The serious showdown with the Chinese in Ladakh has once again brought into focus the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) growth and its challenges. Defence analysts are closely comparing the defence preparedness of the armies and air forces of the two sides across the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The media hype related to the induction of Rafale did raise the public confidence and nationalist fervour, but professionals must look at the ground reality dispassionately and debate the challenges and options.
Current state of IAF
IAF is today at an all-time low in the number of fighter squadrons. Already down to 30 vis-a-vis the authorised 42, the numbers would go down further if some more squadrons are allowed to retire because of low availability of serviceable aircraft. As far back as 2001, IAF had apprised the government for the need to acquire additional fighters. IAF at that stage was very happy to have the upgraded version of the Mirage-2000, an option that finally got foreclosed in 2006 when Dassault closed the Mirage-2000 production line after repeatedly checking with India.
The process to acquire 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) was finally initiated in 2007. French Dassault Rafale was the eventual winner after a fierce competition among the world’s top available fighters. 8 of the 36 Rafale have arrived and are operational at Ambala.
Meanwhile the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) ‘Tejas’ has had a very delayed Design and Development (D&D) programme and after nearly 20 years since aircraft’s first flight, only around 25 aircraft have been delivered to the IAF. The second LCA squadron has just formed. Delayed acquisition of a sufficient number of 4th-Generation-plus fighters and slow induction of the LCA is the main cause of the depleted state that IAF fight fleet is in today.
Waiting to phaseout are at least five squadrons. So, the numbers could deplete further. Effectively the IAF today has one squadron of Rafale, 12 of Su30 MKI, 3 Mirage 2000, 3 MiG 29s, 4 MiG 21 Bison, 2 LCA, and 5 Jaguar. MiG 21 Bison Squadrons are awaiting retirements.
Air threat appreciation
Chinese are investing heavily in aerospace research and development and aircraft manufacture. They have two home-grown stealth fighters (J-20 and J-31), and one large transport aircraft (Y-20) already flying. They are also developing the H-20 stealth bomber and a host of attack helicopters and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has nearly 80 combat squadrons. They have an operational J-20 squadron, 24 Su-35, nearly 500 J-10s, and a large number of Su-27 and Su-30 variants. Chinese are right now sitting eyeball-to-eye-ball on India’s border in Ladakh and threatening conflict.
Pakistan has not only stepped up insurgency into Jammu and Kashmir but it also openly boasts of collusive support from China in case of a war with India. Pakistan has nearly 20 combat units and is fast inducting the JF-17 Block III.
Indian government and the three services are officially acknowledging and factoring possible two-front war scenarios. In 2018, IAF had tested the two-front war operational plans in the mother of-all-exercises ‘Gagan Shakti‘. While the IAF has a plan ‘B’ to fight with what it has, if forced into a conflict, but numbers are clearly not adequate to fully execute an air campaign even in a single front. It is incumbent upon the nation to provide IAF assets for the task it has been entrusted. It is imperative that IAF quickly rebuilt the squadron strength.
Fighter Aircraft Unfolding Action Ahead
Delay in LCA has forced IAF to extend the MiG21 Bison-fleet till 2024 with depleting numbers and lower availability of spares. IAF’s order of 40 LCA Mk1 will get completed only by mid-2022. 83 LCA Mk1A have just got CCS approval. The same will begin inducting around 2024. IAF’s dedicated strike aircraft fleet now has only the Jaguars, and these are being modernised further to DARIN III standard. Mikoyan MiG-29 and Mirage-2000 fleets have also been upgraded. 21 additional upgraded MiG-29s are being procured. However, these will take nearly three years to upgrade and induct. 272 Su-30 MKI air-superiority fighters are on order and 260 have been delivered till date. 12 additional SU30 MKI are being acquired, primarily to replace those that had crashed over the years or as War Wastage Reserve (WWR). Initially, 40 Su-30 MKI aircraft will be upgraded. This would include the ability to carry the BrahMos cruise missiles and nuclear-capable Nirbhay missiles, get an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, more powerful onboard computers and new electronic warfare (EW) suite. The process has still evolved. All 36 Rafale aircraft will induct by 2022.
Responses for IAF’s Request for Information (RFI) for 114 4th-Generation-plus fighters were received in July 2018. The seven in contention are Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, F-16 Block 70 (now named F-21), F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, JAS 39 E/F Gripen NG, MiG-35 and SU-35. The Request for Proposal (RFP) has been waiting for long. It appears that there is a lack of clarity or funds to proceed further on this plan. Even if the process is hastened, the earliest these aircraft can be inducted is 2026. The Americans are reportedly independently pushing the case of Boeing F-15 EX.
Way Ahead LCA
The LCA Mk-II which is more likely to meet IAF’s ASQRs is still far away. Therefore, it was decided to have an interim, operationally better version, Mk1A with an advanced AESA Radar, an EW suite, a mid-air refuelling probe, and incorporate weight reduction along with easier service maintainability. 83 of these will induct from 2024 onwards.
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