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Mirages, MiG 29s, Jaguars to be phased out by 2035, IAF seeks more aircraft

IAF Chief Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari Said Tuesday That Even Though The Force Was Looking At Quality And Technology Of Fighters, Numbers Still Mattered.

Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari, addresses a press conference upon the upcoming Air Force day parade at Akash Officers Mess in New Delhi on Tuesday. ThePrint photo by Suraj Singh Bisht

New Delhi: Citing the growing strength of Chinese and Pakistani air forces, the Indian Air Force (IAF) Monday made it clear that there was no question of a review of its sanctioned strength of 42 fighter squadrons, even though its current numbers have fallen to 31.

Adding to the IAF’s worries is that over the next 15 years, multiple squadrons would be phased out, starting with the three remaining MiG 21 Bison squadrons, which would be out of service by 2025.

Following this, six squadrons of aging Jaguars would start being phased out as well, a process that will end by 2031-32.

That is when the upgraded fleet of the Mirage 2000s and the MiG 29s will start getting phased out.

“All these aircraft will be number-plated by mid next decade,” IAF chief Air Chief Marshal V. R. Chaudhari said, addressing his annual press conference here ahead of the Air Force Day on 8 October.

He said the IAF has already ordered 83 LCA Tejas Mk 1A and plans to place an order for the Tejas Mk 2 as well besides the indigenous 5th Generation fighter aircraft, both of which are still in the design phase.

He said the IAF was keen on the 114 Medium Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) for which it was in the process of firming up the technical requirements, following which a “Request for Proposal (RFP)” would be sent out.

The tender has been pending for long. While initially it was felt that the government may go in for a strategic decision and enter into a government to government contract with France for more Rafale, sources in the defence and security establishment said the controversy surrounding the original deal has made the government wary.

And hence a decision has been taken to go in for a MRFA contest.

The IAF chief said that the force is in the process of taking commitment from the vendors regarding the indigenization element.

However, he said even if the entire planned procurement happened without any glitch or time delays, the IAF may just about reach 35 squadrons, against a sanctioned strength of 42, by 2035-36.

ACM Chaudhari said the IAF was not looking at mere numbers but also at quality and technology.

Asked if this meant the IAF would review the need to have 42 squadrons of fighters, the IAF chief made it clear that was not the case.

“At this stage, it will be inappropriate to accept what we have. Quantity does matter when it comes to the ability to operate in a large geographical area and persistence which refers to the ability to conduct 24×7 air patrols. The numbers are essential,” he said.

Air Marshal Sandeep Singh, the Vice Chief of the IAF, cited the growing presence of both Pakistani and Chinese Air Forces and said numbers were absolutely necessary when it came to operating in large geographical areas and combating opponents with bigger numbers.

“We don’t want to get into an escalatory situation with China but we will have to balance it out. It is a complex situation and numbers certainly cannot be reduced,” he said.

The fighter squadron strength of the IAF fell to 31 last week with the phasing out of the Srinagar-based MiG 21 Bison squadron.

In actual terms, 31 squadrons doesn’t mean “31 squadrons” because the availability ratio of some of the aircraft types was less than 50 percent.

This means that on a given day, the actual availability of aircraft is less because most are in for servicing or down due to unavailability of spare parts.

ThePrint reported in 2019 — even in the best case scenario — the IAF would not reach its sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons by 2042. That is, if the force takes into account the Tejas Mark 2, the indigenous 5th generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) and 114 fighter aircraft for which a Request For Proposal (RFP) is still awaited.