Rebuilding the IAF Fighter Fleet Long Road Ahead

The IAF’s preoccupation with fighting a two-front war was evident in the planning and conduct of Exercise Gagan Shakti; but its capability to do so was not demonstrated convincingly.

Issue: 2 / 2019By Group Captain A.K. Sachdev (Retd)Photo(s): By Karthik Kumar / SP Guide Pubns
Filling the Gap: LCA Tejas in flight

In February 2014, the Indian Air Force (IAF) openly declared to the Parliamentary Committee on Defence that it would be a challenge to manage a two-front war with the strength of the combat fleet that then stood at 34 squadrons. The IAF however added that it had plans for that contingency. This obfuscation has characterised the IAF combat aircraft strength narrative for years. In March 2016, Air Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, then the Vice Chief of the Air Staff (VCAS) told the media “Our numbers are not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front war scenario”. At that time, the squadron strength was 33. A year and a half later, when the squadron strength had dropped further to 32, as the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa declared on Air Force Day in 2017 that the IAF was ready for a two-front war. Some puerile iterations were made about this change having been brought about by the wherewithal for a two-front war having been provisioned for by the BJP government. The factual position is quite different. Indeed, the squadron strength has gone from 34 when the IAF prodded the Parliamentary Committee in 2014, to 30 today. This article looks at the urgent and critical need to rebuild the IAF fighter fleet.

THE NEED

The 2018 edition of Exercise Gagan Shakti, a biennial event, was unique in its extent. The IAF’s preoccupation with fighting a two-front war was palpably evident in the planning and conduct of Exercise Gagan Shakti; but its capability to do so was not demonstrated convincingly and credibly. The exercise was not conducted on both fronts simultaneously and so it was not a two-front war, but two single-front wars fought serially. The first phase was focused on the Western borders of India in terms of deployment and operations after which the Northern borders became the significant area of operations. Despite the hype that the media had created about how the exercise related to practicing for a two front-war, in fact it demonstrated exactly the opposite, providing reasonable doubt about the IAF’s capability to fight on both fronts simultaneously. The number of combat squadrons bear out this postulate. The current strength of 30 is generally compared to the sanctioned strength of 42 and found wanting. However, what needs to be considered to conjure up a complete picture is that the 42 figure dates back by more than two decades and that the current requirement, if mulled over objectively, would probably spew out a much larger number, possibly 60 or more. So why is the IAF not redoing its appreciation of the current threat scenario and asking for more than 42? The answer is obvious: there is no point in seeking beyond 42 squadrons when the current and near future state of affairs indicates that, in a couple of years, the strength will be down to 26, less than two thirds of the sanctioned figure.

THE AIRCRAFT

According to open sources (Flight Global’s World Air Forces 2018), the IAF has 198 Sukhoi Su-30MKIs, 66 MiG-29s, 84 MiG-27s, 130 Jaguars, 45 Mirage 2000s and 244 MiG-21s. The actual figures of MiG-27s and MiG-21s are probably much lower as constant attrition is on. Nominally taking a squadron as consisting of 18 aircraft, this coarsely totes up to 11 squadrons of Su-30MKIs, three of MiG-29s, two of Mig- 27s, six of Jaguars, three of Mirage 2000s and about five of MiG-21s — the total coming to about 30 squadrons. In the next five to six years, the Su-30MKI strength is expected to go up to at least 272 with possibly 40 more added on to the inventory thereafter as procurement of the additional 40 is still under consideration by the IAF. The addition of 36 Rafale jets is also expected to take place by then. The 123 Tejas aircraft that IAF is expected to get, are under a dark interrogation mark with the IAF not too happy about the aircraft and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) procrastinating as usual. According to one knowledgeable projection, the first combat worthy Tejas meeting IAF expectations would not enter service until 2025. Two contracts have so far been signed between the IAF and HAL for Tejas, one for the procurement of 20 Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) standard aircraft and another for 20 Final Operational Clearance (FOC) standard aircraft. All these are Mark I aircraft. Of the first 20 that was to be delivered by end of 2018 only 10 have been received by the IAF. In December 2017, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) had cleared procurement of 83 LCA Tejas Mark 1A, including 10 trainers, but as even the delivery of the first 40 Mark I is running far behind schedule. The Mark II, which is expected to be a useful combat platform, remains beyond visual range.

The current government’s stance appears to signal its supreme confidence in its foreign policies to avert war with India’s neighbours

Meanwhile the MiG-27 and MiG-21 fleets are being phased out and by 2022, the squadron strength will be down to 26. After that, depending on the speed at which the Su-30MKI production takes place, the induction of Rafale jets and the acceptance of Tejas by the IAF, the figure may begin to creep up. It is against this backdrop that the scuttled 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) invites seething anger and the current quest for 110 MMRCA assumes acute significance for national security.

THE PROGNOSIS

India’s pathetic dependence on foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) after having invested enormous resources into public sector manufacturing infrastructure i.e. HAL and aerospace R&D, is lamentable. Public debate has, in the last few months, started heaping opprobrium on to HAL’s internal infirmities, but it would not be easy even for the government to dislodge the strong lobby HAL has built over the years with bureaucratic abetment. It is time to take a look at the public sector monopoly in the aerospace sector and encourage private participation in aircraft manufacturing. If we start now, we would be able to build in a decade what HAL has not been able to in seven decades of its existence! Specifically, the Tejas need not be thrust down the throat of the IAF until it is ready to be used as a combat aircraft. It is not just through inordinate delays in the operationalisation of Tejas that HAL has impinged on IAF’s combat readiness. Persistent delays in production and delivery of the aircraft it services for the IAF are other issues. The Mirage 2000 and Jaguar upgrades are far behind schedules accepted by HAL while the track record for delivery of Su-30 MKIs has been miserably poor with the front line serviceability hovering around 50 percent. A Jagaur crash at the end of January and a Mirage 2000 crash at HAL airport in the beginning of February during pre-delivery checks on a just upgraded aircraft, are but two small symptoms of the general malaise that afflicts HAL. This has prompted the IAF to take its case to the Ministry of Defence that its combat strength is being seriously impacted by HAL’s incompetence.

CONCLUSION

In August 2018, the 29th report of the Murli Manohar Joshiheaded Parliamentary Committee on Estimates on Preparedness of Armed Forces-Defence Production & Procurement had said that the Narendra Modi government had brought down defence preparedness to an all-time low. While the aircraft unhurriedly slides downwards towards a new low figure for its fighter squadron strength of 26 by 2025, Pakistan and China are projected to have, by that time, 25 and 42 fighter squadrons respectively in place to combat India. The current government’s stance appears to signal its supreme confidence in its foreign policies to avert war with India’s neighbours. However, those whose business it is to fight wars, have their toes all curled up in frustration at the memory of the ignominious thrashing at the hands of China whose exterior friendly posture had fooled the then government into complacency in 1962. The lurking fear in the minds of IAF personnel, serving or retired, is that of a similar trouncing in the air for the fourth largest air force in the world. The current priority given to bolstering the strength of combat squadeins appears to be setting the stage for just that.