In May last year, a report titled Global Air Power Rankings (2022) published by World Directory of Modern Military Aircraft (WDMMA) placed the Indian Air Force (IAF) above China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in its listing. For its ranking process, the WDMMA used a fairly objective methodology termed TrueValueRating (abbreviated to TvR) which purports to gloss over figures of overall strength – the usual metric visible in comparisons and takes into consideration modernisation levels, logistical support mechanisms, offensive/defensive capabilities, special mission capabilities, dedicated bomber inventories, Close Air Support (CAS) assets, training, inventory balance, aerospace industrial capability and force competence. Thus, TvR is a qualitative and quantitative analysis. The IAF with 1,645 total aircraft, of which 632 are fighters, was ranked sixth in the listing, one notch above the PLAAF with 2040 aircraft. Just as a figure of interest, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was ranked 18th. It may be mentioned here that the listing is for ‘Air Force’ and the air arms of the PLA Navy and the Indian Army are listed separately. Currently, the WDMMA site displays the 2023 edition of Global Air Power Rankings and there is no change in ranking for the IAF and the PLAAF.
While this heartening titbit may be gratifying, it is certainly no cause for complacency. The IAF’s current squadron strength of combat aircraft, which should be at the sanctioned figure of 42, is actually 31. When viewed in the context of China’s military poking, transgressions, and gradual build up along India’s borders and Pakistan’s proxy war by terrorism, the diminished strength is not just a cause for concern, but of alarm. Even more alarming is the fact that this figure has not shrunk overnight but is a result of inadequate attention being paid to the IAF’s loud noises about its declining strength and its projected needs over the last two decades. A 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) quest was scuttled in 2015, and a 114 Multi Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) is staggering along with no signs of reaching a final deal in the near future. This article looks at the diminished squadron strength of the IAF and prognosticates over a two-decade time window.
The combat squadron strength, according to open sources, currently includes two squadrons of Rafale (the last aircraft arrived in December last year), 12 of Su-30 MKI, three each of MiG-21, MiG-29 and Mirage 2000, six of Jaguar and two of Tejas which are of limited operational capability and lack a trainer. These total up to 31 squadrons, but some resources put that figure at 30. Of these, the three MiG-21 squadrons are to be phased out over the next three years, the last in 2025, while the Jaguar fleet would be phased out between 2025 and 2032, following the “First In First Out” norm. By then, the MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 squadrons, whose induction began in the 1980s, would be finishing their lives and would be retired from service, unless of course, the IAF is forced to flog them beyond their useful lives. The MiG 29s and Mirage 2000s would be out of service by 2040. It may be mentioned here that the Jagaurs, MIG-29s and Mirage 2000s are already operating on extended lifecycles.
The Jaguar was inducted into the IAF in 1978, and was later produced in India by the Indian aerospace major Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) under license. With fair use, the thrust of the original engines has reduced by around 20 percent and replacement engines are horrendously expensive at over Rs 200 crore a pair. Meanwhile, plans to install an Indian engine have been still-borne as India has not produced any worthwhile aero-engine so far. Thus, another upgrade is not considered wise and the IAF continues to persevere in using the existing fleet. The MiG-29s were inducted in 1986, and had a life cycle of 25 years which was later extended during the mid-2000s to 40 years. This extension will expire starting 2025, and a second life extension programme for the MiG-29 fleet is being contemplated in view of the grim situation.
The Mirage 2000s are not being given another extension, but as they have been retired by the French Air and Space Force, India has contracted to acquire 24 phased out Mirage 2000s from France for the purpose of cannibalising spares and components, thus giving a sort of extension to the ageing IAF fleet. The story could have been different if, the opportunities, that were available at the time of the first induction, and later again in 2000, to manufacture the Mirage 2000 in India had been exploited.
It is clear from the foregoing that the squadron strength is going to reduce further; how much further it falls and when it starts to rise again, depends on how the shortfall is met over the coming years.
In any case, even the squadron strength of 31 is far short of the sanctioned strength of 42. Reportedly, the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari told the media, “It will be impossible to keep watch and do combat air patrol across the country with the given number of 31 squadrons.” However, it is not just air defence of the nations’ territorial extent that the IAF is charged with the responsibility of; the IAF must also meet offensive and defensive tasks associated with war that might be thrust upon our nation. That war could well be a two-front war as is often discussed in the context of our inimical neighbours, in which case the protection of our long land borders with China and Pakistan, our extensive coastline and our island territories would probably demand more air effort than even 42 squadrons could muster. The figure of 42 squadrons has not been revised for decades and will probably need a relook if and when we achieve it.
Meanwhile, there is the occasional pseudo strategist who comes up with the notion that when the figure of 42 was sanctioned, we had only third generation fighters and that, now that we have fourth plus generation combat aircraft, we should be able to manage with a lower number of squadrons. The fallacy in this line of argument is that, given the large geographical area the IAF needs to cater to, quantity matters as much as quality and one cannot compensate for the other. Indeed, it is possible to argue that, given India’s ambitions to be a world power, its interests may extend beyond its own territorial bounds and hence, the sanctioned strength may need to be re-appraised upwards. It may also be mentioned in this context that despite the horrendous costs of fifth generation fighters, the air forces inducting them are not pruning down their fleet sizes.
The CAS is on record as having recently stated during Exercise GARUDA VII in Jodhpur that the IAF requires five to six new squadrons of fourth plus generation aircraft to meet its immediate requirements. So, where are the additions to the IAF’s combat aircraft inventory coming from?
The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mk1 was thrust down the IAF’s throat to trumpet the ‘Make In India’ slogan. Today, the IAF has 40 Tejas Mk1s in two squadrons, but the aircraft does not meet the IAF’s operational requirements and is more of a test bed for the Tejas Mk 1A, an improvement over Mk1. In June 2021, the IAF ordered 73 Tejas Mk1A along with ten Mk1 trainers which were not developed along with the Mk1. Of these, the HAL is to deliver the first three aircraft in 2024 and thereafter, 16 every year for the next five years, thus taking the total to 83. The Mk1A will come with more composites and hence reduced weight, enhanced Electronic Warfare (EW) capability, the indigenous Uttam Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar which the DRDO is to make available by the time the 17th Mk1A is to be fitted with it as the first 16 Mk1As are planned to be fitted with the Israeli ELM 2052 AESA radars. It will also carry the locally assembled, European missile producer MBDA’s Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM) and the indigenously developed Astra Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile. It will also have some other improvements including a probe for air-to-air refuelling which will give the aircraft improved range.
Further away on the horizon is the Tejas Mk2,hopefully a 4½ generation fighter which is expected to be flight tested in 2023 and be a Medium Weight Fighter (MWF) although sharing the common name of Tejas with the LCA with an increased Maximum Take Off Weight (MTOW) of 17.5 tons compared to the Mk1a’s 13.5 tonne, a more powerful engine although still a General Electric engine as the future of India’s aero-engine is uncertain and a larger payload of 6.5 tonne compared to a little over four tonne for the Mk1/Mk1A. The CAS has reportedly said the IAF has committed to acquiring six squadrons of Tejas Mk2 and that it will decide on further numbers once production commences.
To summarise, the projected induction of 73 Tejas Mk1A is expected to stretch from 2025 to 2029, while the Mk2’s future is uncertain. It is worth mentioning here that HAL’s track record of adhering to timelines is rather dubious. This is one of the reasons why Dassault was not willing to collaborate on the MMRCA deal with HAL. Thus, the entry into service of the Mk1A should not be taken as a mathematical certainty while the Mk2 should be considered a work in progress with no guaranteed date of induction.
Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA)
While the Tejas Mk1 and Mk1A are LCAs and the Tejas Mk2, an MWF, are both single engine, fourth to fourth plus generation fighters, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is planned to be a twin engine, fifth generation aircraft. It was originally envisaged as a Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA) with an MTOW of 15 tonne, but subsequently, its nomenclature was changed to AMCA and its MTOW upped significantly to 25 tonne with the Tejas Mk2 sliding into the 15 tonne space. Reportedly, the design has been frozen and metal cutting has begun on July 13, 2022. However, the uncertainties related to the aero-engine which the Indian public sector has been unable to produce and the foreign OEMs are loathe to share the technology of, remains the biggest impedance. Even presuming that the AMCA flies with a GE engine like the Tejas, there are other weak areas. The planned indigenous AESA radar is not yet a certainty, the stealth technologies needed as essential criteria for fifth generation aircraft are not within India’s technological grasp and some other minor but critical elements still defy our industrial base.
The officially declared date for the first flight of the AMCA is 2025 but, considering the major problem areas yet to be accosted and overcome, the first flight of a substantial AMCA could slide to 2030 and earliest induction to 2032. Indeed, the CAS has reportedly called for foreign collaboration for development of niche technologies for the AMCA and has expressed concern over timely delivery of the AMCA. The IAF plans to procure seven squadrons of AMCA, the first two squadrons in Mark 1 configuration, equipped with a GE engine and the remaining five squadrons in Mark 2 configuration with an indigenous engine. The Mark 2 is expected to incrementally incorporate sixth generation features and technologies thus paving the way for a future sixth generation fighter.
To summarise, the AMCA is currently a distant dream of not much use in remedying the IAF’s current shortage with the most optimistic date of induction ten years from now. The CAS is on record as having committed to seven squadrons of AMCA whenever it is ready.
Additions to Existing Fleets
There were plans to augment the MiG-29 and Su-30 MKI fleet with one squadron (21 aircraft) of the former and an unspecified number of the latter. However, those plans have not made any headway due to the Russian-Ukrainian war. It does not appear that there will be any reprieve on that front as, even after the hostilities come to an end, the battered industrial complexes of both Russia and Ukraine will take time to recover and in any case, will meet their own national requirements first before looking to export aircraft. Once the war is over and its after effects are overcome, India may get one squadron of MiG-29 and two of Su-30 MKI plus replacements for the 12 that have crashed since induction of the fleet. Plans to upgrade 85 of the existing Su-30 MKIs with Russian help to Su-30 SM2 standard have also been put on the back burner. As a result, there has been some talk of an upgrade on these aircraft to be done at HAL itself.
The MiG-21 was inducted into the IAF in 1963 and thus, is now a tottering sexagenarian, even older if you consider that it first flew in 1955. Interestingly, the Soviet Air Force itself retired it from service in 1985 as did some other user air forces. The IAF, however, was forced to continue flogging it and it may be of interest to the reader that approximately half of all MiG 21s that entered service in the IAF have crashed to date, largely during peace time. The LCA project was initiated in 1983 as an indigenous replacement for the MiG-21 and followed a torturous journey fraught at every stage with inordinate delays which still continues. During the 1990s, anticipating serious shortfalls, the IAF proposed going in for more Mirage 2000 aircraft to be produced under license by HAL. That decision would have catered for the foreseeable shortfall, but after meticulous planning and time consuming diligence by the IAF, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) scrapped the project in 2003.
Instead, a Request for Information (RFI) was floated in 2004 for the purchase of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) possessing 4.5 generation capabilities with the stated intent of inducting the first aircraft by 2010. There were several delays due to bureaucratic impediments; but finally, the IAF shortlisted the Rafale in 2012 and in March 2014, HAL and Dassault signed an agreement for licensed production of the Rafale in India. There were some issues between Dassault and HAL about accountabilities of time schedules and warranty liabilities due to which negotiations dragged on for long. Meanwhile, BJP came to power and in April 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced during an official visit to France, that India would acquire 36 Rafale from France in a fly-away condition, a move that surprised the IAF and the Ministry of Defence MoD. The Parliament was officially informed later by the Defence Minister that the 126 MMRCA deal had been scrapped altogether. Thus, all the toil that went into the diligence for the 126 MMRCA from 2004 to 2015, was negated in one fell swoop and instead, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed in 2016 for 36 Rafale. The number was 90 (or five squadrons) short of the 126 aircraft shortfall perceived two decades ago and thus, despite the induction of those 36 aircraft, the IAF’s shortfall continues to be alarming.
In April 2018, an RFI was promulgated by MoD for the acquisition of 110 aircraft. This figure was later revised to 114. The RFI did not specify whether the requirement was for a single engine aircraft or a dual engine one and prescribed six roles for the multi-role aircraft. The six fighters that contended for the MMRCA continue to be in the fray while two more candidates have entered the competition. There is much merit in the suggestion that the deal should favour the Rafale, as that will afford economy of scale in terms of training, equipment and spares, while permitting speedier negotiations as both sides are already aware of the basic facts and figures. However, there does not seem to be a great deal of urgency attending the processing of this 114 Multi Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) deal. One major reason for the delay is the government’s insistence on commitments to ‘Atmanirbhar’ and ‘Make in India’ such that they serve to visibly bolster the statistics of a substantial indigenous manufacturing content. The deal was originally being processed through the Strategic Partnership framework which implies that an Indian company partners with a foreign supplier to manufacture major platforms in India. However, with lukewarm interest from foreign OEMs and keeping in view the poor success that Strategic Partnership attempts have had, the government is now in favour of ‘Buy Global, Make in India’ approach. Much has been written and spoken about the urgency of consummating the 114 MRFA deal at the earliest so that the IAF can increase its squadron strength to a wholesome figure.
Gazing at a Murky Crystal
Prognostication over how the IAF’s squadron strength figure will claw its way up over the next two decades, is a nebulous exercise. There are uncertainties involved with all the three tributaries discussed above which need to feed the drying up IAF inventory. The Tejas and the AMCA being produced by HAL, will in all probability, be dogged by delays and quality compromises while the 114 MRFA deal staggers along at an agonisingly slow pace even as the IAF waits, with up curled toes, for some government alacrity of the kind displayed in the 36 Rafale deal.
As is evident from the foregoing, the current figure of 31 will definitely reduce before it stabilises and starts inching up over the coming years. The reason is that the MIG-21 squadrons have to be retired while no new aircraft is going to be inducted before the last squadron is de-inducted as the first Tejas Mk1A will come in during late 2024 or 2025. So, depending on when the MiG-21 squadrons are wound up, the squadron strength could fall to any figure between 28 and 30 by 2024 or 2025, unless a decision is taken to coax the MiG-21s into flying on for another couple of years! Thereafter, the steady flow of Tejas Mk 1As will add to the inventory provided HAL is able to adhere to the agreed schedules. If the 114 MRFA deal materialises and the aircraft deliveries commence before 2025 (improbable but not impossible), the figure could be arrested at 31 and built upwards on.
The CAS has often stated that, in the best scenario, he expects 12 squadrons to be inducted between now and 2035, which should take the squadron strength to 35 or 36, depending on how the de-inductions proceed. The incurable optimist could hope ignoring the past history of MMRCA, that an MRFA deal could be consolidated over the next few months and that the new inductee could then enter the IAF stables even before the first Tejas Mk1A does. But that wish, like Samuel Johnson is said to have remarked on hearing of a man who had remarried soon after the death of a wife to whom he had been unhappily married, would be “the triumph of hope over experience”.
So, when will the IAF have 42 squadrons? The most optimistic projection is 2035, if the following arithmetic falls into place: the present 12 squadrons of Su-30 MKIs are augmented by two more; two each of Mirage 2000 and MiG-29 squadrons get life extensions until 2035, and two of Rafale, six of the MRFA, four of AMCA and 12 of Tejas, four Mk1As already ordered plus two more and six Mk2s with the current two squadrons of Mk1s being discounted as non-operational for combat get inducted. If there are holdbacks on any of the acquisitions, the date could slide to 2040 or even beyond. Thereafter, hopefully the assembly lines of Tejas Mk2 and AMCA would steadily compensate for phasing out of life-extended MiG-29s and Mirage 2000s as also for peacetime attrition. A kinetic war with either Pakistan or China in the interim, would alter that arithmetic dramatically.
Several interrelated factors have worked and continue to work, to bring the IAF’s squadron strength to an unenviable state. There does not seem to be an adequate comprehension of the strategic value of the IAF in the nation’s defence. The IAF’s needs are not being given the urgent attention they deserve and the bureaucratic procurement processes (the Defence Acquisition Procedure 2020 has close to 700 pages) have a dynamic of their own to delay and then kill deals, as witnessed in the case of the MMRCA quest. Probably fiscal constraints also played a part in the MMRCA saga. The 36 Rafale purchase was an out-of-the-blue decision that appears to indicate this. More recently, the obsession with ‘Atmanirbhar’ and ‘Make in India’ is impinging on all decisions of the government and possibly, delaying a finalisation of the 114 MRFA deal.
In July last year, the Minister of State for Defence informed the Parliament that the government was exploring collaboration with a foreign OEM for co-production of an engine for the AMCA. The failure of our six decades old Gas Turbine Research Institute (GTRE) to produce an aeroengine for the Tejas family and the AMCA, remains a depressing and shameful impediment to our fighter aircraft needs. The government ought to move from the ‘Atmanirbhar’ and ‘Make in India’ slogans to lighting a fire under that establishment by introducing some accountability.
The IAF’s squadron strength is low and inadequate. Despite all the hype about being ready for a two-front war, the last air power employment Exercise Gagan Shakti, with a stated aim of demonstrating a two-front capability, was run by the IAF on the two fronts serially i.e. one front at a time! This fact itself is adequate evidence of the IAF’s shortfall. One hopes that the government’s pursuit of these two slogans does not land the IAF in a state where it is unable to discharge the roles and tasks it is meant to only because its squadron strength does not permit it to do so. One also hopes that the squadron strength is built up to at least 42 squadrons before a war is thrust upon India and the IAF is forced into ignominy. The build up to that number is predicated to an immediate deal for 114 aircraft MRFA, punctual deliveries of promised Tejas Mk1A and speedy development and delivery of Tejas Mk2 and AMCA. India cannot afford to let any of these slide.