IAF continues defence of Rafale, air chief cites 'grave threat'

Indian Air Force chief B.S. Dhanoa after flying the Rafale on a visit to France in 2017 | Facebook account of Indian Air Force

A week after two senior officers of the Indian Air Force were perceived to have 'stepped into' the raging controversy over the purchase of 36 Rafale fighters by justifying the need for the aircraft, the IAF chief on Wednesday argued that the French weapon system would enhance the IAF's capabilities.

Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa was speaking at a seminar, 'IAF's Force Structure, 2035' in Delhi on Wednesday. Dhanoa explained the IAF's need for advanced weapons on the grounds that “no country in the world is facing the kind of grave threat that India is confronted with.” Dhanoa referred to the Narendra Modi government's decision to purchase 36 Rafale jets and ongoing negotiations for the Russian S-400 missile system as an attempt to shore up the IAF's falling strength.

Dhanoa explained that a major issue facing the IAF was its falling fleet strength as the service currently has only 31 aircraft squadrons against a sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons. Dhanoa noted that Pakistan had approximately 20 fighter squadrons and China had a fleet of nearly 1,700 fighters, of which around 800 were 'fourth-generation' aircraft (In the same vintage as the IAF's SU-30MKI, Mirage-2000 fighters and capable of multi-role missions). As a result, Dhanoa said even if the IAF reached its sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons, it would still be outnumbered by the combined fleet of Pakistan and China.

Dhanoa noted that China had increased deployments of aircraft, missiles and radars to facilities in Tibet.

Interestingly, Dhanoa justified the purchase of just two squadrons (36 fighters) of the Rafale, down from an earlier tender to buy 126 jets, saying that such purchases had been made in the past as well. Critics say the low number of squadrons would mean increased operating costs given the need to develop operating and training infrastructure for the Rafale, which is a brand-new fighter for the Indian Air Force.

Dhanoa's comments come a day after lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan, in a joint press conference with former BJP leaders Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie on Tuesday, alleged the Modi government was pushing serving IAF officers to speak in favour of the Rafale deal.

"Government's attempt to shoot from the shoulders of men in uniform by stating that the [Rafale] deal was made on account of urgency is contrary to facts and makes a mockery of the elaborate defence procurement procedure," Bhushan said.

Last week, Deputy Chief of IAF R. Nambiar said the Rafale would revolutionise air power in the subcontinent, but the deal was being discussed for all the wrong reasons. Another IAF official, vice chief of IAF Air Marshal S.B. Deo said critics of the Rafale deal did not have the right information.

(With PTI inputs)