Pak air force narrows gap as IAF struggles to get fighter jets
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Pak air force narrows gap as IAF struggles to get fighter jets

The Indian Air Force plans to expand its fleet but the upgrade is taking time and also facing financial hurdles.

india Updated: May 18, 2017 18:18 IST
Rahul Singh
Rahul Singh
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Indian Air Force,Pakistan,Fighter jets
The first of the 36 French-made Rafale jets, equipped with latest weapons and tailored for Indian needs, will be delivered by 2019. (AP photo)

As India struggles to beef up its fighter aircraft fleet due to slow induction of new jets, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is narrowing the gap with the Indian Air Force.

The IAF has 33 fighter squadrons compared with almost 25 units, including those for training, of the neighbouring country, translating into a combat ratio of 1.3 to 1, defence experts say. A squadron usually has 16 to 18 fighters.

That is a significant dip from 3 to 1 in IAF’s favour in the 1980s. Five years ago, the figure stood at 1.6 to 1.

“I don’t recall the combat ratio being below 1.8 to 1,” says air chief marshal Fali Major, who headed the IAF during 2007-08.

He, however, said a squadron-to-squadron comparison wasn’t fair. “The more important thing is how many aircraft are available for missions at any given time. The IAF’s serviceability is way better than the PAF’s,” he said.

The IAF hopes to strengthen its combat units with the induction of the Tejas light combat aircraft, more Sukhoi-30s, Rafale warplanes, Indo-Russian fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) and possibly a medium-weight fighter that could be built in India in collaboration with a foreign player.

Up in the air

The upgrade plan, however, has hit a few hurdles.

The fate of the FGFA appears uncertain. While a government panel is to submit its report on the viability of the multi-billion dollar programme to develop the stealth fighter with the Russians, IAF sources said budgetary constraints could come in the way.

“We do need the platform but where is the money,” an IAF officer said on condition of anonymity.

There is a sense within the IAF that the FGFA programme is too expensive for the force. A final decision would be taken by the government after the three-member panel, conducting the cost-benefit analysis, submits its report.

Plans to build single-engine and twin-engine fighters in collaboration with foreign military contractors are yet to take off.

These proposals are covered under the government’s strategic partnership model that is still being fine-tuned.

The 36 Rafale fighter planes ordered from France after a long delay also fall short of the IAF’s original requirement of 126 medium-weight fighters.

Days before he retired in December 2016, former IAF chief air chief marshal Arup Raha said the 36 Rafale warplanes ordered for $8.7 billion were not enough and India needed at least 200 such fighter jets to sharpen its military edge.

The Rafale, equipped with latest weapons and tailored for Indian needs, will be delivered to the IAF between 2019 and 2022.

Tech edge

The IAF fleet has 14 squadrons of ageing MiG-21and MiG-27 fighters that will be retired in phases by 2024. The IAF has ordered 123 Tejas aircraft that would be delivered by 2025, if all goes to plan.

Fighters such as the Rafale, Su-30, and the upgraded Mirage-2000s were superior to any fighter in the Pakistani arsenal, former chief Major said.

“The PAF’s planes such as the F-7s and older French Mirages aren’t relevant today. In terms of technology, they really don’t match us,” he said.

The PAF operates more than 80 F-16s, including second-hand F-16A/B Block 15 jets bought from the Royal Jordanian Air Force.

Bulk of the Pakistani fleet consists of older F-16A/B fighters, now upgraded to Block 52 standards in Turkey. It also has 18 F-16C/D Block 50/52 planes. Block refers to the F-16 evolution, with a higher number representing technological upgrades.

The PAF is also inducting JF-17 Thunder fighters, sometimes compared with the Tejas. Developed jointly with China, the PAF has nearly 90 JF-17s in its fleet.

Air vice-marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd) said India needed to act fast to retain the superiority it has traditionally enjoyed over the PAF.

“The IAF has conveyed the urgency to the government and it understands. We have been slow but if the planned inductions progress smoothly, there’s not much to worry,” said Bahadur, a distinguished fellow at New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Air Power Studies.

First Published: May 18, 2017 10:08 IST