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Depleting Numbers - Cause for Concern

India’s military planners have then to make crucial assessments and decide on a military air strategy that will allow the IAF to optimally employ the depleted air assets

Issue: Aero India 2021 SpecialBy Group Captain C.J. Weir (Retd)Photo(s): By SP Guide Pubns
The depleting squadrons of Mig-21 need urgent replacement

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is an Internationally recognised professional fighting arm of India and this recognition has come about from proving itself in wars and bolstered by the several international joint exercises that the IAF has participated in with distinction. The country has invested large sums of money to create a well-oiled combat machine that depends on its dedicated Air Warriors to extract the most from the weapon systems placed at their disposal. The IAF is the only arm that can attack the enemy with pin-point accuracy on land beyond 50 kilometers of the international border. It is also responsible for preventing an adversary from attacking our country from the air as well as on the surface. Examples from history abound where air power has proved to be decisive in the success of a battle. Ignoring air power has also proven to be a fatal folly. Unfortunately, for various reasons, the strength of the combat aircraft of the IAF has steadily dwindled over the years as suitable replacements have not kept pace with inevitable retirement from service at the end of their total technical life. The regional geo-political situation for India has played out in a manner where armed conflict is on-going in varying degrees of intensity. Several analysts were of the view that a single-front low intensity conflict would be the worst-case scenario in this decade. They have clearly been proved to be wrong, as today, we are faced with the possibility of a two and a half front fullfledged war scenario. In this context, the depleted strength of the combat fleet of the IAF in the current scenario, is indeed a matter of great concern.


A well-oiled combat machine, the IAF, has a multi-dimensional air strategy, focused tactical employment and training to ensure that the strategic and tactical objectives can be met with. The scenario that exists in our part of the world is probably unique, in the context of application of air power, as the adversaries are equally equipped and well trained. The classic degrees of air power dominance are so relevant. In the first three to four days of conflict, the IAF can create a hard fought “favorable air situation” and in ten days of war, a situation of air superiority may be achieved. It would be somewhat difficult to achieve air supremacy in a war lasting for 30 days on the Western front. On the central and Eastern fronts, achievement of only a “favorable air situation” is likely to be possible.

The depleting strength of the combat fleet of the IAF is indeed a matter of serious concern for all

The current strength of the combat fleet of the IAF is 32 Squadrons against the sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons. The IAF has to cater to the activation of the Western, Northern and the Eastern front and possibly the Nepalese (north central) front too. The challenges are many, but then that is what superior forces are all about. The intention of the enemy on each of these fronts may be different. Expansionist land grabbing of key strategic areas may be the end state of the enemy in the North and East, whereas destruction of our assets may be the end state of the enemy in the West. India’s military planners have then to make these very crucial assessments and decide on a military air strategy that will allow the IAF to optimally employ the depleted air assets.


Firstly, pilot training in squadrons is the bedrock of capability and it is the first to get impacted as the necessary flying hours that are required to attain and then maintain the desired level of flying skills, are not available. In addition, the multi-role aircraft require a pilot to become proficient with a large number of systems and weapons, all of which require more flying hours for training. Secondly, the strategic flexibility would now be impeded as there is a sheer deficit in the number of combat aircraft available on the flight line. The combat aircraft and personnel would have to be rapidly moved and redeployed intertheatre as crisis situations are bound to develop. This shifting of forces, though possible, causes a loss of precious time. In addition, the varying terrain need armament fuses and aircraft ballistics to be reset which adds to the loss in time of employment. In this lethal environment, battle losses should be expected to be high. Also, with the number of combat aircraft available being low, the capability and air power will continue to reduce as the war progresses. Thirdly, the destructive potential, the hallmark of the capability of the IAF, would receive a set-back as aircraft would be prioritised to stave off a crisis situation on the ground over a very large frontage. This will have a cascading effect as it will increase the vulnerability of the Indian surface forces to enemy air attack. In addition, other surface vital areas and vital points would become more vulnerable. Fourthly, force multipliers such as the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and aerial tankers would not be able to operate with the required degree of freedom.


As in most complex situations there are no simple solutions or a magic wand to waving away the problem. The recently accorded sanction by the government for the purchase of 83 light combat aircraft Tejas Mk 1A is a positive step. However, getting just 16 aircraft per year would be woefully inadequate and this must be ramped up. The problem of the depleting aircraft strength can best be solved, to a great extent, if one understands the need to get a multi generation fleet. The time frame is critical as the adversaries are primed and threatening and the government needs to act now. The military situation may spiral out of control and there may be a two-plus-front war in 2021. This is the scenario any solution would need to address. The first step should be to make fly worthy all the aircraft moth-balled in the last three to four years. This would provide an additional 100 aircraft of the MiG-21/Jaguar class. The next step would be an emergency purchase of another 100 MiG-21 of any variant from any source. The capabilities of the MiG-21 are well known as are its limitations. However, it is the only aircraft where the IAF has adequate number of engineers, infrastructure and pilots to be able to very quickly deploy into battle. These third-generation aircraft when deployed for air-to-ground attack tasks, would allow the multirole aircraft to be used for more important tasks as planned. These aircraft could be used most effectively to prevent enemy ground forces from entering and holding Indian territory specially along the foothills of the Himalayas in the central (Nepal) and Eastern sectors. Pilots who are type qualified, even retired and medically fit volunteers, should be recalled into service and made current by giving them adequate flying. Maintenance facilities for the MiG-21 be revamped, restarted and be tasked to get these aeroplanes battle worthy, all of this in the next four months! It is better to be prepared rather than to be surprised by the enemy.


The depleting strength of the combat fleet of the IAF is indeed a matter of serious concern for all. Couple this to the prevalent situation created by a belligerent and expansionist China and the threat becomes serious which Pakistan will take advantage of. In the next three to four months, if the IAF prepares itself with adequate numbers of combat aircraft, the combined threat from China and Pakistan can be much more effectively dealt with. In the interest of national security, it would be necessary to take decisions swiftly and implement these without delay.