Group Captain Balakrishna Menon, VM, was commissioned in the old General Duties branch of the Indian Air Force (now known as the Flying Branch) in 1967 as a fighter pilot. He flew Hunters and all variants of the MiG 21 fighter aircraft used by the IAF across the country, before a stint at the Flying Instructor School and a two year posting with an IAF Training Team on deputation to the Iraqi Air Force at Tikrit. He commanded a MiG 21 Bis Squadron (No.15 Squadron), and a flying station at Jaisalmer.
An MSc in Defence Studies, he has also served as a staff officer to the Chief Of Air Staff at Air Headquarters, New Delhi, and as a staff officer at Training Command. he was commended by the Chief of Air Staff, IAF in 1984, and awarded the Vayu Sena Medal in 1988. After retiring in 1994, he lives in Bangalore and dabbles in military history and Linux software.
In an exclusive interview with Ramananda Sengupta, he elaborates on the challenges facing the IAF today, and asserts that air shows like Aero India 2013 are important platforms for inspiring and motivating the younger generation to take an interest in defence matters.
…delays in development of the LCA have meant that as on date we have no LCAs in service while the MiG 21 fleet is on its way out.
As a fighter pilot with years of experience, what do you see as the biggest challenge facing the Indian Air Force today?
In the near future, it is the depletion of force levels. Induction of new systems has not kept pace with the phasing out of older systems. For example, delays in development of the LCA have meant that as on date we have no LCAs in service while the MiG 21 fleet is on its way out. The Akash SAM system is just being inducted & till sufficient numbers are deployed, our SAM defences will have to rely on the obsolete Pechora system. On the basic trainer front, this has become a crisis with the HPT 32 having been grounded some time ago & the induction of the replacement PC 7 expected to start only later this year. The quality of flying training has suffered. The HJT 16 will approach the end of its life with no replacement in sight. The story of trainer aircraft development makes sad reading. A turboprop basic trainer prototype made by HAL was first seen in the early 80s. The Intermediate Jet Trainer (IJT) prototype was featured during the first air show in the early 90s, to the best of my knowledge. The former sank without trace & now there are news items about its resurrection. The IJT is still far short of operational status.
In my opinion, the most serious long term problem is that careers in all three services are becoming less of a vocation than as a means of livelihood and that too if other options do not work out. Our officer training academies are not able to attract sufficient numbers of the required quality of people. This will force lowering of standards. Optimal employment of sophisticated equipment needs high quality manpower. Various factors have also lowered motivational levels within the services, most of them beyond the control of the services themselves. Inter services conflicts on who controls what and cases of aberrant behavior by leaders in uniform who are supposed to be role models are self inflicted injuries for which the armed forces have only themselves to blame. These are warning flags.
If our uniformed experts need air shows to gather knowledge as is the norm in some countries, then we are sunk…
What steps, in your opinion, should be taken to tackle this challenge?
For the depletion of force levels in the short term, there are really no fast fixes. The only option is to continue stretching the life of existing systems.
The other problem requires a change of attitudes and perceptions within and outside the services. The problem is not unique to our country. We can examine how others have tried to find solutions. The US armed forces among others have had conflicts about control of weapon systems both at the inter services level and within a service itself. They have managed integration of assets. During & after Vietnam they had problems of racial tensions, drug abuse and decline in the status of the military in their society. We have to accept that problems exist before we can work towards solutions.
What do events like the AERO India serve, it practical terms?
Creating awareness is the biggest benefit. The public at large has limited knowledge of defence issues, infrastructure, equipment and technological trends in the aerospace field. For example a lot of talented individuals and small companies want to know about what the armed forces are looking for in terms of technologies and equipment. Some of them have the ability to contribute. Local development capabilities are not the fiefdom of DRDO or mammoth public sector firms alone. Private entities look for a profit angle – so do our defence sector PSUs. If the former can make profits & improve our own capabilities, it is a winning situation for all.
Aero India 2013 will be a success if it motivates the younger generation, the public and the civilian decision makers to take greater interest in defence matters.
Major defence acquisitions are not decided at air shows. Proposals are made by experts in service headquarters and vetted & sanctioned by the civilian leadership who are hopefully well informed. Policy makers at the latter level need to be aware & such events can help create awareness. If our uniformed experts need air shows to gather knowledge as is the norm in some countries, then we are sunk – hopefully that is not the case.
What , in your opinion, can be done to improve the effectiveness of such events?
Giving greater exposure to small entities who may have big ideas but slim purses is something these air shows as well as media houses should do. These entrepreneurs do not have big advertising budgets & are usually ignored by our defence publications. They do not have contacts to showcase their capabilities to service headquarters. Forums like Aero India can play an important role in nurturing such talent. The organizers and defence media houses may not gain in monetary terms, but if the aim is to spread awareness as everyone proclaims, then this is something they should do.
The organizers should have more information about events, participants, items likely to be on display, etc available on their websites and in print media well before the start of such an event. As of now information available to a layman on the official website is sketchy.
What are your main expectations from AERO-India 2013?
Aero India 2013 will be a success if it motivates the younger generation, the public and the civilian decision makers to take greater interest in defence matters. The defence budget uses up a lot of our resources & the taxpayer needs to be better informed than he or she is now. Private participation by small entities in defence production may increase because of the exposure provided by Aero India. If this serves as a wake up call to the mammoth government entities, so much the better. The Wright brothers were not part of a PSU or Government design team!