NEW DELHI — India's quest to build fighter jets through its "Make in India" industry initiative may not be realistic in the near future due to a financial crunch and the lack of in-house building capability, forcing continued reliance on imports, said officials and defense analysts.
The government wants to build over 250 fighters in the next 20 years at a cost of more than $200 billion, which will cover life-cycle cost as well, said an Indian Defence Ministry source.
India is yet to sign the contract to purchase 36 Rafale aircraft from France. Moreover, the serial production of the home-grown Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mark-1 cannot achieve its operational clearance without foreign support. The co-development and joint production of Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) with Russia faces delays, and there is no clarity on the status of the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
According to Air Force projections, fighter aircraft strength is down to 25 squadrons as against the required strength of 45 squadrons. In addition, 14 squadrons equipped with Russian-made MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters will be phased out by 2024.
"We are not sure if we will be satisfied with only 36 Rafale fighters and there is also uncertainty when 120 LCA Mark-1 will be inducted," said the Air Force official. "We certainly need additional Rafale fighters to boost the fighter strength. With the slow pace of fighter inductions, IAF will need at least two decades to attain its authorized fighter strength of 45 squadrons," he added.
Another Air Force official said the government must decide if it would opt for more Rafale fighters or jointly produce single-engine LCA aircraft and accelerate the FGFA project with Russia.
The official noted that by 2032, the Air Force must have 810 fighters or 45 squadrons. The service eventually will have to induct a few dozen squadrons of UAVs to meet threats from both the East and West.
Analysts are unclear how India would meet such an ambitious target.
The domestic private industry is still not mature enough to produce LCA Mark-1 or Mark-2 aircraft plus the AMCA because the supply chain is still developing. Funding worries and political disputes could prevent adequate resources from supporting the huge funds for the homegrown AMCA, said Anil Arora, retired Air Force wing commander and member of Defense Consultants Society of India.
"India will mitigate the risk by either giving repeat orders to France for additional Rafale aircraft or reconsider the fresh offer from any country wanting to make fighters in India," Arora said. Both options for a medium combat aircraft, whether made in India or foreign produced, will be kept open, Arora said.
However, retired Air Marshal Subhash Bojwani said, "I think the question assumes that AMCA will be an unqualified success, thus closing the door on medium fighters from overseas vendors. At this stage, even before the blueprints are far from complete and first AMCA metal is yet to be cut, it's totally premature to guess what might happen in this regard."
Arora asked: "Where are the final specs of LCA Mark-2 and what is the weaponization scheme of LCA Mark-2 as compared to LCA Mark-1. How much of LCA Mark-1 is Indian as of today?"
LCA Mark-2 may be allocated to the private sector due to a shortage of funds. Can India depend on state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics for LCA Mark- 2 and wait for another 30 years, asked Arora.
Bhojwani said, "My wish list would include a mixture of manned and unmanned combat aircraft with the latter being employed for the more hazardous missions. If AMCA makes the cut I would be happy to have it on my inventory of manned aircraft. "
A senior executive of a private sector defense company, who requested not to be named, said, "If funds are available with the government then LCA Mark-2 will see the light of the day in 20 years. One more option of the public-private-partnership model would be a better idea to boost the Indian Industry. The LCA Mark- 2 will be successful if India gets some export orders, in addition to IAF requirements and a new joint venture [with overseas help] will have to be created which gets the strategic partnership for this project."