The Defence ministry is likely to pursue three other routes to make up for the depleting numbers of fighter squadrons for the Indian Air Force. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement that India will buy 36 Rafale fighter jets would compensate only a fraction of what the IAF has demanded from the Defence ministry.
Faced with declining fighter strength for years, IAF wanted 126, or six and a half squadrons, of medium multi-role fighters. The government has now given it two squadrons of French fighters, and hopes other options would be exercised to make up for the rest.
The first option would be to ask Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Bengaluru, to accelerate the delivery of the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft Mark-II for quicker induction. The Tejas LCA was thought of as the original MiG replacement but the aircraft is way behind in time schedule for induction in the air force. The first assembly line version of Tejas was handed over to the IAF only in January 2015.
Other choices would involve negotiating with Russia for buying more Su-30 MKI jets and stepping on the gas for the fifth generation fighter aircraft – being co-developed with Russia –which is suffering from time and cost overruns. IAF has a sanctioned strength of 44 fighter squadrons, but a large number of them are outdated MiG-21s that were inducted in the 1960s. As per the IAF scheme of things, only the upgraded MiG-21 Bisons will fly till 2025.
Last year, the air force informed the Parliamentary Standing Committee on defence that its “active” strength is only 25 squadrons.
IAF operates Su-30MKI, Mirage-2000, Jaguars, MiG-21 Bison and MiG-27. While the phasing out of some of the older generation MiGs have begun, all MiGs are slated to retire between 2014 and 2025. The Su-30 MKI are heavier aircraft and can’t undertake missions which a light weight medium aircraft like MiG can carry out.
India has contracted for 272 Su-30MKI from Russia for licensed production at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. So far more than 200 platforms were inducted into the IAF, which have positioned these fighter jets at Pune, Bareilly, Tezpur, Chabua, Halwara and Jodhpur and has planned to set up a new Su-30 MKI squadron at Sirsa in Haryana.