With the defence ministry dragging its feet on crucial defense purchases, for the first time since independence the Indian Air Force (IAF) is set to lose conventional edge over Pakistan. It’s fighter squadron strength is set to hit an all time low of 31 in the next two years.
Since the 1971 Indo-Pak war in which Pakistan was completely defeated, the Indian defence strategy has been based on maintaining a superior air force over Pakistan and China. In the event of a conflict with either of these countries, the IAF will be a critical fighting instrument of first resort.
Fighter assets of the IAF are dwindling fast and the force will not be able to attain it’s minimum required sanctioned strength of 42 until 2032 thus adversely affecting the „operational capability“ of the IAF. No doubt that the IAF is purchasing new state-of-the-art fighter jets and also manufacturing the top of the line Su-30 MKI’s in India, it will still not bridge the gap.
The committee has found that the IAF has at present 34 fighter squadrons against the sanctioned strength of 42. As the Committee understands the strength is likely to be reduced further to 31 during the 12th plan (from 2012-2017).
The current strategy has been aimed to build eventually to 45 numbers of combat squadron of air force. The number of sanctioned strength now is 42 but finally the need will be to have 45 squadrons, which will happen only by the 15th plan (2032),” said the committee’s report tabled in the Parliament.
As early as 1959, the IAF had projected the requirement of 64 squadrons, including 45 combat aircraft squadrons, to prepare for an eventuality of facing war on two fronts. The debacle in 1962 reaffirmed the requirement. But since then the snail-paced acquisition has hurt the IAF badly. The IAF managed to maintain an edge against the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) giving the IAF a 2.9:1 advantage in combat aircraft.
Presently the PAF has around 26 squadrons and the IAF needs to have 39.5 squadrons to maintain it’s edge. The PAF too is undergoing a major augmentation of it’s capacity. And as recently as in 2006 it ordered 28 F-16CD Block 52 fighters from the US. Out of these 14 has already been delivered. It has also placed order for 36 J-10 combat jets with China.
Pakistan is also doing series production of JF-17 Thunder aircraft – the Chinese equivalent of the home-built Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) – with China. Pakistan has produced 26 such fighters with Chinese help since 2009. China has also agreed to provide 50 JF-17 Thunders equipped with sophisticated avionics to Pakistan.
The decline in India’s combat squadron will come as it begins its “obsolete” MiG-21 fighter jets in 2014 and the phase-out will complete by 2017. Already the force has decided to stop training its fighter pilots on the Soviet-vintage war-jet following a series of crashes last year. According to data 482 MiG aircraft have crashed since 1971-72 resulting in the death of 171 pilots, 39 civilians and 9 service personnel earning a moniker of “Flying Coffins”.
With the development of indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas taking place facing constant time over-runs and the procurement of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft progressing painfully slow, the force had been unable to write off the MiG-21s. After a long winding procurement process spanning nearly ten years, the deal for 126 fighter jets is now in price negotiation stage and the first of the aircraft is likely to be delivered by the end of this decade only.
The conventional edge of the air force has already been compromised qualitatively, as these MiG-21 variants have already out-flown their initial prescribed life span of 20 years. Presently, there are four versions MiGs flying with the IAF – Type-77, Type-96, Type 75 and Bisons. Of these Type-77 jets are the oldest and Bisons are the upgraded versions. Flying for the last four decades, these aircraft have been given life extensions several times over.
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