Frightening fighter jet gap in Indian Airforce

Between its 70th and 90th anniversaries, the Indian Air Force has seen considerable capability accretion across all domains. Over the first two decades of the new millennium, the IAF ordered increasing quantities of the Russian Su-30 fighter, eventually co-developed into the definitive Su-30MKI. Various legacy types were earmarked for upgrade through the same period, keeping them viable into the 21st century.

The service also inducted a multitude of new platforms, including tankers, airborne early warning aircraft, surveillance drones, along with a slew of new transport and helicopter types. Today, it looks to fifth- and sixth-generation fighters, autonomous platforms and drone swarms for the future.

Yet for all its qualitative leaps, the service has been dogged by issues of combat mass, and nowhere is this more apparent – or more urgent – than the fighter fleet. The Government-approved strength of the IAF, given the country’s security scenario and possibility of a ‘two-front’ threat of combined Pakistani and Chinese actions, is 42 fighter squadrons.

However, the IAF has not come close to operating this many squadrons for nearly two decades, and certainly has never approached anything near a force entirely equipped with modern multi-role aircraft. In October last year, the Chief of the Air Staff appeared to accept this tyranny of arithmetic with a frank admission that the IAF would be unlikely to grow past 35 combat squadrons over the next 10 to 15 years. Even this seems optimistic given the facts.

The IAF’s present fighter fleet stands at 31 squadrons, 11 short of the required 42. A significant drawdown is planned over the coming decade, which will start with the shuttering of No. 51 Sqn operating MiG-21 Bisons out of Srinagar this year.The force stands to lose the three remaining MiG-21 squadrons by 2025 at the very latest.

With only a handful of Jaguar strike fighters earmarked for the DARIN III upgrade, the IAF is also likely to begin retiring its oldest Jaguars within the 2020s. Meanwhile, the air force will add at most two new squadrons by 2027. No additional Su-30MKI squadrons beyond the present 12 are planned, and the LCA and Rafale squadrons are already established, though will continue to receive aircraft through 2022-23.

The only firm contract for deliveries beyond 2023 is for 73 improved LCA Mk.1A fighters and 10 LCA Mk.1 trainers. The first of these will be delivered in 2024, with no more than two squadrons likely to be raised by 2027.There will therefore be no net addition to squadron numbers in the immediate future, and in fact the IAF is set to dip below 30 fighter squadrons around the middle of the decade.

Though the Air Force is pursuing a two-pronged approach to address this shortfall, neither is likely to bear fruit in time to arrest the drop in fighter numbers. The faster option – to buy and build around 100 foreign Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) – has seen essentially no meaningful progress since it kicked off in 2018.

On the other hand, the service has thrown its weight behind the more distant LCA Mk.2 programme, a larger, more capable successor to the Tejas Mk.1 already in service. However, development of this variant is not expected to conclude before 2027, with deliveries commencing thereafter; it will do nothing to stem the fighter gap opening up this decade. In fact, given the quantities and timelines envisaged for the LCA Mk.2, it is more apt to view the project as a replacement for the Jaguar, MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 fleets that will begin phasing out in the 2030s.

This leaves the present conundrum unanswered at a time when the security scenario, particularly the high end threat from China, is increasingly challenging.

SOURCE: Angad Singh ;


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