The Gap is Growing

IAF’s depleting combat strength needs urgent attention

Gp Capt A.K. Sachdev (retd)Gp Capt A K Sachdev (Retd)

The Indian Air Force (IAF) celebrates its 91st anniversary on October 8 this year and at the time of writing this, is gearing up for allied events. This year’s Air Force Day Parade and air display are planned to take place in Prayagraj and the President, Prime Minister, defence minister and the home minister are expected to attend.

During the build-up to the anniversary, the United Service Institution of India (USI) invited the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhari to speak on ‘IAF at 100: Strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats’ on 29 August 2023. During his forthright and candid talk the CAS identified IAF’s weaknesses as the strength of fighter squadrons. He went on to talk about some initiatives to remedy this shortfall. At the end of his talk, he outlined a vision for the IAF, underlining the transition from a force driven by threats to one driven by its capabilities.


Present Strength

The sanctioned combat aircraft strength of the IAF is 42 squadrons (although this author’s efforts to confirm this sanction have proved fruitless as the Air Headquarters and the ministry of defence passed the RTI application back and forth without either of them offering a reply). The current squadron strength is 31 depending on which open source one consults. It includes two squadrons of the Rafale (the last aircraft arrived in December 2022), 12 of Su-30 MKI, three each of MiG-21, MiG-29 and Mirage 2000, six of Jaguar and two of Tejas (which are of limited operational capability and lack a trainer).

Of these, the three MiG-21 squadrons are planned to be phased out over the next two years, the last in 2025. The Jaguars, MiG-29s and Mirage 2000s are already operating on extended lifecycles. The Jaguar fleet will be phased out between 2025 and 2032, following the First In First Out norm. By then, the MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 squadrons, whose induction began in the 1980s, would be finishing their lives and retired from service, unless of course the IAF is forced to operate them beyond their useful lives. The MiG 29s and Mirage 2000s will be out of service by 2040.

The Gap is Growing

The Jaguar was inducted into the IAF in 1978 and was later produced in India by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) under licence. With fair use, the thrust of the original engines has reduced by around 20 per cent and replacement engines are horrendously expensive at over Rs 200 crore a pair. Meanwhile, plans to install an Indian engine have been still born as India has not produced any worthwhile engine so far. Thus, another upgrade is not considered wise and the IAF continues to use the aircraft.

The MiG-29s were inducted in 1986 and had a life cycle of 25 years, which was later extended during the mid-2000s to 40 years. This extension will expire starting 2025 and a second life extension programme for the MiG-29 fleet is being contemplated in view of the grim situation.

The Mirage 2000s are not being given another extension but as they have been retired by the French Air and Space Force, India has contracted to acquire 24 phased out Mirage 2000s from France for the purpose of cannibalising spares and components, thus giving the ageing IAF fleet a sort of extension. The story could have been different if the opportunities that offered themselves at the time of the first induction, and later again in 2000, to manufacture the Mirage 2000 in India had been exploited.

The figure of 31 is far short of 42, the sanctioned strength. The theatre command concept is moving, albeit sluggishly, towards an air defence command theatre which envisages the IAF essentially charged with the air defence of the nation’s territorial extent. In addition, it must also execute offensive and defensive tasks associated with any future war. That war could well be a two-front war as is often discussed in the context of our inimical neighbours, in which case the protection of our long land borders with China and Pakistan, our extensive coastline, and our island territories would probably demand much more air effort than even 42 squadrons.

To summarise, the current squadron strength is inadequate for the IAF’s envisaged roles and tasks. It is going to reduce further and the CAS is on record as having stated (during Exercise Garuda VII in Jodhpur) that the IAF requires five to six new squadrons of four-and-a-half generation aircraft to meet its immediate requirements. How this urgent shortfall is met will decide how much further the figure of 31 falls before it starts rising again. Let us look at where more aircraft could come from.

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