Govt says fighter shortfall to worsen during NDA's term

Answering questions from Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday, the government admitted it will not have added even one squadron to the Indian Air Force (IAF) in its five-year term in power.


In an answer tabled in Parliament, the defence ministry stated: “IAF will have 32 Fighter Squadrons and 39 Helicopter Units by 2020.” This means the IAF will have 2-3 fewer squadrons in 2020 than the 34-35 squadrons it fielded in 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won the general election and formed the government. Its 2014 election manifesto had specifically expressed concern about the “loss of squadrons of combat aircraft by the air force” during the United Progressive Alliance term in office, noting that “these are indications of surrendering of India's interest.” The manifesto stated: “This calls for a review and overhauling of the current system.”


The defence ministry was answering a parliamentary question from Anurag Thakur, a BJP MP from Himachal who is the son of Prem Kumar Dhumal, the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate who had to step back after he failed to win his seat.


The government’s response indicated that squadron numbers were declining because of the government’s inability to replace the retiring fleet of MiG-21s. “Three squadrons of MiG-21 aircraft will be phased out by 2020,” stated the government.


Another answer revealed that the situation would only get worse by 2025. Answering a question from Biju Janata Dal MP Arka Keshari Deo, the defence ministry stated: “10 squadrons of Indian Air Force (IAF) equipped with MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircraft are scheduled to retire by 2024 on completion of their Total Technical Life.”


On October 5, IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, had stated that, by 2032 — the end of the 15th Defence Plan — the IAF would reach its authorised strength (of 42 squadrons). Towards that, the current government has concluded the procurement of only two squadrons of Rafale fighters, and progressed procurement of six squadrons of indigenous Tejas Mark 1 and Mark 1A (two and four squadrons, respectively).


Over the past 15 years, the steady induction of 11 squadrons of Sukhoi-30MKI fighters had partially compensated for retiring MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-25 and MiG-27 fighters. But the inflow of Su-30MKIs will end in 2019, when Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is due to deliver the last two squadrons to the IAF.


Besides two Su-30MKI and six Tejas squadrons, two squadrons of Rafales are due for delivery between 2019 and 2022. However, these would be offset by the retirement of two older Jaguar fighter squadrons in the early 2020s.


With 12 squadrons retiring (10 MiG and two Jaguar), and just 10 squadrons joining the fleet (two Su-30MKI, two Rafale and six Tejas), even maintaining the IAF fleet at 32 squadrons – ten less than authorised – would require additional procurements.


In the past, the IAF has twice bought additional Su-30MKIs, and continues regarding that as a convenient option that has the additional advantage of pleasing Moscow and HAL. Alternatively, the government has the option of placing the proposed Indo-Russian “fifth generation fighter aircraft” (FGFA) on the fast track.


Another option that the IAF backs is to order two more squadrons of Rafale fighters. However, with the IAF’s budget already stressed from the two Rafale squadrons already contracted, another two squadrons would require the government to significantly scale up defence allocations.


The more cost-effective alternative with currency within the defence ministry is to progress the procurement of 5-10 squadrons of “single-engine fighters”, for which a “request for information” has already been sent out to global vendors. The favoured contenders are Saab of Sweden, which proposes to build the Gripen E in India; and US major, Lockheed Martin, which wants to transfer its production line to India for building the F-16 Block 70.


As part of this procurement, there are proposals to assist HAL in scaling up Tejas Mark 1A and Mark 2 production, in accordance with “Make in India” objectives.


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