Military & Aerospace

Revamping the Combat Fleet of the IAF
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Issue Vol. 32.2 Apr-Jun 2017 | Date : 06 Nov , 2017

In the absence of any indigenously produced combat aircraft discounting the non-operational Tejas, India’s current aircraft are Russian (MiG-21, MiG-27, MiG-29, Su-30MKI), French (Mirage-2000) and the Anglo-French Jaguar. The IAF has learnt, nay mastered, the art of managing mixed fleets, even integrating Western and Indian avionics into Russian aircraft, but HAL has remained at the lowest point of the learning curve in terms of producing its own combat aircraft design. Thus, in future too, the IAF appears destined to live with mixed fleets although some rearrangement is foreseeable. So what are our foreign options?

National security, the ability of a nation to be free from external coercion while at the same time possess the aggressive capacity to deter an enemy from harming the nation’s populace, resources, integrity and territory, has aerospace power at the core of both offence and defence. The Battle of Britain was won essentially by use of aerospace power and World War II was brought to its messy culmination by using the medium of the air to deliver two atom bombs. In subsequent conflict situations during the Cold War, aerospace power remained important; but did not bring about any victory or defeat by itself. However, national air forces, the explicit hand-maidens of aerospace power, retain their relevance and crucial importance to national security for power projection as well as air defence of national territory.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is projected as the fourth largest in the world in terms of personnel and aircraft and has established itself as one of the most professional air forces in the world. However, in recent years, interrogatory marks have been raised from within and outside the IAF over its capability to perform its assigned roles and tasks in furtherance of the nation’s defence strategy. The present Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa is on record as having publicly stated last year when he was the Vice Chief of the Air Staff, that the IAF’s ‘numbers’ were ‘inadequate’ to fully execute an air campaign involving a two-front war. India is one of the world’s largest defence spenders but an apathetic approach by successive governments towards defence preparedness has led to some serious shortfalls in weapon systems and equipment. Recently, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence slammed the government for its ‘ad-hoc’, ‘casual’ and ‘lackadaisical’ approach towards the preparedness of the defence forces for war. In this context, the combat fleet of the IAF is one of the most critical areas where an acute breach exists.

The current holdings of MiG-21 and MiG-27 are ageing fleets which will fall out of service in the next few years..

Current Status of the Combat Fleet

The mission statement of the IAF as enshrined in its Doctrine document is, “To be a modern, flexible and professional aerospace power with full spectrum capability to protect and further national interests and objectives.” Air defence of the nation is the IAF’s role; but the essential characteristics of aerospace power are that it is strategic in nature and is primarily an offensive power. On both these counts, the IAF is on a weak wicket. Its ownership of restricted ‘strategic’ assets provides but very limited reach and its current strength of offensive aircraft is inadequate to the task of a ‘two-front war’ if China and Pakistan decide to collaborate at our borders.

The IAF is sanctioned a 42-squadron combat strength. This figure itself is under constant assault by analysts who point out that it does not cater for a worst case scenario of having to take on China and Pakistan at the same time. The 42-squadron figure is dated and, since its finalisation, there have been significant and ominous changes in aircraft holdings in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and their deployment in Tibet. However, while one does not hear many protests from the IAF or any think tank about the figure of 42 squadrons itself being a flawed and deficient one, there are countless disapproving noises about the fact that the current strength of 33 squadrons is far short of 42 squadrons.

In February 2009, the then Defence Minister, AK Antony told the Rajya Sabha in a written reply to a query, “During the period 2007-2022, the strength at the end of 11th, 12th and 13th Plan periods is expected to increase to 35.5, 35 and 42 squadrons respectively.” The 42-squadron build up was premised on a 126-aircraft MMRCA deal, 272 Su-30MKIs being inducted by 2019, a total of 120 Tejas aircraft entering service by 2026 with more to follow and 51 Mirage-2000s and 63 MiG-29s being upgraded. The Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), which is under development, was to come in later (a total of 127). However, with the induction of Tejas delayed and the Rafale deal for 126 aircraft scrapped, the actual strength of the combat fleet is lagging behind these projections. The effectiveness is further reduced due to the poor serviceability of the Su-30MKI fleet. Moreover, the current holdings of MiG-21 and MiG-27 are ageing fleets which will fall out of service in the next few years. Thus the search is on for filling the widening gap with another type of aircraft, possibly a single engine, one less expensive than the Rafale.

Options for Raising Strength

In the absence of any indigenously produced combat aircraft discounting the non-operational Tejas, India’s current aircraft are Russian (MiG-21, MiG-27, MiG-29, Su-30MKI), French (Mirage-2000) and the Anglo-French Jaguar. The IAF has learnt, nay mastered, the art of managing mixed fleets, even integrating Western and Indian avionics into Russian aircraft, but HAL has remained at the lowest point of the learning curve in terms of producing its own combat aircraft design. Thus, in future too, the IAF appears destined to live with mixed fleets although some rearrangement is foreseeable. So what are our foreign options?

Whether the 36 Rafale deal gets consummated or not, India should hasten the search for a combat aircraft and home onto one type…

In the past, we have had no combat aircraft from the US but Indo-US relations are on the upswing and we have received transport aircraft and are in the process of procuring helicopters from the US Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs). As a fallout of the decision to prune the 126 aircraft MMRCA deal to 36 aircraft, the IAF is now looking for cheaper, single-engine aircraft. Lockheed Martin’s F-16 had been one of the six contenders for MMRCA, but lost out to twin-engine platforms in the competition. Lockheed Martin, which was in the process of shutting down its F-16 assembly line at Fort Worth, offered to not only sell the F-16 to India; but also to shift its production to India and affect a complete transfer the technology to India (a decision has been taken now to shift it to South Carolina). However, there is understandable hesitation on the part of India on various counts. There is the issue of the F-16 being used by Pakistan with the implication that India would end up supporting Pakistani F-16 fleet. In terms of operational capability, one crucial disadvantage it has is that it has no side scanning radar which permits the tactical advantage of guiding a missile without having to fly directly towards it. Moreover, India is a bit wary given its past experience with the US. In any case, the Trump administration has made it clear that it will scrutinise any deal that may shift jobs overseas and has said it plans to take a ‘fresh look’ at the India deal. The F-16 thus looks like an unlikely candidate for adding to IAF’s fleet.

The Russian connection is the strongest of all foreign ones, as far as the IAF is concerned. The Soviet Union helped India set up three new factories for HAL at Nasik (aircraft), Koraput (engines) and Hyderabad (avionics) although transfer of significant technology remained elusive. A total of 125 upgraded MiG-21 ‘Bison’ are expected to be in service until 2022, while a slowly dwindling strength (from 160) MiG-27s plods on. Sixty three of the 80 MiG-29s procured are being upgraded currently. The most valuable Russian asset the IAF has, is the Sukhoi Su-30MKI, which was developed for the IAF after a joint design and development project in early 2000s and is being license-produced by HAL.

A total of 272 aircraft were contracted for of which 240 have been inducted. The aircraft will soon be upgraded as ‘Super Sukhoi’ with an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar and will be the backbone of the IAF’s fighter fleet for at least the next two decades. However, the whole deal is odorous; there is no Transfer of Technology and each aircraft license-produced by HAL costs Rs 100 crore which is more than a Russian-assembled one. Moreover, the serviceability rate has been alarmingly low. Introspection on the Su-30MKI deal has led to India insisting on full Transfer of Technology for the FGFA being jointly designed by India and Russia, not only so that future upgrades and avionics/armament modifications can be carried out indigenously; but also to gain technology benefits for the ongoing Advance Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) which, without FGFA technology, may end up into a too little too late exemplar like the Tejas. Russia has offered the MiG-35 to India.

Biting at the single engine bait is another former contender for the MMRCA contest – Saab Gripen E, claims for which project it as an aircraft better than the F-16 and a life cycle cost significantly lower than the F-16’s. It has an advantage over the F-16 in terms of its AESA radar which is being improved further, according to Saab. Accompanied with an offer for serial production in India and a complete Transfer of Technology, the is an object of desire for the IAF.

What is required is a quick finalisation of the final MMRCA that we need and then a speedy setting up of an assembly line…

The British linkage to the IAF includes the Folland Gnat, an aircraft so determinedly single pilot that it did not even have a trainer version in India and pilots who intended to fly solo on the Gnat, flew training sorties on the Hawker Hunter, another British type of aircraft. The SEPECAT Jaguar, an Anglo-French Deep Penetration Strike Aircraft (DPSA) has been in service with the IAF since 1978. A total of 120 were built under license by HAL and some significant avionics updates affected since then. Currently, the IAF has 125 of these aircraft. RollsRoyce, a British company, has been making noises about producing fighter jet engines in India. While that may not directly contribute to the IAF’s combat capability, in the long run, some technology related benefits may accrue for the Indian aerospace industry. This could be very significant, given the fact that our own Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) has not been able to produce an engine for the Tejas.

French company Dassault gave the IAF Ouragans in 1953 and Mirage-2000s in 1984; the latter have been modified to Mirage-2000-5 Mk II and are expected to continue in service until 2030. While HAL overhauls the Mirage in India, there is no Transfer of Technology and all the components and spares are of French origin. Waking up a little late, much after announcing a government-to-government deal for 36 Rafale jets, India is now insisting on full Transfer of Technology; the French, still chaffing from the cancellation of the 126 Rafale deal under the MMRCA project, are insistent that that can happen only if the minimum order is for 100 Rafale jets. India, rightly, is not in the mood for procuring more than 36 of these expensive aircraft and is looking for cheaper options. The only good thing that might come out from the Rafale deal is the formation of Dassault Reliance Aerospace to handle the 50 per cent offsets inherent to the deal.

The only silver lining in the otherwise gloomy picture is the Su-30MKI in the heavy combat aircraft space…

Israel, which has had over two decades of aerospace relations with India, has recently offered Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) such as Eitan and Heron for stand-off and long-range strategic strike roles. If consummated, such a deal could add to the combat potential of the IAF. A decision on a deal with IAI under ‘Make in India’ programme with complete Transfer of Technology, would be taken in July when Prime Minister Modi is to visit Israel.


In July 2007, the then CAS, Air Chief Marshal FH Major reportedly stated the IAF’s intention to reduce its combat aircraft inventory to three aircraft systems only – the Tejas as the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), the new MMRCAs as the Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA) and the SU-30MKIs as the Heavy Combat Aircraft (HCA). The intervening years have seen the Tejas delayed further and the MMRCA deal whittled down to 36. There are other factors too that make this simplistic projection impracticable. So what is the prognosis? Can the IAF get 42 squadrons by 2022?

The indigenous LCA story is distressing. The Tejas Mk I handed over to an unwilling IAF with just an Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) and an underpowered engine (F404-GE-IN20) in 2015 amidst much fanfare, is not a combat aircraft and can at best be used for training. Forty of these are on order even while they move sluggishly towards a Final Operational Clearance (FOC) which ought to have preceded induction into service. The final objective of a Mk II with an upgraded GE engine (F414-GE-INS6), an AESA radar and air-to-air refueling is a distant dream yet with a nebulous timeline.

Meanwhile, the Mk IA, with the Mk I engine and some upgrades (including AESA radar), was thrust down the throat of the IAF and 83 were ordered. Delivery is expected to commence in 2018-19 at the rate of 16 units per annum. By 2024, the IAF should have 40 Tejas Mk I and 83 Mk IA but no Mk II. Meanwhile, the attrition of MiG-21 and MiG-27 fleets, which is expected to be around 200 aircraft by 2024, dictates that new inductions take place as soon as practicable. Thus, what is required is that the IAF gets at least 200 Tejas Mk II between now and 2024 to replace all the MiG-21 and MiG-27 fleets retired by then. The total projection of 294 LCAs (based on 14 squadrons with 21 aircraft each) is unlikely to mature by 2022 or even 2024, given HAL’s track record.

The need to bring the IAF to a 42-squadron strength as a first step and then to revisit the sanctioned strength, remains an imperative…

As far as the medium category is concerned, the 36 Rafale deal is also in suspended animation and the datelines still in areas of uncertainty. Unarguably, the Rafale is an expensive option. Should India go for more Rafale? Should we opt for another 90 aircraft and let Dassault and Reliance manufacture these in India so that complete Transfer of Technology can take place? There is a strong case for doing so in the interest of the future of indigenous aerospace industry. However, the cost is high and budgetary constraints are already choking the defence services.

Whether the 36 Rafale deal gets consummated or not, India should hasten the search for a combat aircraft and home onto one type. The sense of urgency that the ominous writing on the wall dictates is somehow missing the government’s attention. The lumbering bureaucratic methodology used for defence procurement is engaged in ‘marking time’ – the process of showing visible activity, stomping energetically and consuming considerable energy without moving ahead. The MMRCA selection process which started in 2007 and culminated in 2015 in an anti-climactical cancellation has not amused any of the contenders, least of all the French.

It was reported in October last year that Indian embassies in the US, Russia and Sweden had written to companies in their respective countries to ask whether they would be interested in partnering one or more Indian companies in building a medium multi-role combat aircraft of the single engine variety. Given the imperative of the IAF’s precarious state as far as its combat aircraft strength is concerned, juxtaposed with the fact that the leading contenders have already been tested and evaluated under the ill-managed MMRCA selection process, the delay in taking a decision is incomprehensible.

What is required is a quick finalisation of the final MMRCA that we need and then a speedy setting up of an assembly line with the foreign OEM partnering a private company and not the inveterately inefficient public sector. The first order itself should be for at least 126 aircraft which was the original requirement as envisaged in 2007, possibly followed by more to cater for further peacetime attrition of the IAF’s Jaguars, Mirage-2000s and MiG-29s. It may be mentioned en passant that the Indian AMCA can be discounted as far as the next two decades are concerned, given the LCA’s design and development history.

The only silver lining in the otherwise gloomy picture is the Su-30MKI in the heavy combat aircraft space. A total of 272 are on order with the last 32 still to be delivered. A follow on order for 40 aircraft has been placed taking the total to 312. Serviceability has been low and an agreement was signed recently between HAL and Irkut Corporation for improving that situation. The Su-30 MKIs are slated to be upgraded to Super Sukhoi which will make the aircraft more combat capable over the next five years. The future of the FGFA, as mentioned earlier, remains uncertain but it could complement the Su-30MKI in the distant future, if the deal comes through.

If the IAF gets 294 LCAs, 126 MMRCAs and 312 Su-30MKIs the expected attrition could be compensated adequately. Unfortunately, only the Su-30MKI figure appears to be achievable.

Concluding Remarks

The arithmetic of numbers outlined above is incomplete without a mention of the price tags. The Tejas was expected to cost (after amortisation of the development cost, and pursuant to the IAF and Navy buying 294 and 50 aircraft respectively) Rs 209 crore per unit. With the Navy discarding it, the cost to the IAF will go up higher. The MMRCA (to treat Rafale as the benchmark) costs around Rs 800 crore each while the Su-30MKI is tagged at Rs 450 crore each as the HAL-produced aircraft costs Rs 100 crore more than the one produced in Russia by the OEM.

Then there are the ongoing upgrades constantly being undertaken to keep up with technology. The upgrade programme for 51 Mirage-2000 is around Rs 344 crore each and that for 63 MiG-29s around Rs 100 crore each. The point being made is that, added to the delays in procurement and production, there is an interrogatory mark over the budgetary allocations necessary to support the revamping of the IAF fleet. The fresh, ongoing search for a single engine combat aircraft shows all the signs of dragging on inexorably and indefinitely; it is possible that the dragging of feet by the government on the new aircraft is on account of the huge price tag attached to a possible future acquisition.

Nonetheless, the need to bring the IAF to a 42-squadron strength as a first step and then to revisit the sanctioned strength, remains an imperative if India wishes to forestall an ignominious performance in a future aerial campaign involving either or both of our inimical neighbours.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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Gp Capt AK Sachdev

Director - Operations, EIH Ltd.

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4 thoughts on “Revamping the Combat Fleet of the IAF

  1. Why are the present IAF officers not taking the number of fighter plane used in the 1971 war? The reason is that it will expose their inefficiency of present-day officers So far my knowledge goes none of the fighter planes was fitted with night flying facility. Only in full moon day, IAF conducted a few sorties in Chamb sector as the condition was very bad. Bombs were not effective to destroy the runways, The PAF also experience the same problem. As per the official report, IAF conducted 4000 sorties in a 13 days war in the West.That means IAF was able to conduct about 700 sorties per day with 20 squadrons of fighter planes in the West. They used 14 squadrons in the east. Now there so no east Pakistan. 700/20 = 35 Sortie per day. Now except Mig 21and Mig 27, all the planes have got night flying facility. and can conduct sorties without a rear gunner. Rear gunner does not carry any weapon Usually. With the help of GPS and AWACs, all these upgraded fighter plane can conduct sorties independently and carry more powerful weapons.700 sorties can be done with 10 to 12 squadrons, Number of sorties will down.when we use powerful weapons. The speed of the fighter plane is also more. There was no helicopter used to give air support to the army in 1971 war, Now helicopter will help the Army and give air support. IAF fought 1971 war with 34 squadrons, Out of 34 squadrons they used 20 in the West and 14 in the East., Now IAF has got 33 squadrons. Whenever IAF use multi-role fighter planes the requirement of planes should come down. Otherwise, what is the use of spending millions of dollars on SU30Mki and Rafale like fighter planes. The 21st century is the age of missiles and rockets, not flying machines developed to carry weapons. The unit cost of f16 block 70 is about 70.5 million dollars. Its operating cost is 7500 dollars per hour, Tomahawk cruise missile unit cost is 1,87 million dollars

  2. The writeup is typical of Indian lifafa journalism. Decades of failed TOT and hangar queens have not helped shaped this retired air force pilot’s views and this is very surprising.
    1. Take the case of the French – Mirage 2000 upgrade is costing IAF as much as new aircraft. What a shameful waste of taxpayer money. IAF could have purchased brand new airframes with better engines and similar avionics at the same price. These aircraft would have served the country for at least 3 decades. Shame!
    2. Take the case of the pride of the IAF – the SU – 30 MKI – it reportedly (CAG reports) has a serviceability of only 50% – so IAF is buying two expensive planes to get one into the air at a time. Thus the MKI has effectively crippled the IAF’s war fighting capability. Shame!
    3. The Mig-21 has killed more pilots in peacetime (about 200) than the number lost in war time. Shame on TOT and the supplier!
    4. The Indian Navy’s Mig-29ks have less than 10% serviceability – buy 10 to keep one in the air. Shame!
    5. The Jaguar which is the main stay of the strike fleet of the IAF has been underpowered for the past 4 decades in IAF service. Shame! Now IAF is wasting money by putting more powerful engines in the aircraft. What a waste – the money could be better spent elsewhere.

    If India wants to build up fleet strength there is only ONE choice – invest heavily in the LCA. Build MK1, Mk1A and MK2 ….. in numbers.

    Wake up SIr and lead India in the right direction. Buying foreign weapons limit the war fighting capability due to dependence on imported spares. During wartime, spares are limited and the Indian warfighter has always fought with one hand tied behind the back. All kinds of scams are recorded in history for purchase of munitions to support the warfighter during hostilities.

    Therefore correct your perspective. India MUST invest in the LCA and an Indian engine to shake the yoke of colonialism. Buying foreign weapons, makes India weak and a stooge of its suppliers.

  3. Illusions of so-called full ToT being gifted by other nations. Why would they do that? That is just plain stupidity to believe in such marketing rhetoric. When was the last time full ToT was given to India and what has India been able to do so with such fictitious ToT? It is still importing 70% of its defense systems.

    Mentality of an Imported Air Force!

    If you don’t support your own industry, then don’t dream about being a world power.

  4. Several issues with the article:
    1. Author suggests reaching an MMRCA decision when that has already failed because of cost overruns
    2. Dismissing the LCA as underpowered is specious. Recall that the Jaguar is underpowered and the high-power MiG 23s and 27s had the worst possible safety record.

    In the IAF people who fly some planes always love them MiG 21 pilots swear by it. Mirage pilots swear by the Mirage. HF-24 and Gnat pilots used to swear by their aircraft. How does this gentlemen who has never flown a Tejas LCA simply dismiss it? And the words of those who have flown it?

    Western air forces have – because of deadly conflicts in the past supported some of the strangest (often unsafe) aircraft in their nations allowing their industry to gain experience. I see no awareness of that here. Sadly the author shows the attitude of a watchman who says “Give me a good weapon and I will guard”, not that of a tech-aware manager who says “i will involve myself in the development of out military industry”

    The Indian Air Force really should pay more attention to recruiting career engineers and designers and embed them in industry rather than its current status as a fighter-jock dominated force flying imported weapons and not playing an active role in promoting the indigenous development of an air force friendly aerospace industry

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