Military & Aerospace

Combat Potential of the IAF for a Two-Front War
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Issue Vol. 33.3 Jul-Sep 2018 | Date : 23 Feb , 2019

India is now the world’s fifth highest defence spender, but statistics can be disingenuously deceptive. In terms of percentage of GDP, it is the lowest since India was last subjected to an ignominious military drubbing by China in 1962, and now stands at just 1.58 per cent of GDP. The allocation for 2018-2019 was Rs 1.21 lakh crore less than that demanded by the armed forces. As pointed out by some analysts, it is not even adequate for committed liabilities, leave alone modernisation and new acquisitions. Indeed, the establishment approach towards military acquisitions appears to suggest that it does not consider war a possibility and is instead misplacing confidence in foreign policy initiatives to keep war at bay.

The PLAAF and PAF have been conducting joint exercises since 2011 under a series named ‘Shaheen’…

The term ‘two-front war’ has been bandied about in Indian public discourse for around a decade, although the Indian military discussed and debated it behind closed doors well before that. As far as the Indian Air Force (IAF) is concerned, it had kicked up a moderate storm in February 2014 by telling the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence that it would be challenging to manage a two-front war with the strength of its combat fleet down to 34 squadrons. The media had avidly played this up as a sensational bit of news and the issue has remained in the public domain since then, deriving new impetus in March 2016 with Air Marshal Dhanoa, then Vice Chief of the Air Staff (VCAS) telling media “Our numbers are not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front war scenario”. However, a year and a half later, as the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), on 08 October 2017, Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa declared that the IAF was ready for a two-front war, adding almost parenthetically, that the probability of such a war was low. The Chief’s iteration has not been taken seriously by the military-strategic community as the combat capability of the IAF is on a constant decline and, if anything, has actually waned since the time that he, as the VCAS had declared that a two-front war was difficult to manage. This article focuses on building the combat potential of the IAF to cope with a two-front war.

The Threat

According to World Air Forces 2018 published by Flight Global, China has 1527 combat aircraft, India 804 and Pakistan 410. More significantly, in recent years, China has been focusing on dual-use airports in Tibet from which offensive and defensive missions could be launched. During a period of over two decades, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has been modernised through a clever mix of support to indigenous aerospace industry and licensed-production of Russian aircraft.

A PLAAF Air Division holds around 72 aircraft. After the 2015 reorganisation, Lanzhou and Chengdu MRs are home to air assets deployable against India. Chengdu MR has two fighter divisions with J-7H, J-7II, J-10A, Su-27SK and J-11 combat aircraft and a transport division, whereas Lanzhou MR has two fighter divisions equipped with J-7H, J-7II, J-8F, J-8H, JH-7A, J-11 and J-11B and a bomber division with H-6 aircraft. Thus, of the 1527 combat aircraft mentioned earlier, around 300 fighters and 72 bombers could be tasked against India. The fighters with better performance namely the Su-27, J-10, J-11/ J-11B and J-20 under induction, can be expected to be effective from the high elevation airports in Tibet while the others may be severely constrained operationally. In future, the J-20 and FC-31, fifth-generation, multi-role, stealth aircraft could be expected to join the fray.

The PLAAF has not much of real war experience and its likely performance in actual combat is an area of uncertainty…

A new long range bomber (H-20) with nuclear capability is under development, but is not expected to complement China’s nuclear triad before 2025. However, the PLAAF has not much of real war experience and its likely performance in actual combat is an area of uncertainty.

On the other hand, Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is well trained, has battle experience and retains a high sense of pride in its professional capabilities. Till the 1980s, the United States (US) and thereafter, China, supplied aircraft and equipment to the PAF which currently has 22 combat squadrons comprising about 410 fighter aircraft. According to Flight Global, it holds around 70 JF-17s, 45 F-16s, 69 Mirage IIIs, 90 Mirage Vs and 136 F-7s. The JF-17 is a Chinese design co-produced in Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, Kamra and Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, China and is claimed to be a fourth-generation, multi-role aircraft. There are reports of another 100 being on order. The PAF plans to acquire a total of 250 to replace its Mirage IIIs and F-7s. Some of these would be Block 2 version with 4.5 generation features while some more would be Block 3 and are expected to have fifth-generation characteristics. The PAF is also said to have placed an order for 36 Chinese J-10 (4.5 generation) aircraft. The J-10 is expected to be inducted as the FC 20, an advanced PAF-specific variant. Thus, while the PAF has a smaller inventory, about half that of the IAF, it is well-equipped and trained, and could be expected to display high morale.

The PLAAF and PAF have been conducting joint exercises since 2011 under a series named ‘Shaheen’. The sixth edition of ‘Shaheen’ was held in China’s Xinjiang province during September last year. The series is a constant reminder to the IAF of the possibility of a two-front war scenario. Exercise Gagan Shakti held in April this year, was a two-week endeavour by the IAF to self-assess its war waging capability vis-a-vis the potential adversaries.

One of the aims of Exercise Gagan Shakti would certainly have been to demonstrate a resolve to fight on two fronts simultaneously…

Exercise Gagan Shakti 2018

Exercise Gagan Shakti is a serial, biennial one, but undoubtedly the 2018 edition was conducted at a scale not seen before. One of the aims would certainly have been to demonstrate a resolve to fight on two fronts simultaneously, if it became necessary. It was, however, not conducted on both fronts concurrently as far as its core combat potential was concerned. The first phase was focused on the Western borders of India after which the Northern borders became the significant area of operations. A rational question that can be asked is why not exercise on both fronts simultaneously? Hopefully, the establishment will appreciate that a two-front war may not be an easy proposition with the present holdings of the IAF, despite the hype that the media has created about how the exercise related to practicing for a two-front war.

Combat Aircraft – The IAF’s Tenuous Leading Edge

Until the 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) selection process was forsaken in 2015, the oft repeated refrain of the IAF was that it would achieve a 42-combat squadron strength by 2022. However, after the MMRCA exited the reckoning, the date vaulted forward to 2032. According to Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa, “We need 42 squadrons for full spectrum of operations. But it does not mean that we cannot fight a two-front war with the existing strength. We have a Plan B for reduced strength, there are ways in which we can carry out the task.”

The figure of 42 squadrons has been brandished so liberally and so frequently that public perception is that if the IAF were to achieve 42-squadron strength, it would be eminently placed to take on China and Pakistan simultaneously. It is worth noting that 42 squadrons are what is sanctioned currently; in reality, the IAF requirement is much more. In a report by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, the figure of 45 squadrons was mentioned en passant as an IAF requirement. However, the IAF is possibly keeping its actual math on the back-burner essentially because even the 42-squadron dream appears to be far from fulfilment. In the distant future, if and when the IAF actually achieves a 42-squadron strength, it would be time to mull over its genuine needs and arrive at a reasoned figure which is likely to be much higher than 42.

A squadron is nominally 18 operationally deployed aircraft with three in reserve. A quick mental calculation would show that 42-squadron strength would mean close to 900 aircraft. The present strength is barely 31 squadrons which is around 650 aircraft, a little less than the figure ascribed by Flight Global. Of these, around two squadrons worth of aircraft (about 40) would drop away every year as they reach the end of their life. In his farewell press briefing, the previous CAS, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha reportedly said that the IAF required 400 single/twin-engine MMRCAs although 300 would be acceptable keeping in mind the high cost of modern aircraft. So how will this requirement be met, if at all?

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is well trained, has battle experience and retains a high sense of pride in its professional capabilities…

In April this year, a Request for Information (RFI) was released by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for acquisition of 110 combat aircraft. In contrast with an earlier RFI issued in 2004, this document is 72 pages long and covers substantial ground not just about the aircraft performance and parameters, but about life cycle costs, Transfer of Technology, offsets et al. Its notable feature is that it has widened the scope to include single and twin-engine aircraft. The two single-engine contenders are Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70 and Saab Gripen E while the prominent twin-engine one is Dassault Rafale. 36 of these are already on order and Dassault can be expected to underscore the advantages of scaling up from 36 to a larger number (savings in training costs, spares inventories and maintenance facilities).

Boeing has been very voluble even before the RFI issuance about the F/A-18 E/F. The E and F denote single-seat and twin-seat versions respectively; both the versions are known as Super Hornet and thus there are two Super Hornets in the fray. The Typhoon, manufactured by a consortium of Airbus, BAE Systems and Leonardo called Eurofighter Jagdflugzeug GmbH is the European gladiator in the ring while the Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG company will field the MiG-35. Of these, the Rafale and the Typhoon had both cleared the earlier MMRCA flight trials. Speedy and incisive decision-making is crucial to getting the best or even the second best multi-role combat aircraft inducted into the IAF at the earliest.

Transport Fleet

While combat aircraft are the leading edge of any air force, for a country as vast as India, with its two fronts stretching from one extreme of the country to the other and with large expanses of terrain difficult and time consuming to traverse by land transport, air transportation is vital.

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Exercise Gagan Shakti included Inter-Valley Troop Transfers (IVTT), Special Heliborne Operations, Air Landed Operations and Special Operations to simulated objective areas. IVTT operations were carried out in coordination with the Indian Army in Uttar Bharat Hills and at the Tezu-Walong in the North East sector, enabled by the presence of Advance Landing Grounds (ALGs) at these strategic locations. According to the MoD, “The aim of the IVTT exercise was to validate the capability of the IAF and the Indian Army to quickly transfer and redeploy acclimatised troops in the simulated objective area.

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Gp Capt AK Sachdev

Director - Operations, EIH Ltd.

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One thought on “Combat Potential of the IAF for a Two-Front War

  1. India can fight a two front war when we induct modern fighters and increas capability also by making fighters /bombers in India.We need 60 squadron fighters and 15 squadron of bomber/fighters like Su-34 Tu-22M3 and latest Tu-160s. For lighter segment we should tie up with SAAB to make 100 Gripen E and absorb tech in our Tejas-1A variant.We should make 120+ India specific F-21 jointly with Lockheed followed by 120+ F-35A 40 F-35B for our ACs. We should also take Su-30 tally to 360 and upgrade them to super Sukhoi standard and also make 100+ strong structured Su-30MKI bomber version to carry 10-12 ton weapons if not possible purchase Su-34s. FGFA/PMF development should also be restarted.Home grown MWF and AMCA may be a distinct possibility till 2030.We also need to have S-400,S-500,THAAD,AAD,PAD missile defence systems in place then only we can win or prevent two front war !

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