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Oxygen for the Indian Air Force

The statement by the Minister of Defence that the deal for 36 Rafale fighter jets will bring some "oxygen" to the Indian Air Force, accurately reflects the predicament the IAF is currently in.

Issue: 4 / 2015 Photo(s): By PIB, Dassault Aviation
By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)
Former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Training Command, IAF


Minister for Defence, Shri Manohar Parrikar
Dassault Rafale

The somewhat unexpected announcement on April 10, 2015 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi while on a state visit to France, pertaining to the purchase of 36 Rafale combat jets from Dassault Aviation of France through a direct deal between the two governments, has surprised many and has managed to confused some. But to the Indian Air Force (IAF) it has come as music to its ears!

As per reports that appeared in the media recently, a Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Defence expressed serious concern on the rapidly dwindling size of the combat aircraft fleet of the IAF which as per the Committee, had reduced to around 25 squadrons.

This is an alarming all time low against the currently authorised strength of 39.5 squadrons. The Government has also approved the strength of the fleet of combat jets in the IAF to go up to 42 squadrons by 2022. Earlier on it had been assessed that to fight a war on two fronts simultaneously, the IAF should ideally have 60 squadrons.

As per data available in the public domain, the strength of the combat fleet of the IAF is presently down to 31.5 squadrons. The breakdown is as under:

Type of Aircraft Number of Squadrons
Su-30 MKI 10
MiG-29 03
Mirage 2000 2.5
MiG-21 Bison 06
Jaguar 05
MiG-27 05
Total 31.5

Of the combat aircraft listed above, the MiG 27 fleet is already obsolete and should have been retired.

But given the declining strength of the combat fleet, the MiG-27 squadrons are being retained for another two years at the most. So would be the case with the MiG-21 Bison fleet. In all likelihood this fleet would also be retired by 2019 if not earlier. The number of Su-30 MKI squadrons that is currently at ten, is expected to reach its full strength of 15 squadrons (272) aircraft, by 2019 if Hindustan Aeronautics Limited factory at Nasik adheres to the committed time lines. However, slippage in delivery should not come as a surprise and the IAF ought to be prepared for it.

As for the latest deal with France for 36 Rafale aircraft, delivery of these aircraft is expected to be completed within two years i.e. by 2017 as stated by the Minister of Defence Manohar Parrikar. This is the year in which a number of combat aircraft will be due for retirement. The IAF therefore is literally gasping for breath with its fighter fleet shrinking rapidly leading to crippling erosion of combat capability. Induction of the 36 hopefully new Rafale aircraft, will provide only temporary relief to the IAF. There is imperative need to build up the strength of the Rafale fleet progressively to at least 126 aircraft if not more through Government-to-Government deal now that the MMRCA tender has been aborted.

The statement by the Minister of Defence Manohar Parrikar that the deal struck with France for purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets will bring some "oxygen" to the Indian Air Force, is a fairly accurate summation of the predicament the IAF is currently in.