SP Guide Publications puts forth a well compiled articulation of issues, pursuits and accomplishments of the Indian Army, over the years

— General Manoj Pande, Indian Army Chief

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— Admiral R. Hari Kumar, Indian Navy Chief

My compliments to SP Guide Publications for informative and credible reportage on contemporary aerospace issues over the past six decades.

— Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari, Indian Air Force Chief

Need for Concerted Action

The Parliamentary Committee’s observation that the IAF was suffering from critical shortages in the areas of both combat aircraft and pilots is unfortunately the grim reality today

Issue: 06-2015By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By Illustration: Anoop Kamath

In April 2015, an Indian Parliamentary Committee castigated the Ministry of Defence over the poor state of the Indian Air Force (IAF) in comparison to the potential adversaries, the Peoples’ Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) of China and the Pakistani Air Force (PAF). The Committee’s observation that the IAF was suffering from critical shortages in the areas of both combat aircraft and pilots is unfortunately the grim reality today. The situation is particularly disconcerting given the rising level of aerial activity and belligerence of the PLAAF in Tibet as well as the modernisation drive by the PAF through support by China. The possibility of serious military collaboration between the two against India is no longer remote. The state of affairs in the IAF today as observed by the Parliamentary Committee on Defence is attributable largely to the paralysis in decision-making at the level of the government and lack of concerted action in matters related to national security especially during the second tenure of the UPA Government.

First, the plight of the fleet of combat aircraft of the IAF. Despite the effort by the IAF, the tender for the 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) for which the Rafale from Dassault Aviation of France emerged as the preferred platform, ended up in a stalemate eight years after the request for proposal (RFP) was issued. The indigenous light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas has just managed to obtain initial operational clearance (IOC) in December 2013, over three decades after the project was launched. The time line for full operational clearance is yet uncertain. However, given the rate of production the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is capable of, the IAF can hope to complete the induction of the 40 of the LCA Tejas Mk-I version in operational service only by 2023. Meanwhile the strength of the fleet of combat aircraft of the IAF continues to dwindle. With the obsolescent fleets of MiG-21 and the MiG-27 to be phased out from service by 2019 and presumably all 272 Su-30MKI inducted by this time, the IAF will be left with just around 25 squadrons as against the newly authorised strength of 42. Nearly 45 per cent of the combat fleet will consist of platforms acquired in the 1980s and continuing in operational service after mid-life upgrade.

Fortunately, confronted with reality, Prime Minister Modi took a bold step to trash the stalled contract for the 126 MMRCA and instead has initiated a process of the acquisition of 36 Rafale combat jets through a government-to-government transaction with France. However, on account of cost considerations, in case the induction of the Rafale is restricted to merely 36 platforms, just enough to equip two squadrons, it will only provide partial relief to the IAF in its quest to rebuild the strength of combat squadrons. The IAF will need to induct another 15 squadrons even while the refurbished fleets of Mirage 2000, MiG-29 and Jaguar aircraft continue in service. Apart from the obvious solution of ordering additional Su-30MKI fighters, an alternative available to the government is to speed up the fifth-generation fighter aircraft project, the Indo-Russian joint venture to produce a version of the Russian T-50 PAK FA customised to meet with the requirements of the IAF. But the pace at which the project has been moving forward so far leaves little cause for the IAF to cheer.

As for the Parliamentary Committee’s observation on shortage of pilots to fly the fighter aircraft in the IAF, as against the authorised aircraft to pilot ratio of 1:1.25, the figure currently is 1:0.81. This in the opinion of the Committee is a major weakness as it is much lower than that in the US Air Force which is 1:2. Ironically, it is even lower than that prevailing in PAF which is 1:2.5.

If there is a shortage of fighter pilots in the IAF today, it primarily attributable to considerable instability of the trainer fleet especially during the last six years. Since the sudden and premature grounding of the HPT-32 basic trainer fleet in July 2009, the IAF was left in the lurch. HAL, that had been providing basic and intermediate trainer aircraft since the 1950s, had no solution to offer in July 2009. The IAF could begin induction of a basic turboprop trainer from abroad only four years later. Unfortunately, the fleet of the intermediate jet trainer (IJT) HJT-16 Kiran aircraft was also approaching the end of its total technical life and the fleet was shrinking in size. The project sanctioned by the government for HAL to build a replacement for the Kiran aircraft is also floundering leaving no option to the IAF but to procure an IJT from abroad.

It needs to be understood that the IAF cannot sustain operational edge over its adversaries unless there is coordinated and concerted action by the political, bureaucratic and military leadership as well as the captains of the Indian aerospace industry.