India will have to prepare for a problem that is emerging but is not being clearly addressed. The Air Force of the Asian country is facing a reduction in the number of combat aircraft in one squadron. From the 42 fighters previously in the squadron, the Indian Air Force [IAF] remains with 36 today.
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The reason is the MiG-21. This fighter is technically incompatible with modern requirements. Maintaining it is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, given the war in Ukraine and Moscow’s inability to supply parts.
Realistically, the MiG-21 doesn’t have what it takes today to guard Indian skies or any skies at all. The point is that the MiG-21 does not have modern systems with built-in safety mechanisms, new radars, or an electronic warfare system. The engine cannot be upgraded for a long time. These and other maintenance issues prevent the MiG-21 from being armed with modern air-to-air or air-to-ground missiles, respectively.
All the lack of maintenance has resulted in downed MiG-21s in recent years. Three MiG-21 squadrons with 50 aircraft remain. By 2026, they will have to be decommissioned.
Yes, New Delhi has decided to withdraw these fighters from its Air Force. Their path will be followed by the retirement of several older Jaguars. 12 Su-30MKIs were also supposed to fill the IAF inventory, but the order was withdrawn.
Reduction in the number of Indian squadrons is also rooted in slow and cumbersome administrative decisions, which are not even taken with normal delay. Yes, it is about 114 multi-role fighters that India wants to buy, but the order [tender] has not even been published yet. And we have known about this order not for months, but for years.
India expects 73 indigenously produced Tejas Mk1A fighter jets, which are actually light combat aircraft. That’s almost two squadrons. However, they should come sometime in 2027. At this rate of decommissioning of MiG-21s and Jaguars, the dwindling number of combat aircraft will not be replaced quickly, thereby “opening a hole” in the stockpile and unbalancing the combat capability of the IAF.
Arguably, the reason for such a delay is New Delhi’s fault. The Tejas Mk1 program has been delayed more than expected. At the same time, political controversy arose over the purchase and subsequent deal with the French and their Dassault Rafale.
Realistically, if all plans and deadlines were met, the MiG-21 should have been grounded in the mid-1990s. You can see for yourself that almost three decades of delay in all preliminary plans cannot prevent the “huge hole” that has opened up from hanging over the Indian Air Force right now.
The Indian Air Force had four MiG-21 squadrons until a year ago. One is already in history, three more to go. Initially, New Delhi’s plans were to replace the aging and retired MiG-21 with another Soviet machine of the same manufacturer – the MiG-29. However, these plans fell through, either because of the war or because of the local production of the Tejas Mk1, but the fact is that this will not happen.
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