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Unfolding Indian Air Force

IAF is a very professional force and it has and will always deliver for the defence of the nation. IAF’s task is to defend the nation from the air threat. It is thus incumbent on the nation to provide it necessary assets for this task.

Issue: 09-2022By Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd)Photo(s): By DRDO_India / Twitter, Brahmos, Embraer
A model of AMCA, the advanced medium combat aircraft

The ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict is the first time we are witnessing the unfolding of “truly hybrid warfare” and is a reflection of complete multi-domain operations that are taking place, said Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari, the Chief of the Air Staff at an event recently. “We are witnessing the use of drones, hypersonic weapons, aircraft of all sizes and types and ground forces all working in unison against the backdrop of economic sanctions and diplomatic heft,” he added. This focus is as much on soft power as hardware. Clearly the IAF needs to rededicate and retrain themselves for future conflicts.

While the Balakot strike dispelled taboo on use of air power, the future of air warfare would mean securing the sky and much beyond. The traditional wars fought on land, at sea, and in the air and to some extent, in space, will all increasingly encompass cyber and information domains. The advantage of ‘high vantage-point’ offered by air and space allows greater coverage, speed and precision. The importance of aerospace power in the larger security framework has grown manifold. Conventional to sub-conventional, kinetic to non-kinetic and lethal to non-lethal effects will be achieved under a nuclear overhang, said the Air Chief. Among all this, the air power will always be the first responder for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR).


The service Chiefs tell us the need to prepare for possible three fronts, two with China and one with Pakistan. With just 30 fighter squadrons IAF continues to be at an all-time low. Four MiG-21 Bison squadrons are to retire by 2025. The only additions likely till then are about two squadrons of LCA variants. The Request for Proposal (RfP) for the 114 new fighters has still to be sent out. Normally it would require 5-6 years for the aircraft to select and induct. This requires serious attention in view of the existing threat perception. With 12 C-17s and C-130s, 17 IL-76, and over 100 An-32s, among others, the transport fleet is well placed. With nearly 240 Mi-17 variants; additional large fleet of ALH ‘Dhruv’, Chetak and Cheetah; and induction of Chinooks, Apache, and LCH, the IAF has a fairly potent rotary wing fleet. The three IAI EL/W-2090 “Phalcon” AWACS aircraft and two DRDO ‘Netra’ Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AEW&C) is highly inadequate for the continental sized India. Six Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA) are also highly inadequate, and more so considering that physical availability may be as little as four due maintenance reasons. The number of large unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and combat UAVs (UCAV) are significant but more are already under induction. The ground based radars and air defence missile systems are mostly in place but more are already under induction. The IAF is continuously reviewing its aerial and ground-based weapon stocking.


Regaining of the fighter squadron numbers is important. Those who question the need for larger numbers have misplaced logic. PLA Air Force (PLAAF) and Pakistan Air Force (PAF) are both modernising without cutting numbers of squadrons. In fact they are increasing. IAF must thus get back the numbers and modernise. This can be possible by increasing the LCA production. Currently two production lines of eight aircraft each are reportedly in place. HAL is working on creating a third line of eight aircraft. There are apparent delays of sourcing some sub-systems from abroad, and that is holding up production. Since LCA variants will induct in large numbers, it will be a good idea outsourcing one production line to private sector. This will allow HAL to concentrate on LCA Mark 2 and Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) projects. ADA and HAL must continue the momentum on LCA Mark 2 and AMCA development and production. The RfP for 114 new fighters must go out quickly. In the interim it may be a good idea to acquire two additional squadrons of Rafale aircraft because the ground infrastructure for the same exists and we have already paid a significant amount for India-specific modifications. At current pace, the fighter squadron numbers can go back to the authorised 42 not earlier than 2038. The end state in 2038 could be 14 squadrons of Su-30 MKI, Two Rafale, six New Fighters, six of LCA Mk1A, 10 of LCA Mark 2, and four of AMCA.

Regaining of the fighter squadron numbers is important. PLA Air Force and Pakistan Air Force are both modernising without cutting numbers of squadrons. IAF must get back the numbers and modernise

BrahMos-II hypersonic cruise missile is expected to be operational in five or six years


IAF must have at least 10 larger and 10 smaller AEW&C aircraft. IAF requires around 15 Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA). The DRDO programme of indigenous AEW&C and FRA based on ex Air India aircraft must be accelerated. Till then, it will be a good idea to lease a few of both categories. IAF needs additional larger UAVs and UCAVs. Till the DRDO TAPAS BH-201, and Ghatak are available we must procure more from abroad. The induction of drone swarms may be accelerated. IAF must unfold its plan to increase radar cover with greater concentration to cover the gaps in the mountainous region. The Ukraine conflict indicates that war may not be short and swift; therefore there is a need for larger stocking of ammunitions and cruise missiles. As per PLA doctrine, they are likely to extensively use surface-tosurface missiles (SSM) against Indian airfields. IAF would need to strengthen the air defences at its forward airfields. Also there is a need to build more hardened shelters at airfields in Ladakh and North East. Long range aerial missiles are required to keep PLA Air Force (PLAAF) bombers, FRA and AEW&C aircraft farther away from borders.


Multi Domain Operations (MDO) requires simultaneous employment of many technological means. India must increase space-based assets for continuous coverage for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR). Space-based communications need to be secured. The encrypted navigation and targeting should be made operational for the armed forces quickly. The thin line dividing air and space has already disappeared with more platforms seamlessly transiting between the two mediums. There is a good case for integrating the two under IAF. Cyber will we used extensively for network-centric operations and also for Information Warfare and Influence Operations (IWIO). State-of-the-art offensive and defensive capabilities will have to be built. Electronic warfare (EW) will play great role in the battlefield. Each IAF platform must be suitably protected. IAF may consider having a dedicated EW aircraft. Hypersonic weapons have already been used in Ukraine. This will be a disruptive technology. India must accelerate the development of such platforms and weapons. Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) will change the way we fight and the entire logistics of ammunition movement and storage requirements. It will give the field commander unlimited firing capability at the speed of light. Of course the DEW will have limitations of range initially. The rapidly-emerging Quantum computing technology when coupled with Artificial Intelligence (AI) will support quicker analysis of huge volume of data and support commanders and operators with quicker decision making and optimum operational solutions. Some of these technologies can help India leap-frog forward.


The future is clearly unmanned. Every mission, including large cargo, will one day be possible with unmanned platforms. India has begun investing in Drones in a big way with thrust coming from the highest levels of the government. IAF had launched the Mehar Baba Competition in October 2018, and that helped drone swarm technology into the country. The winners have been announced and orders are being placed. The Mehar Baba II competition has begun. Drone swarms will be used both in offensive and defensive roles. IAF will need to induct more stand-alone drones and large UAVs and UCAVs. The manned unmanned teaming (MUM-T) has a lot of operational action. India has already begun pursuing it.


IAF has to factor in assets for a conflict at the Himalayan heights. All platforms and weapon systems should be able to operate at those altitudes with lower pressure and temperatures. Flying combat operations in the mountains have their peculiarities. There are limits to radar cover, and there is need to exploit mountain shadows. Counter Air Operations (CAO) against the very few airfields will pay huge dividend. Repairs will take longer. Conversely own airfields have to be suitably defended. Because of limited number of roads and bridges, Air Interdiction will bring proportionately higher returns. Interdicting enemy ground troop concentrations and reserves will also be important. Fighters, helicopters, and UCAVs will be used for this. Air will be able to support the ground battle to a big extent. It will be able to immobilise the adversary tanks. Intervalley transfers of critical equipment by helicopters will save valuable time. UAVs will help get across the hill intelligence. Drones will be used for many logistic support tasks. The IAF’s transport aircraft will support inter and intra theatre large movements. Air defence missiles, including man-portable positioned at crucial places will bring results.

The RfP for 114 new fighters must go out quickly. In the interim it may be a good idea to acquire two additional squadrons of Rafale aircraft because we have already paid a significant amount for India-specific modifications

Force Multipliers: IAF requires around 15 Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA)


Air is the most important element of all joint operations. India’s current strategy in the Indian Ocean is Anti-Access and Area Denial (A2/AD). Most of the sea trade action is in the Northern Indian Ocean. IAF Su-30 MKI have an operational radii-of-action of 1,500 kilometres. This increase to 2,000 kilometres with one refuelling. Positioned at Tanjavur airbase in the peninsula, they will be able to dominate till Malacca strait. Aircraft at Pune and Jamnagar will be able to dominate till Gulf of Aden and Straits of Hormuz. From the airbases at Port Blair and Car Nicobar, and later from Campbell Bay when upgraded, the Su-30 MKI could reach up to South China Sea. The nation needs to exploit this huge reach. There are many airfields in the Indian Ocean belonging to friendly foreign countries and these can also be used under special circumstances.


Air is the first responder during all types of calamities. IAF’s soft power is being demonstrated round the year. IAF immediately gets into action moving humans and materials, especially heavy equipment of the NDRF during natural calamities like cyclones, earthquakes and floods. IAF helicopters are on short standby for flood relief, and search and rescue. IAF’s C-17 and IL-76 have been extensively used during COVID-19 to move oxygen tankers, medicines and vaccines. IAF transport aircraft were used during evacuations from Ukraine, Yemen, Kuwait and many other countries. India has been providing great HADR support to all the countries in the neighbourhood and beyond, and has won international praise.


The future wars will be increasingly prosecuted using air and space. The fighter and helicopter building infrastructure is already fully in place in India. The transport aircraft production infrastructure will be in place after Airbus C295 gets produced. India is in an enviable position of having access to both Western and Russian equipment and technologies. The IAF is fully committed to indigenisation and ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ and has placed firm orders for indigenous platforms and systems which are still under development. IAF’s task is to defend the nation from the air threat. It is thus incumbent on the nation to provide it necessary assets for this task. During the transit to higher levels of indigenisation, some important combat systems must be imported. These could be linked with commitments for transfer of technology. Three key procurement areas are fighter aircraft, AEW&C and FRAs. For indigenisation India must make appropriate task forces. Aero-engines are a very important area for indigenisation. Private sector has already exhibited its capabilities, and are making global standard large aero-structures for customers in India and abroad. They must be brought in with greater involvement. The defence production could even be brought directly under the PM Office initially. Major projects must be monitored and pushed at highest levels. IAF is a very professional force and it has and will always deliver for the defence of the nation. Time to act is now, lest India be left behind in its global ambitions.