New Delhi: Admitting to a shortage of fighters, the IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, on Saturday expressed hope that the negotiations for purchasing 36 Rafale jets off-the-shelf from France would conclude by the year-end.
He said the negotiations for the deal, finalised during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's France visit in April, was progressing well.
"I am hopeful that the negotiations for the deal will not go beyond this year," the IAF chief said at the annual press conference ahead of Air Force Day on October 8.
"This is my feeling," he added.
It would take two to three years for the first of the two Rafale squadrons to be operational, Raha said.
He also said that the Indian Air Force (IAF) required at least six squadrons of medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), which would translate into over 100 jets, and that the Rafale was a good follow-on option. But the government would take a final decision on this.
"Definitely, we would like to have MMRCA variety of aircraft. At least about six squadrons to my mind. Let us see, there may be some other alternatives as well," ACM Raha said.
Asked if the additional four squadrons of aircraft would be Rafales or if there was a possibility of other players getting into play, Raha said, "I may wish to have Rafale. But there are equally good aircraft. So if the deal is good and the government decides we need to have six of similar squadrons of MMRCAs."
"I want the capability of Rafale-type aircraft. So, the government will have a look at it and based on urgency and the type of contract is signed with Dassault Aviation, further decisions may be taken by the government. I cannot predict," he said.
The air chief admitted that the IAF was short in strength.
"We are currently short in strength... we need to replace many squadrons. The need is there for more. But it has to be viable in terms of cost, in terms transfer of technology and in terms of Make in India policy that the government is trying to implement," he said.
"So if those terms and conditions are good then I am sure we will be able to get more. But as of now we are looking at 36," he said.
The Rafale had in 2012 received the IAF nod for 126 jets in a $20 billion deal in the face of a stiff competition from five other manufacturers.
As the deal could not work out, another deal for purchasing 36 Rafale combat jets in fly-away condition was inked during the prime minister's visit to France in April.
The IAF had expressed an urgent need for the 126 combat jets to primarily replace its ageing fleet of Soviet-era MiG-21 planes and to plug the gap caused by the delay in the development of the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA).
The IAF currently has 33 combat squadrons against a sanctioned strength of 39.5, which is sought to be raised to 42.
A parliamentary committee, in a report earlier this year had said that by 2022, the IAF would have just 25 squadrons, losing "even the slight edge over a rival neighbouring nation (Pakistan)".