Decoding Navy’s Decision to reduce deck-based fighter order from 57 to 36
– Kunal Varshney
Just a few days back, the navy decided to reduce the order for its carrier-based fighter from 57 to 36 units. This is a massive reduction of around 37% (one entire squadron short). The basic reason behind this reduction is surely budgetary constraints on part of the Indian Navy. The Indian Defence Budget estimate for FY 2020-2021 stands at Rs. 4,71,378 crores, however Navy Share of this Budget is merely Rs. 49,623 crores. Of this, only Rs. 26,688 crores are capital allocations which roughly translate into $ 3.56 billion annually (roughly 23.5% of total capital allocation).
The Navy has so many multiple projects ongoing that the current allocation is not enough even to fund the ongoing projects, forget initiating new ones. This means just like the other services, they lacks funds to meet their requirements and this 57 Fighter Aircraft deal as well as its associated expenses can easily cost the Navy $15 billion overall in the next 4-5 years which is quite a commitment and will eat up almost all of the capital allocations of the Indian Navy for next few years.
Presently, the INS Vikrant is getting ready for sea trials and commissioning by 2022-23, while the Indian Navy is left with only 43 MiG 29K, most advanced MiG 29 variant but plagued with availability issues. Even after the spares deal with Russia, the availability of this jet averages around 60-65% currently which means at a given point of time only 26-28 aircraft are available which is almost equal to the compliment of 24 jets required for INS Vikramaditya. This will render either our 2nd aircraft carrier fighter-less or both carriers sharing the available aircraft and operating below optimal capacity till HAL proposed TEDBF (Watch about TEDBF at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BdZNZmDGLqI) comes into picture by 2032 if all goes as planned which is unlikely, looking at HAL’s history for cost overruns and time delays.
A full decade without sufficient fighters for both carriers at a time when both your largest neighbors are hostile can be detrimental for our territorial sovereignty. Pakistan and China are increasingly becoming aggressive against India with both creating almost multiple war-like situations every year and at the same time rapidly modernizing their fleets with new ships and submarines. The Naval planners understand the importance of aircraft carriers in dominating a whole theatre, which is why they have come up with a plan of a reduced off-the-shelf fighter purchase till TEDBF can take shape. Procuring 36 fighters with average availability of around 70-75% will mean 25-27 fighters, enough to compliment INS Vikrant which requires 24 aircrafts.
It is quite interesting that the original requirement of 57 fighters was meant for the upcoming third aircraft carrier, the INS Vishal, as a combination of MiG 29K and NLCA was supposed to arm the first two aircraft carriers but with the MiG 29K having serviceability issues, NLCA lacking the required thrust thus making it unfit for carrier operations, as well as the indefinite delay of the production of the INS Vishal, it seems like the Indian Navy has revised the tender to suit INS Vikrant’s current requirements. These 36 fighters, be it F18 or Rafale M, will cost similar to the IAF Rafale deal at around $8 billion, thus saving the navy around $7 billion, which is enough to fund the whole P75I submarine project or the P18 Cruisers. Saving money for such capital projects makes sure that the Indian Navy uses its funds more efficiently to build up its naval strength.