The Indian Air Force is in dire need of an upgrade.

In an interview to the Indian Express earlier this month, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa said that against a sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons, the Air Force had only 32 operating currently. As he ruefully pointed out, this was akin to playing a cricket match with only seven players.

But even this is not a realistic picture. Of the 32 squadrons of combat aircraft currently in service, a bulk of them are past their use-by date and have not been phased out simply because the Air Force has run out of options.

Precarious fleet

If the tiny Gnat fighter was the hero of the 1965 war with Pakistan, it was the MiG-21 that stole the show in the 1971 war. It was a dreaded combat aircraft, with a tubular air frame and delta wings that gave it superb flying manoeuvres and had a complement of the best air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons. But as the years passed and the Air Force did not purchase any new aircraft in bulk or manufacture them under licence, the aircraft continued to age.

Even today, the bulk of the combat aircraft in the IAF belong to the MiG family and all of them are way beyond their official dates of service. For instance, the vulnerable MiG-21, has seen seen some upgrades, while the older variants have been retired. There are two squadrons of the MiG-29 and a few of the MiG-23 and the 27. The MiG-25, which was used as a platform for electronic warfare and surveillance, was retired from service a few years ago.

The Indian Air Force, which is expected to play a critical role in the event of a war, does not have enough aircraft to fight even a single war. The only good news is that Pakistan’s Air Force is in no better shape and is hoping that the Chinese combat aircraft will bail them out. China, meanwhile, is rapidly developing its Air Force and has already created a successful Fifth-Generation combat aircraft, the most advanced generation.

What is worrying the top brass of the Indian Air Force currently is the steady erosion of the current fleet with no replacements in sight. The bulk of the Air Force is made up of varying kinds of MiGs, numbering 230. It has two squadrons of the Jaguar, the MiG-29 and the Mirage-2000. Since 1998, it has been buying the Su-30 from Russia, but that has a different and specialised role. The indigenously developed Light Combat Aircraft, Tejas, which was supposed to be in service by now, is still waiting to be inducted, but the Air Force is clearly not very keen to have it. A plan to buy 126 Rafale aircraft came a cropper and as reported in earlier, India now plans to purchase just 36 aircraft, but even that deal is yet to be finalised.

The ad hoc induction has not only affected the Air Force quantitatively, it is also hurting it in qualitative terms. A large and varied fleet is a difficult one to maintain. With many aircraft nearing their end-of-life cycle in the next 10 years, chances are that the Air Force will go down to 26 combat squadrons before any new aircraft arrive.

Learning from the Indian Navy

When it comes to developing indigenous capabilities, no one beats the Indian Navy. For decades, naval officers have been posted with Defence Research and Development Organisation facilities to develop new technologies. This created a culture of design and development, which delivered some major successes.

Unfortunately, the Air Force, already reeling under a shortage of pilots, could not develop a similar culture.

Dependent on the Aeronautical Development Agency, a lab in Bengaluru, the Air Force has had to contend with the monopoly of the government, with not enough technical expertise on its side. The Aeronautical Development Agency offspring, Tejas, is years away from induction even though it has been nearly 30 years since it was conceptualised. Interestingly, the Navy has firmly rejected plans to develop a naval version of the Tejas.

The Indian Airforce is also caught in a time warp. As concepts of warfare changed, unmanned aerial weapons platforms took to the skies. The performance of unmanned combat aerial vehicles has proved so successful that more air forces are looking at drone warfare seriously. In the case of the Air Force, even the indigenous drone programme under development by the DRDO has not taken off. Currently, it is dependent on drones from Israel to carry out a suite of surveillance functions.

While Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat claimed last month that India is ready to fight two wars and handle insurgency simultaneously, his Air Force counterpart clearly disagrees. The hyperbole around India’s military capabilities in a politically charged environment is drowning out the inconvenient truth – the Air Force’s modernisation programme is in a shambles.