Combat Fleet of the IAF Post Induction of Rafale

As it appears at this point in time, the fleet of 284 Su-30 MKI aircraft is and will continue to be the backbone of the IAF for some years

Issue: 09-2021By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By IAF / Twitter
Swift and Lethal: Gusts of Rafales, Prowl of Jaguars. IAF commemorated ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav’ with a 75 aircraft Elephant Walk.

NEED FOR MODERNISATION OF THE COMBAT FLEET

The fleet of combat aircraft in an air force of a nation is the primary weapon system that has the capability to project air power not only against targets in the neighbourhood, but against those located far away from the nation’s borders. However, this capability can be sustained only if the fleet of combat aircraft with the air force of the nation is equipped at all times with modern aircraft of the latest generation in the right numbers and is armed with modern and lethal weapon systems. The Indian Air Force (IAF) unfortunately, falls well short of these parameters that are essential for it to be capable of playing a significant role in ensuring the security of the nation.

STRENGTH OF THE COMBAT FLEET IN THE IAF

As per information available in the public domain, before the commencement of the induction of the 36 Rafale fighter jets recently contracted for procurement from Dassault Aviation of France, the strength of the combat fleet of the IAF that had been on a constant decline over the years, stood at just about 31 squadrons as against the figure of 42 that is authorised by the Government of India. On account of the deficiency in the combat fleet of the IAF, the situation is undoubtedly precarious from the point of view of national security especially in view of the aggressive moves made in the recent past by the People’s Liberation Army of China in the Galwan Valley of Eastern Ladakh.

The security situation on the Western front too is somewhat uncertain and worrisome for the nation in the long run in view of the hostile attitude of Pakistan, its collusion with China and the developments in Afghanistan in the recent past and the continuing turmoil there. The 36 Rafale jets when received will be just enough to equip two squadrons, bringing the total number of squadrons to 33. This will reduce the deficiency the strength of the combat fleet of the IAF, but only marginally.

Efforts by the IAF that commenced in the year 2002 to induct 126 modern, fourth-plus generation platforms, to equip six squadrons to replace the ageing fleets of combat aircraft, unfortunately did not succeed. The tender for 126 aircraft in which the Rafale from Dassault Aviation of France was the preferred choice by the IAF, was watered down to just 36 through direct purchase, enough to equip two squadrons. Delivery against the order for 36 Rafale jets has commenced and is expected to be completed early next year. After the failure of the project to induct 126 Rafale jets, the IAF then initiated a case for the procurement of 114 multi-role fighter aircraft (MRFA); but for unknown reasons, the case has not made any progress so far.

BACKBONE OF THE COMBAT FLEET OF THE IAF

The last major induction of combat aircraft into the IAF that commenced in the middle of 2002, was by way of the fleet of Su-30 MKI air dominance fighters from Russia. Of the order for 272 Su-30 MKI aircraft as per the initial contract, 50 platforms were supplied by the original equipment manufacturer in fly-away condition and the remaining 222 aircraft have been manufactured under license by the Indian aerospace major Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) at their facility in Nasik in Maharashtra. With a fleet of 272 Su-30 MKI aircraft supplied to the IAF, currently 12 squadrons are operational in the IAF and so far, ten aircraft have been lost in flying accidents which have been replaced by aircraft manufactured by HAL. The remaining 46 aircraft will help maintain the operational strength required on the flight line as and when aircraft are pulled out for routine maintenance. The IAF has followed up acquisition of this platform with a recent order for an additional 12 platforms taking the total strength of the fleet to 284 which should be adequate to equip up to 13 squadrons if further losses in accidents are controlled. As it appears at this point in time, the fleet of 284 Su-30 MKI aircraft is and will continue to be the backbone of the IAF for some years.

AGEING FLEETS OF COMBAT AIRCRAFT

Of the several types of MiG series of fighter aircraft procured from the Soviet Union beginning in the early 1960s, the platforms that are still in service with the IAF are six squadrons of MiG-21 Bison multi-role combat aircraft and three squadrons of MiG-29 air superiority fighter. The MiG-21 Bison fleet is approaching the end of its total technical life and will soon have to be retired from service.

The Indian aerospace industry has initiated a programme to develop an indigenous fifth generation platform dubbed as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft

The programme to fit more powerful engines to the fleet of Jaguar aircraft whose acquisition by the IAF had commenced in the mid 1980s, has been cancelled reportedly on account of unaffordable cost. The six squadrons of Jaguar aircraft currently in service with the IAF, will also have to be retired soon. This will leave the IAF with around 25 fighter squadrons as against the authorised strength of 42. The fleets of MiG-29 and the Mirage 2000 aircraft will serve for another decade or so before these too become due for retirement from service. The present state of the combat fleet and the prospects for the future is not at all inspiring for the IAF as well as for the nation.

FORAYING INTO THE FIFTH GENERATION

In 2007, with the intention of foraying into the fifth generation, India joined the Russian programme and even made considerable investment in the co-development and production of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA). However, on account of serious shortcomings in the design of the platform as brought out by the IAF, in 2018, the Government decided pulled out from the FGFA programme. The first attempt by the IAF to foray into the fifth generation thus came to nought.

INDIGENOUS CAPABILITY

With the immense difficulties as described above faced by the IAF in revamping the fleet of combat aircraft through procurement from foreign sources, it is quite understandable that the IAF has been left with no option but to look inwards to address the problem of restoring the size of the combat fleet to the level authorised. It is in this context that former Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria, Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) at that time, publicly supported the plan for the induction of the light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas in the numbers required to make up for the deficiency in the fleet of combat aircraft in the IAF. Apart from the order for 40 LCA Tejas Mk 1, most of which have already been delivered to equip two squadrons, the IAF has placed firm orders for 83 LCA Tejas Mk 1A to equip another four squadrons. The LCA Tejas Mk 1A is expected to have as many as 43 upgrades over the Mk 1 as projected by the IAF. However, even the order for 83 LCA Tejas Mk 1A is clearly not enough to make up for the deficiency in the combat fleet of the IAF on account of retirement from service of the older fleets. The programme to design and develop the LCA Tejas was initiated in 1983 and the first aircraft was handed over to the IAF in 2015, thirty two years after the commencement of the programme. Meanwhile, the Indian aerospace industry has initiated a programme to develop an indigenous fifth generation platform dubbed as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). If all goes well, this fifth generation platform is expected to undertake its maiden flight in 2025 and its serial production is expected to commence by 2030. These timelines however are tentative and somewhat speculative.

The efforts of the IAF over the last nearly two decades to procure modern fighter aircraft from foreign sources to restore the strength of the fleet of combat aircraft to the authorised level of 42 squadrons, have not succeeded. Apart from procedural complexities that contribute to delay in procurement, exorbitant costs tend to render acquisition of modern platforms even from reputed global vendors, somewhat unaffordable. Undoubtedly, the solution in the long term lies in the strengthening indigenous capability to design, develop and manufacture new generation combat platforms.