12 minute readVideo: Vayu-StratPost Air Power Roundtable II

StratPost recently teamed up with the defense and aviation magazine Vayu to hold discussions around a round table on the future of Indian air power. These discussions held on July 04, 2014, were meant to shed light on how the fleet structure of the Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter aircraft is expected to evolve over the coming years and decades, given current circumstances.

We invited some of the top officials associated with planning and operations in the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy, some of whom have retired only recently, and who have been closely associated with the MMRCA and LCA procurement programs.

Participants included:

1. Admiral (retd.) Arun Prakash
2. Air Chief Marshal (retd.) SP Tyagi
3. Air Marshal (retd.) Harish Masand
4. Air Marshal (retd.) Nirdosh Tyagi
5. Vice Admiral (retd.) Shekhar Sinha
6. Air Marshal (retd) M Matheswaran
7. Air Marshal (retd.) Jimmy Bhatia
8. Air Marshal (retd.) P Barbora
9. Air Marshal (retd.) SR Deshpande
10. Maj Gen (retd.) Ashok Mehta
11. Brig (retd) Gurmeet Kanwal
12. Air Commodore (retd) Suren Tyagi
13. Col (retd.) Ajai Shukla
14. Capt (retd.) PVS Satish IN
15. Mr George Verghese
16. Mr Vinod Mishra
17. Mr Vishal Thapar
18. Mr NC Bipindra
19. Mr Nitin Gokhale
20. Mr Pushpindar Singh

In the second session, moderator Inderjit Badhwar, senior journalist and editor of India Legal, initiated the discussion on the role of air power in India and fulfilling its requirements.

Speakers include, Air Chief Marshal (retd.) SP Tyagi, Admiral (retd.) Arun Prakash, Air Marshal (retd.) Harish Masand, Air Marshal (retd.) Nirdosh Tyagi, Air Marshal (retd) M Matheswaran, Col (retd.) Ajai Shukla, Mr Vishal Thapar and NC Bipindra.

The discussion deconstructs how the Indian Air Force (IAF) competition for 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) evolved and proceeded to its current stage.


“When we discuss air power, we have basically a continental mindset. Everything is land-based. And we just don’t to realize how much the world has changed.” – Air Chief Marshal (retd.) SP Tyagi

“The moment you’re weak, someone will come and kick sand in your face.” – Air Chief Marshal (retd.) SP Tyagi

“Please understand that mountains eat troops. You cannot launch a major offensive in mountains unless you have enormous number of troops. We will just have to get out of this continental thinking that if we put thousand of men there, everything is going to be fine. Frankly there is a need to see the role of air power in mountainous terrain. In fact, air power does not recognize terrain and this business of getting more and more and more corps and more divisions needs a re-look.” – Air Chief Marshal (retd.) SP Tyagi

“The unfortunate fact is that as a state, India has failed to articulate any national aims, objectives and so on.” – Admiral (retd.) Arun Prakash

“We are spending huge – colossal amounts of money without really knowing what it is all about.” – Admiral (retd.) Arun Prakash

“I have serious doubts about how well that money is going to be spent and how much national security it will buy for us because we fail to articulate aims, objectives, national interest etc.” – Admiral (retd.) Arun Prakash

“Incidentally, out of that budget 92 percent is going to go towards committed liabilities – that means the contracts that we’ve already signed so that leaves only five or six or seven percent for modernization as we see it.” – Admiral (retd.) Arun Prakash

“Since the state has failed to do its job, the services are floundering quite a bit.” – Admiral (retd.) Arun Prakash

“I don’t know how much clarity there is in our air force. Take the MMRCA. If we go by the air force’s choice of the Rafale, which is 85 million dollars apiece, then buying 126 copies of that aircraft is going to cost 120 lakh crores (INR). Which is almost half the budget. Was that a wise decision? At the same time we’re also continuously criticizing our indigenous industry – for good reason. But the big question is for how long are we going to afford buying from abroad?” – Admiral (retd.) Arun Prakash

“I think we have to come down to ground and temper our vision and our doctrine etc, with the fact that anything that we imagine is going to become unaffordable and we have no choice – absolutely no choice but to build it in India.” – Admiral (retd.) Arun Prakash

“From a Pak-centric force, we have to go to – we have to look at our strategic imperatives and look at energy security requirement, trade-route security, out of area contingencies and also make sure that there is conventional deterrence in place. So for all these reasons the force-mix for the future has to be different.” – Air Marshal (retd.) Nirdosh Tyagi

“One comment on 38 squadrons. I think the actual strength is a little lower. Just going by the figure stated in the media, it would be closer to 35. A large part of force will also not be available because of upgrade requirements. Mirage 2000, MiG-29s and maybe, Jaguars – a certain number will be under upgrades so the force availability will be even lower.” – Air Marshal (retd.) Nirdosh Tyagi

“Traditionally, the Indian Air Force mix – the inventory was light and medium aircraft. Sukhoi-30 was the first heavy aircraft and initially 190 were to be acquired. Now slowly we contracted 82 more. And the number is 272 now. This plus MMRCA – plus all other future inductions, will take the mix leaning towards medium and heavy. Now its implication is that your revenue expenditure – operational expenditure will progressively go up. It has already started going up.” – Air Marshal (retd.) Nirdosh Tyagi

“By the time the (MMRCA) RFP was issued the shortlist had turned around completely in favor of twin-engined, heavier aircraft…Did the air force also allow the market to define its requirement? This is something which they have to address.” – Vishal Thapar, Journalist

“We also need to question an open-ended acquisition process where there are no timelines, there are no costs fixed and there is no accountability. We also need to question whether the ministry of defense is actually capable and competent to handle such acquisitions.” Vishal Thapar, Journalist

” I would like to highlight here about the strict timelines that are needed when we do acquisitions for the air force. Since the DPP was introduced in 2006 and the Indian acquisition process going into the global tending system for acquisitions, what we have come to notice is that there have been hurdles put at every stage particularly in terms of once the selection has happened for any acquisition, there are lobbies that work against that acquisition particularly from the rival companies that have lost out.” – NC Bipindra, Journalist

“Specifically (referring) to MMRCA. We should have had the MMRCA now. It can’t be delayed any further.” – NC Bipindra, Journalist

“I think its time for the Indian Air Force to take ownership of – they need a basic trainer, they need a jet trainer, they need a multi-role aircraft, they need a multi-role transport aircraft – its time they took ownership of all these projects and say, ‘Okay, let the Indian aerospace industry get on with it” If you start today, in thirty years you may have a few of these. If you never start, you’ll keep importing.” – Admiral (retd.) Arun Prakash

“If you keep criticizing and rejecting every darn thing that comes out of Bangalore, we’ll keep running in the same place. And we are doomed if we do that. Full stop.” – Admiral (retd.) Arun Prakash

“Could it be the case, that some of the difficulties that the air force is facing in pushing through its acquisition programs is because it has boxed itself into a corner on some of these acquisitions. For example, what Vishal spoke about the contenders for the MMRCA – and now there is this belief – and many air force officers have spoken to me individually on this – there is the belief that if we step back from this we will set ourselves back by ten more years. Could it be that if the air force was told today, ‘Your acquisitions will be pushed through on priority. Rethink the whole force-mix. Would we still go in for the MMRCA?” – Col Ajai Shukla, Journalist

“By 2032, we will have a force of 28 combat squadrons out of which 26 will be heavy. Is that the kind of force-mix that you’re talking about just now? Is that what you want? is that what you can afford and sustain? And with that kind of a force actually do what you intend to do – if you know the roles and missions, the way you fight? We need a severe re-examination of our doctrines and the way we intend to fight the future air battles.” – Air Marshal (retd.) Harish Masand

“Do we really need 35 Surface to Air Missile squadrons? Is that the way we’re going to defend bases which can be penetrated anytime?” – Air Marshal (retd.) Harish Masand

With respect to the MMRCA, the RFI was signed and sent out in November 2004 under my signature… The fact or the point that you’re raising that the air force didn’t have a contention or consideration about cost factors – that two entrants were late entrants – is not entirely correct. It was a very well thought out process. Why because the first four that were involved and in consideration – except for the Gripen – the others were forty-year-old technologies. And you’re going to be inducting an aircraft which was going to come in late – the first decade of the 2000s originally – and you’d be using it for the next forty years. And it was not – we raised the question that is it was worth looking at three of the contenders – F-16, Mirage 2000 and the MiG-29 – they’re forty-year-old technologies. And that was the reason which was also accepted by MoD. And they raised the same question. That’s how the 20-ton limitation was removed. So the light-weight, medium and heavy aircraft consideration again needs to be looked at in the context – they are irrelevant today. And that’s the argument I put on the file and that was accepted at that point of time. You cannot categorize aircraft anymore as light – categorization can only be differentiated in terms of cost considerations and in terms of usage and quick rotation capabilities.” – Air Marshal (retd) M Matheswaran

“Availability, serviceability and reliability will be huge issues. And these are issues which need to be considered. With respect to MMRCA, it should have come, it should have been operational by 2008. Now that we’ve delayed it so long and we’re boxing ourselves into a situation where again cost-factor will come into the picture, you’ve got to decide between FGFA and MMRCA if you’re going to spend 30 billion dollars each on each of the programs – and the country has to take a call. And the reason – the responsibility for this ‘boxing’ is not with the air force. Its with the country as a whole – its with the entire system as a whole. And that’s what you need to look at. Why have you allowed yourself to get boxed in like this?” – Air Marshal (retd) M Matheswaran

“In acquisition processes across th world, you were mentioning you seek capabilities at a particular cost. My point is that there’s no cost-consciousness. Obviously your requirements and even the capabilities have escalated – they’ve moved up. Sure, a Typhoon and a Rafale category has a higher capability than the others which you were considering. And yes, you may regard this as affordable but there’s a quantum jump in costs. The criticism is has the air force, by ‘over-specing’, has it made it the air force’s mountain strike corps?” – Vishal Thapar, Journalist

“What surprises me – since you’re the author of that RFP (MMRCA) – is that what is the significance of the term medium? Is it weight, is it performance, is it range, is it endurance? A. And B – how did you end up with a bunch of aircraft from single-engined to twin-engined, from 17 tons to 30 tons – I mean why did you stand for it? Make up your mind what you want. Whether it is performance, whether it is weight. So I think this mess, in which we are today has been self-inflicted.” – Admiral (retd.) Arun Prakash

“It’s about operational requirements – you know, meeting a certain spectrum of operational utility. You had to have a mix of both – I’m defending that. And I’m defending it very strongly. We had to actually bring in this Medium Multi Role Combat – because it was originally MRCA – primarily because you had to – although I’d said that weight consideration is no more a relevant issue – to categorize aircraft by weight limitations – we had to keep the Su-30 out because otherwise the Su-30 would have come into the competition, as well. And the question would have been raised, ‘Why can’t you buy more of the Su-30s’. Now you can’t put all your eggs in one basket – strategically, it’s unwise. That’s one of the primary reasons. And therefore you created this Medium Multi role Combat Aircraft (competition) which is 30 tons and below. Okay, so the Su-30 is 34 tons and above – 34 tons category. So the heaviest aircraft in this entire category was the F/A-18, which is 29 tons. The costliest aircraft was the Eurofighter, as per our estimation at that point of time. The cheapest aircraft was – and the lightest aircraft was the Gripen. The F-16 would have been the cheapest. But the point is, you had the original contenders who were there in the fray – you couldn’t have removed them because that process had started off. But you had the new technologies – 4 and half generation aircraft and you also had a spectrum of cost differentials from one end -I would say, averaging about 40 million dollars to almost 100 million dollars – or 85 million dollars.” – Air Marshal (retd) M Matheswaran

The duration of this session is 37 minutes, 17 seconds.

Producer: Shruti Pushkarna, StratPost

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