IAF Chief justifies govt decision to procure 36 Rafale jets

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New Delhi: Indian Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa Wednesday stoutly defended the government’s decision to procure only two squadrons of Rafale jets against the original proposal of 126 aircraft, saying there have been similar “emergency” acquisitions in the past.

The Air Force is reeling under a severe shortage of fighter aircraft at a time India faces security challenges from two nuclear-powered neighbours, he said, adding that the purchase of 36 Rafale jets (two squadrons) will help the force deal with the situation.

One squadron of fighter jets comprises 16-18 aircraft.

“Whenever the government felt the airpower element of the defence forces is likely to be in a disadvantageous position, it has gone in for emergency purchases of the aircraft under the umbrella of the inter-governmental agreement,” Dhanoa said, addressing a seminar on IAF’s force restructuring.

“The history is that the government had undertaken emergency purchase of fighter aircraft on several occasions in the past,” he said.

The IAF chief said, “By providing the Rafale and S-400, the government is strengthening the IAF to counter the shortfalls of our depleting numbers.”

Asked at the seminar whether IAF has a plan to procure two more squadrons of Rafale jets, Deputy Chief of Air Staff R Nambiar said the force wanted 126 Rafale jets. He said IAF is in the process of 114 fighter jets and Rafale would be one of the contenders for it.

Sources said Nambiar is flying to France on Sunday to review various technical tests on the Rafale jets being readied for supply to India.

The previous UPA government was negotiating a deal with French aerospace giant Dassault Aviation, the makers of Rafale, for procurement of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). However the deal could not be sealed.

According to the proposal, Dassault Aviation was to supply 18 Rafale jets in fly-away condition while 108 aircraft was to be manufactured in India by the company along with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL).

Speaking at the seminar, Air Officer Commanding (AOC) in Chief of Central Command SBP Sinha said deal under the UPA government could not go through because of “irresolvable differences” between HAL and Dassault Aviation on transfer of technology and who will be responsible for manufacturing of 108 aircraft in India.

He said the cost of 18 “fly-away” Rafale was “firmly” known while the cost of 108 Rafale, which was to be manufactured in India, was not known. Sinha was part of the cost negotiation committee for procurement of Rafale under the UPA regime.

The Modi government signed a government-to-government deal with France for purchase of 36 Rafale jets at a cost of Rs 58,000 crore on September 23, 2016. The delivery of the aircraft will start from September 2019.

Sinha said 36 Rafale jets will come with “best in class” weapons and avionics which will “exponentially enhance” combat potential of the IAF.

Congress has been alleging massive irregularities in the deal and attacking the government for procuring just 36 jets when IAF required 126 jets.

Justifying the decision to go for only two Rafale squadrons, Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa said India procured two squadrons of MiG 23 MF jets after Pakistan received first lot of F-16 aircraft in 1983.

He said, in 1985, two squadrons of Mirage 2000 were procured from France, and later two squadrons of MiG 29 were purchased from the then Soviet Union.

“All these procurements were under the umbrella of inter-governmental agreement (IGA),” he said.

He said acquisitions under IGA are “faster” and quickest means of achieving operational capability of the IAF.

The government is also procuring a batch of S-400 air defence missile system from Russia.

The IAF chief said IAF currently has 31 squadrons of fighter jets against the sanctioned strength of 42.

Asked whether the political slugfest relating to Rafale has affected morale of the IAF personnel, he said “no”. PTI