The UPA government from 2007 to 2014 is guilty of inaction and policy paralysis. The delay in finalising the MMRCA process led to China and Pakistan inducting up to 400 fourth and fifth generation fighters, while our strength reduced

The recent MiG-21 Trainer crash near Barmer in Rajasthan where we lost two brave pilots again brought to focus how India still uses a 1953 obsolete fighter jet that was inducted in 1963 and was retired by the Soviet Union in 1985. MiG-21 Bison was also the one flown by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthamanam and was shot down by Pakistan in 2019.

India should have retired MiG-21 long ago. This aircraft is still flying because of the delay of the TEJAS program and inability of United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime to go ahead with procurement of new fighters. However, to be fair, the present variant of MiG-21 (Bison) is not the same as the one procured in 1963. It is a much upgraded version and also safer.

A Times of India report states that more than 400 MiG-21s have crashed since 1971-72, killing over 200 pilots and another 50 people on the ground.

In 2012, former Defence Minister AK Antony had said in Parliament that more than half of the 872 MiG aircraft purchased from Russia had crashed, in which, more than 200 persons, including 171 pilots, 39 civilians and eight other services’ people had lost their lives.

Experts believe that with no new fighter jets included in the Indian Air Force (IAF) for a long time, the entire weight is on MiG-21, which is also one of the reasons behind the accident.

The IAF has 32 squadrons as of now. An estimated 42 squadrons are required to handle a combined threat from China and Pakistan. As MiG-21 are going to be completely phased out by 2025, this number is likely to come down to 28 squadrons. There are 16-18 planes in one squadron.

The squadrons reduce from time to time due to the end of life or phasing out of fighter jets. This is neutralised by good planning of future induction. It should be a continuous process of planning and procurement.

Today, the IAF is facing an acute shortage of aircraft and also most of the existing fighter jets are on their way to be phased out.

China’s Western Command bordering India consists of more than 200 fighter aircraft, both modern and legacy models. China will redirect more squadrons from its other theatre commands in the event of a war with India. Pakistan has roughly 350 fighter jets and pose a significant challenge. The combined threat from both could present an overwhelming situation for India. Even then, the UPA chose to sit over such an important procurement decision. The phase-out plan includes MiG-21, MiG-29, Jaguars and Mirage-2000.

The present Modi Sarkar has started the process of induction of four squadrons of indigenously designed, developed and manufactured 83 TEJAS MK-IA aircraft and the 36 Rafale aircraft procured under emergency orders helped immensely in maintaining an edge over the Chinese during the Ladakh crisis which started in 2020.

The UPA government from 2007 to 2014 is guilty of inaction and policy paralysis. The delay in finalising the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) process led to China and Pakistan inducting up to 400 fourth and fifth generation fighters, while, on the other hand, our strength reduced. “An urgent need was felt to arrest the decline in the number of fighter squadrons in IAF and enhance their combat capabilities," the Centre told the Supreme Court on Monday.

The Centre made public this document to justify the procurement of 36 Rafale fighter jets from France. Giving the sequence of events on the Rafale deal, the document said a proposal to buy the MMRCA was sent from the IAF to the government and tenders for 126 fighter jets were issued by India in 2007. “During this long period of inconclusive 126 MMRCA process, our adversaries inducted modern aircraft and upgraded their older versions.”

They acquired better capability air-to-air missiles and inducted their indigenous fighters in large numbers. “Further, they modernised and inducted aircraft with advanced weapon and radar capabilities," said the document submitted to the apex court. It said that as per available information, the “adversaries inducted more than 400 fighters (equivalent to more than 20 squadrons) during the period from 2010 to 2015". “They not only inducted 4th Generation Aircraft but also inducted 5th Generation Stealth Fighter Aircraft.”

PLA Air Force has around two dozen frontline combat aircraft stationed at its Hotan air base in the Eastern Ladakh sector, including the J-11 and the J-20 stealth fighters jets.

What also helped Pakistan was India’s scarce AEW&C systems. While Pakistan has 10 such state-of-the-art systems, India operates only four.

The IAF’s plans for more modern mid-air refuelers and replacement of the vintage Avro transport aircraft have also been stalled for now. Pakistan Defence in the meantime has purchased a full squadron of 25 all-weather aircraft comprising J-10C. The Chinese J-10C is supposed to be Pakistan’s answer to the Rafale jets.

The combined effect of our own reducing combat potential and our adversaries enhancing their combat potential made the situation asymmetrical and extremely critical.

Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhari, when asked when the IAF will have its sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons, based on the threat of a two-front war, said: “That is very tough to say. All I can say is, it won’t be done in the next 10 to 15 years.”

The IAF, he said, will have 35 squadrons “till the next decade”.

He said the IAF is modernising “to ensure that we retain our technological edge over our adversaries”.

AK Antony Longest Serving Defence Minister

In a March 21 Rajya Sabha debate on supplementary spending for 2022-23, the former defence minister had declared that after coming to power in 2014, the Narendra Modi-led government had to rapidly buy everything – from a pin to fighter aircraft – for the armed forces. She added that the UPA had recorded ‘nil purchases’ for the defence forces during its tenure, acquiring neither guns, carbines, bulletproof jackets nor ammunition.

AK Antony, who was the minister of defence in the Congress-led UPA government, had in February 2014 said the government has no money to go ahead with the procurement of 126 fighter jets.

“There is no money left. All major projects have to wait till April 1,” Antony, who had a seven-and-a-half-year long tenure, the longest for an Indian defence minister, had said, when asked about the procurement of Rafales.

He had said that there was “delay”, but “negotiations are going on. Owing to shortage of funds, the deal will be finalised in the next financial year”.

During Antony’s tenure, a joke was popular among analysts and journalists covering the security beat. The minister took a decision promptly only when he was offered a choice between tea and coffee.

Good News

The IAF was ranked higher than its regional rival China and placed above the Japan Air Self-Defence Force (JASDF), the Israeli Air Force, and the French Air and Space Force by the World Directory of Modern Military Aircraft.

The report assessed the total combat capabilities of various air services worldwide and rated them accordingly. The WDMMA employs a formula that considers values associated with the total combat strength of various countries’ air forces.

The formula generates the ‘TrueValueRating’ (TvR), which aids WDMMA in separating each power based on its overall strength and elements such as modernisation, calculated help, assault, and guard abilities.

In this method, a country’s tactical air force is broken down not merely by the number of planes it has, but also by the quality and diversity of its stock.

Another good news is that the J-10C is considered a capable workhorse of the Chinese air force recently purchased by Pakistan, but it falls below the cutting-edge capabilities of the Rafale.

With a distinct advantage in thrust and superior short-range missile, Rafale scores over the J-10C with better kill probability during Within Visual Range (WVR) combat. The combination of RBE2 AESA radar with the Meteor missile in Rafale provides a distinct advantage in the Beyond Visual Range (BVR) combat as well. Rafale’s electronic warfare suite is also believed to be the most capable in its class.