The IAF’s capability covers the IOR countries on the maritime side and its principal adversaries Pakistan and China on the landward side. The government needs to finalise the contract for the 126 MMRCA at the earliest to prevent losing its combat edge in quality and numbers. A specific fighter aircraft for precision attacks in the hills should be a high priority while a scientific study to determine its utility for the IAF and the IA needs to be commenced as early as possible. An operations research study must be carried out to determine the optimum numbers of SSMs and Long Range Aircraft. A credible SSM nuclear deterrence is to be developed in relation to China.
The depletion of the IAF’s combat fleet strength has reached alarming proportions…
The general public is fascinated with the combat fleet of the Indian Air Force (IAF) as fighter aircraft, which constitute the combat fleet, are associated with the glamour of fighter pilots – the air warriors of the skies. Yet people seldom realise that these fighter aircraft act in tandem with other weapon systems which form the cutting edge but are not in the public eye! These are the attack helicopters that are designed to perform aerial attack missions but do not possess cargo carrying capability, the Surface to Surface Missiles (SSMs), the Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs), the Air Defence Artillery (ADArty) and the Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) among others. All of the above lend close-in protection to our airfields and other vital assets. These weapons systems come under the term – ‘combat power’ and would include the most important element – the men behind the machine! It needs to be understood that combat power does not operate in isolation; it needs other non-combat aspects which impact on its effectiveness.
The future will bring about the obsolescence of many weapons systems and witness changes in the relationship between India and its likely adversaries as well as the re-equipment of their armed forces, technological innovations or doctrinal changes. This will call for the Indian Armed Forces in general and the IAF in particular to address the problem of restructuring their components. The period up to 2020 will allow predictions to be more realistic. Instead of only a threat – based development, the IAF has chosen to develop its air force as a capability – based one. What, therefore, is the extent of the IAF’s responsibilities?
Areas of Responsibility
India has chosen to look after the area from the Gulf of Aden to the Strait of Malacca as the region where all its trade, commerce and most importantly, its energy resources, flow into the country. This is the area which the IAF has to cover to preserve India’s interests. Interaction with Indian Ocean Rim (IOR) countries is essential for India to use diplomacy, trade and commerce to ensure protection of mutual interests.
Coming to the relations with neighbors – Pakistan, China, other South Asian and South East Asian countries along with Australia form one part to the East while to the West, Saudi Arabia, Kenya and South Africa form the other part besides smaller countries along the IOR. The principal adversaries – Pakistan and China are the ones with whom India has had a difficult relationship.
Sino-Indian borders need to be kept under surveillance through satellites and unmanned platforms…
There is an asymmetry in the force comparison between Pakistan and India. Pakistan’s combat air power is no match for the IAF – in terms of quality and quantity at least till 2020. Pakistani intrusion into Kargil served to bring to light India’s shortcomings in providing weight to the attacks in the Himalayas. Due to India’s more powerful Air Force, Pakistan prefers to engage in indirect warfare – using terrorists and other disaffected elements to bleed India. If she felt threatened by India, she would rely on nuclear weapons, both tactical and strategic, to force the latter to the negotiation table. It should, however, be clear that in the future, the traditional military posture will progressively become less relevant as clandestine warfare of the future will have no clearly defined fronts. This would require doctrines and inventories to be redefined and restructured.
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is quantitatively superior to the IAF. The PLAAF has gone about enhancing its capability through technological improvements, induction of indigenous aircraft and weapons systems as well as introduction of capable force multipliers such as AWACS, tankers, Electronic Warfare systems. Its strategic missiles can target each and every corner of India. It has built an effective road and rail network in Tibet to enable the rapid deployment of large military forces there. India may hold the edge in a defensive battle but would need to enhance its strategic missile capability to reach a majority of targets on Chinese territory.
To overcome this asymmetry, the IAF must develop a missile-based credible nuclear deterrence to counter China’s nuclear capability. Simultaneously, the Sino-Indian borders need to be kept under surveillance through satellites and unmanned platforms. The IAF must also acquire the capability to launch a precision attack in mountainous areas from high altitude using advanced Precision Guided Munitions. In addition, it must have the capability to neutralise targets with mobile units of Surface-to-Surface Missiles with conventional warheads in coordination with target data obtained from UAVs. Which brings us to the crux of the issue – what are the issues in restructuring the combat power of the IAF?
SSMs beyond the Tactical Battle Area will form the other component of combat power…
IAF’s Combat Power – Present Day
The depletion of the IAF’s combat fleet strength has reached alarming proportions. As reported in an interview with the previous CAS, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, the IAF has the approval to build up to 42 squadrons by 2027; the present strength is 34 squadrons. The Su-30s of the IAF along with the AWACs, Maritime Reconnaissance Aircraft and tanker aircraft can cover the countries in the IOR as well as the land borders. The numbers of these force multipliers, however, need to be enhanced to cover the land as well as the maritime responsibilities. The IAF has consciously preferred to have all fighter aircraft including the LCA with air-to-air refueling capability.
While the upgradation of the Mirage-2000, the MiG-29, the MiG-27 and the Jaguar fleet will allow some room for manoeuver, the induction of the 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) will serve to tilt the balance in IAF’s favor. The delay in finalisation of the MMRCA contract with Dassault of France will only escalate the price that India will have to pay for its acquisition in the future. Accountability for the delay and the resulting escalation in costs adversely affecting the IAF’s combat capability, is the major issue.
Another important but long standing aspect is the continued and prompt availability of spares and maintenance support for all weapons systems in the IAF’s inventory. Here too, it is the intransigence of the Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Defence (Finance), who have not been accountable for delays affecting the combat potential of the IAF, and the inability of the IAF top brass to take this matter up to the highest level to ensure prompt redressal of the IAF’s needs.
The next is the progress of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project that started in 1983 but the aircraft is yet to reach full operational capability status. Being the main operator, the IAF should be the program managers and determine the cost benefits of this programme. Cost and time overruns must be mutually agreed upon and the program dumped if these are not met. The IAF must have an Aviation Design Directorate at Air HQ which will be the main agency involved in future acquisitions with IAF program managers managing each and every program. This is being practiced by the Indian Navy and should, therefore, be acceptable to the government.
The IAF needs to review its ability to carry out precision attacks in the Himalayas. A transonic fighter with adequate payload and endurance such as the A-10 Thunderbolt needs to be acquired so that this gap in the IAF’s capability is met with.