By Shashank Sinha

19 June 2007

(Since receiving this article the Defence Minister has announced that the tender (RPF) for 126 aircraft will be out by early July 2007–– Ed.)

Much has been made out of the steadily eroding squadron strength of the Indian Air Force (IAF).

Squadron strengths are down from a peak of 39 to 30 and seem all set to be cut back even more drastically. The IAF is beset with procurement problems arising in part out of a protracted acquisition process. The state of affairs has naturally drawn concerned commentaries from both the parliament and the popular media. This paper aims to provide the reader with a comprehensive understanding of the causes and effects of this situation.

Why Are We Here?

The IAF has a relatively large fleet strength made up aircrafts acquired from a strikingly diverse set of origins. Much of the expansion started in late 1960s and continued till late 1980s. In keeping with the requirement of a relatively cheap and small dual role fighter that can be mass produced locally, the IAF uses MiG-21 versions as its main tactical fighter. In all, more than 1000 MiG 21s have entered service over the years with the majority being produced under licence by HAL. Indeed India remained one of the last producers of MiG 21 continuing well into the 1980s.

The aircraft itself though a perfect match for IAF criteria when it entered service, started becoming obsolescent in the 1980s. For IAF the most explicit demonstration of this was the PAF (Pakistan air force) acquisition of F-16s in 1985. That particular acquisition was balanced by the IAF through its own acquisition programme of two separate aircraft types namely the MiG 29 from Russia and Mirage 2000 from France. The MiG 21 however, continued to serve as the backbone of the tactical fighter fleet. Consequently it has become difficult to maintain due to fast disappearing spares sources. Its “public perception” has also taken a toll in recent years due to a degree of sensationalism in the media highlighting a large number of crashes.

The IAF has undertaken a limited upgradation of about 125 MiG 21s to Bison standard as a stop gap measure but the majority of the aircrafts are relatively obsolete with almost all versions except the Bis version nearing the end of their airframe lives.

Consequently, the IAF is stuck with a high proportion of aircrafts that are now due for replacement.

Where is the Replacement?       

The IAF was already looking for a replacement option for the MiG 21 fleet in late 1980s, while its Bis version was still under production at HAL Nasik. In tune with the overall goals of achieving self reliance, an indigenous development programme was proposed and adopted by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) with the objective to create a small lightweight multi-role fighter (called the LCA) broadly analogous in performance to the F-16 which Pakistan was then inducting.

The Govt. of India with the aim to fast track the project created a wholly new entity called ADA to manage the project and handle co-ordination of different Defence R&D Labs with the HAL acting as the main manufacturing contractor.

Because of rudimentary R&D facilities available in India and an almost total lack of any aerospace manufacturing experience the programme has famously run into long delays with the first TD (technology demonstrator) flying only in 2001. All subsequent TD and PP (production prototype) aircraft are currently flying with a GE power plant as the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) has failed to come up with a workable indigenous engine. An initial decision to shun co-development efforts with foreign agencies on key components, and the post-nuclear test sanctions by US are amongst major reasons for the inordinate delays in the development programme.

As of now 4 TD and 2 PP LCA aircraft are flying and IAF has ordered a limited series production of 18 aircraft and though tentative dates for full scale production run have been proposed but they remain uncertain at best. With the indigenous development programme running in to delays IAF has already waited a decade and half to replenish its ageing fleet.

Since 1988 the IAF has put into service the Su-30 MKI constituting the only completely new acquisition programme. It has also endeavoured to acquire small numbers of Mirage 2000 and MiG 29 as attrition replacement with a view to maintain its MRCA fleet. As mentioned earlier it has also gone for up-gradation programmes like the MiG 21 Bison project to enable some aircrafts to continue in frontline service.

Lately it has begun a completely new acquisition process to acquire around 126 MRCA as a stop gap measure to fill the gap of the MiG 21 squadrons that are fast getting number plated. This acquisition programme is already delayed and because of its size and value has become one of the most reported and discussed defence acquisitions in recent times. Contenders include the MiG 35, Dassault Rafael, EADS Typhoon, Swedish Gripen and for the first time American jets like F-16 and F 18.

Quantity versus Quality 

Such a cut in numbers may not seem out of place in the day and age of shrinking defence budgets and increasingly costly defence hardware. Post cold war, the armed forces have undergone a series of downsizings while at the same time investing heavily in super costly armament projects to produce highly capably but equally highly priced hardware. The B-2 Bomber and F-22 Raptor programmes of USAF are prime examples of such “silver-bullet” forces. Indeed even in the Russian Military, new weapon systems now entering service are expected to replace their predecessors in far lesser numbers. Proponents of this theory argue that RMA (revolution in military affairs) and the resulting shift from Platform Centric to Network Centric environment is the ultimate force multiplier enabling a small highly capable force to prevail over a larger less capable one.

While this line of thought is open to debate it has been both proved and disproved in actual practice. The one sided Israeli victories in various Arab Israeli wars have often been attributed to their technical superiority. More recently, the British managed to secure victory for their taskforce in the Falkland conflict in spite of being highly outnumbered by the Argentine opponents in the air and of course the 1991 Persian Gulf War where the US led collation completely outmatched the fairly large sized Iraqi Air force.

Detractors point out that a lack of sound tactics rather than hardware was responsible for the lop sided Israeli outcomes and the extremely high price paid by the Royal Navy for lack of adequate air cover in Falklands. The American experience of Vietnam stands out particularly where a large technically supreme American air arm suffered heavy attrition and ultimately failed to influence the outcome of the war.

Falklands –– Fighting Outnumbered To Win –– A case study

The short bitter campaign in Falklands is a good case study for a small technically advanced force ultimately prevailing over a larger adversary. The two small ASW aircraft carriers laden with Harrier and Sea Harrier jump jets was part of a hasty attempt by RN to provide fleet air defence and air support capability to the task force. The Harriers were small and unproven designs although considered state of the art compared to older Mirage types flown by the Argentine Air Force. The Mirage III was a combat proven design with Mach 2 performance and in theory could more than hold its own against a Harrier. The Argentines also had more Mirage III than the small Harrier force embarked on the two RN carriers.

The Harrier GRMK1 provided close support for the expeditionary forces, while The Sea Harriers were principally tasked with air defence, a task made ever more difficult due to lack of any AEW coverage and their own limited Blue Fox radars. To make matters worse there were simply not enough Harriers around. They usually flew a two ship CAP (combat air patrol) each armed with just two sidewinder AAM, mostly dependent on visual pickup to acquire their target.

However the Argentines weren’t all prevailing as well, their fast jet fleet principally built around Mirages (and Israeli copies) and A-4 Skyhawks had limited serviceability and limited endurance over Falklands due to lack of tanker support. They were also limited to dumb iron bombs as their main weaponry. Most of the attacks conducted against the British fleet were done with dumb munitions, the only exception being the Super Etenard and Exocet combination that proved very successful. The Argentines were able to exploit the stretched out Harrier CAPs to inflict significant damage to the British fleet and sink a number of vessels. Due to lack of AEW the RN had to keep some of the destroyers forward deployed to act as radar picket ships and these proved particularly vulnerable to Argentine raids. In most such instances the Harriers just weren’t around to provide air defence. If the Argentines had got all the Super Etenards they had ordered previously along with the requisite Exocets they might just have won the war.

Silver Bullets versus Kalashnikovs

The USAF and USN conducted a series of exercises called ACEVAL/AIMVAL in the period of 1974–78 at Nellis AFB, to test the impact of modern radar guided and all aspect IR AAMs on air combat operations. Relatively primitive and smaller A-4 and F-5 armed with AIM-9M were pitted against sophisticated and heavier F-14 and F-15. The results were mildly shocking to say the least as the smaller fighters were scoring an even number of kills compared to the latest jets. The results only invalidated the concept that in air combat involving 20 or more combat aircraft the modern aircrafts loose their edge to a large extent. It convinced the USAF to strive for capabilities like stealth and AESA to enable their fighters to avoid a similar melee and splash their opponents at long BVR ranges while themselves remaining hidden to detection.

Needless to say it also convinced many observers that a relatively primitive and cheap but prolific fleet of fighters armed with reasonable radar and modern AAM can blunt the edge of modern silver bullet weapons.

This becomes especially relevant in the context of India as the PAF has built up a fleet of vintage Chinese jets and has now begun acquisition of modern AAMs from US. Similarly China operates a large number of progressively upgraded jets which it is now arming with the latest Russian AAM imports. Such a build up can easily erode the edge now being built by IAF through induction of four and a half generation fighters like the SU-30 MKI. IAF also seems set to follow the American way by investing in eventual induction of a fifth generation fighter with stealth characteristics and long range AAM. Understandably such a fighter when it eventually turns up would be prohibitably costly and hence available in far lesser numbers.

The situation becomes increasingly critical in scenarios of low intensity conflicts or limited wars of attrition. The IAF has traditionally been kept out of involvement in any COINS function but this cannot always be guaranteed. In events of border intrusions like the Kargil conflict the IAF could find itself involved rather more frequently in the future. During operation Safed Sagar in Kargil IAF launched a variety of air operations ranging from close air support ground attack reconnaissance and even preventive CAP to ward off any potential PAF involvement. The fact that IAF lost a couple of fixed wing combat aircrafts and a number of helicopters to ground fire is a telling reminder of the kinds of losses that can be expected if such a conflict prolongs. Even when facing a guerrilla infiltration the prolific availability of shoulder fired MANPADS means that any air operation below 10,000 feet is especially hazardous.

Since these are the kinds of conflict scenarios that are most likely to emerge between nuclear armed adversaries in South Asia, it makes sense for IAF to ensure availability of cheap small and prolific close support assets in sizeable numbers.

The losses can only go up higher in any hot war scenario like the limited war of attrition currently a part of the Army plan. Any war of attrition directed against Pakistani forces would naturally require availability of numbers.  

Force Multipliers –– How Useful?

Every new weapon technology be it smart munitions, GPS navigation, tanker support or more efficient ground service techniques is a force multiplier that enables a force to increase its capabilities and to do more with less.

The western NATO powers relied on high serviceability and availability of their weapon systems to offset their inferiority in numbers. The soviets on the other hand were aware of their low production standards and serviceability and circumvented the problem by producing their weapons in large numbers. Unrealized by many, aircraft availability is perhaps the single most important force multiplier. This is an area where IAF has had problems in recent years especially since Soviet break up and subsequent spares crunch. It is a zero sum game and an area where the only way out is long and bitter but completely possible. A valid case in point is the post Vietnam USAF in 1970s and early 80s which suffered huge gaps in aircraft availability and resorted to cannibalism to keep flying. The situation is similar in many IAF units and it is something which can only be slowly rectified with retirement of older types and gradual build up of spares facilities of newer ones that is expected to follow. In actual war, simple factors like a fast turn around time can play decisively as demonstrated by Israelis in the Six Day War when they relied on an incredibly quick (7 minutes) turn around time to keep their aircrafts continuously in the air.

Other factors like airborne tanker support and better situational awareness through modern navigation aids and information gathering sensors will also provide a useful force multiplier for IAF when they eventually become available across the board.

Pre-Eminence in the Age of Wal-Mart of Weapons

Lastly, proponents of silver bullets always place too much faith in the exclusivity of their weapons. In the cut throat arms market of today, a new weapon system becomes available commercially almost simultaneously as in their user country. For example it took less than 2 years for the AESA radar to end up in sales brochures after their introduction in the USAF. A modern weapon system eventually becomes available rather quickly and enables even second and third grade users to acquire relative sophistication at bargain prices. A case in point is the Chinese JF-17 fighter now under production for PAF. It is based on a Russian engine with European avionics and French AAM and will bestow capabilities comparable to LCA.

China already operates its own version of the MKI called the MKK and it is planning to acquire them in numbers although of course the acquisition isn’t principally India centric. Even in the immediate neighbourhood countries like Bangladesh and now Sri Lanka are poised to operate high performance aircrafts like the MiG-29.

The exclusivity and pre-eminence of a weapon system cannot be guaranteed today and any technological edge that a particular weapon may provide is short lived.

“The important thing in a military operation is victory, not persistence”-Sun TZU in The Art of War.

A large air force is a guzzler of resources and needs long logistics arms. In a protracted contest they may prove to be persistent but that although a very admirable disposition in itself doesn’t always guarantee victory. Examples can be found in decade long efforts by superpower air forces in Vietnam and Afghanistan. A smaller air arm much more attuned towards ultimate objectives and more disposed to co-ordinate jointly with their land and naval counterparts can better ensure victory. For example the majority of air defence efforts launched by communist air forces in Korea and then Vietnam were not directed at shooting down enemy fighter bombers but just to make them jettison their war load or compromise their mission in some other way and thus prevent them from making effective contribution to the war effort.

While the IAF prepares to shrink in size and composition its potential adversaries are undergoing downsizings of their own. No nation can be expected to maintain same force levels today. Instead of sporting large forces as an end it self, successful air arms have always placed main emphasis on maintaining capabilities. In this day and age of network centric warfare, platform centric tactics aren’t expected to ensure victory for long. However, platforms would always be needed to form the most vital components of that network.  

The important question for the IAF is not to maintain its force levels but to ultimately enhance its ability to carry out the objectives set out by national command authority.



  1. David C Isby (2001). Jane's Fighter Combat in the jet Age. Harper Collins.

  2. Shlomo Aloni (2001). Arab-Israeli Air Wars 1947-1982. Osprey Aviation.

  3. http://www.indianairforce.nic.in

  4. www.airforce-technology.com/projects/tejas

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