Military & Aerospace

The IAF at 79: The Challenges Ahead
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Issue | Date : 01 Jun , 2012

As the IAF strives to confront many challenges, it rightly means to transform itself into a capability-based force, rather than an adversary-centric one. In future, the service may have a critical role to play especially in situations demanding rapid response. The IAF’s focus is also shifting from the tactical to the strategic — a process that needs to be accelerated. Apart from combat aircraft, force multipliers such as AWACS, FRA, electronic warfare systems, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and space-based systems will greatly help. While aiming to “effectively respond to any attempt at undermining India’s national security,” as the CAS put it, will the IAF be able to not only mount a sturdy defence but also to take the fight to the enemy’s heartland?

The overhaul of airborne platforms will be accompanied by a total revamp of the entire Air Defence system.

In its long history, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has witnessed many periods of lull and lively spells, even some of major transformation. As on date, the service seems poised for a complete transformation. Addressing the IAF Commanders’ Conference in October 2011, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) said, “The IAF is witnessing an unprecedented phase of modernisation and capability enhancement and can effectively respond to any attempt at undermining India’s national security. The transformational change can be witnessed across the capability spectrum that includes not only combat platforms but also induction of force multipliers and air mobility platforms to provide strategic reach and operational flexibility.”

Unprecedented is apt because the last time the IAF fleet was significantly overhauled was between 1979 and 1989 when combat aircraft such as the Jaguar, MiG-23 , MiG-25, MiG-27, MiG-29 and Mirage-2000, transport aircraft such as the An-32 and Il-76 and helicopters such as the Mi-25/35 and Mi-26 were inducted. The Mi-17 fleet was also augmented through fresh inductions. The only other key procurement since then was the Su-30MKI in 1996.

If all goes well, the coming decade or so should see these previous acquisitions dwarfed in scale and even more in significance by the induction of the 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), 120 Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), 214 Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) and a total of 272 Su-30MKI air dominance fighters. Besides, 12 Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules Special Operations aircraft are halfway through being inducted and are expected to be augmented by up to ten Boeing C-17 Globemaster III strategic airlift aircraft by around 2013 – 2014. The IAF’s helicopter fleet is due to get 22 Boeing AH-64D Apache attack helicopters, 15 heavy-lift helicopters, 139 Mi-17 V5 medium-lift helicopters and 125 utility helicopters. Then there are force multipliers. Two Il-76/A-50 Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft are likely to augment the three already received and six additional Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA) may join the six Il-78MKI aircraft already on the IAF’s inventory. Also in progress or expected to commence shortly are major mid-life upgrade for ageing yet capable aircraft such as the MiG-29, the Mirage-2000 and the An-32, being undertaken to retain their combat relevance. If this is not an impressive list, what is?

The overhaul of airborne platforms will be accompanied by a total revamp, already well in hand, of the entire Air Defence system with its various sensors and weapons. Upgrading of the IAF ground infrastructure, which was long overdue, has commenced. The IAF base at Bhatinda in Punjab, which is the first under the Modernisation of Air Force Infrastructure (MAFI) scheme, will become operational by June 2012. As part of MAFI Phase 1, to be completed by 2014, 30 major IAF stations will be upgraded, while another 25 stations will be taken up in Phase 2. If all goes according to plan, the IAF of 2025 will bear little or no resemblance to the IAF of today. It will be well-equipped to boldly face the challenges that lie ahead.

Defence procurement procedures and decision-making in India are excruciatingly slow.

However, defence procurement procedures and related decision-making in India are excruciatingly slow. It could take many years before these long-overdue assets are received and operationally integrated with the IAF. The process will not be helped by the possibility that disparate elements and new and unfamiliar technologies may arrive in quick succession. The IAF would have preferred a planned, progressive and timely schedule for the induction of the new systems, rather than the everything-at-once outcome that now appears likely. By the time the new aircraft and systems enter service with the IAF, the operating environment itself would probably have changed. That is why the IAF faces an insurmountable challenge of remaining on top regardless of what the future holds.

The Challenge of Near and Not-so-dear Neighbours

A decade into the twenty-first century it seems clear that this is destined to be an Asian century. The pronounced stagnation of the US and European economies only serves to hasten the day when China will become the world’s largest economy and India, the second largest, this country’s current political and economic woes notwithstanding. For those inclined to place bets, 2050 seems safe to wager on the prediction coming true. And economic power generally translates to greater political and military power. Will China’s ascent be peaceful and without risk to the rest of Asia? The signs are not encouraging. China is already a regional military power and a global economic giant. It is taking its rise to great-power prominence seriously and is methodically enhancing every aspect of its strategic and military capability, conventional and unconventional. It is not likely to be content with anything less than superpower status, preferably that of world domination. And it is beginning to assert its perceived rights in a variety of ways. So much so, the smaller nations of Asia are growing rather wary of the dragon. India is still in the process of becoming a regional power and is steadily falling behind her northern neighbour in most economic and military parameters.

China is also well on its way to donning the mantle of a major aerospace power. Earlier, Chinese infrastructure on the Tibetan plateau was rather primitive and inadequate to support air operations of any significance against India. Apart from systematically developing the regions adjoining Arunachal Pradesh, ostensibly for economic reasons, China has dramatically improved the roads, railways, fuel supplies and airfield infrastructure in Tibet, all of which are essential from a strategic perspective. Following the concerted modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), China’s largely obsolescent combat fleet is being replaced by modern aircraft. The handicap of reduced aircraft weapon-carrying capacity on account of the elevation of the Tibetan plateau can now be partially offset through in-flight refuelling. India seems to have belatedly realised the need to safeguard her interests. “The security situation in the immediate neighbourhood is extremely fragile and it is a major concern for us. The need of the hour is air vigilance,” said the CAS during the IAF’s 79th Anniversary celebrations on October 08 2011. He went on to state that the increasing presence of Chinese forces in Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) warrants India’s “attention”. This might turn out to be something of an understatement!

The PLAAF alone may have more fourth-generation combat aircraft than the total number of aircraft in the IAF inventory.

Pakistan itself is a more complex challenge. It lags behind India in practically every aspect. However, militarily it is closing the gap and is perhaps even drawing ahead in some respects, most notably, on account of the number of nuclear warheads. The fervent aim of the Pakistani military establishment is to weaken India, by fair means or foul. It receives significant payoffs by sponsoring militancy in the Kashmir valley and keeping India’s internal security situation on the boil. However, for now, all-out war neither seems likely nor will it serve any purpose. Pakistan’s usually unfriendly stance is also interspersed with bouts of firiendliness, raising hopes of peace. The trouble is its propensity to wink at or even quietly sponsor “non-state actors” even when they carry out decidedly hostile acts that could easily spark full-scale conflict. Despite Pakistan’s economic woes, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has managed to enhance the strength and capability of its combat fleet with the assistance of China and the US.

And More Distant Ones

India is keen to promote peace, security and stability across the Asian region. It is quite likely that the country’s armed forces may someday be called upon to safeguard national economic and security interests that transcend its land and maritime borders and extend from the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca. The Indian Navy is already valiantly battling pirates off the coast of Somalia. And the situation in the South China Sea, where India has made clear its intention to continue oil exploration in Vietnamese waters, despite China’s strong opposition, could get out of hand. During her trip to India in July, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton indicated that India should play a larger security role in Asia – a sentiment shared by other major powers with the exception of China.

Editor’s Pick

If and when India attains its long-cherished dream of becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it may also have to shoulder responsibilities further afield. These could include humanitarian assistance during natural disasters, deployment of peacekeeping forces in distant trouble spots, even military intervention in conflict zones. Such contingencies require the capability of power projection through rapid transportation and deployment of adequate forces. The IAF is likely to be the primary means for the country to respond swiftly and decisively to a variety of crises that may develop across the globe thus necessitating its requirement to possess first-rate strategic airlift and long-range strike capability in adequate numbers.

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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

Gp Capt Joseph Noronha

Former MiG-21 Pilot and experienced IAF instructor before he turned to writing articles on aviation.

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One thought on “The IAF at 79: The Challenges Ahead

  1. Good article, but the proposed list of IAF acquisitions is not impressive. We need to be at 58 effective squadrons, first and foremost. Only that will be impressive from the way I see it. Of course, the rest of the support system and strategic airlift, etc., must also match the 58 squadrons. 126 MMRCA is only an apologetic purchase: we will need 378 more before soon.

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