Guest Column | A Serious Concern

The IAF faces a critical shortage of combat aircraft

Gp Capt. Gopal Sharma

Amidst the on-going political controversy on the alleged irregularities in purchase of French Rafale, one does not get the sense that Parliamentarians are aware of the seriousness of the situation that the Indian Air Force (IAF) is critically short of combat aircraft needed for the security of the nation. It is keeping up with some aircraft which are old, unsafe and on repeated life extensions much beyond their service life.

The defence minister, replying to the Opposition charge on alleged irregularities informed the Parliament that combat strength of the country has fallen substantially during the last decade in contrast to China and Pakistan. While in India the strength has fallen to much lower levels than authorised due to the retirements of fleets of old aircraft, China and Pakistan have been adding to their strength of the combat aircraft. China has added over 400 aircraft in 2004-15; and Pakistan has doubled the number of its F-16s, besides adding 43 JF-17s.

In 2018, the IAF had 31 squadrons, down from 40 in 2004. It would lose another 14 squadrons of vintage MiG-21s and MiG-27s aircraft over the next decade leading to a serious aircraft state unless induction plan to fill up the shortfall is pursued punctiliously.


Required Combat Strength

The IAF was sanctioned for 42 squadrons of fighters to protect its western and northern borders with Pakistan and China. Though in the past, the IAF at best had the strength of 39.5 squadrons in mid-1980, the realists feel that the IAF needs more than 42 squadrons to effectively counter the adversary’s threat. This has been supported by the 2014 parliamentary panel which averred in its report that India requires 45 squadrons to counter the two front collusive threats of Pakistan and China. It also flagged concerns about India’s depleting military capability in the context of tackling a two-front challenge, i.e., combined threat from China and Pakistan.

The problem is accentuated with the variety of aircraft in the IAF inventory which makes their maintenance difficult. The IAF wants to reduce the inventory of its combat jets to mainly three aircraft categories, i.e., 300-350 light combat aircraft (LCA), 200 medium combat aircraft (MCA), and 300-350 heavy combat aircraft (HCA). Eventually, the indigenous Tejas will fill the requirement of LCAs, Rafale MMRCA and indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) will make up for the medium combat aircraft. Finally, SU-30MKI will meet our requirement in heavy aircraft category.

Thus, a common perception that the IAF has a preference for aircraft genre imported from abroad against the indigenous one is far from true as most future replacements of combat aircraft are likely to be met both from indigenous and external sources. Even though AMCA is still at the design stage, the former chief of air staff ACM Arup Raha has on record stated that the IAF will induct indigenous AMCA under development in the medium weight aircraft category to fill the vacant slot of Jaguars, Mirages and MiG 27 fighters which eventually will get phased out at the end of the next decade.


Current Combat Strength

The IAF has an effective strength of 31 combat squadrons, although it has 34 combat squadrons in total. These include six of MiG-21Bison, three of MiG27 UPG, 11 of the Su-30MKI, three each of the MiG-29 UPG and Mirage 2000 (currently undergoing an upgrade) and six of the Jaguar (at the initial stage of an upgrade process).


The estimated current strength of combat-worthy aircraft is given below:

Type Role Number Sqns Remarks
MiG-21Bison AD/ GA 120 6 Upgraded. Phase out by 2019-20
MiG-27UPG GA 87 3 Upgraded. Phase out 2025
MiG 29UPG Multirole 66 3 Upgraded. Phase out 2027
Mirage 2000 Multirole 48 2 Under upgradation
Tejas LCA 10 1
Jaguar GA 119 6 Under upgradation
Su-30MKI Multirole 240 11


Expected Retirements

  1. MiG Bison: Retirement planned during 2019-20. Maybe extended until LCA’s induction.
  2. MiG 27UPG: Likely life extension by 15 years after upgradation. Maybe retired by the end of next decade.
  3. MiG 29 UPG: Likely life extended by 15 years after upgradation. Maybe retired by the end of next decade.
  4. Mirage 2000: Life to extend by 20 years after upgrade.
  5. Jaguar: Un-upgraded to retire by 2025-30. Life to be extended for upgrade by 15-20 years after upgrade.


The Challenge

By the end of this year, the IAF would be at its lowest combat strength in more than a decade. Even this truncated strength of 34 squadrons includes the vintage 14 squadrons of MiG-21s and MiG-27s which are being sustained with repeated life extensions. Therefore, the mainstay of the IAF are the 11 squadrons of Sukhoi 30-MKI, six squadrons of Seventies-designed British Jaguar, followed by three squadrons of 29s UPG and three squadrons of Mirage 2000.

Notwithstanding the recent mega exercise, Gagan Shakti, where the IAF showcased its prowess and flew a record 10,000 sorties mobilising all men and material resources despite the depleted strength showed the versatility of air power in attacking targets in simulated conditions with switching of roles and sectors showed the reach and flexibility of the IAF which won appreciation even from its adversaries, cannot be replicated in a sustained manner under the actual conditions unless the critical shortages in combat aircraft strength is made up.



If the scheduled phase-out of the aircraft fleets is carried out, then by end of 2022, six squadrons of Bison will phase-out. The IAF will be left with only 25 squadrons — 450 aircraft with net deficiency of 306 combat aircraft. Thereafter, by the end of the decade three squadrons of MiG 29s UPG and MiG27 UPG will retire leaving only 21 squadrons.

Although making up this shortfall by the year 2027 poses significant challenges, the IAF is not without options. It has planned accretion of aircraft as well upgrades of the existing fleet with life extensions till newer aircraft are commissioned. However, such situations are best avoided if simultaneously planned accretion of new aircraft and technological upgrades. It is time we start planning upgradation of Su-30MKI fleet especially in view of future induction of 5th generation aircrafts J-20 and J-31 by our northern neighbour.


Planned Accretions

The presence of the defence industry is crucial for building an effective defence capability. The near absence of this had serious implications as we have remained dependent on the platforms/ arms import from external sources which apart from being a costly option also affects our strategic independence. Our MiG fleet has suffered heavily in the past due to lack of spare support after breakdown of the erstwhile Soviet Union.

There is a concerted effort now in India to create a vibrant defence industry. The focus is on ‘Make in India’. Our defence production policy 2018, apart from encouraging Indian developed and designed defence product also aims to get transfer of technology by allowing Indian industry to have a strategic partnership with the foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) as well as permits outright purchase of the finished defence products through imports.

However, catering for delays in development and manufacture of the aircraft, the IAF has carried out life extensions of some of the existing fleets by upgrading these with combination of better engine/ equipment/weapon and EW suites. Accretions are planned to make good the shortfalls as well as for building a technologically superior force.

Tejas Order: Seven squadrons, 123 aircraft. This includes an order to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for 40 aircraft (20 Tejas Mk-1 with Initial Operation Clearance, 20 Tejas Mk-1 with Final Operational Clearance), and another 83 Tejas Mk1A. The rate of the manufacture of aircraft has been very slow. However, since 2017, the production capacity has picked up and HAL is expected to deliver eight LCAs per year.

Another production facility is being established that will take this number to 16 per year. Hence, from 2019–20, HAL will deliver 16 Tejas per year and beyond 2020, it is likely to go up to 24 Tejas per year. By 2024–25, all 123 Tejas are expected to be delivered to the IAF. This has become possible as the Hawk trainer production line is being closed after supply of the last Hawk trainer to the IAF. At the same time the Su-30 MKI current production line with 12 aircraft per year will also stop after completion of its current production order. At this rate; HAL would complete the first order by year 2024-25.

Tejas Mk II Order: 201 aircraft. The IAF has also committed to purchase another 201 Tejas MK-II, an improved version of LCA with powerful engine and avionics. Though, it is still on the drawing board stage and will be available to IAF from next decade. Tejas Mk-II is scheduled for delivery from 2023 onwards. Former DG, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Dr Christopher asserts that Tejas Mk-II will be flying by the year 2022. But his claim appears ambitious, as Tejas Mk-II aircraft is vastly different from the current LCA and is still on the design stage.

Rafale Order: Two squadrons, 36 aircraft. The first aircraft would be delivered by September 2019 and all 36 aircraft would be delivered by Dassault to the IAF by 2025. Besides being a potent weapon platform, for ease of operation and maintenance, the IAF will prefer a fleet of four squadrons (72 aircraft) of the same type. India has a follow-on order option with Dassault at the same price. But, considering the political controversy that has marred the first deal, this may not happen.

AMCA Order: 200 aircraft. It is a fifth generation aircraft being developed by the aerospace industry team which has a design team from Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and would be manufactured by HAL. AMCA would be single-seat, twin-engine, stealth, super manoeuvrable, all weather and multirole fighter aircraft. DRDO will look in to developing many of its 5th generation systems indigenously, so tentatively it should be ready for manufacture by 2025.

The design has already been firmed up after wind tunnelling tests. Former air chief ACM Arup Raha had informally committed in a media interaction that the IAF would buy 200 AMCA, and DRDO and its development team has next decade to work on it. On 4 April 2018, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, too, stated in Lok Sabha that feasibility study of AMCA has been completed and the programme has been given a go-ahead by the IAF to initiate technology demonstration phase before taking on the full-scale production of the aircraft.

Strategic Partnership: Under the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) this option for aircraft manufacture in India is available. It is reported that Lockheed Martin has proposed Indian production of the F-16 Block-70 in partnership with Tata Advanced Systems. The companies have already collaborated to set up single source to produce wings for all F-16 aircraft at its facility from 2020 onwards.

Meanwhile, the IAF issued Request for Information (RFI) for 110 MMRCA in end 2018. It is expected that all six contenders who took part in the earlier MMRCA competition, will be back in contention. These include the two US contenders, Lockheed Martin’s F-16 and Boeing’s FA-18, French contender Dassault’s Rafale, Swedish Saab’s Gripen, European consortium’s Eurofighter Typhoon and Russia’s MiG-35 and Su-35. The selection will be in accordance with the current DPP 2016. The RFI stipulates that the first 18 aircraft be procured directly and the remaining 92 be made in India. Apart from the capability, the selection should rest on transfer of technology, price etc.

Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft: This was to be jointly developed in collaboration between Sukhoi and HAL. India’s FGFA was to be a derivative project of Su-57 (PAK-FA). The development, engineering and intellectual property cost was to be shared on 50 per cent basis by India and Russia. Now higher development and project cost are being quoted which is over USD30 billion. As if now, the project looks uneconomical with uncertain time frame for completion. India initially sought 200 aircraft which was later reduced to 166 aircraft. Now the grapevine is that India has fully withdrawn from the project. Amidst this, the defence minister is quoted to have said that India could join the project again after Su-57 is fully introduced by Russian Air Force. The other reason is that with progress in HAL’s AMCA project, India prefers to develop its own fifth generation fighter to maintain parity in the region.


Upgradations and Life Extensions

Since the last few years, encountering delays in getting replacements, the IAF has started upgrading its combat aircraft fleets in order to enhance its operational capability and maintain its aircraft as modern weapon platforms, capable of meeting the present challenges posed by the security scenario in our region. The midlife upgrade and total technical life extension are a globally accepted process and undertaken scientifically to ensure performance, safety, and air worthiness. Of the available fleet, MiG-21, MiG-27 and MiG 29, have already been upgraded. The Mirage 2000 and Jaguar are undergoing upgradation.

Upgradation of MiG 21: The first supersonic fighter jet of the IAF despite facing criticism following a substantial number of accidents is likely to remain operational in its upgraded version till 2020. The upgraded fighters present a cost-effective option to the air force as compared to other fighters. The upgrade on the aircraft includes a night vision goggle-compatible glass cockpit, advanced navigational systems, advanced Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system, advanced multi-mode multi-layered radar, fully integrated electronic warfare suite besides others. A total of 120 MiG-21bis has been upgraded to the MiG-21 ‘Bison’ standard. Post its upgrade to MiG-21 Bison, the IAF may not be able to abandon using its MiG-21 fighters until 2024-25, which is contingent on the supply of the medium multi-role combat Rafale fighters and production of the indigenous Tejas aircrafts.

Upgradation of MiG 27: A total of 87 aircraft have undergone upgradation which involved fitment aboard the aircraft of several new systems such as avionics systems and expansion of the armament, a new armament control system, a helmet-mounted target designation system and up-to-date data display equipment including the head-up and multifunctional displays. The systems of navigation, communication, electronic counter-measure, video recording, integrated system of monitoring, recording and processing of the flight data are subjected to upgrading. The fighter weapon suite is added with up-to-date R-73E and R-27R1 air to air missiles. Concurrently, with upgrading, the aircraft service life and lifetime can be extended. It is expected to remain in service till 2025-27.

Upgradation of MiG 29: India and MiG Corporation of Russia signed a deal in March 2008 for upgrade of 70 MiG-29 aircraft. The upgrade was to be carried at the Russian facilities. The upgrade kit included a new airborne radar, new weapon control systems and improvements to the aircraft RD33 OVT engines. Other features of the upgraded plane are a multi-functional display, air-to-air refuelling and ability to launch precision-guided munitions. With life extension the life of the aircraft is increased by another 15 years for use adding more than 4,000 additional flying hours. A total of 63 MiG-29 fighters have been upgraded for USD964 million.

Upgrade of Jaguar: The IAF’s concern has been to rejuvenate its fleet of Jaguars. It lacks in terms of engine power. Besides the engine, upgrading also involves fitment of an auto-pilot and some close combat missiles and an upgraded navigation system and weapon aiming systems. HAL has built 145 Jaguars for the IAF; only 119 are currently flying, comprising six IAF squadrons of about 20 fighters each. Of these, 39 Jaguars will complete their airframe lives by 2025-30, therefore, it is uneconomical to re-engine these. The balance 80 Jaguars’ service lives would be extended to 2035-40 with new engines after upgradation.

The Honeywell, F-125N engine is planned as replacement. It generates significantly higher power 43.8 KN of thrust than the 32.5 KN of the Jaguar’s current engine. After fitting each fighter with two engines will leave a maintenance reserve of 40 engines. HAL, therefore, would buy 200 F-125IN engines from Honeywell at an estimated a price of USD5-6 million per engine. Under the new upgrade plan, HAL is also mounting active electronically scanned array EL/M-2052 radar from Elta of Israel, which will provide the capability to simultaneously track enemy fighters, guide missiles, and jam enemy communications and radar.

The IAF currently faces resource challenges in terms of spares, because both HAL and the OEM BAE Systems have stopped Jaguar production and have closed the assembly lines. Jaguars have been phased out by all air forces. India is receiving spare parts from the foreign phased out fleets to ensure that common spare parts are available for the next 15 years or so. The initial phase out of the aircraft will begin in 2035, and it will be fully phased out by 2050. With engine supply starting only three years from the contract date, substantial numbers of re-engined Jaguars would probably materialise only after five years, i.e. around 2024.

Upgradation of Mirage 2000: The Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft will be installed with India-made multi-function display under an Indo-French partnership, as part of a programme to enhance the operational life of multi-role fighters by around 20 years. The latest multi-functional displays are part of the programme to upgrade all of India’s Mirage 2000H to Mirage 2000-5 MK2 variant with state-of-the-art avionics and latest weapon systems to enhance the operational life of multi-role fighters by around 20 years. Samtel Thales Avionics Ltd (STAL), a joint venture between Samtel Avionics and French firm Thales, has successfully dispatched the first batch of multi-function displays for Mirage 2000 upgrade programme of the IAF from the newly-commissioned production facility in Greater Noida. Two aircraft have been upgraded and delivered in March 2018. The balance 46 aircraft fleet will be upgraded in Bangalore under the responsibility of the state-run HAL with the complete support and involvement of Dassault Aviation and Thales, the French firms, who are the original manufacturers. The upgrade on the aircraft include a night vision goggle-compatible glass cockpit, advanced navigational systems, advanced IFF system, advanced multi-mode multi-layered radar, fully integrated electronic warfare suite besides others.



The IAF has reached critical numbers in combat aircraft strength due to the retirement of old aircraft which no longer could carry out safe flying in their assigned roles, dithering in new inductions as well as delays in development and manufacture of indigenous LCA aircraft.

Our aircraft industry has taken roots with LCA. With its experience acting as a springboard, we can achieve greater heights in aircraft designs and their performance. LCA has also given confidence to the IAF on indigenous capabilities. It is for this reason the IAF is willing to wait for induction of indigenous Tejas Mk-II and AMCA to meet our need for light and medium aircraft category. The IAF should now think of upgrading Su-30 MKI. Russians have been known to have offered Su-30 upgrade called ‘Super Sukhoi’ which, according to their claims, will upgrade Su-30 aircraft to fifth generation capabilities and effectiveness. There is a pressing need to maintain technological parity with the aircraft inventory of our neighbours — fifth generation Chinese aircraft such as J-31 and J-20 — as and when these are inducted in substantial numbers. Induction of futuristic AMCA/ FGFA and upgradation of the excising aircraft can provide a cheap option to match adversaries.


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