As China and Pakistan modernise air force at a rapid pace, Indian air force faces risk without new western warplanes or the lack of local defence contractors ability to keep up with military needs in a timely manner.
According to experts, due to its reliance on a fleet of ageing Russian-made MiG and French Mirage fighters, India was vulnerable in the skies. Furthermore, half of India's fighters are due to retire in the start of 2015 until 2024.
In an interview to the Indian Express earlier this month, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa said that against a sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons, the Air Force had only 32 operating currently. As he ruefully pointed out, this was akin to playing a cricket match with only seven players.
But even this is not a realistic picture. Of the 32 squadrons of combat aircraft currently in service, a bulk of them are past their use-by date and have not been phased out simply because the Air Force has run out of options.
If the tiny Gnat fighter was the hero of the 1965 war with Pakistan, it was the MiG-21 that stole the show in the 1971 war. It was a dreaded combat aircraft, with a tubular air frame and delta wings that gave it superb flying manoeuvres and had a complement of the best air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons. But as the years passed and the Air Force did not purchase any new aircraft in bulk or manufacture them under licence, the aircraft continued to age.
Even today, the bulk of the combat aircraft in the IAF belong to the MiG family and all of them are way beyond their official dates of service. For instance, the vulnerable MiG-21, has seen seen some upgrades, while the older variants have been retired. There are two squadrons of the MiG-29 and a few of the MiG-23 and the 27. The MiG-25, which was used as a platform for electronic warfare and surveillance, was retired from service a few years ago.
The Indian air force, which is expected to play a critical role in the event of a war, does not have enough aircraft to fight even a single war. Pakistan and China, meanwhile, is rapidly developing its air force and has already created a successful fifth-generation combat aircraft, the most advanced generation.
When it comes to developing indigenous capabilities, no one beats the Indian navy. For decades, naval officers have been posted with India's Defence Research and Development Organisation facilities to develop new technologies. This created a culture of design and development, which delivered some major successes.
Dependent on the Aeronautical Development Agency, a lab in Bengaluru, the Air Force has had to contend with the monopoly of the government, with not enough technical expertise on its side. The Aeronautical Development Agency offspring, Tejas, is years away from induction even though it has been nearly 30 years since it was conceptualised. Interestingly, the Navy has firmly rejected plans to develop a naval version of the Tejas.
The Indian Airforce is also caught in a time warp. As concepts of warfare changed, unmanned aerial weapons platforms took to the skies. The performance of unmanned combat aerial vehicles has proved so successful that more air forces are looking at drone warfare seriously. In the case of the Air Force, even the indigenous drone programme under development by the DRDO has not taken off. Currently, it is dependent on drones from Israel to carry out a suite of surveillance functions.