By Staff Correspondent
Last month, on 8 October 2023, the Indian Air Force (IAF) commemorated its 91st anniversary, with the momentum for its annual Air Force Day Parade and aerial showcase gathering pace in Prayagraj. The eminent ceremony welcomed a host of top-tier government dignitaries, such as the President, Prime Minister, Defence Minister, and Home Minister.
Leading up to this significant date, the Indian Air Force’s critical areas for enhancement and potential strategies for bolstering its capabilities were sharply articulated in a discourse by the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhari, at a symposium organized by the United Service Institution of India (USI) on 29 August 2023. The Air Chief Marshal’s forthright dialogue underscored the pressing need for augmentation, notably in bolstering the fleet of fighter squadrons. He underscored the IAF’s strategic shift from being threat-centric to becoming capability-driven, unveiling a progressive roadmap for its forthcoming trajectory.
Despite the grandeur of the anniversary celebrations, there is a palpable sense of urgency surrounding the IAF’s current state of preparedness. Officially sanctioned to operate 42 combat aircraft squadrons, the IAF currently fields only 31, a figure sourced from various open-source intelligence reports. The existing fleet includes a mix of Rafale, Su-30 MKI, MiG-21, MiG-29, Mirage 2000, Jaguar, and Tejas aircraft.
This already reduced strength is set to dwindle further with the planned phase-out of the ageing MiG-21s by 2025, and the Jaguars, MiG-29s, and Mirage 2000s are all operating on extended lifecycles. This sharpens the growing gap between the IAF’s current capabilities and its sanctioned strength, which is projected to widen in the coming years, with potentially severe implications for national security.
The crux of the issue lies in the sluggish pace of modernisation and acquisition of new aircraft. Despite recent approvals for additional procurements, such as 12 new Su-30MKIs to replace lost units, the IAF’s squadron strength is not projected to rise soon. The introduction of the Tejas Mk1As and the potential acquisition of 100 more units provide a glimmer of hope, but these are long-term solutions.
Looking further ahead, the IAF has committed to acquiring six squadrons of the Tejas Mk2, a more advanced and capable version of the LCA, and has plans to procure seven squadrons of the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). However, both these projects are fraught with uncertainties, and their timelines remain fluid.
The ongoing geopolitical tensions, particularly with neighbouring China and Pakistan, underscore the critical need for a swift and decisive bolstering of the IAF’s combat capabilities. The envisioned air defence command theatre, coupled with the need to undertake offensive and defensive operations across vast land and maritime boundaries, necessitates a robust and resilient air force.
In the final analysis, the Indian Air Force stands at a critical juncture. The current shortfall in squadron strength is a stark reminder of the challenges ahead and the urgent need for a strategic, coordinated approach to revitalise and rejuvenate one of the nation’s most vital military assets. The journey to achieving and sustaining the sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons is fraught with challenges, but it is a journey that India cannot delay.