The Indian Air Force’s (IAF) acquisition of five new Rafale fighter aircraft from France attracted media attention like never before in the backdrop of the border clashes with China. Earlier fighter aircraft inductions into the IAF, like that of the Russian Sukhoi-30MKI fighter aircraft in the late 1990s, the British Jaguar and the Soviet-era MiG-29 fighters in the early 1980s, never made newspaper headlines. Today, television channels bombard Indian society with details about fighter aircraft capabilities like avionics, stealth, weapon payload, flying range, mid-air refueler and manoeuvrability.
The IAF has 33 fighter aircraft squadrons. Each squadron has 16 aircraft plus two trainer aircraft, which are two-seaters. This amounts to over 500 fighter aircraft, which is adequate strength to ensure the air defence of Indian airspace against both Pakistan and China. The IAF’s sanctioned strength is a force level of 42 fighter squadrons to fight a two-front war, with Pakistan and China simultaneously. But how logical is the rationale for a 42-squadron fighter aircraft fleet today in the context of aircraft mid-life upgrades, attack helicopters, airborne warning and control system platforms?
The industry icon and Indian aviation pioneer JRD Tata, who held the honorary two-star general IAF rank of Air Vice Marshal, headed a committee in the early 1960s to study the requirements for a fighter aircraft fleet. Its recommendations made the government authorise a force level of 42 fighter squadrons to counter threats from erstwhile West Pakistan, East Pakistan and China. At that time, the IAF flew World War II vintage US-built Liberator bombers, among others, and the MiG-21, the workhorse of the fighter fleet, was yet to join service.
Subsequently, the mainstay of the IAF’s 42 squadron strength was the Soviet-era MiG-21 aircraft and its variants with different weapon payloads or armament carrying capacities. These aircraft were used for air defence as well as strike and air-to-ground missions. Now, almost all of them have been retired from IAF squadron service, except three modified MiG-21 BIS (Bison) squadrons. These aircraft, too, will exit the IAF over the next few years.
The IAF’s fighter fleet now consists of the MiG-21 BIS, the Jaguar, the French Mirage-2000, MiG-29, Sukhoi-30MKI and the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft, the last in squadron service since 2018, besides the British Hawk, inducted in 2004.
The MiG-21 BIS, Jaguar, Mirage 2000 and MiG-29 have all undergone mid-life upgrades, which involved embedding their avionics with superior hardware and software to improve weapon payload, navigation and radar capabilities. These provided the aircraft with superior firepower, accurate weapon delivery, modern avionics for pilot-friendly navigation and better communication with ground and other flying platforms. It categorises them as fourth-generation or fourth-plus generation fighters. The Rafale, with superior armament and avionics capability, is a fourth-plus-plus generation fighter aircraft.
Except the three MiG-21 BIS squadrons, all these aircraft have mid-air refuelling capability — a tanker aircraft can refuel them in air to enhance their flying range, aimed at long-range strike against enemy targets. The induction of the Russian Illushyin-78 mid-air refueler tanker aircraft in 2003 added to the force’s combat capability in terms of long-range strike.
The IAF’s 12 squadrons of Sukhoi-30MKI have gradually replaced the MiG-21 BIS. The Sukhoi-30MKI aircraft is superior to the MiG-21 in all aspects – weapon payload, fuel storage capacity and mission capabilities. The Sukhoi-30MKI aircraft can carry a 8.5-ton weapon payload, while the MiG-21 BIS carries only two tons of armament. Therefore, in terms of firepower or weapon payload alone, a Sukhoi-30MKI is as good as four MiG-21 BIS aircraft.
In terms of range of operation, the Sukhoi-30MKI has a much longer range than the MiG -21 BIS, to fly from airbases well within Indian territory (Defence in Depth) and attack targets deep inside enemy territory. Its mid-air refuelling capability enhances the Sukhoi-30MKI’s longer flying range and greater ‘loiter’ time in the air. It can undertake both air defence and ground attack missions. Therefore, 12 Sukhoi-30MKI aircraft squadrons are equivalent to 24 MiG-21 BIS aircraft squadrons.
In 2009, the IAF acquired AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft equipped with radars, sensors and computers. These ensure optimum employment of air defence aircraft to engage intruding enemy fighters, freeing up many aircraft for other missions. The AWACS are thus effective ‘force multipliers’ that strengthen aerial combat capability.
Today, the IAF’s air defence role can be supplemented with air-to-surface missiles like the S-400, which India has contracted from Russia, besides the ongoing Indo-Israeli joint missile development. Missile systems are more agile and transportable. For instance, air-to-ground missions are also supplemented with surface-to- surface missiles. Hence, the need for more aircraft to perform these roles should diminish accordingly.
Also, attack helicopters contribute to combat capability. The IAF has US-built Apache helicopters, besides the Soviet-era Mi-25/35, and the HAL-made advanced light helicopter adds to air-to-ground capability. The helicopters supplement the ground attack aircraft, especially in the forward edge of a battle area.
Pakistan, with 450 fighter aircraft, has only 18 F-16 fighters with contemporary technology. The rest of its fighter fleet has obsolescent technology. China has 2,100 fighter aircraft, but it also needs to deploy them elsewhere for national air defence management. Therefore, Beijing cannot employ its entire fighter strength against India.
Clearly, the Rafale enhances the IAF’s combat capability and ensures air superiority, long-range strike and air defence against the Pakistani and Chinese air forces. Today, the concept of airpower need not be measured in terms of numerical superiority. For any air force, it undergoes transformation with advanced aeronautics technologies and aircraft mid-life upgrades. Therefore, with a 33-squadron fighter fleet, the IAF leadership should be able to “Touch the Skies with Glory”.
Source:- Deccan Herald