India has an appetite for single engine fighters

Much debate has happened in India over buying or producing fighter jets for its Air Force. Opinion is divided, should these be single engine jets, or twin-engined, or a healthy mix of both.

Fiscal prudence and sheer 30 percent higher cost in procuring and operating a twin-engine plane had made the Indian Air Force (IAF) opt for a mix of both. The IAF is mandated to get 42 squadrons ( some 16 -18 planes in each) that translates into some 700 jets, including those for training , with varying capabilities, different payload carrying capacity, ability to strike at targets in air or ground.

The biggest chunk of – existing capacity – is the twin-engined variety, some 415 in number. This includes 252 of the twin-engined Russian Sukhoi 30 MKI’s; 61 of the Soviet Union design MiG 29 and another 102 Jaguar jets of British origin.

Another 56 twin engined will be added soon, including 20 Sukhoi-30 on order and the 36 Rafale which will start arriving in September. Besides this the IAF is looking to get an additional 18 of the Sukhoi-30 and 21 of the MiG 29 as emergency purchase from Russia, in both cases the order is yet to be placed. These drastic steps stem from the fact that the IAF is now operating with just 33 squadrons, 9 short of the mandated 42 okayed as per threats of simultaneous two-front war with Pakistan and China.

The existing and future shortages will all be of single engine jets. The IAF is operating some 110 odd numbers of 1960’s design MiG 21 and 1970’s design MiG 27 jets, both are single engined. These are to be phased out by 2024. “The MiG-21 and MiG-27 UPG aircraft of Indian Air Force will be phased out on completion of their Total Calendar Life / Total Technical Life by 2024,” The Ministry of Defence informed the Parliament.

The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas produced by Public sector giant Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is single engine plane. The production line churns out 12 per year and 123 of these are needed at this pace it will take 10 years. The other single engine plane is the Mirage 2000, The IAF has 51 of these, produced some 35 years ago. These have undergone a major upgrade, but will be due for replacement in 7-8 years from now.

Among all this, the need for a single engined jet exists. Some 150 new jets are needed. Another 200 are needed after 2027 when the Jaguar and Mirage have to be phased out. With the scales already weighed down by huge inventory of twin engine planes, India has space for single engine planes. Indian had tendered for 114 new jets, details are awaited.

Our Take: A single engined plane is not a bad plane. The LCA production is slow. There is scope for foreign vendor partnering an Indian company to start off making single engine planes. These will be cheaper to operate. With Military budgets hitting a plateau, the Indian MoD has ordered fiscal prudence.

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