New Delhi, Oct 08: The Indian Air Force (IAF) is facing a massive problem of depleting squadron strength. Its fleet has reduced to approximately 30-32 squadrons and the IAF wants at least 42 squadrons of fighters to be able to fight a two-front war. The maximum number of fighters IAF ever had was around 39 squadrons in the early 1990s. The squadron strength has been falling ever since.
Each fighter squadron is expected to hold 18 fully operational planes plus two trainers. Some of the squadrons - especially those of the older generation MiGs - are operating with a much lesser number of aircraft.
The Russian fighters MiG-27 and the MiG-21 are one of the oldest in the IAF inventory and many of these aircraft are likely to be phased out in the next 5 years. Some 120-odd MiG-21s continue to be in service. These will be retired in phases till 2021-2022. The IAF will phase out nine squadrons of the MiG-21 and 2 MiG-27 over the next 5 years.
The defence purchase process is long and complex because of which it takes many years for a deal to be finalised. Successive governments kept delaying procurement of fighters and hardly any planes were purchased in the last 20 odd years.
The situation was such that IAF just could not afford further shrinking of fleet size. New fighters were needed and IAF just did not have time to go through the long defence purchase process.
Then in 2016, Prime Minister Modi, by-passed all procedures and struck a government to government deal with France for 36 Rafales. Modi took this step because the IAF's strength was rapidly depleting and something had to be done.
India signed an inter-governmental agreement with France in September 2016 for procurement of 36 Rafale fighter jets at a cost of around Rs 58,000 crore. The Rafale deal process actually began a decade before that but due to various reasons and elaborate defence procurement procedure, the purchase kept getting delayed.
Rafale is technologically more advanced than any fighters that IAF has. Rafale is a 4.5 generation aircraft while the Mirage 2000 and the Su-30 MkI which IAF uses are third or fourth-generation fighters. LCA Tejas is considered as a fourth-generation in terms of avionics and technology but it is too small an aircraft to make a difference.
The Rafale can fly at speeds of 1.8 mach (2,222.6km per hour) and can climb to a height of 50,000 feet. It has a range of 3,700km, which can be increased with mid-air refuelling.
The fighter jet is 15.27 metres long from nose to tail, has a wing span of 10.8 metres and a wing surface area of 45.7 square metres. It can carry 9,500kg of bombs and munitions.
This is more than the Sukhoi 30 MK1, which can carry loads of up to 8,000kg, say military experts. France has promised to ensure that at least 75 per cent of the Rafale fleet is combat-worthy at any given point, failing which, heavy penalties will be invoked.
The Rafale is a twin-jet fighter aircraft able to operate from both an aircraft carrier and a shore base. The manufacturers describe it as a fully versatile aircraft which can carry out all combat aviation missions to achieve air superiority and air defence, close air support, in-depth strikes, reconnaissance, anti-ship strikes and nuclear deterrence.