NEW DELHI --- Continuous warnings over the past decade as regards the alleged tardy pace of induction of new fighter jets into the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the resultant loss of “combative edge” are now ringing true.
By the end of this year, the IAF would be at its lowest combat strength in more than a decade, a source said.
The government is aware of the gravity of the situation and the plans are afoot to tackle the situation. The country is now faced with the reality of projections on IAF fighter fleet made separately over the past 10 years by the Indian Air Force, strategic thinkers, successive reports of parliamentary committees on defence and the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG).
A senior official admitted “yes we will be down to 32 squadrons by the end of this year and are in the middle of the predicted shortage”. In simple words, the IAF with 576 fighter jets will be well short of the 750-strong fighter jet fleet mandated by a government sanction to wage a simultaneous two-front war with Pakistan and China.
Three squadrons of the vintage single-engine Soviet Union origin MiG-21 and MiG-27 are being phased out as planned this year.
Of the 32 squadrons, the vintage MiG-21 and MiG-27 will form 11 squadrons. The Sukhoi 30-MKI [equips] 10 squadrons, the 1970s design British Jaguar forms six squadrons, followed by French Mirage 2000 and Soviet Union’s MiG 29 in two and three squadrons, respectively. The last three are being upgraded with better missiles and avionics.
It is the replacements that bother the IAF. The force is trying to raise a squadron of the twin-engine Russian-origin Sukhoi-30-MKI this year, but much depends on the speed of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) which is licensed to produce it in India.
HAL, a Ministry of Defence (MoD)-owned public sector undertaking, was mandated by the Cabinet Committee on Security in March 2006 to produce 16 planes annually and deliver 180 by 2017, in phases. The project is three years behind schedule. Till 2011, HAL had the capacity to produce just eight Sukhoi-30 jets annually, said a report of the CAG in 2014.
“The present production (around 14 jets at HAL) has also to cater to shortages occurring due to long-term overhauls of older Sukhoi-30 planes, besides replacing the phased-out fleets of other jets,” a source said. The Sukhoi’s had been ordered in phases since 1997. The IAF wants 272 of these in its fleet by 2020 and HAL still has to deliver around 70 planes. Some delay was caused by Russia during the early period of the contract. The IAF has 10 squadron of the Sukhoi, besides trainers. It plans to have 13 of these.
The other choice for the IAF is to wait for the final operational clearance (FOC) for light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas, which was okayed with 20 permanent and 33 temporary waivers. “(It) limits the operational efficiency and survivability of the aircraft,” the CAG said in its report on May 8 this year. The temporary waivers have to be ironed out before giving the FOC, which is scheduled for December this year, but is unlikely.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The Indian Air Force (IAF), has formally told the Ministry of Defence (MoD) that it needs at least 80 Rafale-type fighters to maintain its required readiness levels, the Tribune reported July 3. The “mere” 36 Rafales on order will not make up for the shortfall as 260 obsolete MiG-21s and MiG-27s are to be phased out, it said.)