Through the Looking Glass

A futuristic look at the IAF in 2024 and beyond

Atul Chandra

Over the next 10 years, the Indian Air Force (IAF) will be making the transition from its present fleet of aircraft, which are essentially of Seventies and Eighties vintage, to a modern fleet of high performance aircraft transforming its ability to counter any adversary.

A futuristic look at the IAF in 2024 and beyond

The IAF has chosen to equip itself with the best equipment on offer anywhere in the world. The Rafale, when finally inducted, will be expensive no doubt; but its swing-role ability will mean that the IAF will have more than catered for the retirement of its MiG-21 and MiG-27 squadrons, which is likely to happen by 2020. In France, 225 Rafale’s will replace 700 older types and the Rafale will also replace a number of types in India.

The Sukhoi-HAL Prospective Multirole Fighter (PMF) will deliver high-end air superiority but be available in significant numbers only around 2025 onwards. The Su-30MKI and upgraded versions will remain a potent fighter. Being made and overhauled in India, the Su-30MKI is an affordable option for the IAF. Looking into the future, the Su-30MKI will give the IAF both the ‘quantity and quality’, as was done by the workhorse MiG-21 for so many decades. Upgrades to the Mirage 2000, MiG-29 and Jaguar will enable them to carry the latest weapons and sensors, dramatically increasing their combat effectiveness.

From the beginning of the next decade, the IAF fighter fleet will consist almost exclusively of twin engine fighters in the Rafale, Su-30 MKI (upgraded), MiG-29 upgraded and Jaguar strike fighter. The only single engine combat types will be upgraded Mirage 2000’s, MiG-21 Bison and about 40 Tejas Mk1 light fighters. The MiG-27’s (‹80) have already been earmarked for retirement from service before 2020. The IAF would have phased out its MiG-21 fleet (‹ 150 aircraft) by 2024. The IAF currently operates nine squadrons of the venerable MiG-21, including six squadrons of upgraded MiG-21 Bison’s. The Tejas MKII would have been the answer to replacement of the MIG-21 and MiG-27, but is taking far too long. There are concerns that the Tejas MkII with a more powerful GE-F414 engine may still not meet IAF requirements. If this is true, then it will be great disappointment to the many well-wishers of the sleek fighter.

The DRDO has said that it will proceed with the design of the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). The question is should it be allowed to? HAL refuses to be drawn into a debate. Former chairman, HAL R.K. Tyagi told FORCE that, “We will support the DRDO”.

If the Tejas MkII does not deliver a combat fighter to the IAF, should design of India’s next generation fighter be given to the same agency, is a serious question that requires debate. Consider the approach being taken in the US. The Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) will be studying next generation fighter technology and will receive funding for ‘X-plane’ prototypes. An industry competition to deliver the sixth generation fighter will take place at a later date.

Looking into the future then, in 2030, the IAF would have taken delivery of all 126 Rafales, about 100 PMF/Sukhoi T-50 (out of 144 expected to be ordered), 272 Su-30MKI’s and a mix of upgraded Mirage 2000’s, MiG-29’S and Jaguar’s not totalling more than 230.This would make for a combat aircraft fleet of 772 fighter and strike aircraft. Attrition will also take place. For the purposes of illustration over a 15 year period, attrition can be estimated at two per cent across the Rafale and PMF fleets, under five per cent for the Su-30 MKI and approximately eight per cent for the older fighter types (these percentages are for the purposes of representation only and are not based on accident rates of the IAF).

Hence by 2035, the IAF should have approximately 123 Rafales and 140 PMF’s, the Su-30MKI fleet would be around 260 plus and around 210 plus upgraded fighter aircraft (MiG-29, Mirage 2000 and Jaguar), for a total of 733. The IAF should also have at least 120 Tejas Mk I and Mk II fighters by then (40 and 80 respectively).


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