Indian Air Force Updates

Dwindling fighter strength of the IAF


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: NA

Mains level: Issues with IAF, Defense modernization

In a tragic accident, a MIG-21 trainer jet of the Indian Air Force (IAF) crashed in Rajasthan killing both the high-ranked officer pilots onboard.

What is the status of the MIG-21 jets in the IAF?

  • The MIG-21 was inducted into the IAF in the early 1960s and since then more than 800 variants of the supersonic fighter were inducted into service.
  • It remained the frontline fighter jet of the force for a long time.
  • During this period, there were over 400 accidents involving the jet which claimed the lives of around 200 pilots.

Nature of service

  • Currently, there are four MIG-21 squadrons in service consisting of the upgraded Bison variant.
  • IAF officials have stated that there is technical life still left in them.
  • There are only four squadrons of the MIG-21 aircraft.

Why use outdated aircraft?

  • With delays in new inductions, the IAF has been forced to continue the last four MIG-21 Bison squadrons in service.
  • One squadron is set to be phased out in the next few months, while the remaining three squadrons are planned to be phased out in the next three years.
  • This phase-out was worked out much before last week’s tragic incident.

What is the present fighter strength of the IAF?

  • The IAF has an authorized strength of 42 fighter squadrons.
  • As time passes, the drawdown is increasing as the total technical life is completed.
  • However, the rate of new inductions is not matching the drawdown, depleting the overall number of fighter squadrons.
  • Additionally, several frontline aircraft in the inventory including the Jaguars, and MIG-29s will begin phasing out by the end of the decade.
  • For instance, by 2027-28 the first of the MIG-29s, inducted in the late 1980s, will start going out.

New squadrons to be inducted

  • In the last few years, the IAF has inducted two squadrons of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas and two squadrons of Rafale fighter jets procured from France which pushed the squadron strength to 32.
  • In January 2021, the IAF had signed a contract with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for 83 of the more advanced LCA MK-1A which it will start receiving from early 2024 onwards.
  • Along with that the to-be-acquired 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) will help arrest the drawdown.
  • A larger and even more capable LCA-MK2, as well as the fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), are under development.
  • However, their availability in enough numbers will take some time.

Inherent limitations to the IAF

  • Hardware/Technological Challenges: Technology is at the core of an air force – acquiring and assimilating it is our primary challenge. The lack of it curtails national options, impacting postures and doctrines. Denial and selective availability of technology are all enmeshed in international relations.
  • Maintenance Challenges: Maintenance challenges determine how long aircrafts last and their cost-effectiveness. ‘Maintainability’, which includes logistical issues, is therefore, crucial.
  • Relying on Upgrades: IAF is badly in need of new Fighter Aircraft to compete with new 5th generation Modern jets. At current there are old aircraft and it is mostly dependant on Super Manoeuvrable Modern Generation Fighter Jet Su 30 MKI.
  • Delaying of Aircraft Delivery: The current order of IAF the Rafale is expected to be completed in 2024. The LCA Tejas of HAL has now produced 21 but still it has to manufacture in more number to replace the retiring MIG 21 BISON.

Roadmap to shore up fighter strength

  • No easy roadmap: The IAF has acknowledged that they will not be able to achieve the desired strength for the time being and that they are doing the best they can.
  • Indigenous aircraft: In addition to the indigenous aircraft coming up, the IAF is confident that increasing the low availability rates of Su-30 and other fighters in service will offset some of the shortfalls in the interim.
  • Offsets of war: This could be potentially impacted due to the war in Ukraine even though officials have said that they are assessing the impact of the war and western sanctions.

Way forward

  • Air power is becoming technologically more refined with unmanned platforms, cyber-space linkages and AI advances.
  • The inherent trans-border nature of this military capability needs astute professional and political husbanding.
  • Acquiring credible aerospace power with a meaningful degree of indigenization will need a greater degree of national resolve, professional integrity and resource allocation than is the case now.
  • China has demonstrated the degree of suasion and intimidation that airpower can bring to bear in relation to Taiwan.


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