Military & Aerospace

Challenges in Restructuring the Combat Power of IAF
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Issue Vol. 29.3 Jul-Sep 2014 | Date : 24 Dec , 2014

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.

Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS)

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

Fighter Aircraft

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.

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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 Raghu Rajan

former Dy Chief of Air Staff, has flown fighter and transport aircraft as well as helicopters.

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12 thoughts on “Challenges in Restructuring the Combat Power of IAF

  1. By the time the Rafale and the LCA are operational – they will be a antiquated. Why is the Airforce playing with the nations security in bending to a Political Government. ? Dont you think that a SU_35 would have been a better deal that the Rafale. Where does the LCA stand in comparison to the latest aircraft being currently introduced world over. The Airforce is tongue tied on the issue of the Rafale and the LCA. Lets have your views on this Air Marshal.

  2. Part of the reason for IAF retiring so many of their MIG 21/23/27 is to thumb at the Government that our way or highway. They want Rafale deal at any cost, no matter how bad the deal is. To force the government in this decision they will not order LCA on one excuse or other, retire way too many fighters under one excuse or other. Worst change specs. On LCA to help the delay so that they could make a case for Rafale purchase.

    Not a very smart way to make deals. If not due to hum dum delays not only by DRDO, but obstructionist behaviour of IAF, Tejas would be in Indian inventory today. But IAF says nothing doing; not until it is fully satisfying the constantly changing GQSR, we are not accepting it. Their eyes on bad Rafale deal.

    • Rafale is not a bad aircraft. Of all the aircraft in IAF inventory (except Su-30), Mirage has the best safety record, lower accidents and good maintenance record. Similarly, Rafale, derived from Mirage has a similar lineage. Remember, in combat, what matters is potency of platforms and their actual availability. Mirages in Kargil war have proved very effective for precision bombing using laser guided or PGMs. LCA development should have been cancelled in mid-nineties as it became useless and 1 generation behind by then already. Its a foreign aircraft assembled in India -GE 404 engine, European and American FBW and avionics – whats Indian other than IAF emblem and the paint (Asian paint probably)? Note that Tejas engine is underpowered to carry any meaningful weaponry and its Kaveri engine hasnt been developed (it disintegrated on test bed at GTRE). With such limitations, it can never see light of day of war, irrespective of patriotic feelings.

    • That the IAF is rejecting Tejas is 100% right – that program is a white elephant that served only to give govt jobs to worthless people in DRDO and HAL. Have you ever investigated that the accident and failure or MTBO rates of Russian origin planes assembled at HAL are higher than those imported directly from Russia (including MiG 21 Bison, Bis, MiG-29, Jaguar and Su-30). Why? Can HAL people not even assemble planes properly after taking tens of thousands of rupees from Central Govt while their workers smoke bidi and play cards in their plants (google reviews of HAL Ozhar and Bangalore plants). Rafale is the best fighter India can get and the current Govt should only ensure that 1. There are no monies changing hands under the table in this deal 2. Rafale assembly line and ToT is done to India to create jobs 3. Latest Software as well as FBW and Hardware is integrated into Rafale before model is finalized for IAF 4. There are other operational aspects like reducing radar signature by layers of special paints that should be done before induction to protect them in war 5. All current IAF airfields in India as well as ALGs in JK and NE should be made NBC proof and with hardened, hidden plane shelters to ensure they are really bomb-proof in case of war (runways cannot be protected though). If you check in google Earth, compare Pakistani airbases and Indian ones and see the difference in plane storage sheds. These are low cost options to save the costly planes in war and from Sun/heat damage. 6. Tejas should be inducted in large numbers but in lesser roles and there should be new plane design started to create a really meaningful combat plane in next 10 yrs.

  3. Sir

    There are too many generalities in your paper.

    Please do reconcile that fighter jets of today are far more capable than what IAF flew in from sixties to eighties. Our neighbours like China have 80% of the fighter aircrafts rooted in sixties. Their modern aircraft today are less than 200. Again they cannot send all of these to Tibet and leave other theatres empty.

    Pakistan is no different. Their American supplied fighters date back to eighties and nineties. They have upgraded these but still not as capable than upgraded Mig-29 or Mirages. The IAF’s SU-30MK1 are a class in itself.

    So the point here is that since fighter jets have gone a lot more capable today, is there any point in sticking to 45 Squadron or as say 42 Squadron strength?

    In my opinion a lot more capable weapons, radars the fighters carry, highly capable AWACS, ground based radars and highly efficient & capable maintenance crew is the bigger need of the hour.

    Hopefully Rafale or its equivalent will join the IAF in five years, followed by LCA 1 and 2. By then we would have retired all the MIG-21s and others. Also hopefully stealth fighter of Russian origin will become a part of IAF. If none of imports materialize, still IAF with newer and highly capable LCA – 1& 2 and other modern fighters would be a very potent force in Asia. After all we not fighting the whole world, just the two who are troublesome neighbours.

    Hence stop harping on 42 or 45 squadrons. Concentrate on the capability and weapons.

    • Are you drunk? This is one of the best articles I have read on IAF at IDR and so do other commentators think. Are you by any way associated with LCA program that you suggest it for IAF? Do you even know what is its engine rating, MTBO, percentage of Indigenisation? Just screw driver assembly and painting of tin cover does not constitute Indian aircraft okay. Read up specs of Chinese J-10 and J-11 aircraft, their attack helicopters made in China as well as F-22 copy of fifth gen stealth fighter on Wiki and you will know. Another point – during Red Flag at Nellis AFB in USA, USAF paired F-15 and F-16s against IAFs Mig-21 Bison and Su-30 MKI. When the F-15 and F-16 used networked (electronically data sharing) warfare, Su-30 MKI was beaten to death which wasnt revealed by IAF due to operational reasons (understandable). The reason for this is that Su-30 is very big plane with big RCS and big jet plume from engines. So, Pakistani F-16s maybe bought in 80s or 90s but they keep begging to US to upgrade them to block 50-52 C/D which is no kids play. Lookup Wiki for Block52 C/D specs and you will again stand corrected. Now about LCA – its a dead bird and needs to give way to newer and meaningful design for a 4.5 generation indigenous plane design in next 5-10 yrs. LCA is expensive, useful in few roles, carries few weapons and with smaller range – basically an upgraded trainer aircraft. It should be immediately discarded and all previous program management of past 25 yrs criminally prosecuted for fooling country and looting the govt money. Thats what

  4. Air Marshal, some how we keep arriving at a selfsatisfying and unrealsitic figure of 42 Squadrons being enough for the countrys airforce. We have not weighed the threat factors correctly. Nor have we weighed in our strategic perceptions in totality. The PLAF will be able to field in a vastly superior force in terms of quantity and quality against the IAF. They will be operating from no less than 20 Airfields for operations against India. We have a vast area to dominate and patrol when we look at the Indian Ocean. Our land frontier against the Chinese streatches to about 3500 kms. Unlike the previous wars this time around the requirment to support the ground forces will be much more. Therefore if we wargame the tasks of Air Superiority, Air dominance, survillance, ground support, interdiction, and the physical area to be covered 42 Squadrons qill not be enough. We need something to the tune of 60 to 65 combat squadrons to do a justifiable job.

    • You are absolutely correct. Please note that Indian squadrons which are of 70s, 80s or 90s vintage are no match for Chinese PLAAF both in terms of quantity and quality. Chinese were also given Sukhoi-27 (predecessor of Su-30) by Russia so Sukhoi platform is no surprise for them as well but jingoistic Indians think Su-30 is brahmastra and undefeatable. One only needs to read the statistics of their J-10 and J-11 fighters which they are supplying to Pakistan and will understand what they are capable of making. They have already indigenously made a copy of F-22 – it may not be as good as the F-22 but the fact that it is copying US designs fast says something about the war machinery of that country. Most jingoistic Indians dont even know Chinese have successfully tested Anti-Sat missile that shoots enemy spy satellites high above the ground in space in GS or PS orbits while India has failed to effectively make Akash SAM that shoots planes only 15-25 kms above. In case of war with China, it will field atleast 20-30 squadrons + SSMs from atleast 15 bases and it will be total embarassment for us. The sheer size and well oiled machine of PLAAF sends shivers down USAF leave alone third world countries like us. During recent Sino-Japanese standoff, USA (ally of Japan) sent B-52 and F-22 to scare China but they tracked them and sent interceptors in return. India needs to produce quantity (35 squadrons) to provide CAS, interdiction or interception and quality (25-30 squadrons) for air-superiority and ground attack. Obviously it will need upgrade in ALG/Airbases. AEW and Refueling planes as well for support – just to put up a meaningful punch.

  5. 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.

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