all circumstances: ten days of intense operations on any front and across dimensions. All plans, ammunition levels and reserves need to revolve around this. The benchmark was revisited recently at the Air Force Commanders’ Conference. Apart from aircraft both fixed wing and rotary, acquisition priorities include ammunition and ordnance across mission profiles and equipment for the IAF’s small Special Forces units.