The scores are narrowing down in the sky. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has always enjoyed an edge in numbers over its principal adversary — the Pakistan Air Force. However, it seems to be on a downward spiral with the depleting number of combat squadrons.
The number gap between the two forces is being reduced primarily because of the phasing-out of ageing aircraft and delay in the induction new ones in the IAF.
The dwindling number of aircraft is serious enough for the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence to advise the government to look into it and maintain “an authorised aircraft count”.
Senior air force officials say the IAF would be left with only 29 combat squadrons at the end of tenth plan in 2007, barely eight or nine squadrons more than Pakistan’s current strength.
The question that they are asking: Will this be good enough to gain air superiority during a war with Pakistan besides providing support to the ground forces?
At present, Pakistan, which is not only in the inner ring but has far lesser assets to defend, has a total of 21 combat squadrons. China, of course has a larger air force with about 3,000 combat and support aircraft.The committee has found that even with the planned induction of aircraft during 2005-2017, there would be “serious deficiencies” in the combat squadron strength against the authorised strength at the end of tenth, 11th and 12th plan periods.
Out of the 39.5 projected squadrons by the IAF, it has now only 37 active combat squadrons, short by nearly three squadrons. However, what’s pertinent is that by end of the 12th Plan, the shortage will be almost one-third of the projected strength.
While, a proposal to buy 126 multiple role combat aircraft was cleared by the government in 2002, it took nearly three years for the Ministry to send requests for proposals to Russia (for MiG-29M/M2), Sweden (for JAS-39C Gripen), France (for Mirage 2000-5 Mk2) and USA (for F-16). Aircraft shortage becomes all the more pronounced, as the surveillance capability is also deficient. The Standing Committee has commented adversely on the delay in acquiring low-level radars for all the three services, including IAF. The 126 aircraft, which the IAF is planning to acquire, primarily caters to its strike force depletion that constitutes MIG-23 and the MIG-27 aircraft. The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), which the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is working on, will replace mainly the MIG-21.
Speaking to HT on the issue of acquisition of new aircraft, a senior serving air force officer, who wished to remain unnamed, said even though there was considerable pressure from United States to buy F-16s, the IAF could do well to refrain from adding any new aircraft to its existing cocktail of squadrons.
Lack of timely decision-making as well as paucity of finance is the reason why the IAF finds itself in the present situation, says Air Marshal D.S. Basra (retd), a former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Southern Air Command. “It is all simple and straightforward. We're all confused as to at what level we want to maintain our air force,” he adds.
As far as acquiring new aircraft for IAF is concerned, Air Marshal MM Singh (retd), former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Western Command, says IAF would be better off buying more MIG-29s or Mirage 2000 instead of F-16s. “SU-30 and MIG-29 can match F-16 if not prove their superiority over it,” he says.