Can a cricket team be expected to win if it plays seven players instead of eleven? The Indian Air Force (IAF) faces a similar question — the number of its fighter squadrons has fallen to 30, and in another couple of years, it will be down to 26, an alarmingly low figure. In comparison, for instance, the Pakistan Air Force will have 25 squadrons of fighter aircraft by 2021 while China can potentially bring up to 42 squadrons upon India in case of a conflict. That this will happen if everything goes according to plan is an indicator of the crisis faced by the IAF, which is authorised 42 squadrons of fighter aircraft, the minimum needed to meet a two-front threat from China and Pakistan.
The IAF last had the full complement of 42 squadrons 17 years ago and the numbers have steadily fallen since. While many Soviet-era aircraft have been phased out, their modern replacements have not found their way into service. There are two major reasons for this: One, the indigenously developed and produced Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Tejas, has been delayed by almost a decade; and, two, the plans for induction of imported fighter aircraft have not fructified, the major culprit being the 2007 tender for 126 Rafale aircraft in the UPA government which was cancelled by the BJP government in 2015.
The solutions are evident. The indigenously developed and produced LCA Tejas has to provide the bulk of the numbers — the IAF is committed to get six squadrons from HAL, four of them of Tejas Mark1A version. While HAL hopes to provide 18 aircraft per year, it has not been able to ramp up the capacity to even half that number so far. It is incumbent upon the government to ensure that the public sector HAL delivers the aircraft of appropriate quality and in adequate numbers. Till then, however, the only immediate option is to import more fighter aircraft. The IAF will get two squadrons of Rafale by 2023, and it has plans for six squadrons of another foreign fighter within a decade. But the latter is still a proposal on the planning board and a long way away from seeing the light of day. Considering this situation, the IAF is looking at a scenario where it will have to soon undertake emergency imports — perhaps at an exorbitant cost — to make up the numbers. It is a situation of the government’s own making but if the lessons are learnt to avoid a repetition of these mistakes in the future, the impending crisis would have served its purpose.