A Mirage-2000 of the Indian Air Force

by Pradip R. Sagar

Stressing on the importance to fast track the acquisition process of the fighter jets, several top officers from Indian Air Force, Navy and the Army, along with senior defence ministry bureaucrats, defence and industry experts have expressed grave concern over the fast depleting combat strength of the IAF. The IAF has been making repeated appeals to the government over its depleting strength of combat aircraft, especially to tackle two-front war scenario with China and Pakistan.

Debating the issue at a round table conference—'Re-energising India’s Air Power'—organised by Forum for Strategic Studies and Vayu Aerospace and Defence Review, they urged the government to expedite the process of finding a suitable fighter type that meets the requirements of the IAF in affordable numbers, and which would operate alongside the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Rafale, Su-30 and some legacy combat aircraft.

They stressed that despite the sanctioned strength of 42 combat squadrons required by the IAF to face a two-front threat, the number has drastically come down to 31 at present, which would plummet further over the next decade despite the addition of 36 Rafale fighter jets from France and indigenous design and development Light Combat Aircraft Tejas.

The round table also felt that at this stage, “a repeat of the MMRCA process” would be infructuous and could even see some companies declining to participate in light of their earlier experiences.

Former deputy chief of IAF, Air Marshal Nirdosh Tyagi (Retd), who was directly involved with the MMRCA process during the critical run up to selection of a fighter for the Indian Air Force, was candid in his remarks that “a re-run of virtually the same process would be infructuous at this juncture”.

Reviewing the background which has led to the present situation, the Air Marshal stressed that life-cycle costs were then, and remain, a major factor.

"In view of the present situation where the IAF’s combat aircraft strength continues to decline further, a decision on the acquisition of new fighters must be fast tracked even as the LCA programme continues at its own pace," Tyagi added.

According to Air Marshal Ajit Bhavnani (Retd), former vice chief of the Air Staff, “To maintain strategic stability in our region, it is imperative that urgent steps are taken now to ensure that IAF combat force levels are built up as soon as possible. The next generation AMCA (advanced medium combat aircraft) should be the next major objective for India’s aerospace industry. We should learn lessons from the past and reduce timelines by having an experienced technology partner to support the project. As an example, the Chinese began development of their J-20 stealth fighter in the late 1990s and it has just entered service in 2017 after 20 years.”

Projecting the IAF fixed wing combat force levels till 2032, Pushpindar Singh Chopra, of The Society for Aerospace Studies, pointed out that the IAF would soon see a precipitous depreciation in the remaining numbers of MiG-21 Bisons and MiG-27s, while the present ‘legacy’ Mirage 2000s, MiG-29 and Jaguars would also be phased out by 2032 when the IAF’s combat squadron numbers would come down to an unacceptable 23, a large proportion of them being the heavy Sukhoi Su-30, unless urgent decisions are taken on the selection and induction of a new medium multi-role combat aircraft type.

The round table conference took place against the backdrop of the compelling circumstances the IAF finds itself today—the predicted depletion of combat squadrons taking place without credible replacements in the foreseeable future.

Presently, there is still only one squadron of Tejas LCAs, but still under formation and without final operational clearance.

Former chairman of HAL R.K. Tyagi expressed apprehension over the continued confusion as far as next variants of the LCA are concerned, which will further impact their availability. He felt that at this rate, it could take several decades to have enough LCAs to meet the IAF’s needs.

In 2018, the number of IAF combat aircraft squadrons is down to 31 and this slide will continue unless urgent decisions are taken. It was reiterated at the workshop that while IAF force levels are being reduced to alarming lows, those of Pakistan and China are increasing, and modernising. The participants urged the government streamline the acquisition process, keeping in mind the country’s overall strategic environment and economic realities.