Over the last two decades, the combat fleet of the IAF has been dwindling and today it is around 32 squadrons as against authorised strength of 42
In his press conference, on the eve of the 89th IAF Day celebrations, the new Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari made a candid forecast, saying “We will not be able to equip (the IAF) with 42 squadrons in the next 10-15 years. Four squadrons of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk 1A, 6-7 of the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), six squadrons of the Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) will be added while the MiG-21, the Jaguars and MiG-29 (fleets) will be phased out. Our numbers will stay about 35 squadrons. At the moment, there’s no hope of the squadron strength going up beyond this number.” This is a very poor reflection on the state of affairs where against a Government authorised strength of 42 squadrons, despite best efforts, the IAF will not be able to go beyond 35 squadrons in the next 10-15 years.
In September 2021, it was reported that the Indian Air Force (IAF) was to procure 24 second hand Mirage 2000 combat jets from Dassault Aviation of France to inject new life into the ageing fleet of this platform consisting of three squadrons that had been inducted into the IAF in the mid 1980s. Out of the 24 Mirage 2000 that the IAF is going to receive, only 13 will be in ‘ready to fly’ condition. The remaining 11 will be kept for the extraction of spare parts required to sustain the desired level of serviceability of the fleet of Mirage 2000 combat jets.
Over the last two decades, the size of the combat fleet of the IAF has been dwindling and today it is around 32 squadrons. The fleets of MiG-21 Bison and the Jaguar totalling to 12 squadrons, are expected to be retired from service within a decade. This will reduce the strength of the combat fleet drastically unless effective steps are taken to procure a modern combat platform in the numbers required. As the Indian aerospace industry has not yet developed the capability of producing combat platforms in large numbers and in the required timeframe, the IAF has no option but to depend on foreign sources. Unfortunately, the experience of the IAF in its efforts to maintain the size of the combat fleet at the authorised level of 42 squadrons through procurement from abroad, has been totally disappointing.
After the acquisition of the first 50 Mirage 2000 from France, the IAF had made plans to induct a large fleet of up to 150 of this platform to bolster the capability of its combat fleet. In the mid 1990s, the Government initiated a dialogue with Dassault Aviation that included licensed manufacture in India of 110 Mirage 2000 aircraft out of the total order of 150. Unfortunately, for reasons that are not available in the public domain, the case fell through. In 1999, the IAF once again initiated a fresh proposal for the acquisition of 126 Mirage 2000 jets. This effort of the IAF too did not succeed. Confronted with the rapidly depleting strength of the combat fleet, a fresh move by the IAF was initiated in 2002 to induct 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). In this exercise, that took years, the Rafale combat jet was identified from among six contenders by the IAF as the preferred platform. However, the project encountered procedural complexities that proved to be insurmountable. Consequently, the plan to induct 126 Rafale jets was called off in 2015 after 13 years of fruitless effort. As a short-term measure and to stem the rapid fall in the number of squadrons, an order for 36 Rafale was placed directly. These aircraft are currently under induction.
The experience of the IAF on the indigenous front has also not been inspiring. The first aircraft designated as the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas was handed over to the IAF in 2015, thirty two years after the project was launched. In the last six years, the IAF has been able to raise just one squadron of LCA Tejas and awaits the remaining four squadrons to compensate at least partially, for the rapidly depleting strength of its combat fleet.
The IAF is betting big on India’s Defence and Aerospace Industry to get to even 35 squadrons and hopes for a turnaround in the Made-in-India story. “The delivery of 83 LCA Mk 1A will start in 2024. The IAF is committed to the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). There’s an aggressive deadline for the AMCA. We’re hoping to begin inductions by early next decade,” the IAF Chief said.
From the experience of the IAF over the last three decades related to acquisition of combat platforms, it is clear that unless the nation develops an indigenous capability that measures up to the best international standards to produce new generation combat platforms, IAF will continue to face the prospects of an uncertain future in respect of its capability to project air power effectively.