Numbers Remain Short

Indian Air force will have 35 squadrons for next decade as against authorised strength of 42

Smruti Deshpande

On September 30, the Indian Air Force (IAF) number plated its Srinagar-based 51 Squadron, which operated the MiG-21 Bisons. The remaining three squadrons will be retired by 2025, each comprising 16-18 aircraft. It has become imperative for the air force to stop using the MiG 21 aircraft, first procured in 1963, given the cost of lives that the force has had to bear over the years. To put it in perspective, in the last 60 years over 400 MiG-21s have crashed, killing 170 pilots, as per the Ministry of Defence (MoD) data.


Today, the IAF has 31 fighter squadrons. In the coming few years, this number will further reduce to less than 30 for the first time. During last year’s press conference, Chief of Air Staff (CAS) Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhari said it would not be possible for the IAF to reach the sanctioned strength of 42 fighter squadrons in the next 10-15 years. The strength will remain at 35 squadrons, he said.

“Four squadrons of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA)-Mk1A, six squadrons of the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) and six Medium Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA), and then factoring in the phaseout, it will remain at 35 squadrons in the next decade. There is no scope for increment as of now,” he said. He added that because of the phasing out of MiG-21s, Jaguars, Mirage-2000 and MiG-29 by the end of the decade, accretions were limited to 83 LCA Mk-1A, which are set to begin only by 2024. Currently, it is known that the Mk-1A started undergoing maiden flight trials from May onwards. This aircraft is an upgraded version of the LCA Mk-1. The LCA Mk-1 reached full operational capability in 2020.

The IAF has an authorised strength of 42 fighter squadrons by 2035. But defence analysts feel that this number, too, is ambitious given the pace at which procurements have been taking place, in addition with the phaseouts. DRDO Chairman S Kamat told the Financial Express recently that the design phase of the AMCA, India’s stealth fighter, was complete and it was now awaiting cabinet approval of the prototype.

In contrast, China, a neighbour which fares high on India’s threat perception, has over 2,800 aircraft (not including trainer variants or UAVs). Of these, according to the US Department of Defence, approximately 2,250 are combat aircraft, including fighters, strategic bombers, tactical bombers, multi-mission tactical and attack aircraft. China has upgraded its J-20 and J-31 aircraft and is now working on the new fighter jets with sixth generation capabilities with hypersonic weapons.

The Tejas Mk-II fighter aircraft project was sanctioned only in September 2022. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) approved the project for development, flight-testing and certification. The CCS has approved Rs 6,500 crore to design and build prototypes, test flights and certification for the Tejas Mk-II fighter jets.

Given this situation, the 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) programme worth approximately USD 20 billion needs to be acted upon. While the Request for Information (RFI) was issued in 2019, the IAF is now finalising the Services Qualitative Requirements (SQR). Once the SQRs are finalised and after the Acceptance of Necessity is issued by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), the Request for Proposal will be issued. Some reports suggest that this is set to happen by the end of this year although nothing has been said officially by the IAF yet. The MRFA will be taken up under the Strategic Partnership model’s Buy Global and Make in India scheme wherein it is said 18 fighters will fly to India readymade while 96 will be developed domestically.

FA-18EF Super Hornets

The IAF first floated the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender to procure 126 new combat jets from foreign OEMs in 2007. In 2012, the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale emerged as the final contenders with Rafale winning the competition for the contract. But the programme couldn’t take off because of disagreements between the OEM and India’s HAL. In 2015, the MMRCA programme was scrapped. But with an immense loss of the IAF’s operational capabilities, the government decided to acquire 36 Rafales in fly-away condition from Dassault under a government-to-government deal, which made the procurement faster. But the acquisition of the Rafales did not solve the depleting-squadron problem of the IAF. This made the IAF put forward a new plan rechristened as the MMRCA 2.0 by floating an RFI for the procurement of 114 multi-role fighters.

Different foreign conglomerates (read OEMs) are in the fray for the MRFA programme. But the delay is causing anxiety and confusion among the participants. The contenders for the MRFA programme are Lockheed Martin’s F-21, Boeing’s Super Hornet F/A-18 E/F, Dassault’s Rafale, Saab’s Gripen JAS-39 E/F, Russian MiG-35 and SU-35, and the European consortium led Eurofighter Typhoon. After the US government’s nod, Boeing has also offered the F-15EX Eagle-II for the IAF. What needs to be noticed here is that while Saab has Gripen on offer, the Swedish company did not participate at the Aero India 2021 in Bengaluru.

The Rafale, which the air force is already using, is a multirole fighter aircraft with a twin engine. It has a canard-delta wing, a top speed of 1.8 mach and uses the Meteor air-to-air missiles. The F/A-18 Block III Super hornet, a type of a fighter and attack twin-engine carrier-capable, has a AIM9X Sidewinder air-to-air missile as well as an AIM 120 advanced medium range air-to-air missile. The F15 EX with a twin engine and strong airframes has powerful processors with advanced fight control systems and advanced medium range air-to-air missiles. The F-21 multirole fighter has a single-engine with a nose-mounted radar fit and a retractable fuel probe with an advanced medium range air to air missile. The JAS-39 is a single-engine, multirole non-stealth fighter aircraft with the Meteor air-to-air missile.

While these options may make the IAF appear spoilt for choices, in reality the list narrows down to limited options. As India seeks to acquire 114 medium-sized multi-role fighters under the MMRCA 2.0, the F15 EX and Su-35 eliminate themselves given that they are heavy-weight air superiority fighters. The F15-EX is said to have a maximum take-off weight of about 36 tonnes, nearly the same as the Su-30MKI, India’s workhorse. Russia’s Su-35 has a take-off weight of the 34.5 tonnes. Dassault’s Rafale, which India already operates, has a take-off weight of about 24.5 tonnes.

MiG 35

The Gripen and F-21 are both single-engine fighters. But as the IAF has been pressing for dual-engines ones, the chances of these two fighters appear bleak even if they come at a lower price as compared to the others. The F-21 has an additional roadblock. India’s western adversary Pakistan uses the F-16 by Lockheed Martin. Just last month, India was up in arms against US’ upgradation of Pakistan’s F-16 fighter fleet. While Lockheed maintains that the F-21 fighter is specifically configured for the IAF, India has maintained that it is a repackaged version of the F-16, a fighter that Pakistan already uses. The obvious choice the comes down to the Rafale, which has undergone tests during the MMRCA selection process. This will save time and equip the air force with a state-of-the-art fighter which the force is already familiar with. Experts believe that having the same aircraft will be beneficial as maintenance costs will be low. While there is no reason to rule out the Eurofighter, the problem is that since it has joint ownership by six partners, it may be a problem for India.

In June there were reports of the government wanting to split the MRFA programme into two parts. The first part would involve the procurement of 54 foreign jets under the Buy Global Manufacture in India category of the Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) with the contract being awarded to a foreign OEM. Of these, 18 would be procured in a flyaway condition from the OEM while 36 would be manufactured in India by a local partner selected by the OEM. This partner would be from the private sector. The IAF is pushing for an early Acceptance of Necessity (AON) for Phase-I from the Defence Acquisition Council and would like to issue an RFP by the end of 2022. The second part of the programme has not been revealed. But with no progress on the necessary approvals, many feel this would push up the costs.



Call us