First thing that I would like to clear out is that the need of 42 “combat” squadrons was coined many years back when the Indian Air Force’s major part of the fleet was 3rd generation fighters & 4th generation fighters like the Su-30MKI were gradually catching up.
The 3rd generation fighters were designed to perform a single & focused role like interceptor (MiG-21), ground attack (Jaguar), close air support (MiG-27) etc. These different roles required separate specialist type of aircraft for each role which in turn increased the count of aircraft needed to fulfill all the roles. So if IAF really had all 3rd generation of fighters in its inventory, the organisation would really need as much as 42 combat squadrons for a two front war.
But with changing times & the induction of more 4th & 4.5 generation aircraft in the IAF, the calculation of having 42 squadrons is practically changing.
Unlike the 3rd generation aircraft, the newer generation of aircraft refer to what is called Multirole Combat aircraft. That means that a single aircraft can undertake various number of missions which earlier needed a lot of different mission specific aircraft. Since now one type of aircraft replaces several type of older aircraft, the count of total aircraft required to maintain the same level of aerial supremacy has decreased.
Su-30MKI – This is the backbone of the IAF. These are capable modern aircraft which can undertake roles like air superiority fighter, fighter-bomber, strike fighter, ground attack aircraft, interceptor, mini-AWACS, reconnaissance etc.
Rafale – Just like the Flanker, the Rafale replaces 7 different types of aircraft roles. Hence it is also called “Omnirole fighter”.
Pic: Omnirole loadout of Rafale.
So now we don’t really need 42 combat squadrons. In best estimate, 30–35 combat squadrons of modern multirole combat aircraft are good enough for a two front war. IAF’s present strength is 30-odd combat squadrons but this includes a mix of many 3rd & 4th generation combat aircraft.
Having said that, this is how are we accounting 30–35 squadrons in the coming years:
One squadron of Tejas Mk1 FOC variant is going to be inducted in 2021 in Sulur. The squadron is raised already but flies only one Tejas fighter. It’ll receive full strength in about one year after HAL resumes production post COVID-19.
One squadron of MiG-29UPG multirole combat aircraft will be inducted & operationalised instantly in 2021.
12 of the Su-30MKI would be manufactured by HAL Nashik & inducted in the IAF by 2022. This, however won’t raise any extra squadron but will be a replacement for all the Su-30MKI crashed till date.
Two Squadrons of Rafale will be operational by the end of 2022. IAF might order 36 units more at a far lesser price if it cancels the MRFA (MMRCA 2.0) deal.
On a negative side, 7 squadrons of MiG-21 Bison will be phased out. Though 7 squadrons do sound like a huge number, but this means a count of 93 aircraft only as the Bison squadrons don’t have full strength.
Four or five squadrons of the LCA Tejas Mk1A will be inducted over a period of 6 years starting 2023. 83 of these single seat fighters (earlier split was 73 single seat + 10 trainer) will be inducted at 14–15 aircraft per year production rate.
If IAF chooses to buy 36 more Rafale, they’ll be delivered by this time frame, adding 2 more squadrons.
Year 2029 onwards
MWF (Tejas Mk2) will have its first flight in 2022 & production would start in 2029. IAF’s long term vision is to have 10 squadrons or 200 of these aircraft over the next couple of years. This will replace the MiG-29UPG, Mirage 2000 & Jaguar after 2035.
Year 2035 & beyond
6 squadrons of AMCA will begin to enter into service from 2035 as per IAF’s long term vision. The original timeline of the expected production is 2029 but considering the MWF program, a more realistic timeline is 2035. Now since the IAF has cancelled the ORCA, it might order 6 more squadrons of AMCA in a second batch of production. AMCA will gradually start replacing the Su-30MKI post 2040.
These are the expected & realistic timelines of the upcoming fighters. According to this timeline, post 2030, we’ll have 30–35 combat squadrons in IAF. Noteworthy thing is these 35 combat squadrons will be of full strength & will have modern multirole combat aircraft except the Jaguars which will see their retirement during the same time.
We don’t see any imports happening apart from the Rafael & most of the aircraft would be manufactured by HAL itself. In the upcoming years, HAL’s role will be limited to a lead integrator only & most of the assemblies & sub assemblies will be made privately.
Even today, many of the parts of Tejas like the wings are made by L&T & similar private firms. In future this contribution is expected to increase.
If HAL decides to use the Nashik assembly line (which currently manufactures the Su-30MKI) to produce the AMCA alongside the MWF in the Bangalore assembly line, the rate of increase of combat squadrons will be much higher post 2030.
Even if the Jaguars & gradually the Mirage 2000 & the MiG-29UPG are phased out during 2030–35, we’ll not see a dip in the combat squadron strength & it’ll hover around a healthy number of 35 in worst case, which is a terrific number for modern multirole aircraft.
Anything to assume post 2035 will be too long a shot to make.
I hope this clears the air about the timelines of the IAF. These timelines are determined by HAL & IAF only & have been referenced from various sources on the internet.