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Nirmala Sitharaman Soars in a Sukhoi, But India's Air Prowess is Going Down

According to figures tabled by the Ministry of Defence in the Lok Sabha during the Winter Session last month, India will have less squadron by 2025 than it currently possesses.

Uday Singh Rana |

Updated:January 17, 2018, 8:07 PM IST
Nirmala Sitharaman Soars in a Sukhoi, But India's Air Prowess is Going Down
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman buckles up for Su-30 MKI sortie on Wednesday. (Photo provided by Ministry of Defence)
New Delhi: Nirmala Sitharaman, the first woman to become full-time Defence Minister of India, flew a Sukhoi Su-30 MKI on Wednesday.

Sitharaman took off in the two-seater twin-engine fighter jet from an air base in Jodhpur. This comes as the latest move by the Defence Minister to take stock of the operational preparedness and combat capabilities of the Indian Air Force (IAF).

Even as the Defence Minister courts the camera by soaring in an IAF jet, India’s air prowess continues to be on the descent. According to figures tabled by the Ministry of Defence in the Lok Sabha during the Winter Session last month, India will have less squadrons by 2025 than it currently possesses.

To make matters worse, numbers reveal that the Modi government would not have added any new squadrons to the IAF by the end of its first term in 2019.

During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had criticised the UPA government by voicing “concerns” over the pace at which squadrons were being added to the Air Force.

The BJP, in its manifesto, called out on the IAF’s squadron concern an “indication of the surrendering of India’s interests” and called for a complete overhaul of the system. But the latest figures tabled in the Lok Sabha by the Ministry of Defence reveal that there would be no net increase in the number of squadrons added by the NDA government in its five-year tenure. In fact, by 2025, the IAF may end up having less squadrons than it currently has.

The question was posed by Anurag Thakur, BJP MP from Hamirpur in Himachal Pradesh, who asked for “the number of squadrons and squadrons of helicopters likely to be with IAF by 2020.”

Minister of State (MoS) for Defence Subhash Bhamre, in his response said, “The IAF will have 32 Fighter Squadrons and 39 Helicopter Units by 2020.”

The Indian Air Force currently possesses 32 squadrons but as the minister put it, “Three squadrons of MiG-21 aircraft will be phased out by 2020.”

By 2019, the government plans the introduction of two squadrons of Su-30MKIs. This means the number of squadrons will remain the same, once you consider the phasing out of the older squadrons.

Biju Janata Dal MP from Kalahandi Arka Keshari Deo asked the ministry “whether the government proposes to phase out these fighter aircraft in future.”

MoS (Defence) Bhamre in his response revealed, “Ten Squadrons of Indian Air Force (IAF) equipped with MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircraft are scheduled to retire by 2024 on completion of their Total Technical Life.”

Two squadrons of the Jaguar are also set to retire during this period.

Between now and 2025, the government plans to procure two additional squadrons of the Su-30MKI, two squadrons of the Rafale and six squadrons of the Tejas, a single-engine fighter.

So while India will see 12 squadrons retire by 2024, the country will have added only 10 to offset those losses by 2025.

Air Chief BS Dhanoa’s assessment that India plans to have a 42-squadron Air Force by 2032 seems tough to achieve given the current pace of procurement by the Indian government. But one way in which the government may just be able to pull off this feat is if it manages to ink deals for single-engine fighter aircraft with haste.

Air Defence expert Air Vice Marshall (retired) Manmohan Bahadur said, “It may seem difficult at this stage to have 42-squadrons by 2032 but I think we can pull it off. It all depends on the pace at which the Tejas is manufactured and whether India will be able to procure single-engine fighter jets on time.”

In addition to two squadrons of the Tejas Mark 1 and four squadrons of the Tejas Mark 1A, India has also expressed interest in buying a foreign-made single-engine fighter. The two companies currently in the running are Swedish manufacturer Saab, which has offered to sell its Gripen E, and US arms giant Lockheed Martin, which has offered to transfer its entire F-16 Block 70 production line from Texas to India.

If India purchases around five squadrons of either the American or Swedish single-engine fighter, it may well be on the way to achieving a 42-squadron air force.

However, sources at Lockheed Martin suggest that the deal may not go down any time soon as the government continues to drag its feet.

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