Being one of the three key superiorities in deciding the outcome of a full blown conflict, Air Power, is centric to a country’s war making and sustaining capability. Indian Air Force (IAF), the world’s fourth largest air force, for years had maintained aerial superiority in the contested Asia-Pacific region, is at the verge of losing this traditional favourable air situation, as the force grapples to guard Indian skies with an aging and obsolete fleet.
A brief look at the frontline assets, which are deployed by the IAF reveals that the Air Force lacks credible strike power in all three operational categories – light, medium and heavy fighters. A recent report tabled before the country’s Parliament by the Standing Committee on Defence has noted that the Air Force has less than 33 active squadrons at its disposal. This has highlighted the confronts haunting the Air Force. The fact that, out of these 33 squadrons at least 9 squadrons composed of MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircraft adds in to the worries.
Since 2005, successive Air Chiefs have batted for fielding at least 42 squadrons of fighter aircraft, which are essential to repel any two front war scenarios, according to them. China with its robust indigenous program has the capability to field at least 300-400 advanced fighters along the Indian border. India’s arch rival – Pakistan is projected to induct 200-250 frontline fighter aircraft in the near future and this increased induction rate by India’s hostile neighbours is threatening to bleed the country off its aerial supremacy.
One key factor that has led the Air Force down this path is undoubtedly the successive failed procurement programs. Several of Air Force’s replacement programs have been grappling to make progress due to the successive truncated annual outlay for capital expenditure. Over the years, there has been an average deficit of INR 70,000 crores, which has put the force’s modernisation programs in a limbo.
The imminent retirement of the mainstay fighters of the Air Force, the MiG – 21 and MiG – 27 has dented the strike capabilities of the Air Force. While LCA Tejas which was to replace MiG-21 aircraft, is years away from mass induction, the decision to scrap MMRCA tender has left IAF in more turbulent waters. With IAF and developmental agencies working on an advanced and more lethal version of Tejas – dubbed Mk-1A, indigenous replacements for retiring MiG-21 aircraft will be available only after 2018.
The induction of heavier Russian origin Su-30 MKI aircraft has given the Air Force some respite from the grim situation. However, Su-30 MKIs are themselves being plagued by miserable availability rates, thus raising concerns about their reliability. This has forced the Air Force to commit for only 272 Su-30 MKIs, which will be centric to India’s air power projection after induction.
Following the scrapping of the MMRCA tender, India decided to procure 36 Rafales off-the-shelf from France under an Inter-governmental Agreement (IGA), which will do little in boosting IAF’s strike power as per the experts.
India’s relationship with its time tested and trusted partner – Russia, which has traditionally provided the country with some of the latest military hardware, has hit turbulent waters. This is evident as India and Russia are struggling to co-develop the planned fifth–generation stealth fighter, which for years was the center pillar of the Air Force’s modernisation programs.
However, there is a reason for the Air Force to cheer as there is some much awaited progress in the RFI issued by the force for manufacturing single-engine fighter in India in partnership with global aerospace companies. Following the notification of the Strategic Partnership model, representatives of Saab and Lockheed Martin are making a beeline to the country with lucrative offers.
With no solid procurement program forthcoming to replace the scrapped MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) tender, the Air Force’s power projection capabilities are largely limited. The new tender for single-engine combat aircraft will not answer IAF’s need for at least 90 MMRC aircraft, which can carry heavier payloads and inflict strikes deep into enemy territory. Retiring Air Chief Marshal, Arup Raha, had raised the need for these fighters to maintain aerial supremacy in his valedictory speech.
IAF’s hunt for combat drone has met with limited success from both indigenous and international market. Even India’s entry into the coveted MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) club has failed to boost India’s prospectus. Even though Israel has opened its Heron – TP drones for sale, little progress has been made over the years.
As the security scenario has been evolving drastically in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, it is critical for India to boast of the most capable military. Boosting IAF’s strike power is only possible through increased budgetary allocation and introduction of a well-calibrated procurement roadmap, supplementing LTIPP (Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan).