On the morning of July 22, Indian Air Force flight AN-32, with 29 people on board, took off from the from the Tambaram air base in Chennai, winging its way across the Indian Ocean towards the Andaman Islands, before suddenly fell off the radar and is yet to be found. With each passing day, hopes of those on board surviving the crash dimmed and they are now presumed dead.

The passengers included 11 Indian Air Force personnel, three other Armed Forces officials, one from the Coast Guard and eight civilians, apart from six crew members.

This purported crash couldn’t have come at a worse time for the beleaguered Indian Air Force, already battling depleting combat squadron strength – it reportedly has 32 to 33 fighter squadrons against a recommended strength of 42 – and ageing aircraft, with no end in sight to the crisis.

Rafale deal awaiting take-off

On July 19, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar informed Parliament during its ongoing monsoon session that the deal to buy 36 Rafale aircraft from France was still stuck. Parrikar said both sides were still negotiating and the “the IGA [Inter-Governmental Agreement for the purchase of the aircraft] and the offset contract are yet to be finalised.”

The plan to buy Rafale fighter jets from France has been in the making for years now. In January, during French President Francois Hollande’s visit to India as the chief guest for the country’s Republic Day celebrations, Modi had said that India and France had “concluded an Inter-Government Agreement” for the purchase of the aircraft, but Parrikar’s recent statement indicates that the agreement is yet to be sealed.

Officials in Vayu Bhawan, the Air Force headquarters, told Scroll.in that while pricing continues to be a major hurdle, there are also concerns about the offset clause that has held up the deal.

The original documents state that any foreign company that sells arms to India will have to channelise 50% of the cost back as contracts and business to Indian aviation companies. While the French feel that this is unrealistic, the Indian government is wary of diluting this contract.

“This [the dilution] can be construed as an act to help the French and could lead to adverse remarks from the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Central Vigilance Commission,” said a serving Air Marshal who wished to remain anonymous.

Ageing aircraft

For decades, the Indian Air Force was dependent on the Soviet-era MiG series of fighter aircraft – the MiG-21, MiG-25, MiG-23 and the MiG-27. It started purchasing the MiG-21 in the early 1960s and at one point, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, the government-owned defence manufacturer, built nearly 700 of them.

But with time, the air force was forced to “number-plate” (the official term for retire) a number of its squadrons. Nearly a decade ago, the air force sought a sanction of maintaining at least 45 combat aircraft squadrons (each squadron has 18 aircraft). However, the government sanctioned only 42 squadrons. But as more and more of the older squadrons were number-plated, the Indian Air Force was left with an effective strength of only 30-odd combat aircraft squadrons.

Even the numbers are misleading. Most of the squadrons house about 260 MiG-21 fighters, which are nearly 30 years old. The balance of the squadron is a mixed bag, which reflects the poor planning that has plagued the Indian Air Force for decades. For instance, it has two squadrons of the MiG-29, two of the Mirage-2000, a French jet fighter, and a few squadrons of the Anglo-French Jaguars. Such a large inventory of different kinds of aircraft for a small air force spells logistical nightmare. It also reflects that the Indian Air Force was never allowed to strategise and acquire aircraft on a long-term perspective plan. As and when an aircraft became available, it managed to purchase them in bits and pieces.

Part of the problem was India’s confused view of the changing global geo-politics. In the 1970s and ’80s, it hesitantly started acquiring aircraft from the West, starting with the Jaguar and the Mirage-2000, but inducted them in very limited quantities. Later, it acquired the Sukhoi Su-30 from Russia.

History is set to repeat itself as India waits to acquire 36 Rafale – enough for about two squadrons – from France even as a larger deal to buy 126 of these fighter jets is likely to take longer to stitch up.

Precarious position

Part of the fault also lies in Indian Air Force’s inability to map its future challenges. Had that been done, it could have zeroed in on a particular kind of aircraft and then built it in India.

Instead, it chose to buy what was available in a unipolar world after the collapse of the Soviet Union. By the mid-1980s, Pakistan had already purchased the F-16s from the US, sending Indian Air Force planners into a tizzy. They started scouting for aircraft that could match up to the F-16 and zeroed in on the French Mirage-2000. But as tends to be the case, there were several rounds of discussion on the procurement process before the Centre eventually agreed to buy just two squadrons of the aircraft. Though it proved very effective, New Delhi did not go ahead with further purchases.

A few years later, New Delhi decided to purchase the Russian MiG-29. While plans were afoot to buy larger numbers, the government shut down the Indian Air Force’s proposal, restricting them to just two squadrons. The bulk of the force’s strength continued to be the MiG-21s, a wonderful aircraft in its time but by now an ageing plane that was reaching the end of its technical life. With over 250 in service, the IAF was looking at a serious crisis.

After the 1999 Kargil war between India and Pakistan, the Indian Air Force mooted the idea of buying 126 multi-role combat aircraft that could address a yawning gap. By 2007, plans had been formalised and in 2011, the request for proposals went out. Dassault, the manufacturers of the Rafale, won the bid and a plan was finalised for the purchase of 126 aircraft at an estimated cost of $8.5 billion. But as negotiations progressed, the price of the aircraft continued to climb and at one point, it was estimated that the final cost would be around $12 billion. Soon after taking charge of the Ministry of Defence in 2014, Parrikar said the deal was “effectively dead” and that they would look for indigenous options.

But the indigenous option – the Light Combat Aircraft christened Tejas, was still awaiting Final Operational Clearance. While it is indigenously designed and built, nearly 60% of its parts, including the engine, are imported from different countries. While the government took the decision to induct the first Tejas squadron the Indian Air Force, it is still short by nearly 110 combat aircraft, if one takes the original estimates. The MiG 21, meanwhile, is being phased out, reiterating the need to induct new aircraft.

Privately, Indian Air Force officials admit that they are not very happy with the decision to buy just 36 Rafale aircraft.

“We need a good workhorse aircraft,” said an Air Marshal. “The Rafale is like an expensive Mercedes that is a great product but comes at an incredible cost and throws our limited budget into disarray. What we need are light combat aircraft, just like the MiG-21 was.”

But Parrikar’s statement that the Rafale agreement is yet to be finalised comes as a further jolt to the Indian Air Force’s already precarious position.