The Rafale deal with France is yet to materialise, but the Indian Air Force is set to lose 54 fighter jets within the next six months. The planes - MiG 21s and MiG 27s, bought from Russia in the 60s and 70s - will be de-commissioned, bringing down the strength of the Air Force from 35 to 32 squadrons.
The Air Force - which needs at least 42 squadrons of 18 aircraft each to provide proper air cover at the Western and Northern borders - is now considering an unprecedented step to fill the gap, said sources.
The IAF has told the government that it could divert four to six planes from the existing squadrons - depending on requirement - to keep the total number of squadrons intact.
"We will have to pull out about 50 odd aircrafts from other squadrons and make up 3 squadrons," a senior Air Force officer told NDTV.
The flip side will be that it will reduce the operational strength and therefore the fire power of the squadrons.
The loss to each squadron at times could be more than six jets, since the fighters will sometimes be unavailable due to repairs and maintenance. The 18 fighters of a squadron include two trainers and two fighters in reserve.
"In effect, the number of fighters available at times for operational deployment will be even lower," the officer said.
MiG-21s are interceptor jets, used for air defence and air to ground attacks. MiG-27s are used for ground attack and a variety of purposes like destroying infrastructure.
But the Rafale jets -capable of deep penetration strike - that were to plug the critical gap are still far away. India has also scaled down the number of aircraft it planned to acquire from France from 126 to 36 off-the-shelf jets. Defence minister Manohar Parrikar had said they were "way too expensive".
And it will be another five years before indigenously built fighter jet Tejas can be deployed in a combat role.
"The IAF will fight with whatever we have, but the situation isn't a very happy one," a senior officer said.