India’s Air Force Will Field 42 Combat Squadrons by 2027

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The head of the Indian Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, recently announced that the Indian Air Force (IAF) will in all likelihood be able to deploy 42 combat squadrons by 2027 the Business Standard reports.

“We are looking forward to building up our combat fleet to 42 squadrons by the end of the 14th plan, by 2027. I think it is possible, it is viable, there are a lot of options available with us, and discussions are already on,” he told reporters last Saturday in New Delhi.

The Indian Air Force  currently operates 32 (some sources say 35) combat squadrons.  However, the Indian government’s 35-member Standing Committee on Defense said in a report this April that the number of squadrons could drop as low as 25 (See: “The Indian Air Force’s Big Problem: Not Enough Pilots”).

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The reason for the decline in active combat squadrons is that aircraft (primarily MIG-21) are more rapidly retired or are lost in crashes than replacements are available. Next to MIG-21 squadrons, the IAF’s 5 MIG-27 and 7 Jaguar squadrons will also  have to be slowly phased out over the next years since the aircraft will have reached the end of their service life in the 2020s.

To alleviate this situation, Air Chief Marshal Raha, announced that the IAF will procure a larger number of improved Mark-I Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) – dubbed Tejas Mark-IA- than the forty it had  originally committed to buying. “We are ready to take more — 120 (fighters), six squadrons of Tejas… We are ready to take it as soon as they (HAL) can provide it. That means they have to ramp up the production rate, which is running behind schedule… But we will take all 120,” he said. (The IAF recently abandoned plans to develop an upgraded Mark-II LCA.)

Air Chief Marshal Raha was also adamant that the 36 Dassault Rafale multi-role fighters purchased from France in a government-to-government deal will not suffice. The IAF will need six additional squadrons of medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), according to his estimates. “I cannot give you numbers, but definitely we would like to have the MMRCA type of aircraft, at least six squadrons to my mind. But let’s see, there may be some other alternatives as well, he noted. However, even the delivery of the 36 recently purchased off-the-shelf Dassault Rafale fighters is delayed due to hiking costs and IAF demands to customize the platforms (See: “India’s Rafale Fighter Jets May Face Further Delays”).

The head of the IAF also puts high hopes in the development of a next-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), designed by India’s Defense R&D Organization (DRDO) in close collaboration with the IAF, which is expected to enter service around 2030, just in time when the MIG-29 and Mirage 2000 squadrons – currently undergoing upgrades – will have to be retired.

While the joint Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) project will continue, Raha was indignant that a full R&D collaboration contract for joint work on the derivative Indian version of the PAK FA T-50 fifth-generation fighter jet, the Perspective Multi-role Fighter (PMF) had not yet been signed. (It could finally be signed during Indian Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Moscow in December.)

A draft agreement includes a fixed IAF order of 154 PMFs. However, Raha is not counting on the successful completion of this project and places his hopes on the AMCA: “If the FGFA comes through it is fine, otherwise the Indian FGFA — that is the AMCA, the advanced medium combat aircraft — we still have over 15 years to work on it before the MiG-29 upgraded aircraft retire, before the Mirage 2000 upgraded ones retire, as well as Jaguar upgraded ones retire in another 15 years.”

As I reported previously, an additional headache for Raha and his plan to expand the number of IAF squadrons will be a critical shortage of fighter pilots.

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