India-Pakistan tensions have assumed an aerial dimension with the recent combat engagements between the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). Air power is the total military capability of a nation for use of aircraft and missiles. So how does the IAF compare with its arch rival the PAF?
The IAF has maintained a numerical edge in terms of fighter aircraft over the PAF of almost 3:1. With depletion of numbers in the IAF’s combat squadrons, this edge is currently down to around 1.4:1. The strength of the combat squadrons will soon drop below 30 squadrons. Once the IAF gets back to its sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons, the edge should evolve to 2:1.
An IAF fighter squadron has 18 operationally deployed aircraft with three in reserve. This totals to 900 fighter aircraft of which around two squadrons or 40 aircraft may cease to be fully operational every year as they reach the end of their life. But the IAF is unlikely to get the 42 squadrons till 2035.
Today the IAF, with barely 31 fighter squadrons, possesses around 650 aircraft.
The IAF’s primary air superiority fighter is the Su-30MKI, of which 170 have been inducted against an order for 272. Currently under upgradation, the 66 MiG-29 air defence aircraft and 51 Mirage 2000 multi-role aircraft continue to be the backbone of the IAF and the upgraded MiG-21s (Bison) are also operational in significant numbers. The Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL)-built Light Combat Aircraft Tejas is supposed to replace the MiG-21. The 139 upgraded Jaguars and 60-odd MiG-27s are dedicated strike aircraft. Also, the Hawk Advanced Jet Trainers too have close air support capability to enable ground troops to wage war. The anticipated induction of the Rafale MMRCA will significantly enhance the IAF’s combat capability.
The IAF fighter aircraft inventory has over 110 MiG-29 Fulcrums, which include 45 naval versions. Since the early 2010s, HAL, with MiG, Russia, upgraded about half the IAF’s 69 MiG-29s.
The PAF currently has 22 fighter aircraft squadrons that translate into about 410 aircraft. These include around 70 JF-17s, 45 F-16s, 69 Mirage IIIs, 90 Mirage Vs and 136 F-7s. The JF-17, a China-designed aircraft, is claimed to be a fourth-generation, multi-role aircraft. It is reported that another 100 are on order.
The PAF plans to acquire 250 aircraft to replace its Mirage IIIs and F-7s. Some of these would be Block 2 version with 4.5 generation features while some more would be Block 3 and are expected to have fifth-generation characteristics. The PAF is also said to have placed an order for 36 Chinese J-10s a 4.5 generation aircraft. The J-10 is expected to be inducted as the FC-20, an advanced PAF-specific variant.
The PAF’s fighter aircraft currently are of four types, which are planned to be reduced to three multi-role types, namely the F-16, JF-17 and FC-20 by 2025. Russia and Pakistan have also been talking about the possible purchase of the Sukhoi-35 air-superiority multi-role fighter. The PAF plans to procure 30-40 Chinese FC-31 stealth fighter aircraft to replace the F-16 fighter jets. The FC-31 is designed to fly close air support, air interdiction and other missions. However, the PAF is more likely to employ conventional tactical aircraft rather than stealth aircraft in actual missions to support Pakistani ground forces.
The PAF with a smaller fighter aircraft inventory is the seventh largest air force in the world and the largest in the Islamic world. PAF pilots are well-trained, with battle experience and high morale. The PAF is also an inherently air-defence oriented force. As earlier, in an exclusive Indo-Pak war scenario, the PAF will be kept head-down by the IAF and is likely to be defeated. In the shadow of nuclear stand-off, a full-fledged war is less likely.
In a limited war as a follow-up to a trigger incident or a surgical strike, the IAF will be much better placed on account of its larger weapon inventory and superior platforms. There is a considerable scope for conventional offensive action short of the nuclear threshold.
Lately, the induction of Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft into the subcontinent has altered the regional strategic environment. It enables the two sides to keep an eye on each other, and in India’s case, Pakistan’s ally China. These AEW aircraft provide low altitude coverage for both sides, looking into mountain valleys and across the horizon over the sea.
Pakistan’s diverse terrain, which includes sea, desert, glaciers and mountains, means monitoring these areas was ‘patchy’ because ground based air defence radars cannot cover the sea, and not always the land. While the PAF has two AEW aircraft, the IAF has two AWACS and three AEW aircraft, which will make air warfare that much more challenging in the subcontinent.
The writer is a Professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies at Christ Deemed to be University, Bengaluru