Earlier this month, at the end of India’s annual Independence Day parade in New Delhi, the Indian Air Force showed off its aircraft inventory in multiple flyovers of the Rajpath, a ceremonial boulevard in the capital.
The flyovers included transport aircraft, helicopter gunships, fighters, and fighter-bombers. It was the latest show of force for a military branch that, like its naval counterpart, is in the midst of a massive modernization and expansion effort.
Focused for decades on the threat from archrival Pakistan, India is now preparing its air force to fight another much larger foe: China.
With roughly 2,000 combat aircraft from its air force and navy, China has the largest aviation force in Asia and the third largest in the world. Worse for India, China’s increasingly close relationship with Pakistan is resulting in closer military cooperation, including joint development of fighter jets.
Faced with the potential for an air war against two enemies, the IAF is increasing its size and capabilities.
A Significant Inventory
With well over 1,000 aircraft itself, the IAF is by no means small. Since India’s independence, it has mostly fielded Russian aircraft made entirely in Russia or licensed for local production.
Even today, the biggest fleets in the IAF inventory are those of the MiG-21, MiG-29, and the Su-30MKI – a version of Russia’s Su-30 made specifically for and by India. (India signed a contract for the Su-30MKI in the 1990s and has built more than 200 of them domestically since the mid-2000s.)
The service also has some European models, such as SEPECAT Jaguars and Mirage 2000s, which are the IAF’s primary strike platforms. But those aircraft, which were acquired in the 1980s, are showing signs of age, and the IAF plans to retire them by 2030.
India’s MiG-21s, first introduced in the 1960s, are also expected to be retired by 2030 – even the modernized MiG-21 Bison models. The jet has a poor safety record; as of 2013, more than 480 of India’s MiG-21s had been involved in accidents that had caused over 200 deaths.
Threats On Two Fronts
The Su-30MKI purchase was more than just a general upgrade. It came after the Pakistan Air Force in 1982 accepted the first of 28 US-made F-16s, which seriously increased the PAF’s capabilities a decade after it last fought the IAF.