Indian Air Force (IAF) transport helicopters, gunships, transport aircraft and fighters, including the newly inducted Rafales, were speedily deployed in Ladakh to support the Indian Army in May this year, when New Delhi realised the state of play, China’s game plan of a coercive military deployment along the LAC (line of actual control). Now, as IAF aircraft and bases remain in a state of high alert along the entire 4,400 km disputed border with China, the issue of declining fighter jet numbers has once again taken centre stage for the IAF, which celebrated its 88th raising day on October 8.

The fact that a two-front war, the prospect of having to simultaneously face off against Pakistan and China, remains a reality, and that the IAF’s fleet strength is not large enough to cover both fronts together, remains a worry for military planners. According to Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria, the IAF is unlikely to reach its government-sanctioned force structure of 40 fighter squadrons (with 18 jets each) by the end of the current decade. “We won’t be able to touch 40 even if we move at the fastest pace [possible],” he said, indicating that the IAF will likely achieve 36-37 squadrons by 2030.

This is because the IAF will be retiring aircraft faster than it can replace them. The IAF currently has 31 fighter squadrons. By the end of the decade, it will have retired the last of its MiG-21 aircraft, at one point of time the mainstay of its fighter fleet. It is acquiring 21 refurbished MiG-29s from Russia and 12 Su-30MKIs from HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited).

The big deal is one for 83 TEJAS Mark-1A Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) TEJAS jets, a contract for which is to be signed before the current financial year ends. The IAF will then focus on acquiring 114 Medium Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA), this deal is expected to see an Indian company manufacturing the jets locally, in partnership with a foreign OEM (original equipment manufacturer). Adding to these will be variants of the TEJAS, the Medium Weight Fighter (MWF) and the 5th generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). The force will eventually acquire over 400 aircraft, most of them acquired indigenously (see Betting on Indigenous Production). All of this will require over $50 billion (Rs 3.6 lakh crore) over the next decade.

The IAF was allocated Rs 86,558 crore in the 2020-21 budget. Modernisation accounts for over 45 per cent of this budget, or about Rs 39,000 crore. This covers not just fighter aircraft but force multipliers like flight refuelers, long range missile systems like the S-400 and AWACS (airborne warning and control systems) like the Phalcon. To fund these large acquisitions, the IAF’s budget will have to grow at far more than the current 6 per cent per year. This is why the air chief mentioned a not inconsiderable factor during his press conference leading up to the IAF’s raising day celebrations, ‘budget constraints’.