Between Ifs and Buts

The IAF needs a lot of government support and a spate of good luck to keep its modernisation on track

Air Marshal Ramesh Rai (retd)Air Marshal Ramesh Rai (retd)

The Indian Air Force (IAF) will be 88 years in the service of the nation on October 8 this year. A journey which began with the enactment of the Indian Air Force Act 1932, stipulating its auxiliary status to the Royal Air Force in British India, today the IAF is acknowledged as the fourth largest in the world, modern, technology-intensive and distinguished by its commitment to excellence and professionalism.

Realising the primacy of air power to protect India’s security interests extending from the Persian Gulf to the Straits of Malacca, the IAF had presented a vision 2020 document to the government in 1999, envisaging a 55-squadron force. The composition was to be 16 multi-role squadrons, 18 strike squadrons, 16 air defence and a few for reconnaissance and electronic warfare. The government cleared a force structure of 42-45 squadrons to be raised by the end of Thirteenth Plan period i.e. 2027. The prevailing trend, however, does not indicate that the IAF will be able to get the approved force levels in the stipulated time frame.

Over the last two decades, the IAF’s story has been one of steadily weakening in strength and diminishing in war-fighting potential, owing to constrained budgets, a sluggish acquisition programme and overabundance of red tape. Two main factors have been responsible for the IAF being at an all-time low of 30 fighter squadrons:

  • One, delay in acquiring the 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA); and
  • Two, readying the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) for induction to replace the ageing MiG-21s.

For the MMRCA, the government had floated a tender in 2007 and shortlisted the Rafale, however the deal could not materialise as envisaged. Subsequently, 36 aircraft were bought in 2016. The LCA programme sanctioned in August 1983, with a cost of Rs 560 crore, overshot the time frame and budget estimates by a huge margin. Only now in 2020, after 37 years, has it attained full operational clearance for induction. In the bargain, the IAF has not only depleted in strength but has also been compelled to stretch the service life of some the ageing fleets, thereby losing its deterrence against China and Pakistan.

With a 30-squadron fleet, the IAF is increasingly ill-equipped to fight a two-front war. In a rare public admission in 2018, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, while briefing the media on the eve of Exercise Iron Fist, a fire power demonstration of the IAF had stated that “numbers were not adequate to execute a full air campaign in a two-front scenario”. The IAF has a Plan B though, of multiplexing the use of its 30 squadrons on both fronts by centrally orchestrating the air campaign. However, this could get into jeopardy if it gets divided into a three-theatre command structure, being envisaged by the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). This quagmire of piecemeal fragmentation into theatres, in a situation of quantitative and qualitative asymmetry is disquieting. It gets even more worrying since both China and Pakistan, have made concerted efforts to ensure that their air power poses a formidable challenge.

The Chinese Air Force, PLAAF, has transformed itself into a highly trained modern force with high-tech 4th and 5th Gen aircraft. It is likely to field 40 to 50 squadrons of the 4/4.5 Gen Su-30, Su-35, J-10Cs, J-11 (licenced version Su-27), J-16 (licenced version of Su-30) and 5th Gen J-20B and J-31 along with advanced precision-guided munitions, force multipliers and a networked command and control system. With the induction of the 5th Gen J-20 which began in February 2018 and J-31 which is likely to enter in 2021, China will be the second country in the world, after the US, to field an operational fifth-generation stealth aircraft.

At the induction ceremony of Rafale fighters in Ambala

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is the seventh largest in the world with 22 squadrons (aspiring for 28) with around 70 JF-17s, 35 Mirage III (Rose Upgrade), 45 Block 52 F-16 4th Gen multi-role fighters and plans to acquire another 100 JF-17s, 36 J-10s, a 4.5 Gen aircraft and 40 Chinese FC-31 5th Gen stealth fighter to give it a real qualitative fillip. Both air forces employ net-centric concept of operations with indigenously developed tactical data links. Though PAF may have lesser numbers, it has a qualitative edge with formidable beyond visual range, all weather, day-night combat capability for operations against both air and surface targets.

In a collusive two-front contingency, the PAF and PLAAF could field up to 44 squadrons (22 squadrons of PAF and 22-25 squadrons of PLAAF) against us with networking as the central tool for employing their forces. According to a working paper by Royal Australian Air Force (, China is on a path to fight on a 5th Gen war construct which will encompass and combine aspects of network-centricity, combat cloud, multi-domain battle and fusion warfare. This is where the future battle space is headed. The IAF would not only require a minimum of 45 to match one-to-one and 55 to dominate the air domain but also need to transform to a networked force for which indigenous development of software defined radio and operational data links would be essential. The IAF will also need to quickly build its strength both quantitatively and qualitatively to ward off a combined threat which now seems real in light of the on-going Ladakh standoff.

The tally of 30 squadrons includes 11 squadrons of Su-30MKI, three each of MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 (currently undergoing upgrades), five of Jaguar (at the initial stage of upgrade), six MiG-21 Bison and two upgraded MiG-27 squadrons. More than half the fleet comprises ageing aircraft being upgraded to give it some muscle and also extend service life, since newer inductions are some distance away. The MiG-21 and MiG-27 squadrons (approximately eight) were to be phased-out by now, but their retirement is postponed, and these will now retire in a phased manner matching the induction of LCA so that the strength does not drop to below 30.

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