Warplanes: India Crippled By The Politics Of No


April 3, 2016: Senior Indian air force leaders are going public with their fears that the continued inability to obtain new fighter aircraft is causing the fighter force to fade away. The numbers are stark. In 2000 it was believed that 45 fighter squadrons were needed to cope with aggression from both Pakistan and China (both traditional enemies and now allies). By 2013 the goal was reduced to 42 squadrons but aside from getting more of the troublesome Russian Su-30ss the fighter fleet continued to shrink. Currently there are 33 squadrons and 14 of those are elderly MiG 21s and 27s that have to be retired by 2024. Right now the core of the fighter force is ten Su-30 squadrons. Several more will be added by the end of the decade but that is not enough and the growing reliability problems with the Su-30 make it politically impossible to get the money to expand Su-30 production.

Since 2000 there have been repeated and sometimes simultaneous efforts to buy new fighters. But the usual procurement problems (an inefficient bureaucracy, political deal making, charges of corruption and demands that the air force buy locally) have combined to block nearly every attempt to replace the rapidly aging fleet of Russian MiGs and a smaller number of French and British warplanes. The effort to build a locally designed light fighter (the light combat aircraft or LCA) are stalled as are most efforts to develop weapons in India. A sound and necessary proposal to buy 126 foreign fighters is stalled because of political disputes over who to select. Corruption used to be the most likely cause but these days it’s simply political differences.

The air force leaders are frustrated and apparently feel speaking out, despite the damage to their personal reputations and careers is a worthwhile risk if it gets enough popular pressure on the politicians to make a decision. For the air force the usual responses of, “no” or “we haven’t decided yet” will not do.


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