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Here’s how the Indian Air Force may look like in 2030

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The recent decision by the Indian Air Force to purchase a dozen new Sukhoi 30MKIs and 21 new Mig 29 UPG aircraft, clubbed with its decision not to upgrade the Jaguar ground-attack fighters, signals a decisive shift in the IAF’s thinking.

At present, the Indian Air Force has around 30 fighter aircraft squadrons, including 11 frontline Sukhoi 30MKI squadrons, three Mirage 2000H squadrons based in Gwalior, six Jaguar squadrons based in Ambala, Jamnagar and Gorakhpur, three Mig 29UPG squadrons based in Adampur and Jamnagar, a Tejas Mk1 squadron based in Sulur, two Mig 27UPG squadrons based in Jodhpur, and seven Mig 21 squadrons operating from Pathankot, Srinagar, Barmer, Sirsa, Jodhpur, and Suratgarh.

In addition to this, IAF will soon raise the second squadron of LCA Mk1 in Sulur Air Force base which is attached to the Southern Air Command and will also raise two new Sukhoi 30MKI squadrons once HAL completes deliveries of additional fighters that were contracted in 2010.

It is possible that one of the freshly-raised Sukhoi 30MKI squadrons could be based in the brand new Deesa Air Force base in Gujarat. The Cabinet Committee on Security had greenlighted the construction of the base in March last year at a cost of around Rs 1000 crore. The base will be spread over 4000 acres and will also house blast-proof pens for fighter aircraft.

The new base will also boost the IAF’s presence in the vicinity of Karachi as two Mig 21 squadrons based in the nearby Naliya air force base have been decommissioned recently. Jamnagar, the other fighter base in Gujarat, is currently home to two squadrons of Jaguars and one squadron of Mig 29UPG. Deesa AFB will also be located quite close to Nal air force base near Bikaner which is home to Sukhoi 30MKI fighters.

17 squadron (Golden Arrows), which until recently flew Mig 21M fighters, will soon receive a squadron of brand new Rafale jets and will shift from Bathinda to Ambala. To make way for it, 3 squadron (Cobras), one of the few remaining Mig 21 squadrons, will shift from Ambala to Nal AFB near Bikaner.

22 squadron (Swifts), which is based in Hasimara in West Bengal and until recently operated the now-decommissioned Mig 27ML fighters, will also receive a squadron of Rafale jets and will operate alongside a Su-30MKI squadron based in Tezpur to guard India’s frontiers in the North East.

If the government approves the IAF’s fresh requirement of a dozen new Sukhoi 30MKIs and 21 new Mig 29UPG aircraft, while the new Su-30 MKIs will join existing squadrons as the IAF only intends to purchase them to cover for fighters lost to crashes in the past decade, IAF will be able to set up a new Mig 29UPG squadron to facilitate the decommissioning of existing Mig 21 squadrons in the next couple of years.

The acquisition of these fighters will not only help the IAF replenish its fighter squadrons to an extent, but will also ensure that it will not add new aircraft types in its inventory. Considering that IAF pilots and ground crews have gained much experience with Su-30MKI and Mig-29UPG fighters, the purchase of these types will not require additional expenditure on training or in setting up maintenance depots as well.

However, IAF’s decision not to upgrade the existing six squadrons of Jaguar ground attack aircraft with powerful Honeywell F-125IN engines has raised concerns about the further depletion of IAF’s fighter squadrons. The upgrade programme was expected to increase the aircraft’s power, range and longevity but has been shelved because of high cost as well as the time required to develop the new engine and to integrate it with the aircraft.

Nevertheless, HAL is presently upgrading 56 Jaguar fighters to DARIN-III standard which includes a new AESA radar, a new electronic warfare suite, new avionics and multi-function displays. This programme will ensure that even if IAF starts decommissioning Jaguars from 2023 onwards, at least three squadrons of the same will remain operational beyond 2030.

Hence, if the IAF does not make any further acquisitions until 2030, which is unlikely considering that the MMRCA requirement could be fulfilled by then, this is how its fighter and close air support compliment will look like:

Su-30MKI: 14 squadrons
Rafale: 2 squadrons
Jaguar: 3 squadrons
Mig 29UPG: 4 squadrons
Mirage 2000H: 3 squadrons
LCA mk1: 2 squadrons
TOTAL: 28 squadrons

What this indicates is that the IAF will manage to keep its number of fighter squadrons more or less intact while also discarding completely obsolete aircraft in its inventory such as the Mig 21 Bison and the Mig 27UPG. However, if the government does not torpedo the proposed MMRCA acquisition of 114 aircraft unlike how the previous acquisition process progressed, the number of fighter squadrons could reach 34 by the end of next decade.

If the MMRCA deal goes through and the government also buys 12 new Su-30MKIs and 21 Mig 29UPGs for the IAF, the likes of HAL and other agencies like the ADA will also get enough time to develop the proposed Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) which could replace the likes of Jaguar, Mirage 2000H, Mig 29UPG, and Su-30MKIs from 2035 onwards.

As far as the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme is concerned, even though HAL has succeeded in delivering a squadron of the type to the IAF so far and will deliver another squadron of FOC standard by 2020, the proposed contract for an additional 83 LCA Mk1As has already reached a dead-end.

The reason for this is both costs as well as capability. As far as capability is concerned, Business Standard has reported that HAL took a unilateral decision to purchase Israeli Elta AESA radar for the Tejas Mark 1A even though MBDA, the European manufacturer of Meteor missiles, had made it clear that it will not integrate its missiles with a non-European AESA radar system.

The report further underlines that IAF had laid down five specific modifications to be incorporated in LA Mk1A when agreeing to purchase 83 numbers of the same in 2016. These included an advanced AESA radar, the 250 km-range Meteor missile, as well as ASRAAM (Advanced Short Range Air to Air Missile).

The report states that HAL chose Elta’s ELM 2052 AESA radar for LCA Mk1A as the same radar is being incorporated into 61 Jaguar fighters and therefore, producing the radar in large numbers would save a lot of money. However, this move also ensures that LCA Mk1A will not get the Meteor and it is thus of no surprise that the IAF has not signed the final contract for 83 LCA Mk1As as yet.

According to the Economic Times, IAF has also informed the government that HAL has not been able to comply with “the endurance levels or the amount of time for which the aircraft can fly” as stipulated in its RFP.

As far as cost is concerned, HAL is asking as much as 463 crore for each LCA Mk1A aircraft and the same is being considered as prohibitively high both by the MoD as well as the IAF. According to The Times of India, HAL may have finally agreed to reduce the per-unit price to between 250 crore and 275 crores, thereby reducing the overall cost of 83 fighters from Rs 37,350 crore to Rs 22,825 crore. Does this mean that the IAF has agreed to accept the LCA Mk1A without the option of Meteor missiles? Only time will tell.

If the existing logjam around the LCA programme is resolved between the government, IAF and HAL and the latter is given enough time to deliver 83 LCA Mk1As to the IAF by 2030, then the IAF’s fighter squadron numbers could touch 38 squadrons, provided of course that the government also manages to acquire 114 multi-role medium fighters for the IAF in the meantime.

This is how the final squadron numbers for the IAF will look like if things go as planned:

Su-30MKI: 14 squadrons
MMRCA: 6 squadrons
Rafale: 2 squadrons
Jaguar: 3 squadrons
Mig 29UPG: 4 squadrons
Mirage 2000H: 3 squadrons
LCA mk1: 2 squadrons
LCA Mk1A: 4 squadrons
TOTAL: 38 squadrons

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