NEW DELHI • India's government has turned down the military's request to expand the acquisition of 36 fighter planes from Dassault Aviation SA to plug vital gaps, officials said, nudging it to instead accept an indigenous combat plane 32 years in the making.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's decision, in line with his Make-in-India policy to encourage domestic industry, is a blow for not only the French manufacturer but also others circling over the Indian military aviation market worth billions of dollars.
The push for India's struggling Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) also comes at a time when the air force is at its weakest operational strength since the 1962 war against China, which is causing anxiety within military circles.
Since taking over last year, the Modi administration has repeatedly said its overriding goal is to cut off the military's addiction to foreign arms, which has made it the world's top importer.
The air force wanted the government to clear an additional 44 Rafale medium multirole aircraft, on top of the 36 that Mr Modi announced during a visit to Paris this year that are to be bought off-the-shelf to meet its urgent requirements.
But a defence ministry official said Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had told the air force that there were not enough funds to expand the Rafale acquisition and that it must induct an improved version of the indigenous Tejas-Mark 1A.
India's air force says it requires 45 fighter squadrons to counter a "two-front collusive threat" from Pakistan and China.
But it has only 35 active fighter squadrons, Parliament's defence committee said in a report in April, citing a presentation by a top air force officer.
Cleared by the government in 1983, the LCA designed by the government's Defence Research and Development Organisation was meant to be the backbone of the air force due for induction in 1994.
Instead, it suffered years of delay and scientists in India were trying to build the world's most modern light combat aircraft from scratch, including the engine. Eventually they turned to GE Aviation for the engine.
So far, only one aircraft has been produced and even that is awaiting final operational clearance, now delayed to early 2016.
Retired Air Marshal M. Matheswaran, a former deputy chief of the Integrated Defence Staff, said the LCA was obsolete.
"It is a very short-range aircraft which has no relevance in today's war-fighting scenarios.
"If you are trying to justify this as a replacement for follow-on Rafales, you are comparing apples with oranges."