Govt Scraps Single-Engine Fighter Plan

NEW DELHI: The government has scrapped its two-year-old plan to produce 114 single-engine fighters with foreign collaboration under the “Make in India” framework, at an estimated cost of Rs 1.15 lakh crore (almost $18 billion), amid the political slugfest between BJP and Congress+ over the Rs 59,000 crore contract for 36 French Rafale jets.

Top sources said the defence ministry (MoD) has directed IAF, down to just 31 fighter squadrons (each with 18 jets) now when at least 42 are required for the “collusive threat” from Pakistan and China, to come up with a new proposal that will take both single and twin-engine fighters into account.

“The original plan placed an unnecessary restriction on only single-engine fighters, which limited the competition to just two jets (American F-16 and Swedish Gripen-E). The aim is to increase the contenders and avoid needless allegations later,” said a source.

Incidentally, F-16 manufacturer Lockheed Martin had joined hands with Tata Advance Defence Systems Ltd, while Swedish aviation major SAAB tied-up with the Adani Group in anticipation of the mega project to produce the fighters in India under MoD’s ‘strategic partnership’ policy, as was earlier reported by TOI.

Faced with a further two-year delay now, which will ensure the beleaguered force will not be able to reach its sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons even by 2032 as projected earlier, the IAF is now scrambling to finalize the new plan based on its operational requirements, the required transfer of technology and other aspects.

It was the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar who had advised IAF to go in for the single-engine production line because he said the country could afford only 36 of the twin-engine Rafales for meeting its “critical operational necessity” immediately. Single-engine fighters, of course, have a lower acquisition and operating cost even if there is a slight compromise in capability.

But they alone will not make up the numbers. With all the 10 existing squadrons of old MiG-21s and MiG-27s slated for retirement by 2022, it’s projected the number of squadrons will go down to 19 by 2027, and may further reduce to 16 by 2032, given the long delays in the indigenous Tejas fighter.

The new project to include both single and twin-engine fighters will, in effect, be a repeat of the MMRCA project first proposed by the IAF in 2001-2002. The formal tender or RFP (request for proposal) for the MMRCA project, under which the first 18 jets were to come in flyaway condition and the rest 108 being licensed produced by defence PSU Hindustan Aeronautics, was floated in 2007.

While the F-16 and Gripen-E as well as the twin-engine Russian MiG-35 and American F/A-18 were rejected after exhaustive field trials, the Rafale in 2012 had emerged the winner over Eurofighter Typhoon after commercial evaluation. But the final negotiations were deadlocked for long before being scrapped in June 2015 by the NDA government.