IAF - More Lean Than Mean

Issue: 10-2009By Air Marshal (Retd) V.K. BhatiaIllustration(s): By 373.jpg

While adversaries are building their air force arsenals at a feverish pitch, the IAF’s acquisition and modernisation programmes continue to either languish, or move forward at a snail’s pace

“The Indian Air Force will shortly acquire enhanced capabilities and leapfrog a generation ahead.”
—Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major, October 8, 2008

Accolades apart, the air power display by the Indian Air Force (IAF) on its 77th anniversary on October 8 could at best be described as moder¬ate—exceptions being the 250 km-range Prithvi on static dis¬play and the mighty Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), displayed for the first time in Indian skies since its induction in May. The combat power of the IAF was restrict¬ed to five ‘Vics’ of three aircraft each (total 15 aircraft) consist¬ing of Jaguar strike aircraft, the upgraded MiG-21 Bisons, the Mig-29 air superiority fight¬ers, the multi-role Mirage 2000 and the top-of-the-line Su-30 MKI air dominance fighters. In sharp contrast, air displays during the previous years show¬cased five-aircraft arrowheads as basic formations, with much larger numbers of aircraft of all types of fighters participating.

Is this an ominous sign that the IAF still finds itself in a trough of eroded combat capability due to the dwindling strength of its combat squadrons? Was the drawdown, which had started earlier in the decade, attributable merely to obsolescence and retirement of aircraft that had completed their service life? Or, was it also the fallout of hasty and premature withdrawals of some types that were beset with maintenance support problems? To redux, the IAF had painstakingly built up its combat jet fighter squadrons to 39-and-half against a recommended figure of 45 and maintained it long enough for it to be considered as the approved squadrons’ strength. But the lack of any meaningful acquisition programmes throughout the 1990s started to have the inevitable adverse effect on its combat squadrons’ strength by the turn of the century. All of the factors combined drained the IAF that started to lose its combat squadrons at a rapid pace from 2002 onwards, eroding one-quarter of its numerical strength in just a few years.

Then again, is there a silver lining on the horizon? Speaking at the sidelines of the Air Force Day Parade on October 8, the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik admitted to the large scale downslide in the number of combat squadrons, but struck a hopeful note, “I would like to share one thing—we do not have a small force. We are on the low side of the sine curve and we are only going to go up... The strength (of the fighter squadrons) has to increase. By 2014, it will start increasing. By 2022, we expect to have the requisite numbers.” Earlier, while addressing the parade after the investiture ceremony, the IAF Chief put forward his vision of the force, visualising a powerful aerospace entity, capable of dominating the entire spectrum of information, cyber and airspace. According to him, a large number of acquisitions, like the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), helicopters, Flight Refuelling Aircraft, AWACS and transport aircraft will be in place in the next few years which will “provide a quantum leap to the IAF’s operational capability”.

Later, responding to a question from the media, Air Chief Marshal Naik said, “Our priority is to meet the national aspirations. India has spheres of influence from the Strait of Malacca to the Strait of Hormuz, and the IAF should have greater reach and air superiority. The IAF today is improving its reach, firepower and protection.” He further added that priorities are to acquire long-range aircraft, lethal weapons, precision munitions and a robust air defence network. “The IAF this year inducted one AWACS aircraft, and two more will come on line in 2010. In addition, the IAF is acquiring three mid-air refuellers, six C-130J transport aircraft, 80 medium-lift helicopters, Spyder air defence systems, medium power radars and low-level transportable radars,” he informed. Citing India’s agreement with Russia for joint development of Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft and the Medium Transport Aircraft, he said, “We are also building capabilities in satellites, communications, radars and electronic counter-measures.”

Naik explained that India’s ‘Dissuasive Deterrence’ military policy depends on the Sukhois (Su-30 MKI) as well as the 3,500 km nuclear-capable Agni III missile, which will be ready for operational deployment by 2011; and the 5,000 km-range Agni V missile in the pipeline. He confirmed that his force was indeed “interested” in acquiring more Sukhois—which will be the mainstay of the IAF’s fighter fleet for the foreseeable future—to further its combat potential.

A question often asked is whether the IAF is on track in terms of force augmentation and, capability enhancement through meaningful modernisation, answer to which would emphatically be in the positive. The IAF was the first service out of the three in the country to enunciate a comprehensive doctrine in the mid-1990s which gave it an impetus to transform itself into a potent regional/global force. In pursuance of this goal, it drew a roadmap to transcend from a mere tactical air force with only a support role for the surface forces to being a truly strategic and inter-continental aerospace power in tune with growing national aspirations and, to meet future military challenges and increased regional/global responsibilities.