IAF’s authorised strength is 42 squadrons, a figure it has never touched. The maximum number reached is 39.5 in the early 1990s

New Delhi: Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said Tuesday that the total number of fighter aircraft squadrons in the Indian Air Force (IAF) was down to 33 at the end of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule in 2014.

In the four years since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) took over, not only has the IAF not added a single new squadron to its fighter fleet, “it is now 32”, said the defence minister.

A squadron is the basic fighting unit of the IAF.

The IAF’s authorised strength is 42 squadrons, a figure it has never touched. The maximum number it has reached is 39.5 in the early 1990s.


ThePrint has compiled an inventory of the IAF’s fighter fleet by speaking to sources. The list is categorised by type of aircraft — from the oldest to the most modern. This list does not take into account transporters, helicopters and surveillance aircraft.

MiG-21: (Three types – Bison, Bis and M/MF) 04 + 01 + 01
MiG-27 UPG (upgraded): 02
Jaguar: 06 (including one upgraded)
Mirage-2000: 03 (2 upgraded)
MiG-29: 03
Sukhoi 30MKI: 11
Total: 31

This is the total number of squadrons that are fully operational and are expected to be combat-ready in the event of an exigency.

In addition, on orders from the government, the IAF has raised a new squadron of Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). However, the nine indigenous aircraft in this unit are not fully cleared for operations.

The IAF has also always maintained a squadron with the Tactics and Combat Development Establishment (TACDE) at its Gwalior base. This comprises all types of fighter aircraft in which combat pilots are trained.

While Sitharaman mentioned the figure 32 as the total number of IAF squadrons, ThePrint could only tally up to 31. The discrepancy maybe attributed to the minister counting either the Gwalior squadron or the Tejas squadron, but both are yet to be fully operational.

Squadron Requirements

So how many fighter aircraft does the IAF currently operate?

That number is difficult to assess because each squadron does not have the precise number of fighter aircraft that it is supposed to hold.

In the IAF, each fighter squadron is expected to hold 18 fully operational planes plus two trainers. There are squadrons — especially those of the older generation MiGs — that are operating with as few as nine aircraft. Yet, there are squadrons, such as one of the Jaguar, that have as many as 22 aircraft.

All aircraft are not available 24×7. Each squadron would have about 35 per cent of its number under repairs, refit or under upgradation almost all the time.

In December 2017, the defence minister told Parliament, “10 squadrons of IAF equipped with MiG 21 and MiG 27 aircraft are scheduled to retire by 2024 on completion of their total technical life (TTL).

The figures compiled by ThePrint show that two of them already do not exist anymore.

In the jargon of the IAF, a squadron that is bereft of aircraft is not retired. It is ‘number-plated’ — a term that means that the squadron exists and may be revived as and when aircraft are made available.