The IAF’s shortage of fighter aircraft is expected to get progressively worse even after the expenditure of around USD 60 billion on new acquisitions and upgrades, by 2032.
The head of the Indian Air Force (IAF), Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, admitted concerns about the continuing delays in the acquisition of fighter aircraft earlier this month, which have left the air force with an increasingly ageing fleet. But the IAF is staring at an inevitable long-term shortage of fighter aircraft even with its current plans for acquisition, with at least 10 squadrons expected to go out of service by the year 2032, leading to a shortage of around 200 fighter aircraft.
This assessment is what has emerged from the discussions at the Vayu-StratPost Air Power Roundtable held in July.
The IAF plans to acquire 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) at a cost estimated to be around USD 20 billion, for which it is negotiating with the French Dassault for its Rafale aircraft.
India is also partnering with Russia to acquire Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) for which, it has spent USD 295 million and committed a further USD 5.5 billion. The project is estimated to ultimately cost India close to USD 30 billion.
During discussions at the roundtable, which comprised defense journalists and recently retired senior officers, who have had much to do with the IAF’s fighter procurement programs, numbers and timelines emerged which have been put together from the IAF’s current procurement plans and incontrovertibly point to a fighter aircraft shortage crisis, as well as, a financially unsustainable fighter fleet.
The current projections of force accretion for the Indian Air Force assume a ‘best-case scenario’ in which the production rate of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk I is at least eight aircraft per year, the MMRCA contract is concluded in the 2014-2015 period and the FGFA development faces no further delays.
Given these assumptions, the MiG-21M, MiG-21bis and the MiG-27M/UPG are expected to be phased out by 2017 and the Indian Air Force fighter fleet will begin inducting the FGFA and MMRCA the same year and will consist of these two aircraft, in addition to the LCA and the Sukhoi-30MKI, by the year 2032, by when the upgraded Mirage-2000H/I, the MiG-29B/UPG and the Jaguar IS/IM are expected to retire.
But the problem is that the Indian Air Force will continue to be vulnerable to shortfalls right through 2032, going by current ‘best-case scenario’ projections.
In 2017, with the virtually inescapable retirement of the four squadrons of MiG-21M, five squadrons of MiG-27M/UPG and one squadron of MiG-21bis aircraft, the shortfall in fighter squadron strength will go up to 10, leaving the Indian Air Force with only 32 squadrons, given assumptions under the ‘best-case scenario’ of the induction of one squadron of LCA Mk I.
Squadron numbers will be alleviated in 2022 with the induction of one squadron of Sukhoi-30MKI, four squadrons of the MMRCA, and one squadron each of the LCA and FGFA. But the Indian Air Force will still see the retirement of two squadrons of the MiG-21 Bison, leaving it with 37 squadrons and a shortfall of five squadrons.
2027 will see the retirement of the remaining four MiG-21 Bison squadrons, the induction of two MMRCA squadrons and three squadrons of FGFA, bringing the total number up to 38 squadrons, with a shortfall of only four squadrons.
But in 2032, with all new inductions into the Indian Air Force having already been completed, and with the retirement of six Jaguar IS/IM squadrons, three squadrons of the Mirage 2000 H/I and three squadrons of the MiG-29 B/UPG, it will see face an even higher shortfall of 14 squadrons and be left with only 28 squadrons.
If projections of the likely required total squadron number of 45 at that point are correct, this shortfall will go up to 17 squadrons.
After spending USD 30 billion on the FGFA, USD 20 billion on the MMRCA, the Indian Air Force will be left with a serious shortfall of at least 14 squadrons in 2032, assuming what plays out is the ‘best-case scenario’.
This is in addition to the cost of the upgrade programs on the Mirage-2000 H/I, the Jaguar IS/IM and the MiG-29 B/UPG. While the upgrade of the Mirage-2000 H/I will cost USD 2.2 billion, the Jaguar IS/IM upgrade will cost USD 514 million and the MiG-29B/UPG upgrade, USD 946 million, with planned completion in 2021, 2017 and 2016, respectively.
It is also important to note that this shortfall is on the basis of the assumption that the requirement for squadron numbers in 2032 will remain what it is today. But there is no reason to suppose this to be a correct assumption, even despite the multi-role nature of the newer aircraft being inducted.
Indeed, the requirement of squadrons, including the shortfall and required force accretion could go over 20 squadrons or 400 aircraft.
Part of the reason for this shortfall is the lack of success of the LCA development program. It is no secret that the IAF has been unhappy with the capability of the LCA as it stands and has had to be cajoled into ordering two squadrons of the aircraft, with a promise from the development agencies to produce a more powerful Mk II. This variant is also imperative for the Indian Navy, as the Mk I is under-powered for carrier operations.
When the IAF was considering its future requirements in the nineties, it was given assurances of the time-frame in which deliveries of the LAC would take place. On the basis of these assurances, the IAF decided to upgrade 125 MiG-21 aircraft to the Bison variant. But with continues delays in the LCA program, the IAF has since had to place orders for additional Sukhoi-30MKI aircraft, as well as look to the MMRCA program as a necessity, rather than a measure for force accretion.
But the fact remains that the Sukhoi-30 MKI, the Rafale (selected as the MMRCA) and the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) are all heavy aircraft with a high cost of ownership and operation. Attempting to place any of these in the role meant to be carried out by the LCA would be too expensive to be practical.
Much depends of the fate of the development of the LCA Mk II and the promise for all the shortcomings of the Mk I.
It will be noted that the ‘best case scenario’ outlined above does not include the LCA Mk II. This is because the aircraft remains on paper today, and with no real accountability or the discipline of deadlines, the IAF has no faith in the production of a Mk II in a usable and time-sensitive configuration.
While the exact shortcomings of the Mk I and the specific challenges in the development of the Mk II were beyond the scope of the roundtable and this report, there is no great secret here.
If it does not succeed within a much shorter time-frame than the 30-year span of the Mk I development, the problem has to be acknowledged by the highest quarters in government, which will then have to look for urgent alternatives to the LCA, for the role initially envisaged for it.
Unless either the LCA Mk II far exceeds current expectations or the government looks for alternatives for it, the shortfall described above in the ‘best case scenario’ will remain at a minimum at the numbers mentioned above.
But, in any case, if the IAF is going to be short of at least 200 aircraft after spending USD 60 billion in the year 2032, there could be a case to review the fighter fleet mix and structure being proposed to be acquired under current plans.
For the sake of context, the RFP for the MMRCA program was issued almost exactly seven years back. Even if the order were placed today, it would still take three years for delivery of the first aircraft. That’s ten years already, without the order being placed. The LCA development program was initiated in 1983. It is thirty years past, and the aircraft is still not in service.
While a problem eighteen years away might seem distant, the long timelines required for defense acquisition and production in India make it a matter of importance and urgency.