(This was originally posted On Times Of India by Rajat Pandit)
From mid-air refueling aircraft and trainer planes to drones, light utility helicopters, and minesweepers, the armed forces are increasingly looking to lease military equipment and platforms to plug urgent operational gaps amidst the prevailing fund crunch.
The Army, for instance, is now finalizing the lease of four advanced Heron Mark-II medium-altitude long-endurance UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) from Israel, while the upgrade of its existing drone fleet takes place, say sources.
The Navy is already extensively using two MQ-9B Sea Guardian drones, variants of the iconic armed Predator drones, for long-range surveillance missions over the Indian Ocean after leasing them from a US firm last November.
The maritime force also recently issued a request for information (RFI) to foreign companies for the lease of 24 twin-engine armed light utility helicopters, with all maintenance support, for a period of five years.
The move has come due to the continuing delay in even launching the long-delayed Rs 21,000 crore ‘Make in India’ project for 111 naval utility helicopters with foreign collaboration to replace the existing fleet of obsolete single-engine Chetak choppers that operate from warships.
“The aim is to mitigate short-term capability gaps. Leasing was introduced as a separate provision in the Defence Acquisition Procedure last October. It will cut time delays and initial capital costs,” said an officer.
IAF, in turn, is now finalizing the “wet lease” of one A-330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) aircraft from France for training purposes. This comes after the force’s repeated attempts to buy six new flight refuelling aircraft (FRA), to extend the strategic reach of its fighter jets, have come to naught.
Though IAF overall needs 18 such “force-multipliers”, it is currently making do with just six IL-78 aircraft inducted in 2003-2004. “By leasing at least one FRA, we can save the flying hours of the IL-78s for operational purposes,” said an officer.
IAF has also issued a RFI to foreign companies for leasing around 20 basic trainer aircraft for rookie pilots since the long-delayed indigenous HTT-40 aircraft is yet to enter full-scale production. In August last year, the defence ministry had given the initial nod for the Rs 7,600 crore procurement of 106 HTT-40 aircraft from Hindustan Aeronautics.
The Navy is also looking to lease operational and auxiliary support vessels, ranging from desperately-needed minesweepers to tankers, barges, and tugs. It is bereft of advanced mine counter-measure vessels (MCMVs), with its 16-year-old project to indigenously build 8-12 such vessels to detect and destroy underwater enemy mines yet to take off till now.
The leasing of “offensive” platforms like fighters or missile systems is, however, not considered to be feasible at present. “Some countries do lease such platforms but they are part of a military alliance like NATO. Though we currently have a nuclear-powered attack submarine (INS Chakra) on lease from Russia and will get another to replace it soon, India has a strategic autonomy policy,” said another officer.