Last week, a letter from Indian Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal, SP Tyagi to Defence Minister Pranab Mukherji was leaked to several media outlets. The note suggested that if the ministry of defence did not get its act together, the Indian Air Force would lose its edge over Pakistan.
The IAF currently had 34 combat squadrons, down from its sanctioned 40, because of poor procurement planning, delays in the Light Combat Aircraft programme, and Mig-21 crashes. The IAF has 10 additional squadrons of transport aircraft and helicopters. Each squadron has between 18-22 aircraft.
Pushpindar Singh, of the Society of Aerospace Studies, says the decline could be even more drastic. By the end of next year, the IAF could have less than 30 squadrons. But will that be the disaster that it is being made out to be?
Air Commodore (Retd) Jasjit Singh, director of the New Delhi-based Centre of Air Power Studies, says that despite the enormous capabilities of modern aircraft and force multipliers like air-to-air refuelling and Airborne Warning and Control System type aircraft, India actually requires a larger force of some 50 combat squadrons.
Conventional logic would suggest that the IAF force levels, set in mid-1960s, when aircraft were far less capable and the threat to India greater, should naturally shrink. India’s relations with China are far better than they were at the time, and things are improving even with Pakistan.
More important, India is today a nuclear armed power, surely sufficient deterrent against the catastrophic defeat of the type we faced in 1962. Across the world, almost every major air force has shrunk in size as technology makes a combat aircraft vastly more capable, and costs touch the stratosphere.
Tyagi’s reference to Pakistan, always a knee-jerk issue in India related to that country’s plan to acquire new US F-16s. But the July testimony of John Hillen, the assistant secretary of state for politico-military affairs to the US Congress, suggested that the aircraft would have limited offensive capabilities and operate under certain unstated constraints.
The government, which has now taken the decision to fast track the acquisition of 126 medium range combat aircraft this week, has to balance the needs of security with the capital costs of modern aircraft. Where the Mig-21 of the 1970s cost Rs 10-15 lakh, the Sukhoi 20MKI has a price tag of Rs 250 crore each today.
The Air Force is being clearly optimistic if it expects the government to fund the replacement of very limited capability aircraft like Mig-21s, with modern fighters that can fire thousands of kilometers from their base and seek and destroy targets beyond visual range.
A senior defence ministry official, who cannot be named, says that the IAF seems to be driven by organisational imperative, rather than combat needs. His tart proposition is that a smaller air force, though more capable, would have fewer air marshals and commodores and independent commands and thus lose only in the bureaucratic sense.
According to Pushpindar Singh, the country could have a prudent deterrent capability with around 30 squadrons — comprising of a mix of heavy fighters like the Su-30s, the lightweight LCA and the proposed medium fighters which could be the F-16, Mig-35, FA-18 or the Gripen. Much more can be gained if the IAF focuses on its infrastructure of bases, air defence radars and missiles, and its computer and communications networking, as well as its transport fleet rather than focus on its fighter aircraft alone.