During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lashed out at the ruling UPA by expressing “concern” at the pace at which squadrons were being added to the Indian Air Force (IAF). The BJP in its manifesto called it an “indication of the surrendering of India’s interests” and called for a complete overhaul of the system. But figures tabled in the Lok Sabha by the Ministry of Defence reveal that there would be no net increase in the number of squadrons added by the NDA government in its five-year tenure. In fact, by 2025, the IAF may end up having less squadrons than it currently possesses. The question was posed by Anurag Thakur, BJP MP from Hamirpur in Himachal Pradesh, who asked, “the number of squadrons and squadrons of helicopters likely to be with Indian Air Force (IAF) by 2020.” Minister of State (MoS) for Defence Subhash Bhamre in his response said, “The IAF will have 32 Fighter Squadrons and 39 Helicopter Units by 2020.” The Indian Air Force currently possesses 32 squadrons but, as the minister put it, “Three squadrons of MiG-21 aircraft will be phased out by 2020.” By 2019, the government plans the introduction of two squadrons of Su-30MKIs. If the figures revealed in response to this question were worrying, another response revealed that by 2025, the number of squadrons with the IAF may, in fact, go down. Biju Janata Dal MP from Kalahandi asked the ministry “whether the government proposes to phase out these fighter aircrafts in future.” MoS (Defence) Bhamre in his response revealed, “Ten Squadrons of Indian Air Force (IAF) equipped with MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircraft are scheduled to retire by 2024 on completion of their Total Technical Life.” Two squadrons of the Jaguar are also set to retire during this period. Between now and 2025, the government plans to procure two additional squadrons of the Su-30MKI, two squadrons of the Rafale and six Squadrons of the Tejas, a single-engine fighter. So while India will see 12 squadrons retire by 2024, the country will have added only 10 to offset those losses by 2025. Air Chief BS Dhanoa’s assessment that India plans to have a 42-squadron Air Force by 2032 seems tough to achieve given the current pace of procurement by the Indian government. But one way in which the government may just be able to pull off this feat is if it manages to ink deals for single-engine fighter aircraft with haste. Air Defence expert Air Vice Marshall (retired) Manmohan Bahadur said, “It may seem difficult at this stage to have 42-squadrons by 2032 but I think we can pull it off. It all depends on the pace at which the Tejas is manufactured and whether India will be able to procure single-engine fighter jets on time.” In addition to two squadrons of the Tejas Mark 1 and four squadrons of the Tejas Mark 1A, India has also expressed interest in buying a foreign-made single-engine fighter. The two companies currently in the running are Swedish manufacturer Saab, which has offered to sell its Gripen E, and US arms giant Lockheed Martin, which has offered to transfer its entire F-16 Block 70 production line from Texas to India. If India purchases around five squadrons of either the American or Swedish single-engine fighter, it may well be on the way to achieving a 42-squadron air force. However, sources at Lockheed Martin suggest that the deal may not go down any time soon as the government continues to drag its feet.
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