It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
The opening words of the Charles Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities sum up the dilemma that the world’s fourth largest air force is facing. The Indian Air Force’s strength―derived from its 1.5 lakh personnel and 1,700 aircraft, including fighters, tankers, helicopters, trainers and transport craft that guards India’s vast air space of 40 million cubic kilometres―also doubles as its weakness.
Into its 91st year of existence, the Air Force now has a fleet of truly staggering range. It has fighter aircraft of Russian (Sukhoi 30, MiG 21, MiG 29), French (Rafale, Mirage 2000), and Anglo-French (Jaguar) origin; an indigenous light combat aircraft (Tejas); a transport fleet of Russian (AN-32, IL-76), American (C-130J Super Hercules, C-17 Globemaster), British (Avro), Brazilian (Embraer), Spanish (C-295) and German (Dornier) origins; Russian mid-air refuelling tankers (IL-78) and helicopters (Mi-17); American (AH-64 Apache and CH-47 Chinook) and indigenous helicopters (Prachand, Rudra, Dhruv); and unmanned aerial vehicles from Israel and the US, to name a few.
It means the Air Force is in a happy position to pick and choose from a broad range of aircraft with different configurations, mandates, roles, and operative and military capabilities. A superb example of the various air assets at work was the Balakot operation of September 26, 2019. It saw 12 Mirage 2000 fighters―loaded with SPICE 2000 and Popeye precision-guided munitions―cross over to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and drop their bombs. Standing guard were a few Sukhoi-30 MKI fighters, along with IL-78 mid-air refuellers, a Heron drone, and aircraft carrying the Netra and Phalcon airborne early warning and control systems.
With aircraft of every conceivable operational role at its disposal, the IAF boasts robust combat capabilities and preparedness. But this advantage also poses a disadvantage that is among the Air Force’s best-kept secrets―nightmares of the logistical kind.
Military aircraft, especially ones in combat roles, require special care during maintenance. From the hangar that houses the aircraft to the nuts and bolts that go into it, everything has to be made to specifications and fit perfectly. Else, the aircraft’s capability and battle readiness take a hit.
The IAF bases usually house a mix of fighter squadrons with more than one type of aircraft. Each aircraft type has to be backed up by an entire line of support staff and personnel, and specific machinery, tools and backup systems. With a wide range of aircraft of different origins, maintenance has become a complex process, resulting in high costs as well as low serviceability and availability of aircraft.
Aircraft of different origins have also led to an increasing dependency on other countries for parts and components. India’s ongoing indigenisation efforts have somewhat eased this dependency, but in most cases, the reliance on components from abroad continues in the absence of complete transfers of technology.
Around 65 per cent of the IAF’s fighter aircraft are of Russian origin. The breakup of the Soviet Union had impacted the supply of spare parts and inventories, which in turn affected the IAF’s capability. Though Ukraine gradually became a major supplier, quality issues cropped up as spares were found to be of inferior quality.
Ensuring supply of spare parts and components for Russian-origin aircraft have become a huge challenge with the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. Asked about the problem, IAF chief Vivek Ram Chaudhari told THE WEEK: “I am confident that we will be able to overcome the shortage…. We were worried about our large inventory that come from different countries. After the ongoing conflict in Europe, we realised that we have to have multiple options open to build up our inventory.”
Chaudhari said the IAF was facing problems in procuring spares from Russia and Ukraine. “But our self reliance drive had taken off a few years ago. A lot of joint ventures were signed by Russian and Indian companies, and this has helped us mitigate some of the shortfall in spares,” he said. “In the long term, we are also looking at inviting more [Russian] firms to come and partner with Indian firms to build spares and components in India so as to sustain our equipment for the next few decades.”
What adds a distinct layer of complexity to the procurement of spares and components from abroad is that each country has its own ecosystem of rules and regulations governing the defence market. There have long been fears of spare parts becoming obsolete or unavailable abroad, leading to crippling of IAF aircraft.
The IAF also faces the challenge of ensuring the operational integration of its diverse flying platforms, which is a prerequisite for the modern-day concept of network-centric warfare. The US, for instance, may be reluctant to let its platforms be integrated with Russian ones or vice versa.
“The US will never agree to integrate its platforms with the Sukhoi fighters,” said a top IAF officer. “And in most cases, the technologies are impossible to integrate. This is something we will have to live with.”
The scarcity of fighter aircraft is also a worrying factor. The IAF’s fighter fleet comprises 12 Sukhoi-30 squadrons, six Jaguar squadrons, three squadrons each of Mirage 2000s, MiG 29s and MiG 21s, and two squadrons each of Rafales and Tejas. With just 31 fighter squadrons, the IAF is 11 short of the mandated 42 squadrons that would be needed if a two-front war breaks out. Each squadron has, on an average, 18 aircraft, which means the IAF has 558 fighters―198 short of the required 756.
With several squadrons nearing phaseouts, the problem of scarcity is only expected to get worse. For instance, the MiG 21 made its last flypast on October 8 at Prayagraj at an event to mark the IAF’s 91st anniversary. The three MiG 21 squadrons will be phased out in the next two years, leaving the IAF with just 28 squadrons. To bridge the deficit, aircraft are being bought off the shelf from Russia and the production of Tejas is being hastened.
In comparison, the Pakistani air force operates 24 fighter squadrons, and the Chinese have at least 2,500 fighters and bombers. “The challenges come from the technology platforms that the adversaries are possessing today. So it is not sufficient to just have the numbers,” said Chaudhari.
According to him, the IAF needed to at least match the enemy’s technology. “We cannot simply substitute the numbers with low-end platforms, and then say that we have enough. We need to match the capability of the adversary, and if possible, better it,” said Chaudhari.
The IAF is also pondering an existential question. With the move to set up theatre commands, there is a fear that its role may be diluted. There is a possibility that the IAF’s already scarce air assets would be distributed among the various theatre commands.
In the modern war scenario, though, an airforce’s role is critical. There is buzz about the creation of an aerospace force, and the importance of drones and similar cutting-edge aerial platforms are growing. For the IAF, these are silver linings.