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Why it may take 10 years to address IAF’s depleting squadron strength

By Vikas Sv
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    The Indian Air Force (IAF)'s is staring at an acute shortage of fighter aircrafts. The IAF ideally needs 42 squadrons to effectively deal with a two-front war, but at present, the air force has around 32 squadrons. IAF is now frantically working towards increasing the strength, but experts say that it would take at least a decade to meet its desired force levels.

    File photo of Tejas aircrafts on the tarmac

    IAF is aware of the problem is looking at various options to address this issue. Although making up this shortfall by the year 2027 poses significant challenges, the IAF is not without options. It had planned to acquire an additional five squadrons of Rafales and undoubtedly would still like to do so if permitted. To compensate for this shortfall and to cater for future replacements for aircraft such as the Jaguar and eventually the MiG-29 and Mirage 2000, India has two active plans to bolster force levels. One of these involves the procurement of new single and twin-engine fighters, with the latter taking priority. The other involves the procurement of four squadrons of the Tejas Mk.1A variant.

    The IAF currently has 33 combat squadrons against a sanctioned strength of 39.5, which is sought to be raised to 42. Former Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, in a press conference days before retiring in December last year, had said the IAF needed at least 200 more fighter jets in the next 10 years. 

    Current squadron strength:

    The Indian Air Force has an effective strength of 31 combat squadrons, although it has 34 combat squadrons in total. These include eleven squadrons of the Su-30MKI, three each of the MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 (currently undergoing an upgrade), six of the Jaguar (at the initial stage of an upgrade process) and six of the MiG-21Bison. In addition, two upgraded MiG-27 squadrons continue to serve alongside the equivalent of half a squadron with the Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment (TACDE). It is believed that three squadrons continue to operate older MiG-21s and non-upgraded MiG-27s - one each of the MiG-21bis, MiG-21M and MiG-27 - but these will be phased out in the near future, possibly by the end of 2017 or in early 2018. (Source - idsa.in)

    Other related developments:

    Sometime back, reports had emerged that the Indian Air Force (IAF) was showing interest in Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning II fighter jet. The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is a family of single-seat, single-engine, all-weather stealth multirole fighters. The fifth-generation combat aircraft is designed to perform a ground attack and air superiority missions. But on March 1, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa rubbished the reports and said that no such "request been made to the Americans."

    A multibillion-dollar programme to develop and produce a stealth fighter with Russia appears does not seems to be materialising, with the Indian Air Force (IAF) against pursuing it as it believes that the platform lacks the desired stealth characteristics and is inferior to US-made F-35 and F-22 jets.

    Problems with Tejas LCA:

    It may be noted that the Air Force has not been entirely happy with the quality and capability of the Tejas fighter jet, which is yet to become combat-ready more than three decades after the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project was given a green signal. As per the report, the present-day single-engine Tejas fighter jet has an "endurance" limit of just an hour, while its "radius of action" is limited to just 350 to 400 kilometres. Further, its weapon-carrying capacity is just three tonnes. In comparison, other existing single-engine fighter jets like the Swedish Gripen-E and the American F-16 have two times the weapon-carrying capacity of Tejas and triple the endurance, the report said further.

    [HAL misses LCA Tejas' delivery target, mounting worries for IAF]

    Moreover, the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has missed its delivery target of Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) for the year's first quarter. According to a Hindustan Times report, HAL has delivered only six LCAs to the IAF, missing its target of supplying 20 aircraft by the end of the year's first quarter.

    Timeline of developments regarding Tejas' induction in IAF:

    • In March 2005, the IAF placed an order for 20 aircraft, with a similar purchase of another 20 aircraft to follow. All 40 were to be equipped with the F404-GE-IN20 engine.
    • In December 2006, a 14-member "LCA Induction Team" was formed at Bangalore to prepare the Tejas for service and assist with its induction into service.
    • On 25 April 2007, the first Limited Series Production (LSP-1) Tejas performed its maiden flight, achieving a speed of Mach 1.1.
    • In December 2009, the government-sanctioned ₹8,000 crore to begin production of the fighter for the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy.
    • On 10 January 2011, IOC, allowing IAF pilots to fly the Tejas, was awarded by then Defence Minister A K Antony to Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal P V Naik.
    • HAL was instructed by the Indian government to strictly adhere to deadlines to ensure Initial Operational Clearance-II by the end of 2013 and Final Operational Clearance (FOC) by the end of 2014.
    • On 20 December 2013, the IOC-II was issued, after which the aircraft was cleared to be flown by regular IAF pilots and begin induction into squadron service.
    • The Final Operational Clearance (FOC) campaign began in December 2013, with three aircraft from Tejas flight-line successfully completing advanced weapon trials.
    • In May 2015, the Mark I aircraft was criticized by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) for not meeting IAF requirements.
    • In October 2015, IAF Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha confirmed that the air force had ordered 120 (six squadrons) of Tejas Mark 1A, triple the 40 aircraft it had previously committed to buying.
    • On 26 February 2016, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said in the Lok Sabha that the Indian Air Force will accept three to four Tejas this year and stand up a total of eight squadrons in eight years.
    • In November 2017, it was reported that the Indian Air Force told the government that the Tejas is inadequate for the single-engined fighter program with insufficient flight endurance, smaller payload capacity, increased maintenance hours, and higher costs for maintenance compared to other contender aircraft.
    • In February 2018, refuelling of Tejas with the engine running-known as "hot refuelling"-was carried out.

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