Four days after assuming command of the Indian Air Force (IAF), Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria has described in detail what his fighter fleet will look like a dozen years into the future.
There is already concern that the IAF is down to just 30 fighter squadrons, against the assessed requirement of 42 squadrons. Bhadauria’s plan, unveiled in an interaction with the media on Friday, will only raise numbers to 37 squadrons by 2025, before falling again to 33 squadrons by 2032.
Behind the continuing shortfalls is the impending retirement of the last of six remaining MiG-21 squadrons when their technical life ends in 2021.
In addition, Bhadauria announced that six Jaguar squadrons would retire in the early 2020s, since it would be too costly to equip them with new engines needed to extend their service lives into the 2030s.
“We have had to drop the plan for re-engining the Jaguar because it has been delayed inordinately and the cost went too high,” said the IAF chief.
“The non-BISON MiG-21s will retire by the end of this year, or go up to March 2020 at the most. Only the MiG-21 BISON fleet will be left and will go up to the end of its technical life [in 2021], he said.
Worryingly, the shortfalls could be even worse if there is delay in processing the purchase of 114 eponymous Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA), which an Indian “strategic partner” (SP) will build in technology partnership with a global “original equipment manufacturer” (OEM).
Requests for Interest (RFIs) have already been sent out to prospective SPs and OEMs for this tender.
“The [vendors’ responses] have already been received for the 114 MRFA case. We have started the process for obtaining AoN (Acceptance of Necessity) now. The AoN, which the defence ministry accords, is the first step in a procurement and is followed by the issuance of an RFP (request for proposals) – the basic tender document.
Bhadauria’s plan also includes building 83 Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) in quick time to fill the light fighter vacancies left by the retirement of the MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters.
On a parallel track, India would build the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), a fifth generation medium fighter.
Meanwhile, the IAF chief confirmed the IAF would buy 21 MiG-29 fighters that are lying ready built in Russia. “We are going to go in for 21 MiG-29, which has already been informed [to Moscow],” he said.
Adding those to the IAF’s existing three MiG-29 squadrons, which are undergoing a mid-life upgrade, would take the number of IAF MiG-29 squadrons up to four. In addition, the navy flies two squadrons of the navalized MiG-29K/KUBs.
Bhadauria also confirmed reports that additional Sukhoi-30MKI fighters would be built by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) in Nashik. HAL will soon complete delivery of the last squadron of Sukhoi-30MKIs, bringing up the IAF fleet to 13 squadrons.
“We are moving towards ordering 12 more Sukhoi-30s. Whether we need some more in lieu of aircraft that are going to get phased out from 2025 onwards… we will have to take a look later. But at the moment, 12 is what is being followed up straightaway,” said Bhadauria.
The chief also confirmed plans to upgrade the Sukhoi-30MKI, with modern “radar and weapons capabilities and also tackling obsolescence management and electronic warfare aspects.”
Dismissing rumours that India is buying 36 more Rafales from France, Bhadauria stated: “Our plan is for building 114 MRFA in the SP model. There is no separate plan for this (36 more Rafales).
He confirmed a delay in Dassault’s delivery of the first four Rafale fighters. While Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is going to France next week to accept the fighters, they would only fly to India in May 2020, said Bhadauria.