In the deteriorating security environment, the need to restore the strength of the combat fleet of the IAF to the authorised level is urgent and must not be ignored
In the wake of the rapidly evolving global geopolitical paradigms and consequently the geostrategic scenario in the South Asian region, the ties between India and Pakistan especially in recent times, have worsened considerably and the downslide continues at a disconcerting pace. The Kashmir valley continues to burn with increasing ferocity and ceasefire violations by the Pakistani forces, infiltration across the Line of Control and terrorist attacks by Pakistan supported elements at civil and military targets within the country, have been constantly on the rise leading to heavy loss of life amongst civilians and the security forces deployed to safeguard territorial integrity of the nation.
The most recent such episode was an attack against the pilgrims proceeding to Amarnath in which a number of innocent lives were lost. Although this episode of attack on the pilgrims may be of little military significance, it has certainly served to ignite the sentiments of the nation against the hostile Western neighbour.
China is also becoming increasingly aggressive. Apart from its moves to dominate and control the South China Sea that is indeed of global concern, it has been enhancing and consolidating deployment of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force in Tibet, conducting regular exercises as well as undertaking aggressive patrolling along the Sino-Indian border. The recent stand-off between Indian and Chinese troops on account of the effort by the latter to usurp territory of Bhutan in Dhoka La and the Doklam Plateau to construct a highway which would help Chinese forces dominate and pose serious threat to the Sliguri Corridor is a matter of serious concern. This Corridor is a narrow stretch of land located in the Indian state of West Bengal and is of immense strategic importance to India as it connects the North Eastern states to the rest of the country. India cannot afford to allow the Chinese forces to pose any threat to this piece of territory that is of critical importance to national security.
With these developments in the region and the growing proximity between China and Pakistan, India could well be on the cusp of what is usually referred to as a two-front war which would involve simultaneous military conflict with both the hostile neighbours acting in collusion. In this context, it would be relevant to recall the advisory issued by Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, Chief of the Air Staff, Indian Air Force (IAF) to personnel under his command soon after taking over his appointment, to be prepared for a war that may be short and intense, against China and Pakistan either singly or acting in collusion. The critical issue that arises from these developments is whether the fleet of combat aircraft in the IAF which is the spearhead of the nation’s air power, is equipped to the level required and is in a fit state to confront the formidable challenges in the event of a two-front war.
The State of the Combat Fleet
Currently, the IAF has just 32 squadrons of fighter aircraft in its inventory as against a currently authorised strength of 39.5. However, the strength of combat squadrons has been cleared by the government to be enhanced to 42 squadrons by 2022. As such, the combat fleet of the IAF is actually deficient by ten squadrons that is equivalent of around 200 platforms. The bulk of the combat fleet of the IAF consists of the MiG-21 upgraded to MiG-21 Bison, MiG 27, MiG-29, the Jaguar and the Mirage 2000. All these platforms were acquired in the decade of the 1980s or even earlier and are actually obsolescent.
The MiG-21 and the MiG-27 variants would be retired from service by the year 2025. Those remaining in service namely the Mirage 2000, the MiG-29 and the Jaguar fleets will constitute a total of 11 squadrons. These aircraft are already undergoing expensive upgrade programmes on completion of which, these will be endowed with a fresh lease of life after which they are expected to serve up to at least around 2030. The last meaningful step at modernisation of the combat fleet was the procurement of the fourth-generation air dominance fighter, the Su-30 MKI from Sukhoi of Russia. Of a total of 272 platforms ordered, few were received from the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in fly-away condition and the remaining are under production by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The last aircraft from the order for 272 is scheduled to be delivered by 2019.
THE COMBAT FLEET OF THE IAF IS CLEARLY NOT IN A HEALTHY STATE, GIVEN THE ESCALATING THREAT OF A TWO-FRONT WAR AND THE HIGHLY ERODED OPERATIONAL STATUS
By the end of the current decade, excluding the MiG-21 and MiG-27 fleets, the deficiency in the combat fleet of the IAF will increase by another three squadrons. The IAF will thus be left with 29 squadrons which means a deficiency of 250 combat platforms. The combat fleet of the IAF is clearly not in a healthy state, given the escalating threat of a two-front war and the highly eroded operational status. With further grievous shortages in the combat fleet looming large over the horizon and the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas from the Indian aerospace industry nowhere in sight, in 2002, the IAF had initiated a case to procure 126 or six squadrons of medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) from foreign sources. After five years of dithering, the tender was issued in August 2007. The IAF had identified the twin-engine Rafale from Dassault of France as the preferred platform from amongst the six contenders. This reflected the desire of the IAF to move away from the traditional source – the Russian aerospace industry. Rather unfortunately, the project ran into some insurmountable impediments and after eight years of effort, the tender was cancelled in 2015.
Two small steps, but under the circumstances somewhat significant, have been taken by the IAF to arrest the downward slide in the operational status of its combat fleet. As the Su-30 is likely to be the mainstay of the combat fleet of the IAF for some years, a follow-on order for another 40 aircraft has been placed on HAL with delivery expected to be completed by 2025. The other was a master stroke by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his state visit to France when he struck a deal directly with the government of France for the supply of 36 Rafale jets which will equip just two combat squadrons. While the then Minister of Defence, Manohar Parrikar likened the induction of 36 Rafale jets as “oxygen for the IAF”, the then CAS, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha regarded it as clearly inadequate and went on to say that the IAF needed around 200 to 250 of these platforms to retain its combat edge over its adversaries.
Incidentally, on July 18, 2017, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, CAS, IAF, during his recent visit to France, flew a sortie on the Rafale fighter jet located at Saint-Dizier, a premier airbase of the French Air Force. This symbolic gesture by the CAS a year prior to the arrival of this platform in India, will go a long way in strengthening ties between the air forces of the two nations. This was one of the important objectives of the visit. Such an exercise was undertaken over three years ago by the then CAS, Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne as well. Unfortunately, efforts by the IAF at modernisation of the combat fleet through the induction of the Rafale jets in much larger numbers, has clearly not been successful so far and tragically so. Hopefully, the strengthening ties between the air forces of France and India will make this dream come true in not too distant a future.
Search for Alternatives
Attempts at procurement of MMRCA having been aborted and the LCA Tejas still years away, in a frantic search for alternatives, in 2016, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) came up with a plan to explore the possibility of a foreign OEM setting up a production line in India to manufacture in collaboration with an Indian partner, single-engine combat aircraft for the IAF as also to meet with the demand of the global market if any. This proposal was in conformity with the Make in India programme newly crafted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After the jarring experience with the failed MMRCA tender, for the MOD, this option appeared as the most expedient and possibly the quickest way to modernise the combat fleet of the IAF.
There has been encouraging response to the proposal from two OEMs namely Lockheed Martin Corporation of the US offering the F-16 Block 70 and Saab of Sweden with the JAS 39E Gripen. Both are near fifth generation single-engine aircraft and if inducted in large numbers, would add the much needed punch to the combat fleet of the IAF. Unfortunately, the proposal from Lockheed Martin is delayed on account of a “fresh look” ordered by the newly installed Trump administration. Unless the final decision of the Trump administration on the proposal is known, the MoD is unlikely to progress the case further. Once again efforts by the IAF to procure modern single-engine combat platforms in large numbers appears to have encountered a serious impediment thereby impinging on the plans for the speedy modernisation of its combat fleet.
The experience of the IAF over the last decade and a half at modernising its fleet of combat aircraft has not been rewarding to say the least, in fact it has been rather frustrating. But what is more important is the deleterious impact of the rapidly depleting strength of the combat fleet on national security which ought to be understood. It is about time that the MoD carries out a thorough review of the whole system of procurement of military hardware and take appropriate steps to make the process resilient enough to address the imperatives of national security. In the deteriorating security environment, the need to restore the strength of the combat fleet of the IAF to the authorised level is urgent and must not be ignored.