Military & Aerospace

The Future of India’s Air Power
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Issue Vol. 30.1 Jan-Mar 2015 | Date : 22 Feb , 2015

The humongous prolonged gestation period in designing and operationalising any weapon system by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and assembly line manufacturing by the Defence Public Sector Units (PSUs) is unacceptable. If the DRDO and Defence PSUs do not get their act together, India would be mortgaging its security and liberty to foreign weapon vendors!! Despite Computer Aided Design and virtual testing, the unduly slow process and long period has so far been unable to deliver cutting edge technology.

Fifty-five years have passed and India is not able to manufacture an aircraft engine!

Whether on land or in the air there is rarely a sight as fascinating and captivating as an aircraft. The air element is comparatively the most recent component of the military forces. The advent of the aircraft exploited the medium of air for waging war and seemed, initially, to have dodged Clausewitz’s idea of ‘friction’ and ‘fog of war’. Air power entails some form of control of air space. Such control is required for armies and navies to perform effectively. Air power “creates powerful synergies in combination with surface forces”. Despite claims to the contrary, air power should be seen “as an enabler rather than an end in itself”. Understanding air power in modern warfare can be a challenge and difficult to comprehend if the conceptual debate on the early years and historical experience of air power are not taken into account.

Giulio Douhet, Billy Mitchell, John Boyd, John Warden III, figure prominently in those theorising about air power. As early as 1914, Douhet visualised the use of air power beyond the battle fields, “…all of their citizens will become combatants since all of them will be exposed to the aerial offensives of the enemy.” The air arm bringing rapid victory was an enticing idea in the inter war years. “The sheer scale of death and destruction seen in the trench warfare between 1914 and 1918 led to the determination that the experience should not be repeated, and this led to the notion of exploiting the potential reach of bombers to carry the war to the enemy’s homeland, the aim of attempting to bring about a rapid surrender becoming not just a preview of those speculating about air powers potential, but also a matter of serious consideration by those involved in running air services”.

During the inter war period, the Air Force made a transition from an ‘appendage to enabler’. After World War II which was a ‘total war’, experience in the wars that followed in Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, Iraq 1991, Operation Iraqi Freedom 2003, Afghanistan and now Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) brought forth conflicting lessons. At the end of each of these wars, ‘experts’ drew hasty conclusions and presented lessons and each time identified a new form of aerial warfare for future conflicts. However, these had to be rewritten after the very next war. There seemed no simplistic answer to modern war, especially air war.

As India builds her air power, she must take into account her growing role at the global level…

Emerging from all the debate and arguments, an acceptable definition of air power that is here to stay is that, “it comprises the application of military strategy and strategic theory to the realm of modern warfare.” Air power is the function of air supremacy and numbers. Roughly speaking, a combatant side that has 100 per cent or near 100 per cent control of the skies has air supremacy – an advantage of some 70 to 90 per cent would indicate air superiority. A 50/50 split is air parity, lower than this one side may be said to be air denied or air incapable. Such lesser powers might adopt an asymmetric approach towards control of the air. Surface-to-air missiles and anti-aircraft artillery (or air-defence artillery) are deployed to offset enemy air superiority. Thus, airspace directly above a contested battle area can be rendered unusable because of a high density of anti-aircraft weapons. Similarly, a small number of high-tech aircraft compared to a large number of low-tech aircraft result in high capacity but low long term survivability pointing to the multi-faceted and complex nature of air power.

To advantageously exploit air power, a country needs to have available proportionate number of well-protected and dispersed airfields. It needs to be able to operate in hostile air space by Suppressing Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) and carry out reconnaissance to identify critical targets in a dynamic battle area and contiguous areas in depth. It should have the capability of destroying these critical targets minimising exposure both during day or night using precision guided munitions in all weather conditions. It should be capable of power projection and extending its reach and staying power to support the effort. At the end of it, it should have the wherewithal and suitable aircraft to directly assist surface forces in their operations. It is a demanding role by any measure.

The lifespan of an aircraft is long. From design conceptualisation to the first prototype, the minimum period is 15 to 20 years. The operationalisation of the aircraft for active in-service duties followed by mid-life overhaul and technological upgradation results in an aircraft being on the inventory for another 40 to 50 years. By a rough estimate, it would mean one that generation of pilots test fly it in the development stage and another three generations of pilots will fly the aircraft in service till it drops out of the skies as in the case of the Mig 21s. Thus, four generations of pilots would be flying all variants of an aircraft.

Technology transfers should entail entire manufacturing processes be shared and set up in India…

This is particularly important to note when designing an aircraft indigenously. India’s record in this aspect has been rather dismal. HAL had a design team under a German aeronautical engineer Kurt Tank who designed and indigenously built the HF-24 MARUT fighter-bomber. The first flight by the aircraft was recorded on June 17, 1961. A total of 147 aircraft (of all variants) were built. This twin engine fighter-bomber was employed in a ground attack role in support of ground forces and it gave an excellent account of itself in the 1971 war.

After India conducted its first nuclear test in Pokhran in 1974, international pressure prevented the import of better engines or even spares for the Orpheus engines that powered this fighter-bomber. With these engines, the aircraft, as it is, was under powered and HAL could not produce a suitably powerful engine for it. Finally, the aircraft was taken off the inventory in 1990. The tragedy was that the design team was allowed to disintegrate for want of any further demand of a new aircraft by the Indian Air Force. The Air Force and Government of the day found it more lucrative to buy aircraft from foreign manufacturers.

The same apathy ails the TEJAS which began from the scratch in 1980 to replace the then ‘ageing’ Mig-21 fleet. It has been a long gestation – twenty-five years since pencil hit paper on the drawing board but the TEJAS is yet to join service. Meanwhile, the Mig-21 from ‘ageing’ in the 1980s has become ‘ageless’ in the 2010s!!! Fifty-five years have passed and India is not able to manufacture an aircraft engine!

How does one explain such imprudence and apathy in a nation and the lack of desire for technological independence that results in such gross strategic inadequacies? How can India remain so vulnerable and stake any claim to being a ‘great power’?

Research and Development and technology upgradations should incorporate Indian research institutes and organisations…

Space is the natural extension beyond the medium of air and could, for the present, be looked at as an adjunct to air power. Like air power, space offers height, speed and reach although in different orders of magnitude. Depending on the space platform’s orbit and/or propulsion system, it is possible to travel around the world several times in twenty-four hours thus providing regular coverage of an area of interest, or for the space asset to be moved above such an area from its extant orbit. The concept of space control, like control of the air, seeks to ensure freedom of action of friendly assets without interference from the enemy, while denying the opposition access to the benefits provided by space.

The concept of Space Applications takes the possibility of weaponising space at a further stage. The use of directed-energy and kinetic-energy weapons against both missiles and enemy ground targets; enemy targets on earth might also be attacked using space based conventional weapons. It needs to be seriously considered in the Indian context that all the air assets employed in the tactical battle arena should be directly under the control of the concerned surface force that is Army or Navy as the case may be.

The Aero India Air Show at Bengaluru gets underway in February 2015. It is now official that from November 01, 2014, ‘Bangalore’ is cast into history and is renamed as Bengaluru – “A rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” Rest seemingly, will be the same at the Air Show. All the major players of the global aero industry will be there. The British Secretary of Defence during his visit to India offered the Eurofighter TYPHOON in case the Rafale deal does not go through. In early December 2014, the French Defence Minister was in India to iron out any glitches in the Rafale deal in his meeting with his newly appointed Indian counterpart.

An interesting twist to the whole story is the Prime Minister’s visionary policy of “Made in India” and “Make in India”. Had this been the thrust half a century ago, India’s defence industry would have acquired a different flavour. So now, how will the foreign aero industry pundits present their case to India? Technology transfers should entail entire manufacturing processes be shared and set up in India. Research and Development and technology upgradations should incorporate Indian research institutes and organisations. Sale of completed equipment and systems should also take place from the set up in India. India should therefore clearly enunciate what her Defence Production Policy entails. The details must be released in the public domain at the earliest.

The evolving nature of warfare and technologies need to be grasped fully…

As India builds her air power, she must take into account her growing role at the global level. Strategic reconnaissance, since the retirement of the last Mig-25, has been tasked to the SU-30MKI with suitable pod loads. Will this be adequate to meet the armed forces and strategic forces requirements over the whole spectrum of the strategic realm? Would it meet the requirements 30 years hence? Similarly, the Indian Air Force, in its abject short sightedness gave up on retaining the Canberra medium bombers – this has been most comprehensively and effulgently argued by Vijainder K Thakur in his article on the subject in this issue. India may have made a gross strategic error in adopting such a conservative myopic option of not wanting a bomber on its inventory.

The humongous prolonged gestation period in designing and operationalising any weapon system by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and assembly line manufacturing by the Defence Public Sector Units (DPSUs) is unacceptable. If the DRDO and DPSUs do not get their act together, India would be mortgaging its security and liberty to foreign weapon vendors!! Despite Computer Aided Design and virtual testing, the unduly slow process and long period has so far been unable to deliver cutting edge technology.

The fact that military weapons systems and equipment remain operational in service for decades needs a very far-sighted vision to visualise the evolving nature of warfare and technologies need to be grasped fully if they are to be incorporated in the design and development of weapon systems. So far, there is no synergy in this regard. As technologically advanced manufacturing processes are available indigenously, and the country’s economic progress accelerates it would be imperative to factor in this indigenous capability. India’s policy and decision makers as well as its military establishment need to take cognisance of these factors and take a firm professional stand where and when the need arises and bid for indigenising.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen (Dr) JS Bajwa

is Editor Indian Defence Review and former Chief of Staff, Eastern Command and Director General Infantry.  He has authored two books Modernisation of the People's Liberation Army and  Modernisation of the Chinese PLA

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4 thoughts on “The Future of India’s Air Power

  1. The problem in major part lies with India’s “Imported Air Force” and its derelict mentality. It has zero interest in developing a local aerospace capability while it will give countless reasons for importing aircraft. Moreover, this air force will take foreign built aircraft with limited capabilities but ensure that India built aircraft come with features that exceed its fancy ASQRs. Somehow, even though India has latent capability to strategic reach, Indian Air Force likes to limit itself with tactical level only. These people have unrealistic expectations, for example, they believe their all problems will be solved if India buys Rafale. How will 189 planes fight a two front war, in which, during the first 48 hours the availability of aircraft will be down to half. Additionally, Air Chief is trying to pressurise the Govt by saying that they don’t have Plan B?? Are they negotiating on the behalf of India or French?

    Their thinking is suitable for a tiny air power in God-Forsaken land but not for India. If India has to emerge as a major power, it will have to first start to think and plan like one. And no major power fights with borrowed or imported aircraft or any major weapon platform. Importing is good for showing aircraft in peacetime, but when war begins, these same officials will either be running from pillar to post for spares or will be doing some Jugaad to make the platform work. This Air Force’s ‘Chalta Hai’ attitude is sickening.

  2. Things are not easy; whether you do with DRDO-PSU or Private Sector. Frankly speaking, we don’t have the technical competence and management excellence to carry out such kind highly skilled research and development (like aircrafts, engines). Nowadays, many people talking about big big ideas, make in India, made in India etc. But, ultimately you require someone to sit down in front of the computer to do the calculations and design. Nobody is talking about such things. Without having proper human resources, If you just invest money (in Public sector or Pvt), I am sure nothing fruitful is going to come out.

  3. Sir the real issue is that we have somnambulated over the issue of air power as a means of projection of power. We in the Indian Armed Force are happy war gaming tactical battles over lorded by generals who do not look beyond the tea break in such events. Are we so dumb that we wake up to sudden Chinese threat. Have our political and strategic thinkers have been sleeping? The Chinese started their overhaul 15 years back. What were our intelligence agencies doing; Keeping a tab that the Indian Army doesn’t spring a damn unthought-of of coup in India. We have had such a shabby approach to strategics that today we are in a bind of being nearly non-operational in nearly every field. I would blame the General Staff of all the three wings of the Armed forces. Just mere writing of letters doesn’t help. A couple of resignations up and down the line do help in raising the curtain to serious thinking. The Air force projections today are still based on the PLA airforce of yester years. If we think that with 42 squadrons we will manage we are sadly on the wrong track. It’s nothing less than 60 squadrons. I challenge any senior airforce strategist to debunk my calling. We are up the shit creek as is said in common parlance – it’s never too late to make amends to move on. Regards JP.

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