Air Force chief outlines plan to solve shortage of fighter squadrons - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 4 October 2019

Air Force chief outlines plan to solve shortage of fighter squadrons

Jaguars to retire, additional MiG-29 and Su-30 squadrons being bought

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 5th Oct 19

Four days after assuming command of the Indian Air Force (IAF), Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria has described in detail what his fighter fleet will look like a dozen years into the future. 

There is already concern that the IAF is down to just 30 fighter squadrons, against the assessed requirement of 42 squadrons. Bhadauria’s plan, unveiled in an interaction with the media on Friday, will only raise numbers to 37 squadrons by 2025, before falling again to 33 squadrons by 2032. 

Behind the continuing shortfalls is the impending retirement of the last of six remaining MiG-21 squadrons when their technical life ends in 2021.

Jaguar to retire without new engines

In addition, Bhadauria announced that six Jaguar squadrons would retire in the early 2020s, since it would be too costly to equip then with new engines needed to extend their service lives into the 2030s.

“We have had to drop the plan for re-engining the Jaguar because it has been delayed inordinately and the cost went too high,” said the IAF chief. 

“The non-BISON MiG-21s will retire by the end of this year, or go up to March 2020 at the most. Only the MiG-21 BISON fleet will be left and will go up to the end of its technical life [in 2021], he said.

Worryingly, the shortfalls could be even worse if there is delay in processing the purchase of 114 eponymous Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA), which an Indian “strategic partner” (SP) will build in technology partnership with a global “original equipment manufacturer” (OEM).

Requests for Interest (RFIs) have already been sent out to prospective SPs and OEMs for this tender.

“The [vendors’ responses] have already been received for the 114 MRFA case. We have started the process for obtaining AoN (Acceptance of Necessity) now,” said Bhadauria. The AoN, which the defence ministry accords, is the first step in a procurement and is followed by the issuance of an RFP (request for proposals) – the basic tender document.

Bhadauria’s plan also includes building 83 Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) is quick time to fill the light fighter vacancies left by the retirement of the MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters.

On a parallel track, India would build the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), a fifth generation medium fighter.

More MiG-29s and Sukhoi-30MKIs

Meanwhile, the IAF chief confirmed the IAF would buy 21 MiG-29 fighters that are lying ready built in Russia. “We are going to go in for 21 MiG-29, which has already been informed [to Moscow],” he said. 

Adding those to the IAF’s existing three MiG-29 squadrons, which are undergoing a mid-life upgrade, would take the number of IAF MiG-29 squadrons up to four. In addition, the navy flies two squadrons of the navalized MiG-29K/KUBs.

Bhadauria also confirmed reports that additional Sukhoi-30MKI fighters would be built by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) in Nashik. HAL will soon complete delivery of the last squadron of Sukhoi-30MKIs, bringing up the IAF fleet to 13 squadrons.

“We are moving towards ordering 12 more Sukhoi-30s. Whether we need some more in lieu of aircraft that are going to get phased out from 2025 onwards… we will have to take a look later. But at the moment, 12 is what is being followed up straightaway,” said Bhadauria.

The chief also confirmed plans to upgrade the Sukhoi-30MKI, with modern “radar and weapons capabilities and also tackling obsolescence management and electronic warfare aspects.”

No plan for 36 more Rafale

Dismissing rumours that India is buying 36 more Rafales from France, Bhadauria stated: “Our plan is for building 114 MRFA in the SP model. There is no separate plan for this (36 more Rafales).

He confirmed a delay in Dassault’s delivery of the first four Rafale fighters. While Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is going to France next week to accept the fighters, they would only fly to India in May 2020, said Bhadauria.


  1. The mirage and MIG29 should serve beyond 2025. The naval MIG 29 would also require maintenance.

  2. Critical Thinker7 October 2019 at 06:40

    Well there are a few good things and many bad things about this plan. Firstly ordering crash replacements for the Su-30MKI while the HAL production line is still active is a no-brainer. I am glad that they are going for it.

    However please drop the 114 MRFA. Instead buy 114 Rafale in small batches, as and when budget becomes available. Having multiple fighter types for similar role is a redundant and costly proposition. Not to mention that they cannot be moved easily to different airbases. Having only 3 types of fighters will mean that the IAF will only need maintenance equipment and crews for 3 different types of fighters. Maintenance crews and equipment can be spread out over a larger number of airbases which will mean the IAF can move around their aircraft easily if a war does breakout. It will mean a lot of flexibility.

    AMCA is a necessity and it seems far fetched to assume that HAL/ADA can deliver a squadron of AMCA in 12 years time. They can only be expected post 2040. Since there are a lot of fifth gen tech that HAL/ADA will need to master. Also AMCA should replace both Su-30MKI/ Rafales post 2045 and 2050. They should have an open architecture system where more capabilities can be added later on if needed.

    Having any Jaguars and Mig-29 post 2030 is a recipe for disaster. They should start retiring these aircraft starting with the Jaguars and ending with the Mirage-2000. The last Mirages should be retired in 2030-2032. They should save the money on buying more Mig-29's and probably invest in another squadron of LCA Mark-1 FOC configuration just to keep the HAL production line running until Mark-1A comes online.

    Finally as far as the deficit of fighters is concerned. They can all be made up by adding fighters in the light weight category. I don't understand why they are putting a number and limiting Mark 1A purchases. They should keep buying more Mark 1A's until they meet the desired fighter squadron numbers or until the Mark-2 comes online, whichever comes earlier. Then once the Mark 2 comes online they can start replacing the older variants of the LCA Mark 1/1A's. If HAL/ADA manage to bring out the Mark 2 and produce it quickly enough then the IAF can also look to sell the older LCA Mark 1/1A's in the second hand fighter market. Design Mark 2 with open architecture systems too so that they can be upgraded in the future.

    Out in 2050, the IAF should only be looking to operate AMCA's and LCA Mark 2's. However these should be upgraded with super advanced capabilities like manned-unmanned teaming, Directed Energy Weapons and whatever tech is available at that time.

  3. 1.)
    - Jaguars were introduced in IAF in 1978... 60 year old Jaguars in 2040? Seriously?

    - Planning the introduction of aircraft that don't even have any demonstrator flying, especially after 31 years at making Tejas which still isn't finalised? Seriously?

    - MiG-29 have very high cost of use: Malaysia gave up with these and justified it due to the annual cost of $13 millions per unit to keep them airborne! It's on par with F-35! Even if Mikoyan has found a NOS (new old stock) forgotten batch and is OK to deliver at a pretty low price. Note that Su-30 also are pretty expensive to use and cost of use will start to sky-rocket when they'll be about 25-30y old. If AMCA may have some interest, it's to start replacing oldest Su-30MKI in the mid-30's! To be frank, now Dassault is becoming bi-national, it'd be more inspired to team with France+Germany+Spain for a 6th gen aircraft rather than dilapidating money in a 5th gen project.

    - Critical Thinker is a bit wrong with Rafale lifespan : airframe are set to last even longer than Mirage or Jaguar so they're likely to last up to 2060 if not 2070. Just think that some countries are still flying near 60y old old Mirage-III. If it's to order Rafales in small batches, it was ridiculous to make a 1st contract with a 50% offset in order to build factories for Rafale, its engine and its combat systems. It would had been more clever to directly purchase 6 squadrons of 18 (108 units) for $7.9BN and buy weapons and MILCON separately : the profitability threshold for an aircraft assembly line is 200 units

    - Seems a bit ridiculous planning since IAF is supposed to have 42-45 squadrons. I agree with Critical Thinker about avoiding going over 3 types of jet fighters. Thus, what would make sense would be 14-15 squadrons of heavy fighters (Su-30MKI), 14-15 of Rafale and same for Tejas. Lets consider a squadron of heavy or medium fighters needs 18 aircraft and having an additional one in storage for attrition purposes, 15 squadrons means 271 units. Su-30MKI is nearing completion of deliveries. For LCAs, Indian use is having 21 units per squadron
    => (21+1) x 15 = 330 Tejas (or 308 if 14 squadrons are considered)
    If squadrons of 18+1 are considered, 15 squadrons = 285 units, 14 sqrs = 266

  4. 2.)
    - It'd be VERY EASY to make Tejas Mk2 having no purpose! Here's how to improve Mk1 to make it on par with a Gripen-E first, then how to prepare Mk1A to be a serious beast with nothing to envy from a MiG-35!

    a. Tejas Mk1
    - A modified version of Rafale's RBE2/AESA has been designed for Tejas, it's already DRDO validated and flight tested.
    - Indian govt has already bought 99 F414-GE-INS6 for the Tejas Mk2 poject... But hey, F414 is only a more powerful F404 and a drop in replacement. Here we have a 14kN gain over F404-GE-IN20 which is fit in Tejas Mk1 now...
    Now for sure, being more more powerful, F414 is more thirsty than F404 and Tejas internal tanks are already seen as a bit too small, the way to go is simply to use CFTs!
    Here we've just solved the Tejas Mk1's lack of thrust and of internal fuel
    An Indian official said that you can't put a system like Rafale's SPECTRA onboard a Tejas due to the small airframe... Well, guess how USA did with A-4 Skyhawk's small airframe to fit more combat systems inside?
    So let's have the guys at ADA and HAL back to their drawing boards to conceive something to put on Tejas Mk1's back containing SPECTRA, OSF-IT (while the IRST ball would be fit in front of the cockpit, DDM-NG and SPECTRA added with about 2000L of kerosene :-)
    Note that Mirage-2000-9 (Emirati version) has a 98kN thrust M53 version, a 7.8t empty weight and 6.8t payload. Tejas Mk1's empty weight is 6560kg and, except the small hardpoint for an up to 200kg laser designation pod, here are how the individual hardpoints are rated :
    Once the F414 is fit, it shouldn't be an issue to carry the full load allowed individually by hardpoints at the same time as fuel in conformal tanks

    => Having RBE2/AESA, SPECTRA, OSF-IT and DDM-NG onboard would make Tejas as dangerous and as stealth (except in IR) as Rafale. The radar would easily allow to integrate both Meteor and Mica-NG

    => Having already 99 F414-GE-INS6 means that 4 squadrons of 21+1 "Super-Tejas" Mk1 can be built/modified and 11 engines can be kept as spares.

    Now, it takes 2 years to build an assembly line (with workers at it 24/7) then two more years to start deliveries...
    Considering that a HAL assembly line can't produce more than 8 Tejas a year and the huge number needed (300+), that a 2nd assembly line will soon being on, maybe would it be clever to gear-up 3 more assembly lines as a production of 40 units per year will be needed. Actually, maybe the Su-30 assembly line might be converted, maybe DRAL can be used as a subcontractor, no matter, these will mainly produce the "Super-Mk1A" which would make a Mk2 really useless. Let's talk about it in the 3rd post I'm doing on this page.
    Note that, as for the Super-Mk1, there will be no need for prototypes as the arframe's flight profile won't be changed, unlike what Saab did by stretching Gripen, making it Mirage-2000 sized.

  5. 3.)
    b. Tejas Mk1A :

    DRDO has already validated a 'special-India' 98kN version of Rafale's engine and India even ordered Safran to prepare a 115kN version since you can push M88 up to 115kN without changing the core.
    Now lets compare GE F414's characteristics vs. M88 :
    Length: 391cm vs. 353.8cm
    Diameter: 89cm vs. 69.6cm
    Weight: 1,110 kg vs. 897kg
    Using M88 => about 1.1 cubic metre of space freed inside the airframe and 200kg+ weight spared...

    How amusing, the offset on Rafale's contract stipulates that the Rafale's team has to help finalising Tejas and the proposed mods were already leaked in a French aviation forum about 2 years ago!
    So here are the mods :

    - 98kN version of Rafale's engine has been dev'd by Safran in 18 months on India's demand, both for Tejas and Make-in-India Rafales. Note that a 115kN version is being dev'd for AMCA and going further with another core is considered. It has already been validated by DRDO

    - Dassault redesigned the internals nonetheless to fit M88 but to strengthen the airframe so nonetheless more Gs, more speed and more payload end allowed but more room is made for internal fuel (as much as Mirage-2000). In the end, thanks to re-arrangement and a lighter/smaller engine, the improved Tejas loses half a ton in empty weight. 1,700-1,800kg lighter than Mirage-2000-9 with the same thrust if the 98kN version is used while Mirage-2000-9 has 6.8t payload, this is very serious. If the 115kN version is fit, it may become really impressive, even if conformal tanks are fit too. Note that Gripen-E with a 98kN F414 has a 8t empty weight

    - Rafale's RBE2/AESA radar. It has already been validated by DRDO and also flight-tested.

    - A standalone active stealth system taken from SPECTRA has been created since the full SPECTRA system can't fit in such a small airframe. It has already been validated by DRDO

    - BRS (balistic recovery system) parachute.

    - Estimated flyaway cost is $45-46M

    => Now if, as I recommand, CFTs and a hump for more avionics/combat systems are created, if the 98kN engine is fit, there is nonetheless more potential than Gripen-E but if the 115kN engine is fit, WOW! Same for Rafale with the 98kN engine, not speaking with the 115kN ones... Note that the 3 main hardpoints under Rafale, those usually seen with the 3 huge fuel tanks, are each rated for 4t payload. Rafale with more than 12t payload would really be impressive. With the 115kN engine, Tejas would for sure rival the heavier F-16 in terms of payload and do better than MiG-35 with the 98kN one.

    Be it for these suggested Super-Tejas Mk1/Mk1A or for Rafale, I'd highly recommand to consider creating custom hardpoints similar to these :
    Note that on the F-4, it's a classic hardpoint pylon which is added with two lateral rails for AAM while a TER (triple ejector rack) is suspended under. Maybe suspending a quad-rack would allow 6 AAMs. Some planing may be necessary, nevertheless, even just the fact of adding 2 AAMs to a pylon while carrying A2G ammos may help a lot and, as in case of a 2 fronts war, IAF can"t rival with bot PLAAF and PAF in numbers, let"s be able to have enough AAMs to "take care" of their fleet during a single flight.

  6. 4.)
    Why Rafale ended so much delayed? Thanks to lobbying!

    What would be really clever, and please Tata :
    Why not having India starting the production of OV-10X Bronco?
    Boeing proposed US govt to build a hundred for $20M each. Manpower in India is way more affordable than in USA. HAL is already producing chopper engines together with Safran...
    Let's equip the new Bronco with e.g. Ardiden 3G (1776hp. HAL DRUV, LCH and LUH use the Ardiden 1 version. Note that Airbus CN-235 uses 2x 1750hp engines anf has 6t payload!).
    Now add a small 15-20kN turbojet on the back :
    consider using a more robust carbon-fiber structure (as you're likely to carry much more payload than old school Broncos and more hardpoints would be necessary too) and a Kevlar skin while protecting the cockpit and engines with ceramic armour, Dragon-Skin styled (but thicker)
    Consider a turret carrying the Rafale's 30mm gun (2500RPM) and a 2000 ammo magazine(800kg of shells)
    Then you're likely to be able to carry 8-12 of such pods filled with 70mm guided rockets :
    or 16-20 like these with 4x Laser guided Zuni-LG
    While wingtips and overwing hardpoints may allow to carry 4x MICA-NG/IR.
    Such a platform may provide much better close air support and tank-hunting than an AH-64 or any jet and for much lower cost.

  7. Critical Thinker:

    They know better than you.

  8. Critical Thinker23 October 2019 at 05:46

    "Anonymous said...
    Critical Thinker:

    They know better than you.

    22 October 2019 at 18:04"

    Is that so? From some of the points mentioned in the plan laid out in this article it doesn't seem that they know any better. Their history also does not inspire a lot of confidence in their ability to plan long term. Judging from your statement it seems you don't know any better.

    "Iz said...

    - Critical Thinker is a bit wrong with Rafale lifespan : airframe are set to last even longer than Mirage or Jaguar so they're likely to last up to 2060 if not 2070. Just think that some countries are still flying near 60y old old Mirage-III.

    22 October 2019 at 01:34"

    What I meant is that Sukhoi's and Rafales should start being replaced starting 2045/2050. Since the Sukhoi's are older fighters they will be replaced first. Assuming HAL is able to churn out 16-20 fighters per year, It will take almost 14 to 17 years to replace the entire fleet. Once the Sukhoi fleet is replaced then older Rafales should start being replaced. That will mean Rafales will start being replaced at the earliest in the year 2060. In that year they will have flown for 40 years which is a very long time. Flying aircraft until they are 60 years old is a risky proposition. You dont want to risk making the Rafale into another flying coffin.

  9. @Critical Thinker : with such way of thinking, I agree.
    Nevertheless, at the present day, Jaguar are already up to 41y old for the oldest. RKS Bhadauria is really optimistic willing to push them to 2040!!!!
    RKS Bhadauria plan is simply disastrous.
    In fact, the management of procurement for Indian armed forces, seen from outside India looks like somewhat stranger to rationality while if there's an area you need to be very rational, it's obviously here as you "play" with both billions of $ and also lives of your personnels...

    At HAL level, there is a serious need for some kinda audit and reviewing the production methods. There's an obvious problem with the company. The pretty low rate of production while there are as much employees as Chengdu+Dassault-Aviation makes no sense...


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