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IAF chief backs Rafale deal, says jets critical to national security

Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa. Photo: Sushil Kumar/HT.

New Delhi: Indian Air Force (IAF) chief Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa on Wednesday mounted a strong defence of India buying 36 French-made Rafale fighter aircraft saying the jets were critical to plug a key capability deficit and hence a national security priority.

Addressing a seminar in New Delhi, Dhanoa said similar “emergency” acquisitions have been made by India in the past—most notably in the 1980s when Pakistan began to acquire US-made F-16s.

“By providing the Rafale and the S-400 (Triumf air defence missile system from Russia), the government is strengthening the IAF to counter the shortfalls of our depleting numbers,” Dhanoa said, linking the purchase of the Rafale with critical national security issues.

Dhanoa’s comments come amid a fierce row over the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government securing a government-to-government deal in 2015 with France to buy 36 Rafale aircraft in a fly-away condition. The deal worth ₹58,000 crore was signed on 23 September 2016.

But the opposition Congress party has said the deal signed by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government smacks of corruption and crony capitalism and has planned a ground-level campaign to corner the Modi government over the deal in the run-up to the 2019 general election.

Dhanoa said India’s armed forces are operating in a unique environment —with 15,000 kilometres of land border to secure as well as 7,500 kilometres of coastline and three million square kilometres of airspace.

The country also has two nuclear-armed neighbours—a rare security challenge faced perhaps only by two other countries, South Korea and Israel, the air chief said.

Giving a snapshot of India’s security scenario, Dhanoa said Pakistan has 20 fighter squadrons—or approximately 320-360 aircraft. China, on the other hand, has 1,700 fighter aircraft with about half or 800 of them being fourth-generation aircraft. “They (the Chinese) have enough reserves to take attrition,” the air chief said building a case for the Rafale.

India’s sanctioned squadron strength is 42, which has dipped to 31, Dhanoa said warning that “what we don’t have are the (squadron) numbers” required particularly in the event of a two-front war where the country would have to fend off a simultaneous attack by both China and Pakistan.

Even with 42 complete squadrons, India does not have the numbers to match the fighter jet fleet of China and Pakistan together, Dhanoa said, adding that this challenge would, however, be partially offset by getting high-tech aircraft.

The need to upgrade in terms of technology as well as numbers of aircraft became critical since Pakistan and China have also embarked on this process, the air chief said, adding that Pakistan has upgraded its F-16 squadrons to the latest 4.5 generation in terms of avionics.

On the other hand, Islamabad is also inducting the Chinese-built JF-17 fighters in large numbers. In the case of China, it is rapidly replacing its older jets and developing fifth-generation fighters that are likely to be deployed soon. “We need the numbers to carry out full-spectrum operations” as well as to absorb attrition, Dhanoa said.

The IAF is investing in the indigenously-made Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), he said, adding that the air force is also looking at an advanced variant of the LCA to replace its mainstay Mirage, MiG and Jaguar aircraft.

But “we can’t have an air force of only medium tech platforms. We need to have fighters that will win the high-end fight. The proposed induction of the high-end fighter (Rafale) fits into this bill,” Dhanoa added.

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