By Bharat Karnad
There’s a report about the Pakistan Air Force acquiring a squadron of Mirage 2000-5s from Qatar. But for the interventions by ACM S Tyagi (Retd)—yes, the same IAF chief since fingered in the Agusta-Westland scam, sixty of these planes would have been in the Indian fleet, a decade back. These Mirages with 80% of their operational life intact, would have speedily made up the depleting fighter squadrons Vayu Bhavan keeps bellyaching about.
Again, the PAF had a while back secured all the Mirage – IIIs/Vs they could get their hands on from anywhere, especially from richer air forces (including Australian) phasing out these aircraft. It proceeded to upgrade the radar and avionics, configuring them to fire more modern weapons. UAE has also expressed its willingness to sell Pakistan (with Saudi compensation and American OK in mind) upto two squadrons of the Mirage 2000-9s in its air force. Actually, UAE was planning on diverting 60 of this aircraft to Iraq except Baghdad has chosen to go in for Russian combat aircraft.
The PAF has long experience of handling these Mirages because its pilots regularly fly these planes for the Qatari and the Emirati air forces.
The same PAF attitude of getting something reasonably good for a small price is elsewhere coming into play with respect to the F-16. Rather than paying $270 million per plane for 8 new F-16s from the US, a squadron’s worth of this aircraft is being procured at a fraction of the cost from Jordan. It helps that the Saudis will pay for this transaction (as they have for similar deals in the past), and that it has prior approval of the US.
Washington has also agreed to help the PAF brass firm up the supply of spares for the ex-Jordanian F-16s from Ankara (via possibly the US stores prepositioned at Incirlik, the NATO air force base in southern Turkey). Moreover, these ex-Jordanian F-16s are likely to be upgraded to “Block 60 plus” level through the US-Turkey route. These Blk-60 F-16s, it is said, will be enabled to fire the Chinese-designed Ra’ad cruise missile in the PAF’s employ. Their missile, many apprehend, is outfitted with the terrain mapping technology for guidance to target on-board the US Tomahawk, which fired from a ship in the Arabian Sea against an Afghan target crash-landed in Pakistan instead, and was promptly shipped off to the Chinese, who reverse engineered the guidance system and besides equipping their own CJ series of cruise missiles, also passed it on to Pakistan for fitting on the Ra’ad.
By way of reference, the F-16 Blk-60 is what the US government and the Lockheed Martin chief, Marillyn A. Hewison, recently in New Delhi, are pushing the Modi regime to buy and manufacture locally under the aegis of the ‘Make in India’ programme.
Witness the pattern here. Petro-rich and spendthrift nations of the Gulf, more paranoid than with brains, are replacing the perfectly serviceable Mirages with the over-expensive Typhoon Eurofighter. On the other hand, the PAF, compensates for its manifest resource scarcity with innovative thinking and retrofitting older aircraft with newer radar, avionics, and weapons to have a relatively technologically in-date force at all times.
The IAF, spoiled by the Indian government sans expertise which, if it can be imagined, has even less common sense and can’t manage the inter se priorities if their lives depended on it, errs on the side of caution and even though cash starved, behaves as the Gulf states do—throwing money around for new and shiny military hardware as if there’s no tomorrow.
Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has the right instincts, and sees Su-30MKIs upgraded to “super Sukhoi” level and hordes of Tejas Mk-II as the answer to IAF’s problems of sustaining fighting prowess and filling the combat squadron gap. Of course, IAF geared to always plonking for the cost-prohibitive option is pleading for 36 French Rafales (at $290 million), two squadrons of which dainty aircraft will be good for nothing except as show pieces clogging up the operational picture and, in any case, won’t make up for the declining fighter strength.
Besides every other advantage, including it being the best fighter plane in the skies today, the Super Sukhoi Su-30s can, for instance, make mincemeat of the Rafale as also the latest fighter in the US stable, the disastrous F-35 Lightening-II, which as American experts, such as Pierre Sprey, claim can’t maneuver, can’t fight, and can’t get out of harm’s way. Speedily inducting more Super Sukoi-level Su-30 squadrons will immediately ramp up many times over IAF’s fighter presence in the skies.
This is because the Rafale or any other aircraft (F-16/F-18, Typhoon Eurofighter and Saab Gripen NG) that will be new to IAF and cannot be operationalized without the basic training, diagnostic, and maintenance infrastructure in place and which to be installed will take anything up to six years, until 2022, if the acquisition decision is made today. On the other hand, large numbers of fresh Su-30 entrants into IAF can be immediately serviced with the infrastructure already in place at a bunch of air bases all over the country. This to say that no matter what metric is used, there’s no getting around the Super Sukhoi Su-30 as the best, most cost-effective, no brainer choice before the Indian govt and IAF, unless one assumes that either IAF or GOI or both have brain-freeze.
Unless, Prime Minister Modi completely loses all perspective, rejects Parrikar’s logical thinking, and orders the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley to release funds for some Western combat aircraft buy or the other, whatever the deleterious consequences for the national interest, the only economically feasible choice is, priority-wise, to get huge numbers of Tejas Mk-II produced by Indian private sector defence companies in parallel production lines with HAL, in the air, along with super Sukhois acceleratedly manufactured at HAL, Nasik.