Those who relish political scraps will be thrilled at the latest episode in the Congress-Government confrontation over the price of the 36 Rafale jets being procured from France in a flyaway condition. Despite all its vitriol, with some French assistance, the Government cannot satisfactorily explain why only in relation to this particular purchase is the Indian taxpayer being denied an official “ball-park” figure of the cost of the planes.

That causes some to smell a rat, which gnaws away at the technical quality of the fighter. The IAF community, however, would be gravely concerned that the dogfight actually diverts attention away from a critical issue facing the force ~ the failure to contain the dwindling strength of its combat fleet. Against a projected minimum strength of 42 squadrons (16-18 planes each) the IAF now has only 31.

All the “noise” about 36 Rafales will hardly alter that situation, particularly since the previous UPA government was negotiating for 126 of them. More of the obsolete MiG series are due for retirement, and the home-built Tejas remains a costly pipe-dream. Little progress is evident on the move to acquire another 114 fighters from abroad: even the general specifications have not been finalised, the planes could be two Lok Sabhas away. Yet 36 Rafales hog the headlines.

The defence minister loses not a mini-second to join issue with the Opposition on the Rafale but prefers a rather shameful silence on reports that the fighter-shortage situation has deteriorated to the level that the MoD/IAF are now scouring the international market for “junked” Jaguars ~ the IAF’s premier DPSA (deep penetration strike aircraft) that is capable of delivering nuclear weapons as well as attacking hostile warships. The production lines in both HAL and Europe have shut down, spares are becoming a problem (the Royal Air Force has moved on from Jaguar to Tornado), so planes no longer required in the UK, France, Oman etc. are sought to be bought and cannibalised to facilitate the IAF plans to “up-engine” 80 Jaguars and keep them in operational condition for another 15 years.

The procurement of other junked planes is also on the cards ~ the IAF is fast moving back to the scenario of the mid-1960s when only the skills of the pilots flying Gnats and Mysteres kept the Pakistani Sabres and Starfighters at bay. And now the China-Pakistan link adds an ominous angle to the equation. The NDA-government makes much of its commitment to the armed services, flays as unpatriotic or seditionist any bid to “question” the forces, but the trio of Arun Jaitley, Manohar Parrikar and Nirmala Sitharaman have failed to come to grips with the diminished punch of the IAF. And this is one battle which will not be won by mounting a tirade against the Opposition, moving privilege motions in Parliament etc ~ military muscle is not built by politicking, however robust.