Modernising Indian Air Force

Palak Sharma
File photo of IAF's deep penetration strike aircraft - Jaguar.

File photo of IAF’s deep penetration strike aircraft – Jaguar.

One of the biggest concerns of the IAF right now is how to rebuild its hugely depleted fighter fleet. With the retirement of obsolete and unsustainable aircrafts such as the older versions of MiG-21 and MiG-23, the last decade or so has witnessed IAF losing almost a quarter of its combat fighter squadrons.

The Indian Air Force has been undergoing a modernization program to replace and upgrade its aging and outdated equipment. The primary focus of current modernization has been developing aircraft, weapons, associated technologies, and infrastructures.

“The IAF’s authorised strength of 42 fighter squadrons is the minimum strength necessary to dominate a two-front conflict”, Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa had said in a recent interview. The IAF, however, currently has 32 fighter squadrons and is tasked with tackling a two-front collusive threat from China and Pakistan and plans often do not meet the requirements.

“In the past a lot of plans did not get executed. One of the best examples of this is the Rafale Deal, where 126 planes were sought but not one has been handed over. With Make-in-India coming in, we expect fast results. Requirement is nothing but a factor of geo-political developments.” says Captian Alok Bansal, South Asia strategic affairs expert and Director, India Foundation.

While IAF’s modernisaton is an ongoing process, at present, the IAF is undergoing a phase out of its ageing and accident-prone Mig-21, this leaves a large part of the responsibility to the Su-30MKI multirole fighter fleet, along with the exclusively air-to-air Mig 29 and the small but capable multirole Mirage 2000-5 fleet. However, its no secret that the IAF is increasingly ill equipped in order to provide deterrence against both Pakistan and China. So, the important question that arises here is what could be done to make up for the lost time?

“The Indian Air force has suffered from a series of bad planning, going right back to the 60’s. 42 squadrons is a projection of the 11th plan. If we try to catch it by the 15th plan, we are already decades late. Just making up in numbers and not quality will not help. Trying to keep working on our indigenous capabilities, especially Tejas, may be an answer.” opines senior defence journalist and Editor,, Saikat Datta.

The indigenously produced Tejas Mark 1 has so far proven inadequate for IAF’s needs, and so, the development of an improved Mark 1A is a matter of priority in order to minimise the shortfall that will further be created by the final retirement of the remaining Mig-21s by 2017.

“We have the Rafale coming in, we have the Sukhoi’s, Mirage upgrade has taken place and Jaguars have been upgraded. The advantage other countries have is of indigenous industries, we don’t have that. For the next 15 years we don’t have a choice, but things are moving towards improvement. It’s a good beginning.” says Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies.

Experts believe that the 36 Rafale fighters being procured directly from France will certainly help meet India’s air defence requirements, given its air superiority capabilities, but it is too small a number to take care of India’s requirements for defending its vast airspace from intruders and potential hostile strikes.

Much now is dependent upon the various acquisition plans, indigenous effort, and ‘Make in India’ projects.

(Watch a detailed discussion on Modernization of IAF, on our show Security Scan at 10.00 pm on Thursday and 10.30 am on Friday)