The next government will have to speedily address the Air Force’s shrinking fighter strength and finalise a deal with global bidders to arrest further attrition of the IAF’s 31 squadrons—42 are needed to defend our skies.
Lockheed Martin Aeronautics last week said it is ready to offer F-21 fighters exclusively for India, in response to the IAF’s move to acquire fighter jets. The US-based company said the jets would be produced in India along with Tata Advanced Systems.
On the face of it, especially with the understated offer of sharing futuristic technologies of the fifth generation F-22 and the F-35, the proposal sounds good.
But the discussion around F-21 cannot ignore the possible geopolitical shift, considering that even now, a significant chunk of India’s defence procurements are sourced from Russia.
Opting firmly for an American alliance would mean that India should deal with the overt Russia-China axis that is acting against the US.
There are other risks involved as can be seen from America’s objections to India’s procurements from Russia or oil deals with Iran. A pro-US tilt would also call for political concessions.
Besides, there is also the emerging Chinese military power threatening Indo-Pacific states that calls for a countervailing force such as Quad that Russia can’t be part of.
This is where a European tie-up akin to Rafale helps retain freedom of action while limiting diversification of weapon systems, which call for larger inventories.
The recent Indo-US military cooperation has indeed resulted in significant military acquisitions, besides the GE-414 engines to rescue Tejas.
India had cancelled the $20 billion medium multi-role combat aircraft deal to focus on Tejas while reopening bids for heavier fighters.
But the delays in prescribing pre-qualification criteria and identifying domestic strategic partners is what the country cannot afford.