Demise of Last MiG-27 Unit Stalls IAF 42-Squadron Plan
The retirement of the last squadron of MiG-27s from Indian Air Force (IAF) has further reduced the overall strength of the service, with no immediate fix in sight.
On Friday, the last 43 Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-27MLs (“Flogger Js”) in the IAF’s arsenal, the remnants of 165 machines license-produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) were mothballed. Their removal from the IAF’s order of battle further reduces the number of combat aircraft in the IAF’s arsenal, leaving a significantly capability deficit in comparison to aircraft fielded by India’s immediate rivals, China and Pakistan.
Tellingly, however, the retirement of these venerable, Soviet-era, single-engined, swing-wing fighter-bombers, marks a doctrinal shift away from delineating combat aircraft by role. India is following the global trend of equipping air units with machines which can fulfill a variety of roles. Acquisition of multi-role aircraft has been a Chinese goal, which has disdained fighter-bombers.
Over the last decade, Beijing has 473 such fourth-generation fighter aircraft, in comparison to India which has 290 (on-hand). Meantime, India is still saddled with 132 fighter-bombers, all of them obsolete MiG-21s. Pakistan, meantime, has 212 fighter-bombers, many of them obsolete Mirage 5s or IIIs.
More importantly, the number-plating of the air force’s last MiG-27 unit, No 29 “Scorpions” Squadron, which until Friday was active at Jodhpur Air Force Station, reduces the number of combat-capable squadrons in the IAF from 34 to 33, which is significantly less than the 42 squadrons envisaged by the service. This is the number of combat units which IAF doctrine postulates as being necessary to fight a two-front war against China and Pakistan.
This squadron strength is set to further drop to 27 over the next two years as the IAF prepares to retire its MiG-21 squadrons, even as India’s MMRCA 2.0 acquisition programme encounters delays and even as the IAF only adds a further 30 Sukhoi Su-30MKIs and 36 Dassault Rafales to its arsenal.
The current requirement by the Indian Air Force as far as MMRCA 2.0 goes is 114 fighters, 96 of which are to be built in India. There is an additional requirement for 57 fighters for the Indian Navy. However, talks regarding procurement are still in their preliminary phase.
In the meantime, the air force continues to soldier on with its stalwarts, including the equally aging Jaguar strike fighter. Attrition to accidents and crashes are set to further reduce service strength. As an indication, over the last five years alone, the IAF lost 26 fighter aircraft (or the equivalent of a whole squadron) to non-combat mishaps.
Meantime, the MiG-27’s retirement from air forces around the world has been steady. With its passing from the IAF, the type remains operational only in Kazakhstan and Sri Lanka. While the aircraft has been lauded for its role during the Kargil war, packing as it did, a formidable 30 mm cannon and its ability to haul 4,000 kgs of munitions, it was rapidly showing its age. Some 13 machines were lost in crashes since 2001, according to IAF data.