The Indian Air Force (IAF) hopes to increase the serviceability rate of its Su-30MKI, and other fighter jets in order to compensate for the shortage in its squadron strength, the service told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defense.
However, the spare parts delivery schedule could be affected due to the ongoing Ukraine war and the Western sanctions on Russia, IAF said, adding that it is assessing the situation.
“But there is an interesting fact that we have ended up spending a large amount when we got the funds last to last year and last year also on revenue spares.
There is an interesting aspect that a very large number of Sukhoi-30 and other fighters are on the ground and we are hopeful that when those spares start coming from this year onwards, we are hopeful that will be able to actually add some squadrons,” an IAF representative told the committee last week.
The Su-30MKI ‘Flanker’ is the backbone of the IAF, which operates nearly 270 jets of this type. India is also the largest operator of the export-oriented Su-30MKI across the world.
The IAF has an authorized strength of 42 fighter squadrons. As time passes, the total technical life of most of the existing squadrons is expiring and consequently, the squadron strength is progressively depleting, the IAF said.
The rising cost of acquisitions and decreasing budgetary allocations have restrained the IAF’s capacity to procure new fighter jets and currently, a large number of fighters are being maintained in operational condition well beyond their service life so that the IAF can hold on to the numbers as close to the sanctioned strength.
In October 2021, the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari had said that the IAF can only get a maximum of 35 squadrons in the next 10 years.
Tejas MK-1As Not Ready Yet
The service acknowledged to the House panel that it is not possible to achieve the desired strength of 42 for the time, citing the delay in the production of indigenous Tejas fighter jets until 2024.
The contract for 83 Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) MK-1A was signed in January 2021 that are expected to be delivered by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) from early 2024 onwards.
The good news is that the delivery of 36 French-made Rafale fighters, divided into two squadrons, is almost complete.
Citing increased tensions with China and Pakistan, the House panel expressed concern over the Air Force’s squadron strength, which is below the sanctioned limit of 42, and called for time-bound procurement of LCA MK-1s.
The committee noted that it is “of the considered opinion that Air Force should have two front deterrence capabilities, which is of utmost priority, as the threat on both sides of Indian neighborhood is a reality which cannot be ignored”.
In the IAF, each fighter squadron is expected to hold 18 fully operational planes plus two trainers. Previous news reports suggested that there were some squadrons — especially those of the older generation MiGs — that were operating with as few as nine aircraft while others such as one of the Jaguar had as many as 22 aircraft.
In December 2017, the defense minister had said in Parliament, “10 squadrons of IAF equipped with MiG 21 and MiG 27 aircraft are scheduled to retire by 2024 on completion of their total technical life (TTL).”
The committee also said in its report that the strength of a fighter squadron cannot be measured merely on the number of aircraft but also their weapon carrying ability, lethality, range to fly and strike capabilities.
“Therefore, no compromises in terms of firepower and technology should be made while inducting fighter jets in the Air Force,” the committee added.
Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar told the committee that in the past three to four years, “concerted efforts have been made by the Air Force to ramp up its capability and to make up for the less squadron” and “this pace of acquisition was not there earlier.”
Meanwhile, Times Now reported that the IAF could purchase 12 Russian-designed Sukhoi-30 MKI for Rs 10,000 crore ($1.3 billion). The proposal is expected to be cleared this week by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) headed by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh.
Designed by Russia, these fighters will be produced by India’s state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and would include Israeli systems on board.