India’s indigenous light combat aircraft, the Tejas, which is being inducted into the Air Force – has a new brand ambassador. Ng Eng Hen, the defence minister of the island nation of Singapore, flew in the rear cockpit of the plane from the Kalaikunda airbase in West Bengal.
“I am not a pilot,” said Dr Ng, asked about whether Singapore plans to buy the Tejas. “But I can say it felt like I was riding in a car; it was really smooth.”
This is a shot in the arm for the Tejas progamme which has been criticised repeatedly for delays in its development.
The Singaporean Air Force is in India with six F-16 jets for annual joint exercises with India. For a month now, about 100 Singapore air force personnel have been stationed at Kalaikunda with six F16s.
Singapore has very little airspace available in its own island nation and has been leasing out the Kalaikunda base for its drills since 2004.
“Singapore is a small country but with a big heart,” said Air Marshal Anil Khosla, a senior officer of the Eastern Air Command. “When we do exercises for a whole month together, we learn best practices from each other.”
Do Indian Air Force pilots get a chance to fly the F16s? “Not really,” said the Air Marshal. Dr Ng piped up and said, “We don’t fly the Sukhois either.” Letting out a chuckle, the Defence Minister signed off saying, “It is like chef using different equipment. You learn to cook better.”
Behind the light-hearted banter, the India-Singapore defence cooperation agreement is serious business. It was signed first in 2003 and then upgraded in November 2015 when Prime Minister Modi visited Singapore to celebrate 50 years of of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
“Our defence cooperation relationship is very strong and is growing stronger and I will be having a second dialogue with Nirmala Sitharaman in Delhi tomorrow,” said Dr Ng.
India’s strategic partnership with Singapore is part of India’s Look-East policy, its historic ties with the island country and with an eye on China’s attempts to strengthen its influence in the South East Asian region.
China already has considerable say with Bangladesh, Myanmar, Philippines and other nations in the region, but Singapore has been a consistent friend to India.
But will Singapore buy the Tejas fighter? Sources in the India’s defence ministry say they have expressed ground-level interest but an actual placement of an order is very distant.
In fact, the top priority will be to meet the needs of the Indian Air Force, sources said.
No comment, however, on reservations reportedly expressed in some quarters on the effectiveness of the Tejas. ‘Sub-optimal, insufficient fighter platform” is how some IAF quarters have described it, reportedly.