76 Years of Independence – IAF’s Great Past but Challenging Future

Charged with the significant task of safeguarding India’s airspace, IAF has consistently served the nation with distinction since its inception. As the threat landscape and modern technologies continue to advance, the force remains committed to evolve and modernise itself

Issue: 08-2023By Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd)Photo(s): By IAF_MCC / Twitter, Indian Air Force, SP Guide Pubns, PIB

The Indian Air Force (IAF) was established on October 8, 1932. It got its first four Westland Wapiti IIA biplane aircraft on April 1, 1933 when No.1 Squadron was formed with six RAF-trained officers and 19 Havai Sepoys (air soldiers) at Drigh Road, Karachi. As India celebrates 76 years of independence, the IAF has come a long way, and today is the fourth largest air force with global reach, long-range precision strike capability, and ability to exercise dominance over the region between the West Asia and ASEAN countries. It has built major capabilities and experience in handling humanitarian aid and disaster relief (HADR) operations at global scale and is a first responder in the region. IAF is, what it is today, due grit and determination of its air warriors, and years of wartime exposure, and training, including with most of the major air forces of the world.


IAF saw early army-support action in North West Frontier Province in mid 1930s. As the World War II expanded to southeast Asia, additional squadrons were formed, starting 1941. IAF saw operational action in the “Burma Champaign” from 1942 onwards. IAF pilots also took part in the air campaign in Europe, having being attached to the Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons. The Americans built a large number of airfields in the India’s east to fly logistic support missions to China against the Japanese. The operation called “The Hump” involved flying dangerous missions across the Himalayan Jungles. Many of these airfields were later inherited and upgraded by the IAF.


Immediately after independence, when Pakistani intruders began moving into Jammu and Kashmir, and were about to reach Srinagar, the Maharaja signed the instrument of Accession to Indian on October 26, 1947. IAF which had just seven Dakota light transport aircraft began moving Indian Army troops to Srinagar the very next morning. Srinagar and Jammu had mud airstrips, and Punch and Leh had none. Quick move of the Indian Army allowed intruders to be pushed back. Later, the Punch runway was made operational in December 1947 and Leh in May 1948, supporting the defence of Ladakh. IAF Tempest, Spitfire and Harvard aircraft flew significant recce and attack missions against the intruders. Clearly IAF played a very significant role in retrieving J&K and Ladakh. If political executive had allowed continuation, the entire Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) could have been reclaimed.


The 1950s saw major transformation of IAF and it became the first to get jet fighters in Asia. IAF also got its first Indian Air Chief in Air Marshal Subroto Mukerjee in 1954, and also the Air Force Colours. The period saw significant inductions of fighter/bombers, transport aircraft and helicopters. When the India-China war began in October 1962, IAF had Mystere, Ouragan (Toofani), Gnat, Vampire, Canberra, An-12s, Packets, Caribou, Otters, and Mi-4 aircraft, among some others. The PLA Air Force (PLAAF) had IL-28 Bombers, MiG-15,17, and a few MiG-19 (AD variants). Clearly the IAF was more modern than PLAAF. The USA was going through the Cuba crisis with Soviet Union, and did not want the India-China war to escalate. They reportedly dissuaded India against use of air power. Indian political leadership also over estimated Chinese ability and reaction. IAF fighter operations were severely restricted. Canberra and some fighter aircraft recce sorties were flown in Tibet. Transport aircraft and Helicopters were used to air maintain the Indian Army. IAF An-12Bs airlifted two troops of AMX-13 tanks to Ladakh. Most analysts believe that audacious use of air power would have reduced Indian casualties and territorial loss.


Practically all wars between India and Pakistan were initiated by Pakistan. 1965 was the first full front war. Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) surprise initial attack did result in IAF losing aircraft in the open on the ground, and learnt the hard way. IAF was qualitatively inferior, yet achieved air superiority in three days. IAF flew air strikes against all types of strategic and tactical targets, including very deep, in Pakistan. IAF gave massive air support to Indian Army across all fronts, especially the Chammb sector where India was under attack. Indian Army could reach Lahore. IAF flew 3,937 sorties against PAF’s 2,364. Both sides lost similar numbers of aircraft. IAF being larger, effectively lost 12 per cent of its aircraft (many on the ground). PAF lost 23 per cent. War also saw significant air combat especially between the IAF Folland Gnats and PAF F-86 Sabres, where the Gnat came out a clear victor and was christened “Sabre Slayer”.


The 1971 India-Pakistan war ended with liberation of Bangladesh. IAF achieved complete air superiority, the then, East Pakistan in first three days by neutralising both the airfields near Dacca that housed all the fighter aircraft. This allowed Indian Army to blitzkrieg to the Capital city. The massive Tangail airdrop involved nearly 50 IAF transport aircraft. Similarly IAF pressed in a large number of helicopter assets for India Army’s Megnaheli-crossing. Both these were great examples of jointmanship, and directly contributed to the ground offensive and swift victory. Finally the air strikes on the Governor’s House in Dacca forced immediate surrender. In the West, IAF carried out massive airfield strikes, attack on Karachi harbour and Sui gas plant, interdiction of trains, destruction of ammo dumps, and close air support to Indian Army. IAF neutralised the Pakistan Army armour thrust in Longewala. In the air battles between Indian MiG-21 and Pakistani F-104 starfighter, IAF pilots came out clear winners. IAF’s first and only Param Vir Chakra was awarded to Flying Officer Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon.


Kargil war of 1999 was the first major all high altitude air war with targets at around 5,000 m altitude. Pakistani intruders had occupied many Indian high altitude posts across a large sector. The war remained a localised action. The Indian government decided that IAF will not cross the Line of Control (LoC). This put restrictions of attack directions. IAF flew all types of aerial missions including air recce, interdiction strikes, air defence combat air patrol, and logistic support missions. The series of attacks against Pt 4388 in the Dras sector was an excellent example of how lethal airstrikes can be. Large targets of consequence such as supply camp at Muntho Dhalo, enemy Battalion HQ on top of Tiger Hill were neutralised. IAF’s night strike operations were carried out using ingenuity and imagination and had a significant effect on the enemy’s resilience, stamina and the very will to fight. IAF also learnt lessons on high altitude warfare. Effectiveness of Man-portable AD systems on mountain tops, importance of IR flares and chaffs, engine related limitations on very high-altitude rocket firing, among others. Laser bombs were very effective in taking out individual bunkers on hill tops. Free-fall bombs were very good for supply camps, and assembly areas in the valleys. Clearly, the use of air power considerably hastened expelling the intruders and also greatly reduced own casualties.


The other major operations undertaken by the IAF included ‘Operation Vijay’ (December 1961) for liberation of Goa, Daman and Diu. The 36 hour operation involved airstrikes that supported a quick decisive victory for India, ending 451 years of rule by Portugal. ‘Operation Meghdoot’ was launched in April 1984 to seize and retain full control of the Siachen Glacier, now the highest battlefield in the world. For the IAF it involved round the year transport and helicopter air support to maintain the Indian Army. IAF fighters began flying more regularly at Ladakh airbases. Also the advanced landing grounds such as DBO were also activated.

Immediately after independence, when Pakistani intruders began moving into Jammu and Kashmir, and were about to reach Srinagar, IAF played a very significant role in retrieving J&K and Ladakh

Indian armed forces were moved in support of the elected government in the 1988 Maldives coup d’état attempt. India began ‘Operation Cactus’ on the night of November 3,1988. IAF Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft airlifted the elements of the 50th Independent Parachute Brigade, from Agra and flew them non-stop over 2,000 kilometres to land them at the Malé International Airport, effectively arriving in nine hours after the appeal from President Gayoom, and quelled the coup.

Operation Poomalai was a mission undertaken by the IAF for airdropping supplies over the besieged town of Jaffna in Sri Lanka on June 4, 1987 to support the Tamil Tigers during the Sri Lankan Civil War. Five An-32s escorted by five Mirage 2000s were used to drop relief supplies.


The IAF carries out round the year air maintenance missions to help sustain the Indian Army, Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), BSF and other paramilitary forces deployed in the entire northern region, Siachen and Sub-Sector North (SSN) where Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) is located. Similar exercise is done in other sectors in the Himalayas, including North East. IAF transport and helicopter fleets carry over 30,000 tonnes of load from plains to the high altitude posts. IAF plays a major role in intra-theatre and inter-valley transfers of ground forces. IAF supports the Border Roads Organisation to carry their aggregates. Similarly, supports Indian Railways to build bridges, and Power Grid for HT tower maintenance. IAF often sets up Air Bridge in support of civil administration when roads are blocked due to heavy snow.


ber from any country, participated in more than 49 missions and 168 Indian peacekeepers have made the supreme sacrifice while serving in UN missions. IAF had deployed six Canberra B (I) MK-58 bombers in Congo (1960-64). The IAF took part in peacekeeping duties in Somalia from October 1, 1993 to December 21,1994. The two Chetak helicopters modified with anti-tank guided missiles were sent. IAF operations in Sierra Leone (1999- 2001) included casualty evacuation, medical aid, armed rescue, communication and logistic support. Mi-8 and Chetak were modified for armament role. IAF had also deployed Mi-25 Gun Ships. IAF also deployed in Congo in 2003 with four night upgraded Mi-35 attack helicopters and six night-capable Mi-17 utility helicopters. IAF helicopters were used in Sudan in 2008-09.


The IAF has invariably been the first responder in most HADR operations in aid to civil power. IAF today has very significant transport aircraft (C-17, C-130, IL-76, An-32) and helicopter (Mi-17, Chinook, ALH, Chetak) assets with heavy lift capability and global reach. Most recently IAF aircraft were used for evacuating Indians from Sudan, including night missions from semi-prepared surfaces. Earlier similar missions were flown from Iraq, Kuwait and Jordan (1990); Lebanon (2006); Libya (2011); Yemen (2015); and Wuhan and Iran (2000). IAF led the drinking water supply ‘Operation Neer’ to Maldives (2014). During the 2015 Nepal earthquake, IAF and Indian Army made 2,223 sorties and rescued 11,200 people. IAF was in action in Odisha Cyclone (1999); Bhuj Earthquake (2001); Tsunami (2004); Sikkim earthquake (2011); Uttarakhand floods and Category 5 super cyclone Phailin in Odisha (2013); and Kerala floods (2018). IAF had deployed 42 transport aircraft for COVID relief. IAF helicopters with bambi-bucket routinely extinguish fires. In 2022, IAF flew 220 sorties to meet casualty evacuation demands of various State authorities.

Faced with the possibility of a twofront war, IAF is down to 31 fighter squadrons, vis-à-vis the authorised 42. IAF’s combat fleet and force multipliers, AEW&C aircraft and FRA, numbers have to go up significantly.

IAF’s emergency response teams are located at all major transport airbases. IAF Rapid Aero Medical Teams (RAMT) are positioned at vantage locations. All IAF bases have coordination with local Indian Army units and the National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) battalions. IAF aircraft, including UAVs, are used for aerial assessment of disasters.


arge force exercise “Tarang Shakti”, it has come a long way in carrying out international exercises with all major air forces of the world. Three Rafale just took part in the Bastille Day flypast over the Champs Elysees in Paris. IAF and USAF participate in bilateral US Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) sponsored Field Training Exercise (FTX) Cope India series, conducted in India. Exercise ‘Garuda’ series is with the French Air and Space Force (FASF) held alternatively in India and France. The 17-nation Multilateral Exercise ‘Pitch Black’ was held at Darwin, Australia in September 2022. IAF has been participating since 2018. The Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) and the IAF have been carrying out bilateral exercise SINDEX since 2004. IAF and Royal Air Force (RAF), conduct Exercise “Indradhanush” since 2006, held in both India and the UK. IAF has also been participating in the US Air Force (USAF) ‘Red Flag’ exercise in Nellis Air Force Base, and at Eielson AFB in Alaska in the United States. Desert Eagle is multi-lateral exercise organised by United Arab Emirates Air Force. IAF has also been participating in exercise Eastern Bridge with Oman. Blue Flag is a military aviation exercise held by the Israeli Air Force. In July 2022, the IAF carried out a onemonth long engagement with the Egyptian Air Force (EAF) at the Egyptian Fighter Weapon School, in Cairo. The Japanese Air Self Defence Force (JASDF) and IAF participated in bilateral air exercise SHINYUU Maitri-18 in 2018 at IAF airbase in Agra. In January 2023, the bilateral air exercise ‘Veer Guardian 2023’ was held between the IAF and Japan Air Self Defence Force (JASDF) in Japan. IAF participate in Exercise Orion at the Mont-de-Marsan airbase in France, and exercise INIOCHOS at Andravida base in Greece in April-May 2023. These exercises improve tactics and interoperability and expose crew to newer ideas and concepts.


IAF recently carried out three long-range missions to train for and showcase its long-range strike and air patrol capability. These were flown by the Su-30 MKI, and Rafale fighters. They were supported by the IAF’s IL-78 Flight Refueller Aircraft (FRA) for inflight refuelling, and the IL-76 based Phalcon Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft for aerial radar cover, and command and control. Any significant global power must have the capability for “global vigilance and global reach”. These 7-10 hour long missions were a step in that direction. IAF must ensure the country has “freedom from attack and the freedom to attack”. India’s immediate area of regional influence demands ability to cover and dominate the entire Bay of Bengal up to and beyond the Malacca Strait. Have an operational reach till British Indian Ocean territories (Diego Garcia) in northern Indian Ocean. Similarly cover the entire Arabian Sea up to Gulf of Aden and Gulf of Oman. The strategic long-range missions demonstrate area domination and area denial capability. One can recall how all the Rafale aircraft were ferried nonstop from France to India by undertaking mid-air refuelling enroute. The above mentioned international evacuation and disaster relief missions have showcased India’s rapid mobility capabilities. From Andaman and Nicobar Islands, IAF can launch missions till South China Sea with a single aerial refuelling. With Operational logistics agreement with all QUAD members and other friendly neighbours, IAF will be able to use their airfields.


IAF has had a glorious past, but there are challenges ahead. China’s PLAAF is pushing ahead in both technology and numbers of air assets. Pakistan with the help of China is catching up. There is a spectre of twofront war. IAF is down to 31 fighter squadrons, vis-à-vis authorised 42. IAF’s force multipliers, AEW&C aircraft and FRA, numbers have to go up for the continental sized country. The Indian armed forces mostly have imported Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV). India’s ‘Tapas’ UAV and ‘Ghatak’ UCAV need to be accelerated. India needs to induct more combat UAVs in the meantime. Drones, drone swarms, manned-unmanned teaming are all work still in slow progressed. IAF is now a fully networked force. Cyber and electronic warfare capability will have to cater for very active highly contested environment. Spacebased surveillance assets have to go up. India has a successful missile programme. Ukraine war has indicated need for larger weapon stocking and securing supply chains. Developing and imbibing newer technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, quantum computing, hypersonic and directed energy systems would be important. Indigenisation ‘Atmanirbharta’ is getting the needed push at highest levels, but much more has still to be achieved. For India to become a significant power, the LCA and AMCA programmes must not only succeed but need hastening. Time to act is now, lest we get left far behind.



 1.Air Marshal Sir Thomas W. Elmhirst (August 15, 1947 – February 22, 1950)
 2.Air Marshal R. Ivelaw –Chapman (February 22, 1950 – December 9, 1951)
 3.Air Marshal Sir Gerald Ernest Gibbs (December 10, 1951 – March 31, 1954)
 4.Air Marshal Subroto Mukerjee (April 1, 1954 – November 8, 1960)
 5.Air Chief Marshal A.M. Engineer (December 1, 1960 – July 31, 1964)
 6.Marshal of the Air Force Arjan Singh (August 1, 1964 – July 15, 1969)
 7.Air Chief Marshal Pratap Chandra Lal (July 16, 1969 – January 15, 1973)
 8.Air Chief Marshal Om Prakash Mehra (January 16, 1973 – January 31, 1976)
 9.Air Chief Marshal H. Moolgavkar (February 1, 1976 – August 31, 1978)
 10.Air Chief Marshal Idris Hassan Latif (September 1, 1978 – August 31, 1981)
 11.Air Chief Marshal Dilbagh Singh (September 1, 1981 – September 3, 1984)
 12.Air Chief Marshal L. M. Katre (September 4, 1984 – July 1, 1985)
 13.Air Chief Marshal Denis Anthony La Fontaine (July 3, 1985 – July 31, 1988)
 14.Air Chief Marshal Surinder Kumar Mehra (August 1, 1988 – July 31, 1991)
 15.Air Chief Marshal Nirmal Chandra Suri (July 31, 1991 – July 31, 1993)
 16.Air Chief Marshal S. K. Kaul (August 1, 1993 – December 31, 1995)
 17.Air Chief Marshal S.K. Sareen (December 31, 1995 – December 31, 1998)
 18.Air Chief Marshal Anil Y. Tipnis (December 31, 1998 – December 31, 2001)
 19.Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy (December 31, 2001 – December 31, 2004)
 20.Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi (December 31, 2004 – March 31, 2007)
 21.Air Chief Marshal F.H. Major (March 31, 2007 – May 31, 2009)
 22.Air Chief Marshal Pradeep Vasant Naik (May 31, 2009 – July 31, 2011)
 23.Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne (August 2, 2011 – December 31, 2013)
 24.Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha (January 1, 2014 – December 31, 2016)
 25.Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa (January 1, 2017 – September 30, 2019)
 26.Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria (September 30, 2019 – September 30, 2021)
 27.Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari (September 30, 2021 – Present)