Military & Aerospace

IAF: Meeting the Challenges - II
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Issue Book Excerpt: Indian Armed Forces | Date : 10 Sep , 2011

Strategic & Tactical Strike Capability

To develop a credible deterrent as also meet with its commitments of power projection in the region, the IAF would have to have a fleet of potent, long range, nuclear capable, multi role strike aircraft that would have the capability to neutralize any target system in the area of interest. The strike force must have at its disposal a variety of smart weapons with sizeable stand-off range, air launched cruise missiles and versatile electronic warfare suites to defeat known detection devices and fire control systems.

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The IAF is in the process of inducting 190 ( ten squadrons) of the state of the art, 40-ton class SU30 MKI multi-role aircraft. With in-flight refuelling, this fleet would have the attributes essential to fulfil the strategic commitments of the nation. With a lifespan of at least 30 years including a mid-life upgrade of avionics, the fleet of SU30 MKI would remain in service though the 2020s. However, the IAF would have to reassess the requirement of the size of the fleet periodically vis-à-vis changing scenarioand constantly upgrade its weapon systems for the fleet to retain its front line status.

The effective strength of the IAF is likely to deplete rapidly as we approach the 2020s. The IAF must therefore draw up concrete plans and take urgent steps to ensure that the fixed wing combat element of the IAF is restored to at least 40 squadrons if not more.

The IAF would also need a fleet of medium range Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) in the 20-ton class. Moves are already afoot to acquire 126 (six squadrons) of MRCA for air defence and strike tasks of tactical nature. With in-flight refuelling this fleet could also be used to augment the long range strike force. If the IAF is able to overcome the bureaucratic and procedural impediments and make the fleet operational in the next five years, this fleet too would remain in service well beyond the 2020s. The current fleet of Mig 21, MiG 27, MiG 29, Jaguars and Mirages will largely be obsolete by the 2020s and only a handful of upgraded aircraft may remain to undertake second tier tasks.

The effective strength of the IAF is likely to deplete rapidly as we approach the 2020s. The IAF must therefore draw up concrete plans and take urgent steps to ensure that the fixed wing combat element of the IAF is restored to at least 40 squadrons if not more. The LCA is a possible answer but only partly. Also, the uncertainty that has plagued the LCA project over the last two decades does not inspire much confidence. Acquisition of aircraft from foreign sources is a complicated process and cannot be conducted as a fire fighting exercise. Presently there is at least a five year gap in the assessment by the IAF and the Indian Aerospace Industry of the timeframe in which to expect the LCA to be available. In any case, the rate of production may not be adequate to close the gap of 24 squadrons in a respectable timeframe leaving the IAF with no option but to search for solutions elsewhere. Given the size of the deficit, the investment would involve an outflow of resources to the tune of billions of dollars if aircraft are to be acquired from foreign sources. The IAF may run in to affordability barriers and may be compelled to stretch the ageing fleets through expensive upgrades and suffer erosion of capability. The IAF must find answers to this challenge in the context of the security concerns and the emerging regional power status of the nation.

Air Defence

Apart from the combat fleet, the IAF would need to put in place a gap free and responsive automated air defence surveillance system comprising an overlapping integrated network of low, medium and high level radar coverage. In a nuclear environment, an air defence system must be totally impregnable as even a single aircraft or missile armed with a nuclear weapon could be catastrophic. Besides, own nuclear second strike capability must be protected against an attack by the enemy. Efforts to acquire AWACS and Aerostats even though in small numbers, are steps in the right direction but more needs to be done. Our scientific establishments need to move ahead quickly in their ambitious project to develop a space based reconnaissance and surveillance system to cover the airspace over the entire country.

The IAF needs to build up heliborne forces trained for operating both by day and night obtaining real time intelligence information from UAVs for vertical envelopment in counter insurgency operations in all types of terrain.

The existing ground based surveillance assets are woefully inadequate for even the current level of responsibility and need total revamp. Given the extent of our frontiers, infrastructure for total coverage solely through ground based surveillance systems would be prohibitively expensive and possibly unaffordable. The AWACS aircraft would be a more cost effective option as it would also provide low level cover deep inside enemy territory not only to direct own forces but also to track hostile aircraft departing for missions from their bases thus facilitating positive identification and increasing substantially the reaction time available to the air defence system.

While there is no debate over the necessity of AWACS aircraft, the question is that of numbers. In the event of imminent or outbreak of hostilities, AWACS aircraft would have to be ‘on station’ round the clock in adequate numbers to cover the entire length of hostile borders. Given the limitations of endurance of the aircraft and the crew, serviceability considerations of an infinitely complex machine and the volume of the airspace to be scanned, the IAF would have to reassess the size of the fleet required to be procured. The fleet of Phalcon equipped IL 76 aircraft being acquired in the next two to three years, will only provide a learning experience. To meet with needs of the 2020s, the size of the AWACS fleet would have to be significantly larger and hopefully augmented by the DRDO developed Embraer based system. Integrating the AWACS in to the Air Defence System, developing the technical skills to maintain and operate the platform and finding the resources to procure these machines in the requisite numbers would be some of the major challenges for the IAF and the nation. To exploit the advantage of extended low level cover provided by the AWACS, air defence aircraft must be armed with BVR missiles with range long enough to intercept hostile targets well before they are in a position to pose any threat.

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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

Air Marshal BK Pandey

Former AOC-in-C Training Command, IAF.

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