Combat Force - Forecast for 2030

Issue: 09-2009By Air Marshal (Retd) V.K. Bhatia

Hopefully by then, the Medium Combat Aircraft and the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft would constitute the high performance category in the IAF

Crystal gazing is an inherently risky proposition, more so when one is asked to put the clock forward by as much as two decades to predict how the Indian Air Force (IAF) would look and what would be its force structures in 2030. A difficult task indeed but made somewhat easier by two eventful developments. First was the emergence of India as the new economic powerhouse; second, was the IAF’s growing aspirations to transform itself from a mere sub-continental tactical force to an inter-continental, strategic aerospace power in conformity with other leading air forces in the world.

India’s economic rise on the world stage and the changing geo-political and security scenarios transformed the IAF’s perceptions of its vastly changing and enhanced roles and responsibilities. The IAF began to appreciate the necessity to acquire comprehensive operational capabilities characterised by flexibility, quick response, mobility and transportability of all forms of national power, as well as, long reach and precisiontargeting fire power with minimal collateral damage—all attributes of a modern strategic air force. In this scenario, how should the IAF work towards building its capabilities into the 2030s? Any assessment of the future direction of the IAF must take into account the likely capabilities of countries whose air power could impinge on India’s security, in particular, and its enhanced global responsibilities, in general.

Hostile Neighbours

Two major adversaries in India’s immediate neighbourhood are China and Pakistan. China’s military modernisation, progressing purposefully for more than two decades, received another shot in the arm in the early 1990s when Beijing observed the superiority demonstrated by the coalition forces in the first Iraq war. This was also the time when it started to have access to the Soviet/Russian latest technologies and design base.

China’s modernisation drive to replace its antiquated weapon systems with the help of Russian technology and expertise saw the rapid transformation of People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) which, by 2005, had acquired close to 400 Su-27/Su-30 aircraft. This figure continues to increase with China’s home production of J-11 aircraft. In addition, domestic production of other types such as JH-7/7A, FC-1 and J-10 is progressing at a feverish pitch. PLAAF is close to realising its aim to have a predominantly Fourth Generation air force providing it with all-pervading capabilities of a modern, state-ofthe-art, offensive air arm with matching force-multipliers and support systems in a network-centric warfare scenario.

As a partner in US’ ‘Global War On Terror’, Pakistan has been already supplied with $11 billion (Rs 52,860 crore) worth of modern weapon systems, including the latest F-16 aircraft, which even deposed dictator General Pervez Musharraf admitted recently could be used against India. In addition, Pakistan has started producing the JF-17 Thunder (Chinese FC-1) indigenously. The Pakistan Air Force is being given maximum priority to transform itself into a modern fighting force. Soon, India could be confronted with 1,500 to 2,000 Fourth Generation combat fighter jets at its two borders.

Enhancing Combat Power

Against this backdrop, the IAF has to build itself to face the emerging threats and future challenges. So what sort of air force is visualised in 2030, a time when the IAF will also be getting ready to celebrate its centenary? The present discussion will focus on the issue of combat power.

An earlier assessment that a somewhat qualitatively improved 35-squadron force would be reasonably efficient was obviously flawed in the rapidly changing security paradigms. The IAF is at present struggling with a depleted strength of around 30 squadrons, amounting to a numerical degradation by 25 per cent of its earlier strength of 39-and-half. Once again, there was seemingly flawed thinking in some quarters that force multipliers could offset shrinking force levels. But force multiplication can never be a substitute for force, and this is even more so when the adversary also possesses force multipliers. It is known that China is well ahead of India in force multipliers and Pakistan is trying its utmost to catch up, while, as stated earlier, both are feverishly modernising their combat force levels.

Evidently, the IAF will have to embark on not just a modernisation plan but also a comprehensive inventory augmentation programme to build up its combat force to the desired levels. While it is not suggested that the IAF should match its adversaries ‘brick-for-brick and stone-for-stone’ but it would certainly have to work towards building capabilities to manage a two-front requirement with a proper mix of high, medium and low-end performance aircraft. It must also be remembered that the very definition of ‘performance’ continues to change with the continuing infusion of ever-increasing high-end technologies.