Indian Air Force (IAF) has always been considered as the backbone of India’s Defense. Indian Air Force had proved to be extremely frantic when it comes to protecting India’s border.

In all 3 wars, India fought with arch-rival Pakistan, IAF had almost annihilated Pakistan Airforce every time and was very critical in bringing Pakistan Defense forces to its knees.

During the 1965 war, IAF launched many airplanes, a combination of de Havilland Vampires and Dassault Mystère IVs to blunt the Pakistan Air Force attacks.

The story of IAF gallantry during 1971 is no different. During the 1971 War, IAF indignantly obliterated Pakistan Air Force during many operations on both the Eastern and Western Border.

Everyone must have the proud sweet memories of IAF Planes pounding Pakistani intruders during the 1999 Kargil war. India Air Force launched its operation in Kargil War, with the code name of “Operation Safed Sagar”. It was a massive task for IAF to give support required for Indian Infantry Units in the world’s highest and toughest battle zone. Flying from the fields of Srinagar, Avantipur, and Udhampur ground attack aircraft MiG-21s, MiG-23s, MiG-27s, Jaguars, and the Mirage 2000 were ready to strike on the positions occupied by the Pakistan army’s infantry units under the facade of terrorists and intruders. This was the very first time, fighter aircraft were given orders to fire on the enemy after the 1971 war.

Hoverer, IAF chivalry is put into question when its Aircraft met with an accident. Since the inception of the Airforce, it has suffered huge losses both in terms of men (pilots) and material (Aircrafts).

Indian Airforce Squadrons and Its History

Today, a total of 33 fighter aircraft squadrons IAF holds. Each squadron has 16 aircraft plus two trainer aircraft, which are two-seaters. This amounts to over 500 fighter aircraft, which according to defense experts is not the adequate strength to ensure the air defense of Indian airspace against both her adversaries of Pakistan and China in case of a two-front war in her western and eastern borders. The IAF’s sanctioned strength is also a force level of 42 fighter squadrons to fight a two-front war, with Pakistan and China simultaneously.

The question often asked is that how logical is the rationale for a 42-squadron fighter aircraft fleet today in the context of aircraft mid-life upgrades, attack helicopters, airborne warning, and control system platforms?

Let’s dig the history a little bit…

Every Indian is aware of the industry icon and Indian aviation pioneer JRD Tata, who held the honorary two-star general IAF rank of Air Vice-Marshal. Sir Tata headed a committee in the early 1960s to study the requirements for a fighter aircraft fleet. Its recommendations made the government authorize a force level of 42 fighter squadrons to counter threats from erstwhile West Pakistan, East Pakistan (Now Bangladesh), and China.

After the recommendation, the next challenge in front of the Nehru Administration was which aircraft to induct as at that time the IAF was still flowing World War II vintage US-built Liberator bombers, among others. The Soviet build MiG-21 and other series of MIG often called “The Workhorse Of The Fighter Fleet”, was yet to join IAF service.


During the Cold War Era, Non-Aligned India looked to the erstwhile Soviet Union for its Aircraft requirement And, subsequently, the mainstay of the IAF’s 42 squadron strength was the Soviet-era MiG-21 aircraft and its variants with different weapon payloads or armament carrying capacities.

However, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, IAF also started searching for other options to expand its aircraft fleet. Now, IAF’s fighter fleet consists of the MiG-21 BIS, the Jaguar, the French Mirage 2000, MiG-29, Sukhoi-30 MKI, and homemade indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft, the last in squadron service since 2018, besides the British Hawk, inducted in 2004.

IAF Squadron Strength

India’s squadron of MiG-21 BIS, Jaguar, Mirage 2000, MiG-29. The MiG-21 BIS, Jaguar, Mirage 2000, and MiG-29 have all undergone mid-life upgrades, which involved embedding their avionics with superior hardware and software to improve weapon payload, navigation, and radar capabilities. The latest updates have provided the aircraft with superior firepower, accurate weapon delivery, modern avionics for pilot-friendly navigation, and better communication with the ground and other flying platforms. It categorizes them as fourth-generation or fourth-plus generation fighters. The recent acquisition of Rafale, with superior armament and avionics capability, is a fourth-plus-plus generation fighter aircraft[1].

All these aircraft have mid-air refueling capability — a tanker aircraft can refuel them in the air to enhance their flying range, aimed at long-range strike against enemy targets except the Soviet build and later upgraded MiG-21 BIS squadrons which are 3 in number. The induction of the Russian Illushyin-78 mid-air refueller tanker aircraft in 2003 added to the force’s combat capability in terms of the long-range strike.

According to Defense Pundits, IAF’s 12 squadrons of Sukhoi-30 MKI have gradually replaced the MiG-21 BIS. The Sukhoi-30 MKI aircraft is superior to the MiG-21 in all aspects – weapon payload, fuel storage capacity, and mission capabilities. The Sukhoi-30 MKI aircraft can carry an 8.5-ton weapon payload, while the MiG-21 BIS carries only two tons of armament. Therefore, in terms of firepower or weapon payload alone, a Sukhoi-30 MKI is as good as four MiG-21 BIS aircraft.

While comparing these aircraft as far as range of operation, the Sukhoi-30 MKI has a much longer range than the MiG -21 BIS, to fly from airbases well within Indian territory (Defense in Depth) and attack targets deep inside enemy territory. Its mid-air refueling capability enhances the Sukhoi-30 MKI’s longer flying range and greater ‘LOITER’ time in the air. It can undertake both air defense and ground attack missions. Therefore, 12 Sukhoi-30 MKI aircraft squadrons are equivalent to 24 MiG-21 BIS aircraft squadrons.

IAF excellence is at par with the World’s best Airforce. IAF in 2009, acquired AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft equipped with radars, sensors, and computers. These ensure optimum employment of air defense aircraft to engage intruding enemy fighters, freeing up many aircraft for other missions. The AWACS are thus effective ‘force multipliers’ that strengthen aerial combat capability.

Today, the IAF’s air defense role can be supplemented with air-to-surface missiles like the S-400, which India has received the first batch from Russia, besides the ongoing Indo-Israeli joint missile development. Missile systems are more agile and transportable. For instance, air-to-ground missions are also supplemented with surface-to-surface missiles. Hence, the need for more aircraft to perform these roles should diminish accordingly.

Attack helicopters in IAF also contribute to her combat capability. The IAF has US-built Apache helicopters, besides the Soviet-era Mi-25/35, and the HAL-made advanced light helicopter adds to air-to-ground capability. The helicopters supplement the ground attack aircraft, especially on the forward edge of a battle area.

While comparing IAF with our neighbors, Pakistan with 450 fighter aircraft, has only 18 F-16 fighters with contemporary technology. The rest of its fighter fleet has obsolescent technology. China has 2,100 fighter aircraft, but it also needs to deploy them elsewhere for national air defense management. Therefore, Beijing cannot employ its entire fighter strength against India.

These aircraft were used for air defense as well as strike and air-to-ground missions. Now, IAF wants to retire many of them from its squadron service, except for some modified MiG-21 BIS (Bison) squadrons. It is expected that these aircraft, will exit the IAF over the next few years.

Indian Air Force Crashes

Whenever IAF crashes, the first thing which crosses our minds is the well-being of our pilot.

IAF Crash

An aircraft accident/incident is an occurrence not directly caused by enemy action. It involves one or more aircraft resulting in injury to persons and/or damage to aircraft and property.

Below is the long list of losses each IAF squadron has suffered from1947 to 2000 [2]. It clearly indicates that IAF has met thousands of accidents and lost hundreds of its trained Pilots and Aircrafts incurring the loss of our decorated men and materials worth millions of dollars.

Aircraft Accident of No 1 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 3 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 4 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 7 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 8 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 15 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 17 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 21 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 23 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 24 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 26 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 28 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 29 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 30 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 32 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 35 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 37 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 45 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 47 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 51 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 52 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 101 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No 108 Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No ASTE Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No MOFTU Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No TACDE Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No HAL Squadron Indian Air Force
Aircraft Accident of No TCTDS Squadron Indian Air Force

Air Force Crashes Investigation

Each accident or incident is investigated by an independent Court of Inquiry (COI) consisting of specialists from various fields. The determination of causes of accidents and incidents and the timely introduction of preventive measures together with their implementation constitute the core of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) flight safety program.

Different COI has been set up by different governments.

Let’s have a glimpse of some observations and the suggestions by COI set up in the year 2003.

  1. The determination of causes of accidents and incidents and the timely introduction of preventive measures together with their implementation constitute the core of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) flight safety program.
  2. The Committee note that during the period from 1991-2000, there had been 283 aircraft accidents and 4,418 incidents in the IAF in which 221 aircraft were totally destroyed and 100 IAF pilots lost their lives. While empirical data indicate that the overall rate of accidents per 10,000 flying hours had registered a decline over the six years period from April 1991 to March 1997, the rate of accidents registered a steady rise during the past three years.
  3. What is further disquieting to note was that there was a sudden spurt of accidents in 1999-2000 which accounted for as many as 32 accidents out of 84 accidents reported during the past three years. Stream-wise accident statistics indicated that the rate of accidents in respect of fighter stream was high and ranged between 1.89 and 3.53 during 1991-97. The rate of accidents in MIG variants was still higher and ranged between 2.29 and 3.99.
  4. The COI Committee informed that 100 MIG-21 aircrafts valuing Rs.238.79 crore were lost during 1991-2000. Further, out of 84 accidents reported during 1997-2000,58 accidents (69 percent) involved MIG variants and the situation was more alarming as IAF lost 38 MIG-21 aircraft alone during the period. Citing reasons for the high rate of accidents in the MIG variants, the Defense Ministry argued that the IAF’s fighter fleet is overwhelmingly MIG based and thus exposed to the risk inherent in the conduct of fighter flying but accident rates are impossible to refute.
  5. About accidents on MIG-21, it was stated to be an aircraft with dated technology making it more demanding on the pilot and the crew[3].
  6. COI also stated that quality control on spares and rotables had to be compromised to some extent due to the disintegration of the manufacturer country (Soviet Union). It was also conceded that the accident rate in the IAF was higher compared to western standards, primarily due to the fact that the majority of the accidents could be apportioned to the medium or low technology segment of the fighter aircraft in the inventory of IAF.
  7. The Committee also observed that human error, technical defects, and bird strikes are the main contributory factors leading to aircraft accidents in the IAF. Taking note of the causes of accidents, the Committee gather an unmistakable impression that the operating standards in the Indian Air Force were far from failsafe. The human error basically comprises error on the part of aircrew on flying duty or ground duty or both which lead to accidents and incidents. Many human error accidents also have a combination of technical as well as skill problems where pilots’ inability to handle a technical defect leads to avoidable aircraft mishaps. The Committee is gravely concerned that out of 283 accidents during the period 1991-2000, 119 accidents i.e., 42 percent accidents were on account of human error, which registered an increasing trend.
  8. Investigations by the COI revealed that re-employed and out-of-touch pilots were permitted to fly a large formation sortie without preliminary practices.
  9. Apart from human error, the technical defect is another major contributor to aircraft accidents in the IAF. The Committee is concerned to note that during the period 1991-2000, 126 i.e., 44 percent accidents occurred due to technical defects {TDs). The IAF attributed most of the TD accidents to manufacturing/overhauling agencies like HAL.
  10. The Committee also observed that though a decision to impose a warranty clause on all HAL manufactured/overhauled aircraft or components was taken in principle as early as January 1995, the same is yet to be fructified even after a long gap of six years.
  11. The Committee found that bird strike had their share in the aircraft accidents as well. During the period 1991·-2000; 19 accidents and 805 incidents that occurred due to bird strikes.
  12. The Committee’s examination has revealed that the training imparted to pilots in IAF is afflicted with serious shortcomings in terms of available apparatus and infrastructure. To their dismay, scrutiny of 141 out of 187 cases of accidents during 1991-97 revealed that 77 accidents occurred during training sorties alone.
  13. The COI further observed that Stage-III operational training had suffered immensely due to the non-availability of Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) aircraft. The La Fontaine Committee set up to make an in-depth study into the accidents and training process had pointed out as early as 1982 that there existed a quantum jump in skill/judgment as IAF had no suitable operational transitional trainer aircraft to fill the intervening gap before the pilots are deployed on the operational fighter aircraft.
  14. COI members found that the Iskra aircraft used in Stage II training had been operating without any location aid and survival items since its induction in 1975. Accident statistics revealed that during the last 10 years the aircraft had a total of eight accidents, of which five were serious.

After the COI report, IAF promised the below actions to be implemented: –

  1. Preventive measures based on the COFAA and other study reports will be implemented by the IAF and these steps are expected to pay dividends in the form of reduced accidents in the future. Acquisition of certain costly equipment like simulators and other training aids is under active consideration. Inadequacies and shortcomings in the preventive measures, if any, are being constantly monitored to ensure an effective accident prevention program.
  2. Basic Training in the IAF is imparted to pilots in three stages in various training establishments. The first stage of basic training is imparted on HPT-32 basic trainer aircraft. Thereafter, Stage-II training of pilots takes place on Kiran MK I/IA aircraft. After successful completion of Stage-II training and award of wings and commissioning, the trainees are’ trifurcated into fighter, transport, and helicopter streams to undergo Stage III training. Those selected for the fighter stream will undergo an additional Stage IIA training on Kiran Mk II/Iskra aircraft before going for Stage III training. Presently Stage-III training on fighters will be imparted on MiG-21 aircraft. It will once again be emphasized that the measures to enhance the quality of training to improve skill levels, ability to exercise sound judgment, and improve situational awareness are constantly being reviewed and implemented in IAF[3].
  3. Constant interaction with HAL at the highest level will be maintained to discuss serious Flight Safety issues.  Frequent participation in the Flight Safety Seminars organized by IAF as well as HAL is being ensured. Besides, every Court off inquiry on a HAL-produced aircraft has a HAL representative as a member.
  4. Representatives of foreign companies will also be regularly consulted, whenever aircraft manufactured by them are involved in an accident. In addition, Original Equipment Manufacturers in Russia, France, Israel, Romania, Poland, and the UK will also be approached to provide support to overcome the technical defects. During the last year a number of remedial measures, special checks/modifications on the HAL manufactured /Overhauled aircraft as well on imported aircraft have been initiated. DRDO and other independent agencies (DGAQA, CEMILAC) are also being involved in all cases of accident investigation, to get a Wider perspective and scientific analysis for preventing accidents/incidents.
  5. The warranty clause on all HAL manufactured and overhauled aircraft will be discussed and finalized by the Committee constituted for revision of pricing policy for HAL products supplied to IAF.
  6. In order to reduce the aircraft accidents on account of bird hits, the Indian Air Force will simultaneously conduct a study through a pilot project in “Solid Waste Management” so as to reduce the ‘Bird Hit’ menace at four of the selected premier Air Force Stations, where the bird density was observed to be high. The plan is to install a modem, scientific eco-friendly Solid Waste Management System, at the four Air Force Stations; viz. Agra, Halwara, Jodhpur and Tezpur. The project aims to deprive the birds of food, which is abundantly available in solid waste. The project has been approved by the Ministry of Defense and is envisaged for completion in six months, after the installation of the equipment, by the first quarter of 2003 (Approx.)[3].
  7. The Indian Air Force has identified the requirement of an Advanced Jet Trainer for a safe and smooth transition of young trainee pilots to high-performance/technology aircraft in front-line squadrons.
  8. IAF will be scrapping the old KTS-4s Simulators and proposed the induction of new Simulators like Jaguar Simulators, Mirage 2000 Simulator, Air Combat Simulators (ACS), Kiran Simulators. All simulators will be only Computer Based. However, in the conventional parlance “Computer Based Training (CBT) Aids” indicate a PC-based desktop type of system of low cost with very limited capabilities. 12 more CBTs will be purchased and inducted in IAF.
  9. IAF stated that all the Courts of Inquiry (COI) into the aircraft accidents from 1991 to 2000 have been completed and finalized. A total of 242 Cat-1 accidents have taken place during the period 1991-2000. A sum of Rs. 1995.78 crore has been assessed as the loss to the State as per provisional loss statements due to these aircraft accidents. Out of a total of 2542 cases pending regularization of losses during the period 1991-2000. 2105 cases have since been finalized and 437 are at various stages of finalization.

Everyone has the question“Has IAF Taken Concrete Actions To Avoid Loss Of Our Brave Men? It seems Inexplicable As IAF Crashes Are Still Going On? So, What’s the Real Reason? Is IAF Coping With An Ageing Fleet? Is That The Only Reason? Absolutely Not… If We Look Closely, It Seems That The High Rate Of Crashes Also Puts A Question Mark On The Training Aspects, And Ambitus Aircrafts Procurement, And Of Course The Flight Safety Standards As Well”.

[1] How many does IAF need? | Deccan Herald

[2] Indian Air Force Accidents and Incidents []


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