The Indian Air Force (IAF), set to celebrate its 87th anniversary on October 8, needs to maintain 42 fighter jet squadrons to have a chance of engaging in a two-front war for which the country's entire military doctrine is being primed with a $130-billion modernization programme, experts say.
Stuck for a long time at around 30 squadrons, the country is facing the threat of the number of squadrons dipping further due to attrition and accidents.
IAF will be decommissioning whole squadrons of the Soviet-era light multirole fighters MiG-21 by the end of this year. Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Kumar Bhadauria recently said that all MiG-21 warplanes have not undergone mid-life upgrade (MLU) as MiG-21 Bison.
The upgraded MiG-21 Bison fighters, the type that was piloted by Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman that shot down an F-16 during skirmishes over the Jammu and Kashmir skies on February 27, would be decommissioned by 2021.
Tension between the two countries has been heightened after the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, scrapping the special status of J&K.
There is a concern in the defence circles that the IAF is down to just 30 fighter squadrons, against the required 42 squadrons, according to a Business Standard report. Bhadauria recently unveiled a plan to raise the squadron numbers to 37 by 2025. There, however, is a possibility that it will once again fall to 33 squadrons by 2032 when the squadrons of MiG-29, Mirage 2000 and Jaguar are decommissioned.
"We have had to drop the plan for re-engining the Jaguar fighter jet because it has been delayed inordinately and the cost went too high," the IAF chief said.
That makes it imperative to speed up the processing and finalization of the purchase of 114 multirole fighter aircraft. The government is pushing for an Indian strategic partner to build the chosen aircraft in technology partnership with a global original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in a boost for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Make in India initiative, the report said.
The IAF chief said the Requests for Interest (RFIs) have already been sent out to prospective SPs and OEMs for this tender. After getting the vendors' responses the IAF has started the process for obtaining Acceptance of Necessity (AoN), he said.
Once the Ministry of Defence issues the AoN, setting the ball rolling for the purchase, the request for proposals (RFP) will be issued. Among the likely contenders for the contract are US Lockheed Martin (F-21), Swedish Saab (Gripen), Russian Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG-35) and French Dassault Aviation (Mirage 2000).
Bhadauria's plan also includes inducting another 83 Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas by fast-tracking their production to fill the gap of retiring MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters.
The IAF chief has also confirmed that the Air Force would be buying 21 MiG-29 fighters off the shelf from Russia to augment the firepower of multirole air superiority fighters Sukhoi-30MKI (Su-30MKI).
"We are going to go in for 21 MiG-29," the air chief marshal said, adding that Russia has already been consulted on the matter. Bhadauria also confirmed reports that the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) facility in Nashik will build more Sukhoi-30MKI air superiority fighters raising the squadron strength of the twin-engine aircraft to 13 squadrons.