The IAF has just 33 squadrons, 9 short of the 42 squadrons needed to tackle China and Pakistan together, says Ajai Shukla.
On December 28, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, the retiring Indian Air Force chief, declared in New Delhi that the IAF requires 200 to 250 medium fighters in addition to the 36 Rafale multi-role fighters that were contracted with French vendor Dassault earlier this year.
The 36-Rafale contract was signed for €7.8 billion (Rs 55,600 cror/Rs 556 billione).
Another 200 Rafales, or comparable fighters, would require €43.3 billion (Rs 310,000 crore/Rs 3.1 trillion), far beyond India's means given the current defence spending.
But ACM Raha did not hesitate to put the requirement on the table. 'We have just ordered 36 aircraft and we require more aircraft in the medium weight category to give (the IAF an) entire spectrum of capability,' he said.
The IAF currently operates just 33 squadrons against an assessed requirement of 42 squadrons needed to tackle China and Pakistan together.
Of these, 11 squadrons of MiG-21s and MiG-27s are operationally suspect, being long overdue for retirement.
Referring to this, ACM Raha stated: 'We have already used them for over four decades. It is time to retire them and get new aircraft... Over the next 10 years, we must have 200 to 250 aircraft. It has to be balanced out.'
'In the heavyweight spectrum,' the retiring air chief added, 'we have enough. But in the medium-weight category, we need more. Yes, about 200 will be very good.'
An analysis of the IAF's 'force mix' reveals that the shortfall in fighters is actually in the light fighter segment, not in medium fighters.
By 2022, when 11 squadrons of MiG-21s and MiG-27s would have to be phased out, there would be a dire shortfall of light fighters.
At best, 103 Tejas Light Combat Aircraft would have come in, leaving the light fighter segment with just five squadrons.
In contrast, there would be 14 squadrons (266 aircraft) in the medium fighter segment and another 14 squadrons (272 aircraft) of heavy fighters.
"The IAF needs to replace 11 squadrons of obsolescent MiGs. The replacement, therefore, must be a cheap-to-buy, cheap-to-operate, light-to-medium fighter. Since we cannot afford 200 Rafale-class fighters, and the Tejas production line is building too slowly, there is just one option: Set up a second fighter line to build fighters in the 20-tonne class in large numbers," says Pushpinder Singh, combat aviation analyst and the publisher of Vayu magazine.
The government is already moving down that path.
On October 7, the IAF wrote to several global aerospace giants, including Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Saab and Russia's Rosoboronexport, soliciting interest in setting up a production line in India to build single-engine, medium fighters.
Lockheed Martin, which is offering the F-16 Block 70, and Saab, which is introducing a new fighter, the Gripen E, are the current frontrunners, with both being marketed aggressively in New Delhi.
Over the last 15 years, the IAF has been framing its fighter aircraft requirements in terms of light, medium and heavy fighters.
In 2000, Air Headquarters stated that an ideal 'force mix' would be 200 fighters each in the light, medium and heavy categories. The rationale for this was never made clear.
Traditionally, an air force's 'force mix' has been based on aircraft roles, not their weight or size.
Air forces have calculated their need for 'air superiority fighters' that shoot down enemy aircraft to gain ascendency in the air, 'strike aircraft' that bomb enemy targets including airfields, roads and railways and even strategic targets, and 'close air support fighters' that strike enemy targets in the tactical battle area and carry out battlefield interdiction to prevent different components of the enemy's fighting force from coming together. Separately, they calculate their need for specialist aircraft for photoreconnaissance and electronic warfare, or jamming enemy radars to facilitate a mission.
Large air forces like the US Air Force still have super-specialist aircraft for each role.
The F-22 Raptor and the F-15 Eagle perform the air superiority role, while the strike role falls on the F-35 Lightning II (called the Joint Strike Fighter because it is a common strike aircraft for the USAF, Navy and Marine Corps).
The US Navy has separate fighter aircraft for combat operations off aircraft carriers, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which operates in tandem with an electronic warfare fighter variant, the F/A-18G Growler.
Smaller (and lower-budget) militaries increasingly use multi-role fighters that are capable of performing most roles, albeit slightly less proficiently than specialist aircraft.
Digital avionics allow pilots to switch from one role to another (anti-air to ground strike), while higher payloads allow aircraft to carry air-to-air missiles as well as surface attack bombs.
Consequently, equipping an air force with multi-role combat aircraft like the Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, F-16 and Gripen reduces the need for multiple types of aircraft in the fleet.
What does this mean in practical terms?
In earlier days, a 'mission package', say for striking an oil refinery deep inside enemy territory, might have required nine aircraft: Four ground strike aircraft, four air superiority fighters to protect them en route from enemy fighters, and an electronic warfare aircraft to jam enemy radars on the way. Now, with multi-role aircraft carrying bombs, missiles as well as jammers, four to six multi-role fighters could bomb the refinery, tackle enemy fighters and jam radars en route.
What is catered for separately are 'force multipliers' like air-to-air refuellers and airborne warning and control system (AWACS) aircraft.
These facilitate rapid turnaround of fighters and greater airspace awareness, allowing air forces to do more with fewer fighters. While a Sukhoi-30MKI can do a three-and-a-half hour mission on internal fuel, the mission time can be doubled with air-to-air refuelling.
The IAF, however, is still transitioning from mission-specific to multirole fighters.
Its vintage MiG-21 fleet consists of air superiority fighters, except for the MiG-21 BISON, which has been upgraded with multi-role capability. The MiG-27 is a pure ground strike fighter, as is the Jaguar, though there are plans to upgrade Jaguars with air-to-air capability.
The MiG-29 was an air superiority fighter, but its on-going upgrade is providing it ground strike capability, making it a multi-role fighter for what remains of its service life.
Meanwhile, the Sukhoi-30MKI, Mirage 2000 and Tejas Mark I are multi-role fighters, as will be the Rafale.
With seven types of fighters already in the fleet (five types after the MiG-21 and MiG-27 retire), the IAF's most worrying problem in a future war would be the logistics nightmare of maintaining and repairing all these different aircraft.
This problem would be complicated further if the F-16 or Gripen are built in India.
Nor has there been a hardnosed reassessment of how many fighter squadrons the IAF really needs.
The figure of 42 squadrons was arrived at years ago, but has not been revised after the advent of high-performance, multi-role aircraft and a range of force multipliers.
Given the cost of modern fighters and the existing pressures on India's defence allocations, this issue will inevitably be revisited in the future.
IMAGE: A fighter jet lands on the Agra-Lucknow Expressway. Photograph: @IAF_MCC/Twitter