by Sujan Dutta

NEW DELHI: Even as a political debate on the costs of acquiring the Rafale aircraft from France rages, the Indian Air Force has warned the government that the condition and numbers of its primary air-defender, the MiG-21, have fallen to a “critical” level. A squadron each of the MiG-21 and the MiG-27 would be ‘number-plated’— or retired -- by December this year, sources in the IAF have told The New Indian Express.

With the decommissioning of the two squadrons, the fighter fleet strength of the IAF would drop to 28 by the end of the year. This is not enough to execute the government’s operational directive to be prepared for a ‘two-front war’’, should hostilities take such a dimension, the IAF has said. It has emphasized that its authorized strength of 42 squadrons was a dire necessity.

The IAF currently has six squadrons of the MiG-21 aircraft that were upgraded to ‘Bison’ standards in 2006. The primary role of the MiG-21 is that of air-interception. This means that they would be the first aircraft, depending on the location, to scramble in the event of an air raid by an adversary.

None of the six squadrons are running at their full strength of 18 + 2 (18 operational and two as reserve) aircraft. At one time, the IAF had nearly 300 MiG-21s. Given their numbers they also have the highest casualty rate in the IAF fighter fleet. The MiG-21 and the MiG-27 are both Soviet-origin products of the cold war first designed in the 1950s.

The numbers and condition are “critical”, the IAF has explained, because they are being retired much earlier than they can be replaced with other aircraft – the Tejas, or the LCA, that is said to be indigenous though it has 60 per cent foreign content. The IAF has pointed out that the defence public sector had promised to scale up the production of the LCA Tejas to eight per year to 12 per year. But in the last 18 months HAL has been able to deliver only six. The IAF has contracted 104 Tejas.

Another proposal to acquire 104 single-engine fighters (there are only two on offer – the F-16 Block 70 of the US and the Saab Gripen JAS 39E from Sweden) is hanging fire with the tender yet to be issued.

The IAF would also be retiring one of the only two squadrons of their MiG-27 fighter aircraft. The ‘swing wing’ aircraft’s primary role was ground-attack but the two remaining upgraded squadrons are also capable of air-to-air combat with missiles of extremely limited range. The MiG-27s in ground-attack mode took out enemy camps, such as in Muntho Dhalo, during the 1999 Kargil war.