The world's most prolific MiG-21, a great fighter in its day, is now accident prone due to its age

New Delhi: With barely 32 squadrons of fighter aircraft currently in inventory, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is staring at a massive problem. The IAF should ideally have a strength of 42 combat squadrons to be fully prepared for a two-front war. It never had 42, the maximum number it has ever reached is 39.5 in the early 1990s.

In the IAF, each fighter squadron is expected to hold 18 fully operational planes plus two trainers. Some of the squadrons - especially those of the older generation MiGs - are operating with much lesser number of aircraft. 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.

According to the information available in the public domain, the IAF currently has around eleven squadrons of the Su-30MKI, three each of the MiG-29 and Mirage 2000, six of the Jaguar and six of the MiG-21.

The MiG-27 and the MiG-21 are one of the the oldest in the IAF inventory. The MiG-21 and MiG-27 squadrons have been in decline and the MiG-23 has been phased out completely. The IAF will phase out nine squadrons of the MiG-21 and 2 MiG-27 over the next 5 years.

India purchased 874 MiG-21s since 1963. Of these nearly 490 were reportedly involved in accidents or crashes killing almost 200 pilots. Delays in the FOC of indigenous 'Tejas' Light Combat Aircraft programme is adding to the woes of IAF. Some 120-odd MiG-21s continue to be in service. These will be retired in phases till 2021-2022.

Two squadrons of Rafale fighters, two of the LCA Tejas and two more Sukhoi-30MKI would be added in the coming years, but that still will not make up for the shortfall. So, all in all, there is a big problem at hand.

Options Before The IAF:

Fighter Aircraft: Single Engine Vs Twin Engine:

Which is better - Single engine fighters or twin engine ones? Well, there is no clear answer to it as it depends on the requirements of intended use of the aircraft and to some extent the level of available technology. Single engine fighters cost less and require less maintenance. On the other hand, a twin-engine aircraft has a greater operational ceiling, high-altitude kinematic performance and can carry higher payload. A single-engine aircraft's primary advantage is being relatively light-weight and often less-draggy airframe. While twin-engine aircraft gets the advantage of a lot more thrust, that is usually always to compensate the additional weight of the airframe/payload due to mission requirements.

Choices That IAF May Consider:

It was thought that India's requirement for single engine fighters could be met with LCA Tejas. But due multiple problems encountered during Tejas's development and HAL's failure to meet the delivery deadlines has forced IAF to look at other foreign aircraft.

Sometime back, reports had emerged that the Indian Air Force (IAF) was showing interest in Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II fighter jet. The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is a family of single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth multiple fighters. The fifth-generation combat aircraft is designed to perform a ground attack and air superiority missions. But on March 1, 2018, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa rubbished the reports and said that no such "request been made to the Americans." The other good single engine fighters that India can consider are F-16, Mirage, Gripen, other SAABs, Chengdu J-7, MiG-27, Su-7 through 17.

Airbus' Eurofighter Typhoon is considered more advanced than Dassault's Rafale. Although both were finalists in the IAF's stillborn 2007 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) contest, and are Generation 4.5, the two companies announced in April that they plan to cooperate on developing Europe's Future Air Combat System.

Defence Ministry has made it clear that two separate "Make in India" programmes will be considered - the first for a single-engine type and the second for a twin-engine type. It has been speculated that the F-16 and Gripen will be in competition for the former category, while the F/A-18 and the Rafale will compete in the latter category. Lockheed Martin is excited about the prospect of making F-16 fighter aircraft in India and making India a global manufacturing and supply base for the aircraft. There is legitimate concern that the choice of a new single-engine fighter type could jeopardise India's own Tejas project. This should not be an issue since the single-engine type being sought is to replace the MiG-23-MF/-BN and MiG-27ML aircraft in service, while the Tejas has been earmarked to replace the MiG-21.