Addressing Indian Air Force personnel during the 85th Air Force Day, this Sunday, Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa guaranteed that the service was “prepared to fight at short notice”, the Times of India reports.
According to NDTV, Mister Dhanoa added that the service was fully equipped to perform surgical strikes across the border, pending governmental orders. More importantly, the Air Force was prepared to deal with any threat from Pakistan and China in case of a two-front war.
The security of Air Force stations was also said to have been reinforced and is able to fend against conventional and non-conventional threats. It should be noted that several attacks performed by insurgents against Indian military bases during the last few years have caused extensive damage.
This address comes shortly after India faced a serious military and political standoff against China in the region of Doklam. The crisis raised fears of war among the two most populous nations in the world, which are also nuclear powers. Although the situation deescalated, it served as a reminder of the rivalry between Beijing and New Delhi.
Moreover, Mister Dhanoa’s address also reinforced the country’s need to have a complement of 42 combat aircraft squadrons to properly oppose both China and Pakistan at the same time. The Indian Air Force only has 33 of such squadrons.
The relations between India and its neighbors are historically difficult. Currently, disputes can happen because of territorial matters, like Kashmir and Doklam, but also due to matters of economy and political influence.
With Pakistan and China being allies, the pressure on India increases. This becomes even more important when we observe that the Air Force has a sanctioned combat strength of 40 squadrons, just slightly under the optimal number, and that the current number of aircraft is much lower than that.
Furthermore, Beijing has been developing new fighter aircraft, and deploying them in large numbers, while also helping Islamabad with their own modernization programs. New Delhi has lagged behind in this area.
This does not mean that the current Indian Air Force should be underestimated, though. It is equipped with around 230 Sukhoi Su-30 MKI, large and versatile jet fighters which have been modified to use most weapons in the Indian arsenal.
However, most of the remaining fleet is composed of older airplanes which are getting long in their teeth, like the Mikoyan MiG-21, the Mikoyan MiG-27 and the SEPECAT Jaguar. These aircraft need to be replaced in the next decade, at most, and their substitutes also need to be numerous enough to fill the fighter gap.
Back in 2012, India closed the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft competition, which aimed at choosing a model among the best jet fighters in the world to equip the Air Force with 136 units. Although the French Dassault Rafale won the competition, the acquisition never happened. Recently, New Delhi decided to buy 36 of these airplanes through a different tender, but this number is far from being enough.
India is also trying to bolster its naval air component, which is currently equipped with MiG-29K jet fighters. These Russia-made airplanes have been a disappointment for India, and the country is now looking for newer models.
This front may lead India to buy American fighters for the first time, as the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is a favorite. Although unlikely, there is even the expectation that the model may end up equipping the Air Force along with the Navy.
But, for the most part, these approaches aim at acquiring larger fighters, while India may actually need smaller and simpler airplanes to form the bulk of the fighter force.
The development of the native HAL Tejas light fighter has been going on since the 1980s, but the aircraft only flew in the last decade, entering limited service in early 2015. A small airplane with a delta wing, the Tejas has limited capabilities in its current form, and a planned version for the Navy was rejected due to being overweight.
Future versions of the Tejas are expected to have improved capabilities and performance. In total, the Indian Air Force expects to acquire over 100 of such aircraft, but they won’t be enough to address the fighter gap, so other projects are in order.
Maybe the most surprising is the outstanding request for 114 foreign single-engine light fighters. This competition, worth $18 billion, should produce results within a five year timespan, Defense News reports.
The aircraft currently under scrutiny are the American Lockheed-Martin F-16V Viper and the Swedish Saab JAS-39E Gripen. Both companies are working with Indian partners as the program intends for the majority of the airframes to be built in India. This would be a boost to local firms.
Together, both single-engine fighter programs, plus the acquisition of the Rafales and additional Su-30s, should help mitigate the fighter gap. This goes in line with Birender Singh Dhanoa’s address, as he also stated that India is seeking new multi-spectrum capabilities in order to maintain its defense.
[Featured Image by Aijaz Rahi/AP Images]