Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari said on Tuesday the Indian Air Force will have around 35 fighter squadrons till the next decade, even as the sanctioned strength is of 42. Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari while addressing concerns of IAF’s depleting fighter squadron strength, particularly in the wake of an anticipated collusive security threat from China and Pakistan, said even after taking into account all new fighter acquisitions and the phasing out of some existing squadrons of ageing fighter jets, it is unlikely that the total squadron strength will increase any further till the next decade.
“Our count will remain around 35 till the next decade, currently it is unlikely it will go up any further,” said the Air Chief Marshal in his first media address after taking over as the Chief of Air Staff last month, and ahead of Air Force Day on October 8.
The IAF currently has around 30 fighter squadrons. The force has planned to phase out its four MiG-21 squadrons in the next three to four years, and subsequently discontinue the MiG-29 and the Jaguar squadrons. Its planned inductions include 83 LCA Tejas Mk IA —deliveries of which are expected to start by 2024—six to seven squadrons of the fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) being developed by DRDO, as well as 114 multi-role fighter aircraft which is currently stuck at the procurement stage after the purchase of 36 Rafale jets.
Detailing the IAF’s current planned fighter acquisitions, the Air chief said to cater for the drawdown of fighter squadrons, the force’s acquisition plan is first based on 83 Tejas Mk IA.
He further said, “We are committed to the AMCA programme, for which DRDO had set up an aggressive timeline. We should be inducting the AMCA in the early years of the next decade.”
He, however, said to mitigate the gap in the IAF’s fighter squadrons and net combat capability, the RFI for 114 multi-role fighter jets were invited. “Response have been received and we are now awaiting to move the case up further,” he said.
He added that the new 114 multi-role fighters will have a “whole lot of fifth generation capabilities.”
The Air chief also said the IAF has ordered Mirage 2000 aircraft from France, despite phasing them out later, because of the low availability of its spares globally. “We shall harvest the spares (from the Mirages) to keep the fleet running.”
He also said the first six Light Utility Helicopters are being procured to replace the ageing Chetak and Cheetah squadrons.
According to the Air Chief Marshal, the IAF is currently in the process of finalising the Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (ASQR) of six additional mid-air refullers, which it seeks to acquire in the future, while also looking at leasing them for peacetime operations.
He also added that the IAF’s deterrent capabilities are also being ramped up, as part of which the first squadron of the S-400 air defence system from Russia will be inducted by the end of this year.
Focus will be on cyber warfare
The Air chief’s statements on India’s fighter modernisation are significant given his admission that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) continue to remain deployed in their three airfields across eastern Ladakh and their rapid infrastructure development in the region will aid faster deployment of their troops. He, however, said it won’t affect air operations.
On his vision for the IAF, the Air Chief Marshal said it is critical to enhance the force’s capabilities simultaneously and parallels for operations in both kinetic and non-kinetic zones.
He said his emphasis would be on cyber warfare that would include mitigation of cyberattacks and carrying parallel cyberattacks along with kinetic warfare.
Theaterisation should consider strength of each service
Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari said the IAF has to play multiple roles and is not just a support arm of the Army. Each of the service would require the support of the other in a battle and the Army may also have to support the IAF in its operations, he said after Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat recently called IAF a “support arm". Former Air chief ACM RKS Bhadauria (Retd) had also shown his disagreement to CDS’ statement.
The new air chief said the IAF remains committed towards integration of the defence forces but the structures and processes have to cater to the needs of future warfare.
“The strengths of each device needs to be taken into account and needs to be synchronized towards the net combat capability of the nation.” It is critical to keep the doctrines of each service in mind while reassigning the new structures, he added.
“All concerns have been taken into account. We are hopeful that the ultimate structure that will emerge will cater for joint planning for operations at all levels.”