Top echelons of the Indian Air Force (IAF) have raised alarms considering the dwindling number of fighter aircraft under its operational command. According to reports, IAF is currently operating a mere 31 squadrons of fighter aircraft as against the mandated 42 squadrons. The aging inventory and the plummeting service availability percentage of the modern Su-30 MKI aircraft have been two major concerns.

Indian Air Force (IAF) – The air guardians.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is the fourth largest air force in the world and is in-charge of guarding the India’s air space against any aerial threats. IAF is regarded as one of the best air forces in the world and is known for its fierce and outright genius airmen. IAF is composed of five operational commands. IAF has performed gloriously in four battles and has secured an aerial victory for India every single time.

Current Status of the IAF.

The mainstay fighter aircraft of the IAF are the 225+ Sukhoi Su-30 MKI air superiority aircraft which were imported from Russia under a Transfer of technology (ToT) agreement. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has successfully absorbed the complex ToT and is now manufacturing the aircraft from raw materials. The IAF also operates the Soviet-origin MiG-21 Bison interdictory fighter aircraft and two squadrons of Mirage-2000 fighter aircraft.

A MiG-21 Bison supersonic fighter aircraft of the Indian Air Force takes off on a routine sortie; Credits - MadPix

A MiG-21 Bison supersonic fighter aircraft of the Indian Air Force takes off on a routine sortie; Credits – MadPix

These air superiority aircraft of the IAF are augmented by Jaguar and MiG-27 deep penetration strike aircraft. These aircraft are solely responsible for Close Air Support (CAS) and bombing missions. These aircraft were inducted into the IAF in the 70’s and have played crucial roles in India-Pakistan conflicts. The Jaguar aircraft is the lone nuclear-strike capable aircraft serving under the IAF.

Aging and Service Availability issues haunting IAF!!!

The MiG-21fighter aircraft have served the IAF exceptionally well for over five decades. These aircraft in their prime ages have helped India maintain sanity over its air space. The IAF currently operates 250+ MiG-21’s under its command. Age and safety factors have now almost grounded these mystical aircraft. The LCA Program that was constituted to out phase these aging war machines is yet to take-off with full throttle. A huge void will be evident in the air force’s capabilities if it sticks to its plans of decommissioning these aircraft by 2019.

The Sukhoi Su-30 MKI aircraft today serves as the backbone for all aerial operations and have boosted the preparedness levels of the IAF. The air force has an outstanding order for 50 more Su-30 aircraft with HAL. A concern with these aircraft has been the plummeting service availability level which now stands at a mere 48% according to sources. This means less than 110 Su-30 MKI fighter aircraft are available for active duty at any given time.

The IAF has shown little interest in Tejas Mk-1 and has instead opted for the Tejas Mk-1A which is expected to take-off only by 2018.  The future of the IAF is uncertain at least until the Tejas Mk-1A takes off.

A IAF Su 30 MKI fighter aircraft taxing down the runway. Source - Net.

A IAF Su 30 MKI fighter aircraft taxing down the runway. Source – Net.

PLAAF and PAF induction rates catalyzing IAF’s concerns!!!

The South Asian region has witnessed unprecedented arms race for decades. Notable among them is the struggle witnessed between India, Pakistan and China. India has fought over four battles with China and Pakistan to safeguard its sovereignty. Even though peace dialogues are maturing the arms build-up has went on unhindered.

Traditionally the Indian forces have held a battlefield edge over the Chinese and Pakistani forces. This trend however has been reversed given India’s sluggish R&D programs and procurement process. The increasing investments made by China and Pakistan to boost their defence forces have only compounded this trend. A dear sufferer of this worrying trend is the IAF.

PLAAF (Chinese Air Force) and PAF (Pakistan Air Force) are inducting fighter aircraft at alarming levels. On the contrary, the IAF has failed to induct any new aircraft to replace its aging platforms. This has significantly diminished India’s air superiority in the region. IAF officials claim that the air force lacks enough firepower to battle out simultaneously on its two fronts. The Indian government is yet to take any solid measures to help IAF retain its air superiority in the region.

IAF stares at uncertainty!!!

Various acquisition and modernization programs of the IAF are staring at uncertainty. The IAF has failed to induct a new fighter platform after the Su-30 MKI aircraft. The LCA Tejas program saw the design and development of an indigenous fighter aircraft. India also developed critical technologies to develop a fighter aircraft in the future. Tejas Mk-1 is expected to be available for active service by mid-2016. However, the IAF has shown little interest in the Mk-1 aircraft and is demanding for a more advanced aircraft classified as Tejas Mk-1A. This aircraft will feature 100+ critical developments over the Mk-1 version and is expected to be available by 2018.

LCA Tejas on a store separation flight trials.  Source - Deb Rana.

LCA Tejas on a store separation flight trials.
Source – Deb Rana.

An ambitious program of the Indian Air Force (IAF) was the MMRCA tender that was issued in 2005. IAF was to induct 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) from a foreign vendor with an elaborate Transfer of Technology (ToT) agreement. The ToT agreement promised Indian industries an opportunity to master the latest aerospace technology.

The competition for the MMRCA tender was fierce. Boeing had offered its F-18 Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin its F-16 Falcon, Mikoyan its MiG-35, Saab offered its capable Gripen NG, Dassualt pitched in with Rafale and the fray was completed with Eurofighter’s offer of the Typhoon. After a thorough technical evaluation process, the IAF selected the Dassualt manufactured Rafale fighter aircraft. The tender however was scrapped mid-way by the NDA government which instead opted to by 36 Rafales off-the shelf from France.

The requirement of the IAF was for 126 MMRCA aircraft, the government’s decision to opt for a mere two squadrons of the aircraft will leave the air force without any striking power. By 2022, the IAF will have to retire its MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircraft. The void left over by these aircraft is huge and can only be filled by an able MMRCA aircraft. The Indian government needs to rethink on its policies before it is too late.

Should India consider engaging the private industry for mass production of LCA Tejas?

The LCA Tejas aircraft can turn out to be a ray of hope for the IAF if mass produced in the shortest possible timeframe. The aircraft has already achieved two of its three planned flight certifications and will be available for active duty by mid-2016. However, the IAF has marked several shortcomings in the Mk-1 aircraft and has instead opted for the Tejas Mk-1A aircraft. The government can opt to fasten up the development process given the expertise the developmental agencies posses. More than 200 LCA aircraft are expected to be inducted into the force and hence the government can consider roping in private players to manufacture the aircraft. The government can transfer the technology to an Indian private player who with the assistance of a foreign agency can mass produce and further develop the fighter aircraft.

Various foreign players have offered to manufacture their aircraft in India by engaging  private players under the ‘Make in India’ initiative. The Swedish aerospace giant Saab has offered to manufacture its Gripen NG fighter aircraft in India with an unconditional 100% technology transfer. The US based Lockheed Martin has offered to shift its global F-16 production line to India. Boeing has also offered to manufacture its legendary F-18 Super Hornet locally in India.

Rafale's gearing up for a simulated combat mission.

Rafale’s gearing up for a simulated combat mission.

The NDA government has been keen on engaging the private sector to simulate the growth of the Indian defence industry. This is a golden opportunity for the Indian government for making India self reliant in defence technology. These deals if conceived have all the proponents to place India in the centre of the global logistics supply chain. However, these aircraft will be costlier in comparison to the indigenously manufactured Tejas aircraft. The government in consultation with the end user vis-vis the IAF should chalk out a detailed plan to engage the private sector in the best commercial and strategic means to boost out war preparedness levels.