The Tejas is an aircraft the IAF can do without, although pressures to induct it have led to orders. Meanwhile, the sands of time, inexorably straining through the impassive hourglass of IAF chronicles, are constant forewarnings of rapidly diminishing numbers. Despite the measures taken today, the numbers are preordained to drop further before the results of any replenishment arrangements manifest themselves. The most optimistic projection for the current 33 squadron strength to reach the sanctioned 42 squadrons is 2027, despite official noise about raising it to 42 by 2022. In the worst possible case, the IAF could actually come down to squadron strength of 25 to 27 before ongoing efforts bring about an upward swing.
The situation is like a time bomb whose trigger, unfortunately, lies with our inimical neighbours…
Sometimes, in a strange hotel room, the unfamiliar noise from an air conditioning louvre can be disturbing at the onset, soon turning into an acceptable, almost comforting, hum. In a similar vein, the constant clamour of the Indian armed forces about shortfalls in war-waging equipment and weaponry, has now come to be accepted by the nation and the establishment that governs it, as clamour in the background, avoidable if possible, but acceptable if not. Occasionally, the military exacerbates this sense of complacency inadvertently. Recently, the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), speaking at the occasion of presentation of President’s Standards to two Air Force units, said, “Nobody wants war. War causes problems with the national economy and development. We feel that deterrence should be there; but war should not take place. We should keep striving for economic development. But if a warlike situation arises, then that is what the armed forces are there for. The armed forces are always ready, but in my view, the chances of war are very less.”
Nonetheless, the shortfall of military wares for the defence forces is an alarming situation, all the more so on account of the inordinately long periods for which the shortfalls have existed. Procurement sagas, sordid and sad in their narrative, have rendered the situation disturbing and distressing. Perhaps the most frightening shortfall is visible in the Indian Air Force (IAF) with its gnarled composition, whittled down by peacetime attrition to a 33-squadron caricature of its 42 squadron authorisation. Ongoing phasing out of old aircraft renders this situation worse every day while in-progress endeavours to replenish these numbers are self-evidently inadequate. The situation is like a time bomb whose trigger, unfortunately, lies with our inimical neighbours.
The Challenges Accosting the Indian Air Force (IAF)
India and China have been, in recent years, competitors in some arenas, but the rivalry has been far from healthy or friendly. China’s actions have been indicative of its intent and have varied from the irritating such as blocking India’s entry into Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) to the menacing armed intrusions deep into Indian territory. Constant reminders from China that India’s Tawang is China’s Zang Nan province serve to blow fresh draughts of air over the cinders of the Sino-Indian territorial dispute, keeping them eternally on the brink of a flare up. China has gradually built up its military presence along its borders with India and juxtaposed with recently announced military reforms as a part of which Tibet Military Command’s (TMC) authority level was raised to place it directly under the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). This build up is a bad portent for India. There are other ominous developments in Tibet with logistical infrastructure being boosted and some indications of TMC rehearsing military combat missions on its own obviously aimed at India.
India and China have been, in recent years, competitors in some arenas, but the rivalry has been far from healthy or friendly…
A large number of airports have been developed and more airports with military capability are under development. One estimate puts the number of major airbases at 14 and that of smaller airstrips with military potential at 20. If the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) aircraft deployed in the erstwhile Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Regions are reckoned as those that can be used from these airports in Tibet, the total could be around 300 fighters and around 72 bombers. Chengdu MR had two fighter divisions with J-7H, J-7II, J-10A, Su-27SK and J-11 fighters and a transport division, whereas Lanzhou MR had two fighter divisions (J-7H, J-7II, J-8F, J-8H, JH-7A, J-11 and J-11B) and a bomber division (H-6). While the older aircraft would have limited capability from the high elevation airports in Tibet, the Su-27, J-10 and J-11/11B represent a veritable capability usable against India. On the doctrinal front, the reference by some sections of Chinese government-run media to PLAAF as a ‘strategic force’, is alarming inasmuch as this term was so far used only in the context of China’s Second Artillery Corps (now People’s Liberation army Rocket Force or PLARF). The 1962 War was about Tibet and the next India-China War could be launched from Tibet, with PLAAF aircraft deployed in Tibet playing a major role in airfield strikes, air defence and close air support to ground forces.
Driven by its consuming animosity for India and encouraged by China in its anti-India acts and iterations, Pakistan is a challenge that the IAF has to consider in all its calculations. While the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) aircraft numbers do not match up to those of the IAF, the threat cannot be shrugged off as the flexibility, reach and intensity of air power application are not directly proportional to sheer numbers. The presence of F-16s and J-31s on PAF’s inventory renders it a veritable adversary in the air and especially when they are used in support of Pakistani land and sea forces. Moreover, as has been argued in the past, the use of tactical nuclear weapons as threatened by Pakistan continually, represents a strategic impact on expected Indian response which may well be nuclear in nature and lead to not-so-limited war.
The PAF has been carrying out joint air exercises with the PLAAF under the series “SHAHEEN” since 2011 and significantly, the 2015 edition was held in Tibet. This fact by itself is significant and serves to highlight the apprehensions of many defence analysts of the possibility of a two-front war besetting India in the future. Notwithstanding iterations by some others who dismiss the idea of a two-front war, it is a prospect that needs to be considered as a classic risk management exercise. Even if the probability that it might happen is low, the severity of consequences should it happen, would be disastrous for the IAF and for the nation.
A large number of airports have been developed and more airports with military capability are under development…
Catering for the worst case scenario of a two-front war, analysts project a combat strength requirement of modern fourth and fifth generation aircraft to be bolstered up to anywhere between 45 and 60 squadrons. There is no objective formula to arithmetically calculate a nation’s need for combat squadrons based on its geographical extent or the strength of combat squadrons of the enemy. Appreciation of subjective and intangible factors guides the decision path and of course, a critical factor is affordability of progressively complex and hence hugely expensive aircraft. Currently, the sanctioned strength of the IAF is 42 combat squadrons, a figure disparaged by some analysts as too low and incommensurate with India’s size, economic prowess, strategic compulsions and the size of the Indian armed forces.
The IAF is the fourth largest air force in the world! However, India does not have even 42 squadrons today. The actual strength today and this is where the alarm bells start ringing, is 32 and that includes MiG 21 aircraft whose advancing years are phasing them out faster than foreseeable replacement inductions. Around hundred MiG 21 aircraft are expected to be phased out in 2017, and that will bring the total squadron strength down by another five. Speaking at a press conference on September 24, 2016 in Delhi, the former Defence Minister AK Antony said, “By 2022, this strength will be reduced to 25 squadrons…” The CAS in an apparent contradiction reportedly told media on the eve of Air Force Day this year that the Ministry of Defence was working towards building up to 42 squadrons by 2022, the end of the next Five Year Plan. Whether the current figure of 32 moves up or slides further down, the fact remains that there seems to be no sense of urgency on the part of the establishment to address the continuing, and indeed, worsening shortfall.
The PAF has been carrying out joint air exercises with the PLAAF under the series “SHAHEEN” since 2011…
An illustrative example is that of Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) selection which took an inordinately long time to fructify in the form of 126 (plus 63 on option) Rafale aircraft. The winner was announced in 2012, but after prolonged wrangling, was cancelled in July 2015. Subsequently, it was decided to purchase only 36 Rafale jets. The first of these could be expected only after about three years with the last one taking another year and a half to arrive. As can be seen, the Rafale is not an immediate redressal to the shortfall. Nor, for that matter is the number restricted to 36 is adequate for comfort.
The Rafale is a medium-sized combat aircraft as compared to the multi-role Sukhoi Su 30 MKI which is now the backbone of the IAF and is an air superiority fighter with ground attack capability. A total of 272 Su 30 MKIs have been ordered and since 1999, over 200 have reportedly been delivered. Another 40 aircraft have now been ordered taking the total number to 312.
However, the numbers by themselves do not tell the full story. There has been a distressing lack of spare parts and so serviceability has been just over 50 per cent, an unacceptable figure for a frontline combat aircraft which is the single largest type on IAF inventory. India is now planning to invest around $300 million to create a logistics centre for spare parts at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) which license-produces the type after the first 50 machines were delivered by Russia. An upgrade programme (Sukhoi Super 30) is envisaged for all the Su 30 MKIs of IAF and the contract is likely to be signed next year. Meanwhile, around 40 will be modified to carry the BrahMos Cruise missile.