As the Indian Air Force (IAF), the world's fourth largest, prepares to turn 77 on Thursday, it is grappling with a shortage of fighter squadrons, officers and men in other ranks.
The strength of IAF fighter squadrons at 33 is way below the sanctioned strength of 39.5. Even so it hopes to raise this to 42 by 2022. The low number of fighter squadrons has compelled the IAF to defer the phase-out of 1960 vintage Soviet-built MiG-21 combat jets to ensure its force levels do not diminish drastically.
The IAF is also engaged in evaluating six fighters that are in contention for its order of 126 medium multi-role combat jets valued at $10 billion. The process will conclude by the middle of next year after which the price negotions will take a year and a half before the final order is placed.
Eighteen of the jets will be purchased in fly-away condition and the remaining will be manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited under a transfer of technology agreement. The first aircraft is expected in 2012.
Overall, the IAF, with a sanctioned strenght 12,120 officers, is short of close to 1,400 of them. While the shortage in the officer cadre has often been talked about, the shortage of personnel below officer rank (PBOR) doesn't get the same attention.
Though Defence Minister A.K. Antony had said in parliament a year ago that "there is no significant shortage" of PBOR in the armed forces, a senior IAF officer contested this, noting: "Yes, we are short of men (PBOR). The shortage is pretty acute."
"We are currently short of some 8,000 men. However, looking at our futuristic requirements, the shortage will be of some 12,000 men," the officer told IANS on condition of anonymity as he is not authorised to speak to the media.
The present strength of PBOR in the IAF is 125,000 but the shortage of men for operating plaforms will be an impediment for the IAF's ambitious modernisation plan.
"The shortage is acute considering that we are set to acquire newer platforms and weapons and we will require trained manpower to operate them," the officer added.
The shortage has caused so much concern that the IAF now undertakes a short-term training programme called "Just-in-time" to recruit more men.
"We had to shorten the training programme from three years to 11 months so that the men can be made available to our operational units for on-job experience. The latter part of training will be interspersed with the on job-experience.
"We have been conducting more rallies and more fast track recruitment," the official added.
The IAF is also devising a plan internally to bridge the gap. The current methods will be studied for a year before the plan is given a final shape. Thereafter, the proposal will go to the defence ministry for sanction.
At the officer level, the IAF is currently short of 400 pilots. The problem is accentuated by the grounding of the entire fleet of its HPT-32 basic trainer aircraft following a spate of crashes and engine failures. The force has even drawn flak from the Comptroller and Auditor General for the flaws in its training.