A mega 500-fighter aircraft acquisition process on the anvil for the armed forces; reaching the sanctioned 42 squadrons will take time and the immediate effort is to arrest the drawdown in strength, says Air Marshal Narmdeshwar Tiwari. The IAF is set to phase out the remaining three MIG-21 squadrons by 2025

The delayed process for the procurement of 114 multi-role fighter jets (MRFA) is set to take off soon and along with three different indigenous fighter development programs, will result in a mega 500-fighter aircraft acquisition process for the armed forces. This would arrest the dwindling fighter strength of the Indian Air Force and enable it reach the sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons.

“We are hopeful the Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) for MRFA will be issued in three to four months,” Air Marshal Narmdeshwar Tiwari, Deputy Chief of Air Force said at Aero India. It is a “budgetary decision” and also how fast the aircraft are available, he stated. The AoN will begin the formal procurement process following which the IAF will issue the detailed Request For Proposal.

On the delay in the process, he said they were evaluating how much of Make in India can happen, localisation and capability for them to upgrade the aircraft locally rather than depend on the foreign manufacturer, he said.

The IAF is currently down to 31 fighter squadrons as against the sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons which is set to dwindle further as the remaining three MiG-21 squadrons are phased out by 2025. By end of the decade phasing out of other aircraft would also begin.

On this, Air Marshal Tiwari said reaching 42 squadrons will take time and the immediate effort is to arrest the drawdown in strength. The 83 Light Combat Aircraft TEJAS-MK-1A that will begin coming in from next year followed by the TEJAS MK-2 and fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) in the near future along with the MRFA will arrest this, he added.

There is also a Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) on the drawing board for the Navy’s aircraft carriers. Dr Girish S Deodhare, Director General of Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), said they are looking at six Squadrons of TEJAS MK-2 (108 aircraft), seven Squadrons of AMCA (126 aircraft) and up to 100 TEDBF. Besides, the IAF would receive 83 TEJAS MK-1A and 114 MRFA. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) officials also said that they expect an additional order for up to 50 TEJAS MK-1A. In addition, a decision between 26 multi-role aircraft for the Navy is expected shortly, between Boeing F/A-18-E/F Super Hornet and the Dassault Aviation Rafale.

Also, the final deal to procure 12 additional Su-30MKIs to replace the ones lost in accidents and 21 MIG-29s from Russia has been stuck, which both IAF and Russian officials said has only been delayed but is on track.

On the AMCA which is awaiting government sanction, Air Marshal Tiwari said based on global trends it would take 10-12 years for its development and around three to five years after that to begin production. Dr. Deodhare, chief of ADA which is designing the aircraft, has also stated that the development would take 10 years once the project is sanctioned.

HAL has said that they are on track to deliver the first TEJAS MK-1A to the IAF in February 2024. As reported by The Hindu, ADA officials have said that the TEJAS MK-2, which would be much more capable than the TEJAS MK-1A, is expected to be ready for production by 2027.

Speaking on the sidelines of Aero India, Navy Chief Adm. R. Hari Kumar said that they may get up to 45 TEDBF by 2040. Dr. Deodhare has said that the TEDBF is expected to take first flight by 2026 and expected to be ready for production by 2031.