The size of the fighter fleet in the Indian Air force (IAF) was always a major subject of discussion amongst the strategic community. The general public was largely ignorant or indifferent towards the issue. However, of late, there is a growing awareness, as well as inquisitiveness. among the people, especially the young, about the numbers and the capability of the IAF fighter fleet.

This trend can be identified with increasing numbers of blogs, articles, and opinion pieces written by non-military enthusiasts, appearing on various media platforms. On social media, the rising number of Quora submissions, Facebook posts, Google searches etc indicate that this subject has found favour with a wider audience.

The arrival of Rafale jets was followed with a frenzy, the landing of jets on highways was showcased live on national media, Republic day flypast by 75 aircraft was a major news item and more recently a video of LCA Tejas performing air-display at Singapore air show garnered over ten thousand likes within minutes. Citizenry getting involved in the military’s strength, capability and adequacy is always a good sign in a democracy.

Increasing awareness also leads to greater curiosity and some discussions which were heretofore confined to military circles, are being discussed in open forums. One such question that gets asked often is: is IAF equipped with an adequate number of fighter squadrons? This paper would reflect on this question.

Amongst the IAF leadership, the size of the fighter fleet in the air force is not just a strategic concern, it is a deeply emotive issue as well. Overwhelmingly manned by fighter pilots, the IAF brass would literally bleed blue before it allows fighter squadrons to dwindle to dangerously low levels. At this juncture, constrained by the rising cost of acquisitions and dwindling budgetary allotments, the IAF is focused on the enhanced induction of locally manufactured LCA. However, the brass has not given up on the proposal to induct 114 fighter jets from abroad. Such large procurements, even though prohibitively expensive, are an inescapable requirement.

Right now, a large number of fighters are being kept in operational condition, well beyond their service life, to ensure that the air force retains the numbers as close to the sanctioned strength.

The sanctioned fleet size, as understood by the IAF is 42 Squadrons (Sqn). Some mandarins in the civil-services dominated MoD put this number as 39.5 Sqn. There is no single document giving out this number; rather, it has to be inferred from a clutch of classified and non-classified papers. The origin of this debate can be traced to a committee constituted by the Government of India (GoI) in the early 1960s. The committee was headed by Air Vice Marshal (honorary) JRD Tata, the doyen of Indian aviation. The team was asked to determine the number of Sqns the IAF would need to fulfil the mandate. The threat at that time was from Pakistan, East Pakistan and China. The committee recommended a much higher number, but the government settled at a much more affordable 42 Sqns.

Over the last six decades, the capabilities of our adversaries have changed, with China becoming a relatively greater power and Pakistan having lost the technical edge it enjoyed in the early years. The creation of Bangladesh eliminated the Pakistani threat from the east. The capabilities of modern fighter jets in terms of range, reach, and payload has changed over the years.

A single Rafale or Su-30 can do more than a few Vampires or Tempest could do. We also have newer weapons: long-range surface-to-air missiles (SAM), remotely-piloted vehicles (RPA), armed drones, surface-to-surface missiles and armed/attack helicopters that can undertake certain roles that were heretofore carried out by fighter aircraft.

Notwithstanding, the number 42 is sacrosanct for IAF. Each Air Chief since the report came out has put his faith in 42, ‘the minimum we need’.

For comparison’s sake, Pakistan has around 500 fighters and China can field 2500 jets. Right now we have 33 Sqns (approximately). With each Sqn fielding 18-20 aircraft, we have a fighter fleet of 600 (approximately). In addition, Hawk AJT can also perform a limited operational role in certain conditions. With nearly 100 Hawks in the fleet, we have a reasonably good plan B.

These numbers, to my mind, should be adequate to meet the requirement of dissuasive deterrence to the east/north and punitive ability to the west. However, these would be grossly inadequate in case of collusive threats from both adversaries. We would require a fighter fleet comprising of modern jets in adequate numbers if we are to manage a two-front situation. In my opinion ‘42’ will not be enough. However, I also feel that it would be foolish to manage a two-front threat by the military alone, we will go bankrupt in the process. To counter a two-front situation, we need international alliances.

Even if we try to increase the fleet size, there are significant headwinds. I will list the two most prominent reasons.

1. Despite what the IAF wants, and even with a supportive government, there are significant challenges to increasing these numbers. The first reason is lack of money. At this juncture, the IAF is struggling even to meet committed liabilities. There is not enough in the Capital code head to meet existing payments. The situation is so dire that the payment due to PSUs has been pushed back by a few years.

2. Our taxpayer-funded domestic defence industry is notorious for over-promise and under-delivery. In an article published in Print in March 2018, Shekhar Gupta called DRDO a ‘banana republic’. His argument was- ‘‘Because whenever the armed forces ask for a new weapon system, the DRDO would say, humko yeh banana hai, humne yeh banaya hai, hum yeh bana sakte hain (we should make this, we have already made this, we can make this) and so on…’’. The much-touted success of made-in-India Su 30 has come at a considerable cost to the taxpayer.

We paid $ 30 million to import one Su-30 in 2000 and paid over $100 million to HAL to make one in India. The TEJAS was formally inducted into the IAF on 10 Jan 2011. Ten years later, we are yet to field one complete Sqn in FOC configuration. Ludicrous as it may sound, the HAL chief has promised roll out of LCA Mk-II by September next year and production starting in 2025.

The Government is not unaware but has to manage many other expectations. Despite shortcomings in the domestic industry, the route to great power status runs through indigenous capability. The IAF could do a critical in-house analysis and see if it needs to stick to the number ‘42’, because it is unlikely that the GoI would allow IAF to import any more fighter jets in the next decade or so. A reasonable course of action would be to upgrade the existing fleet to extend the life of the ageing platforms, while we wait for the DRDO/HAL to fulfil their promises.