There are few air forces in the world that have such a diverse inventory of aircraft as the Indian Air Force. After the Indian and French Defence ministers signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement for the purchase of 36 Rafale aircraft on Friday, the IAF is now staring at managing one of the most complex fleets in history.

At the bottom of this purchase is another tale of how badly India manages its strategic planning and defence acquisitions. Already burdened with ageing aircraft, the IAF will now have to deal with multiple kinds of aircraft sourced across three continents. The bulk of the IAF’s inventory still comprises Soviet/Russian aircraft – the MiGs, Sukhois, AN-32s, IL-76. Add to this the British Jaguars, French Mirages and Rafales, American C-130s and it starts to look like a circus that picked up every new act that was available to it.

But the nearly Rs 58,000 crore that India will pay for 36 aircraft comes at a steep cost, and ensures there won’t be money to buy the 126 aircraft that it originally needed. Where the balance 90 aircraft will come from and how much they will cost remains unclear.

Some have claimed that the Indian government managed to bring the price down significantly to about Rs 58,000 crore. But different figures have been provided by the defence minister. The original price for 126 aircraft was pegged at Rs 90,000 crore, he said in an interview to Doordarshan on April 13, 2015. He revised this figure to Rs 1.3 lakh crore in a subsequent interview to PTI. How this figure was escalated by the defence minister has not been explained.

However, if the earlier figure of Rs 90,000 crore is correct then the 36 aircraft are nearly double the cost of the original deal to buy 126 of them. The claim of Rs 90,000 crore, incidentally, was made by the defence minister to the very person who has now written that the government managed to reduce the price.

Conflicting claims

What is also revealing is the minister’s claim that this purchase was not to replace the ageing MiG 21s, but of a “high end” aircraft that was needed to plug the IAF’s pressing needs. However, the original 126 aircraft tender had been floated to plug the gap for the ageing MiG-21s. This explains why the MiG-31 and the Swiss Gripen became part of the original bid. How this need was replaced by the need for a “high end” aircraft also remains unclear. It also does not explain why the IAF then chose to ignore the proven Su-30 MKI, which has the same capabilities as the Rafale, but comes at a much lower cost. Either way, it reflects poorly on the higher defence planning process that led to this sudden acquisition.

What is also interesting to note is that in April 2015, the Defence Minister was of the opinion that more Rafales would be purchased. But by May of the same year, his view had changed and he was of the opinion that there wouldn’t be any more purchase of the Rafale. “We are not buying the rest. We are only buying the direct 36,” he told PTI.

With this purchase the IAF will have two functional squadrons of the Rafale. If it buys a further 18 (16 + two trainers), then it will have three. This is exactly what has dogged the IAF in the past. It has two squadrons of the Mirage 2000 and the MiG-29 each. In the past, as accidents dogged the squadrons, the IAF had to make emergency purchases just to keep up with the force levels of the Mirage 2000 squadron.

From a logistics point of view, the IAF is looking at a nightmare. Today, it has to contend with aircrafts and their spare parts from Russia and the former Soviet Republics, France, UK and the US. This complexity will continue to increase if more types of combat aircraft are added to this mix. There is talk of manufacturing the American F-16 in India, which was also competing with the Rafale for the 126 aircraft deal.

The key to any acquisition is the long term integrated planning that every service headquarters undertakes before zeroing in on equipment. The threats that will emanate in the future, coupled with the capabilities of the adversary, go into deciding the kind of weapon systems the military purchases to maintain its superiority. But as this case has shown, contradictory statements and postures, coupled with knee-jerk purchases will only add to the confusion that has dogged India’s military for decades.