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Dwindling Squadron Strength: How Will the IAF Cope?

Binil Varghese

25 April 2023

Indian Air Force modernization has been a grand project in the anvil for many decades. The IAF is currently short of at least eight more squadrons of fighter aircraft to defend India against growing threats from the eastern and western fronts. Matters stand further complicated by the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war and consequently, Russia’s inability to provide routine upgrades and maintenance. How does the IAF intend to cope in this scenario?


The Indian Air Force (IAF) is widely regarded as one of the world’s best air forces. During the nine decades of its existence, the IAF has played a key role in responding to a range of threats and is well renowned for its formidable capabilities and warfighting prowess. The IAF shoulders the important responsibility of realizing India’s power projection goals both within and beyond the region. Accustomed to using several different types of aircraft to perform multiple roles, the IAF’s unique institutional capacity for adaptability and creative problem-solving has been termed one of its primary assets. However, in recent times, delays in procurement of cutting-edge aircraft have challenged the IAF’s readiness and deployment capabilities, particularly in light of the growing arsenals of China and Pakistan. The lack of timely access to the same has been said to constrain the IAF’s options, postures, and doctrine.

Various chiefs of the IAF are on record suggesting that the necessary squadron strength the service needs to maintain at any given time is between a minimum of 39.5 to an ideal fleet size of 44 squadrons (one squadron consists of 18 aircraft). According to recent reports, the fighter squadron strength of the IAF is down to 31 squadrons. For any military service, the requirement is to be prepared for the worst-case national security scenario. In India’s case, this is certainly the possibility of a two-front war against both China and Pakistan. With the Sino-Pak all-weather friendship showing signs of strengthening to all-time peak levels, the present fighter strength of the IAF is likely to catch India’s first responders cold if a two-front conflict opens up.

The urgency of the IAF’s requirement to procure new fighter squadrons has been reflected in the Rafale Medium Multirole-Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) deal, the focus on quicker induction of the semi-indigenous Tejas aircrafts, and most recently, the expected tender for the Multirole Fighter Aircraft (MRFA)program. The urgency in the current scenario is further compounded by growing tensions on India’s eastern front. India’s security pundits are growing increasingly uneasy over the IAF’s continuing reliance on Sukhoi-30MKIs as the air superiority fighter. This is because the IAF continues to rely on Russia for upgrades and spares essential for maintaining airworthiness and quality of its jets.  The ongoing war with Ukraine has cast doubts on Russia’s ability to continue supporting routine maintenance and upgrades. On the other hand, the IAF is also looking to replace its ageing fleet. India's two dedicated strike and interdiction fast aircraft, the Jaguar and Mig-27, are both well past their prime when compared to peer competition. This is despite undergoing several engine, avionics, and weapons upgrades throughout their prolonged service careers. Meanwhile, the complete fleet of Mig-21s are to be retired by 2025.

With respect to procurement as well as in instituting capacity for full-fledged indigenous production of fighter aircraft, the IAF has historically had to overcome several challenges. A series of political and judicial interventions had the effect of delaying the IAF’s efforts to procure the Rafale MMRCA during the 2012-2018 period. The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has proven its capability to partially meet India’s requirements through retrofitting existing airframes with a variety of avionics, weapons, and engines. However, technical and political hurdles continue to hinder India’s efforts to localize production. While the development of Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) has been heralded as a major success, the achievement resulted out of a three-decade long effort marked by multiple delays. India may likely continue to face these challenges in any effort that it might make to indigenously produce fifth or sixth generation fighters in the future.

Indigenization, while a central goal often gets pushed down in IAF’s priority list as circumstances grow pressing. India’s treacherous geopolitics with hostile neighbors on the eastern and western fronts does not make it easier either to prioritize indigenization. As Air Marshal Narmadeshwar Tiwari recently noted “reaching 42 squadrons will take time and the immediate effort is to arrest the drawdown in strength”. The IAF expects its requirements to be fulfilled simultaneously through external procurements (mostly from Russia) of multirole fighter aircraft as well as three indigenous fighter jet development projects. A major role has been envisioned for LCA Mk-1A, an improved variant of the LCA-1, which HAL has committed to deliver by 2024. Hopes are also pinned on HAL’s Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (both currently under development). Meanwhile, American aerospace giant, Lockheed Martin has also shown keenness to partake in Make in India. The company has presented its F-21 as the ideal aircraft to complement Tejas as well as Rafale.

The IAF's institutional capacity for adaptability and creative problem-solving strategies is one of its primary assets, in part due to the custom of using so many different types of aircraft to do so many different jobs at once. However, acquiring and assimilating technology has been underlined as a major challenge for the IAF. While several efforts have been made to pursue a comprehensive modernization strategy, several technical and political hurdles render the process complicated and time-consuming. Approaching modernization as an evolutionary yet continuous process is of utmost importance. Emphasis also needs to be laid on synchronizing the process with national security requirements. Such an approach is pivotal to ensuring the IAF’s capability to fight threats at multiple levels and sustain and enhance its operational potential.

Disclaimer: The article expresses the author’s views on the matter and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of any institution they belong to or of Trivium Think Tank and the StraTechos website.

Binil Varghese


Binil is a postgraduate scholar at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education. His research focuses on defence, national security and India’s military modernization.


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