In another two years, the IAF will be left with an alarmingly low 26 squadrons of fighter aircraft against an authorisation of 42 — even if all the scheduled supplies, including of Rafale and Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas, are completed on time.
Around the same time, the Pakistan Air Force will have 25 fighter squadrons while China’s PLA Air Force is estimated to have the capacity to bear 42 squadrons against India.
The Indian Express has reviewed official documents, which show that while the IAF currently has 30 fighter squadrons, the number will slip to 26 in 2021 and 2022. By then, six squadrons of the old Soviet-era MIG aircraft will be decommissioned, and only one squadron of the French Rafale and another of the HAL-manufactured LCA Tejas will be additionally inducted.
The number is projected to rise to 30 by 2027, with four more squadrons of LCA Tejas. The contract for these 83 LCA Tejas Mark1A is yet to be signed between the IAF and HAL.
At current projections, documents show, the number of fighter squadrons will come down to 21 by 2037 and 19 by 2042. To offset the shortfall, the plan is to have 18 squadrons of LCA Tejas Mark1 and Mark2, and six squadrons of a foreign fighter aircraft for which an initial inquiry was issued last year.
IAF spokesperson, Group Captain Anupam Banerjee, did not respond to an email and text messages from The Indian Express seeking comment.
The IAF last had its full complement of 42 fighter squadrons in 2002 — each squadron generally has 18 aircraft. However, after the Kargil war earlier, it had officially flagged the need to induct seven squadrons of a Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) to maintain its combat edge.
The tender for 126 MMRCA was issued in 2007, trials carried out by the IAF, Rafale selected and the contract under negotiation for three years before being scrapped in June 2015.
After the BJP-led NDA government decided to buy 36 Rafale fighters instead in April 2015, then defence minister Manohar Parrikar spoke of plans to get a single-engine foreign fighter — Swedish Gripen or American F-16 — under the strategic partnership model for the Make in India initiative to make up the shortfall.
That plan, however, was not activated and HAL was asked to supply 83 more LCA Tejas Mark1A in December 2017.
The delay in production and supply of the indigenous LCA Tejas has contributed to the depletion of fighter squadrons. Although not complete, IAF currently counts one squadron of LCA Tejas (Initial Operational Clearance version) in its fleet, which has been delayed by nearly eight years.
It is scheduled to get another squadron of LCA Tejas (Final Operational Clearance version) by 2021. The Final Operational Clearance was given only on December 31, 2018.
For 83 LCA Tejas Mark1A, the negotiations between IAF and HAL are expected to conclude in a couple of months. And it will be three years from the date of signing of the contract when the first Mark1A will come into service. HAL is hoping to ramp up its production line to 18 LCA Tejas annually.