IAF Re-Equipment Imperatives: An Analysis

The issue with respect to declining number of squadrons in Indian Air Force has gained prominence over last couple of years. Recently, we have had news about IAF having presented a scenario to GOI about squadron strength declining to a dangerously low number in mid-20s before the end of this decade.

While the part about squadron strength reaching about 25 Squadrons by 2024 seems to be a wrong conclusion drawn from right information set, we do have an issue about IAF undergoing massive change, or requiring to undergo massive change, over 2015-2024 period.

I’ve tried to assess the situation basis whatever information is available in public domain and see where we stand. If anyone has contrary/additional information, please feel free to add. I will modify the analysis accordingly.

1. Current IAF strength: 

We first take a look at current strength of IAF across various a/c type; this will serve as a basis for understanding the transition requirement. I’ve mentioned each squadron operating a particular a/c type along with total squadrons operating the type given in parenthesis.

  1. Mig-29: 28, 47 and 223. (3)
  2. Mirage-2000: 1, 7 and 9. (3)
  3. Jaguar IS/IB: 5, 14, 16, 27 and 223. (5)
  4. Jaguar IM: 6 (1)
  5. Mig-27 UPG: 10 and 29 (2)
  6. Mig-27ML: 18, 22 and 222 (3)
  7. Mig-21 Bison: 3, 4 , 21, 23, 32 and 51 (6) – [ 23 Squadron is a tentative entry; confirmation either way would be helpful]
  8. Mig-21bis: 26 (1)
  9. Mig-21M/MF: 17, 37, 101 and 108 (4)
  10. Su-30 MKI: 2, 8, 20, 24, 30, 31, 102 and 220 (8)

Total operational Squadrons: 36

2. Others: 

This refers to Squadrons which are either partially operational, number plated or about which I don’t have full information.

  1. 15 Squadron: Formerly, a Mig-21bis Squadron. Either the a/c have gone to other squadrons for upgrade to Mig-21 Bison standard or it is under conversion to Su-30MKI
  2. 35 Squadron: The Squadron which had taken over the last set of Mig-25R after 102 ‘Trisonics’ Squadron was number-plated. It operates only 1 x flight of Mig-21 M/MF. Interestingly, it was the first EW Mig-21 Squadron. Formerly, operated the Canberra.
  3. 45 Squadron: Earmarked as first Tejas Squadron. Formerly operated Mig-21 FL.
  4. 221 Squadron: Last Mig-23BN squadron which was number plated in 2009.
  5. 106 Squadron: Formerly operated Canberra in photo-reconnaissance role. An a/c from this squadron famously landed back with a sidewinder stuck in its wing in 1999. Supposed to operating HS 748 Avro now.
  6. 52 Squadron – The ‘Suryakiran’ squadron. Which I think was earlier a fighter conversion unit cum combat squadron.

If we take only the first four entries above, IAF has on its ORBAT 40 fighter squadrons. And apart from active squadron, IAF needs to find a/c for these squadrons as well.

3. Replacement requirement: 

Basis the information shared above about active squadrons in IAF service, we try and understand the replacement requirement. It is my understanding that the replacement can be broken down in two phases. Phase 1 (2015-2020) deals with a/c which have not received any upgrade and will need to be phased out as they’re reaching end of their life. Phase 2 (2020-2025) will cover those legacy a/c which have received upgrades and can soldier on till 2025 period.

a. Phase 1 (2015-2022)

i. Mig-21bis: 1
ii. Mig-21M/MF: 4
iii. Mig-27ML: 3
Total: 8 squadrons.

b. Phase 2 (2022-2027)

i. Mig-21 Bison: 6
ii. Mig-27UPG: 2

Total: 8 squadrons.

• Apart from above, IAF needs a/c to resurrect four number-plated/partially equipped squadrons. Therefore, in all, IAF will require replacement for a total of 20 squadrons in next 10-12 years.
• However, in the immediate future, IAF will require replacement for at least 8 squadron worth of a/c.

4. Induction schedule: 

Let’s look at the potential induction schedule which can help to arrest this decline and assist in conversion. This section also helps to understand the place which Tejas Mk-1 and Tejas Mk-2 along with MMRCA have in the entire scheme of things.

a. Phase 1 (2015-2022)

i. Su-30MKI: Till date 8 of the planned 14 squadrons have been converted to Su-30MKI. That leaves us with balance 6 squadrons which are to be inducted over 2015-2022 schedule. While the original induction schedule for 272 contracted Su-30MKI was till 2018, this is running behind schedule.

As per the latest CAG Report on HAL, as against 112 a/c (from contract of 140 a/c) which were to be delivered till 2013, only 81 have been delivered. So, there is a short-fall of 31 a/c in this contract itself. After accounting for these 31 a/c, HAL has to deliver 95 more Su-30MKI over next 3 years. Which is unlikely to happen unless some of local produced a/c are replaced with direct imports. So, this schedule is slated to go into 2020-2021 territory.

ii. Tejas Mk-1 : 2 x Squadrons

iii. MMRCA: 1 x Squadron

Total: 6+2+1 = 9 Squadrons.

The above should take care of Phase-1 of retirement in coming 2015-2022 period. However, what needs to be understood is that retirement and induction will not be in syn. While the Squadrons will be number-plated in groups (2 -3 squadrons per annum), the induction will not happen in the same manner. For example, HAL has a peak production rate for Su-30MKI at 16a/c per annum. Neither is MMRCA delivery timeline clear. And Tejas Mk-1 production is yet to get established.

Consequently, IAF will see a serious dip in Squadron strength over next 5-7 years. Especially in the 2017-2020 period when bulk of Mig-21 M/MF and Mig-27ML will be retired.

b. Phase 2 (2022-2027)

This is where the MMRCA and Tejas Mk-2 become absolutely important.

i. MMRCA: 5 x Squadrons
ii. Tejas Mk-2: 4 x Squadrons

Total: 5+4= 9 Squadrons.

5. Conclusion: 

a. Even if above mentioned induction schedule happens with clock-work precision, IAF would have managed to reach a Squadron strength of only 38 Squadrons by 2027.
b. I think we now know how the 2+4 structure for Tejas Mk-1 and Tejas Mk-2 comes into play in the IAF scheme of things.
c. I expect to Tejas Mk-2 number to rise by a minimum of 2 more squadrons and more than likely to reach a total of 08 squadrons (from present four).
d. 2017-2022 is a very crucial period; don’t be surprised if we order more Su-30MKI off the shelf from Russia to make up for production short-fall. HAL has done that in the past for the 81 a/c which it has delivered.

2 Comments on "IAF Re-Equipment Imperatives: An Analysis"

  1. Sir
    This is a collosal failure of Planing induction and prevention of interference of foreign intel in your procurement system. Not withstanding security guartnees of USSR. The stream of procurement should have been as below

    – UK – you already had hunter aircrafts, supplementing should have been done with the Buccanner of RAF in Attack and CAS
    France – you had a in 1950s to 70S Aircraft from france, you should have procured your jaguars from France and not UK, along with Mirgae F1C for F & GA duties. The successive Mirage 2000 induction fleet could have been digitally linked with TIDS between all French and Anglo aircraft by Dassault and ur DRDO / HAL would have been spared for other assets

    USSR – Mig 21 – no argument , to supplement attack you could have looked at Su 22 polish version systems coupled with Mig 27
    You would not have needed the Mig 23 as you the Mirage FIC would have taken care of those duties

    Some of these could have prevented the half hearted knee jerk reaction based acqusitions of
    Mig 23 interceptor, Mig 29 and Mirage 2000.

    Ideal mix of Air component
    Anglo Saxon – Buccanner, Harrier, Hunters ( last for CAS systems)
    French – Mirage F1C, Jaguars, Mirgae 2000 ( in larger numbers )
    USSR – Mig 21, Su 30

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