The Indian Air Force (IAF) has phased out about half a dozen of its MiG series of combat squadrons in the past couple of years, forcing it to take unprecedented steps to keep up its fighting capability by technology induction.
As predicted in these columns at the beginning of this year, the present strength of the IAF combat force has come down to about 30 squadrons, down from 39 declared by the then Chief of Air Staff a couple of years ago. The loss is due to the large ageing fleet of MiG-21s as well as MiG-23s and MiG-27s, and the inability of the successive governments to timely replace them over the last two decades.
Sources say that the IAF has sought an immediate step-up in the production level of SU-30 aircraft from eight to 12 per year, creation of another MiG-21 BIS squadron, and also placed an order for additional Jaguar Attack jets with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). Induction of force multipliers like laser-guided and other precision bombs, standoff weapons, better radars and longer-range unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or pilotless surveillance aircraft has also been boosted.
According to noted defence analyst, Air Marshal Ashok Goel (retd), the loss of numbers is indeed worrying keeping in mind the increasing strategic role of India on the one hand and the fact that a much smaller country like Pakistan has 22 squadrons, or about three-fourths of what India has.
“The Air Force and the Ministry of Defence are now working fast to ensure the induction of 126 multi role combat aircraft (MRCAs) to replace the phased out jets, and although the formal request for proposals (RfPs) to the five contenders would be send by the year-end, their induction would still take time. Fast induction of force multipliers is one immediate measure to keep the force fighting fit,” he says.
Till 2003, India had approximately 700 combat jets, according to the Military Balance published by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). About 600 of these were of Soviet/ Russian origin, and of them, more than half, or 300-plus, were MiG 21s. Then there were 78-MiG 23s, 135 MiG-27s, 63-MiG 29s, and seven MiG-25s, the last being the mainstay of aerial reconnaissance.
Except for 125 MiG-21s, which are being upgraded to the MiG 21-BIS standard, all other Mig-21s and all the MiG-23s and MiG-27s aircraft are due to be phased out by 2007.
That is a very large number, creating a vacuum of nearly half of the IAF’s combat strength, but for the timely induction of SU-30s and force multipliers from flight refuellers to precision bombs, the first of which were used in the 1999 Kargil war to throw out the infiltrating Pakistani troops.
India already has a squadron of six Il-78 Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRAs), which can extend the range and staying power of SU 30s, Mirage 2000s, Jaguars and MiG-29s. The number of the FRAs, and possibly also that of Phalcon AWACs, three of which India is buying from Israel, would go a long way in helping the IAF defend the nation.
It may be noted that the IAF has received some Mirage-2000 aircraft to make up for the periodic training and operational losses (maintenance reserve and strike off wastage) that any force has to bear, but its expectation to buy 12 Mirage-2005 from Qatar, all of which are in excellent condition, has fallen through due to the differences over price. A deal would have been nice as these aircraft would have come both with spares and weapons.
Mirage 2005 is among the five MRCAs that the IAF is considering, the others being Russian Mig 29M2, Swedish JAS 39 Gripen and the US F-16 made by Lockheed Martin and F-18 made by Boeing.
The F-18 Hornet has been designed for ship-borne attacks but is a good aircraft and can be used particularly from air bases along the shore.
Nonetheless, the choice has to lie with the IAF as it will have the responsibility to deploy them in compatibility with its overall training and operational perspective.
According to Air Marshal Goel, HAL is the lifeline of the IAF and accordingly has a major responsibility, qualitatively and quantitatively, to deliver whatever aircraft the IAF orders on time.
That includes the SU 30s, Jaguars, MiG-21 BIS and the LCA Tejas, whose induction is due from 2007-08 onwards. Of the 126 MRCAs, IAF would get only about 20 in flyaway condition and the rest would be assembled or manufactured by HAL. The process should be time-bound and customer-responsive.
Pointing out that one former Prime Minister opposed the induction of SU-30s, Air Marshal Goel says that it is time the politicians stopped playing blame games with one another and thereby adversely affecting the armed forces.
Delays in induction of aircraft and technology for the Air Force, and similarly modern equipment for the Army and Navy, would threaten the security of the country.
The lesson is clear: ageing equipment loses its heart and soul and technological transplants cannot prolong its effective life. The IAF needs new aircraft and newer technologies. The acquisition process needs to be speeded upto make up for lost time.