It was reassuring to hear from the defence minister that the manufacture of Tejas, the supersonic, lightweight, all-weather, multi-role fighter designed for air-to-air, air-to-ground and air-to-sea combat roles, isn’t being shelved. HAL will not only continue to make the jets at a faster pace of 18 a year, up from eight, it will also explore the possibility of supplying an upgraded Mark-II version. The IAF’s critical shortage of squadrons (it has around 31 now, against the 42-45 that it needs) is well known, and the final contours of the Rafale deal reveal that the French jets won’t address the need for numbers in IAF squadrons significantly. Only 36 are being bought, against the original estimate of 126 aircraft.
It’s apparent the defence ministry is acting more in line with meeting urgent defence requirements, and whispers about the Rafale deal shouldn’t distract it from the urgent need to replenish weaponry and modernise the forces. A lot more strategic preparedness is required, and the modernising of the air fleet, that is critical to the defence of our mountainous borders in the north and northwest, should be the utmost priority. Foreign interest in the Tejas (Singapore is an intending buyer) also lends the fighter the status it deserves even if it doesn’t quite meet the Navy’s requirement for takeoff from aircraft-carriers. The Indian Navy too badly needs jets and helicopters, and the current scenario requires more speed than the traditional personnel strength. Greater transparency will also help everyone see defence deals in the right perspective as there’s just no second opinion on how vital they are in the defence of the nation.