Wake up, Defence Ministry

Wake up, Defence Ministry

On the eve of the 85th anniversary of its birth, the Indian Air Force (IAF) faces new challenges, and is not adequately endowed to tackle potential aerial threats to national security. In July 2016, the much-awaited indigenously designed and developed Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas was notionally inducted into IAF squadron service.

Number 45 squadron, designated as “Flying Daggers”, has only four Tejas aircraft — whereas a regular IAF fighter squadron has 18 aircraft. The entry of women into the fighter stream since last year is another symbolic accomplishment of the IAF.

Today, the IAF, with 32 fighter squadrons, is short of 10 squadrons to secure the national airspace and cope with the emergent threats from China and Pakistan. The potential Chinese threat, which emanates from the militarisation of Tibet and offensive postures in the Doklam Plateau, are critical to Indian national security interests. The IAF has an officer posted since November 2014 at the Indian Embassy in Beijing, which is important to comprehend China’s aerial offensive intentions and capabilities better.

The IAF’s primary role is to neutralise hostile aerial threats and its secondary role is to support the Indian Army and the Indian Navy to promote national security interests during war and peace. Thus, the IAF has not really supported the Indian Army and the Central Armed Police Forces to tackle terrorist threats from across the India-Pakistan border in terms of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance capabilities.

This is evident from the few Unmanned Aerial Vehicle squadrons deployed along the border to detect terrorist intrusions on the ground. Active aerial surveillance across the India-Pakistan border could have revealed early the hostile intruders in Kargil in 1999. Also, to what extent are the IAF’s electronic intelligence aircraft designed for or involved in the interception of terrorist chatter?

The tragedy of the IAF’s modernisation as related to the augmentation of its fighter aircraft fleet, has to do with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and its infamous tendering process.

In 2007, the MoD floated a Request for Proposal for 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft, which was subsequently cancelled in 2015. Instead, the Indian government managed to strike a deal to procure only 36 of the French Rafale fighter jets, which was the aircraft selected in that tender process, from Dassault Aviation on a government-to-government basis.

Earlier, the backbone of the IAF fighter fleet since the 1960s was Soviet-origin MiG series aircraft, which too were all procured on a government-to-government basis. Former defence minister Manohar
Parrikar had mooted the proposal for a single-engine fighter for co-manufacturing by an Indian company with a foreign original equipment manufacturer, which has yet to take off. Two reputed western aeronautics majors, the US-based Lockheed Martin and Sweden’s Saab, evinced interest in this proposal. However, the MoD has yet to float the Request for Information for this joint venture.

The IAF had placed orders for 272 Sukhoi 30 MKI fighters with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. The last of these aircraft are scheduled to be delivered by 2019. Orders have been placed for an additional 40 Su-30 MKI aircraft, which would mean 312 of these air superiority fighters in all in the IAF’s inventory. The IAF has also ordered for 123 Tejas fighters from HAL, which can only deliver eight of these aircraft per year.

Equipping the IAF adequately with fighter aircraft, therefore, has to do with the capability and capacity of the country’s indigenous aeronautics industry. As such, national airpower stems from the possession of design, development and manufacturing capabilities of the aeronautics industry, along with even the number of aircraft in the civil aviation fleets and, of course, the number of pilots — both military and civil — in a country.

Together, all these assets comprise airpower capabilities of the country and cannot be confined solely to the IAF’s efforts related to aviation, armament, engineering, logistics and human resources. While the 1991 Gulf War highlighted the importance of airpower as an instrument of national security, the mandarins of India’s bureaucracy who rule the roost in the MoD have yet to grasp these nuances of warfighting.

The IAF transport and helicopter fleets also support fighter aircraft operations directly and indirectly. This transport fleet predominantly constitutes HS-748 Avro, Dornier 228, Soviet-era Antonov-32 and Ilyushin-76 and the Ilyushin-78 mid-air refueller aircraft inducted in the 1960s and 1980s respectively. Over the last decade, the IAF has inducted US-origin aircraft -- Boeing’s strategic airlift C-17 Globemaster III, which can carry a 75-ton payload, and Lockheed Martin’s C-130 Super Hercules, which carry a 20-ton payload.

These American aircraft have been procured through the Foreign Military Sales route without the cumbersome tendering process and therefore the numerical strength of the transport fleet has not deteriorated like that of the fighter fleet. However, the Illyushin-78 mid-air refuellers suffer from technical problems and the IAF has failed to acquire suitable western aerial platforms of these ‘force multipliers’, which would help extend the flying range of the fighter fleet over the Tibetan Plateau, as well as on other fronts.

The IAF had initially activated its advanced landing grounds along the India-China border and has now upgraded these into full-fledged air bases capable of operating combat aircraft. This is bound to have a deterrent effect on any planned Chinese military adventures against India. Moreover, it would enable the IAF to provide close air support to the Indian Army along the border.

The IAF personnel, smartly attired in their blue uniforms, are amongst the most dedicated military professionals anywhere in the world. However, their tireless efforts to “touch the skies with glory” along the Himalayan snowbound regions to the mountainous North-eastern jungles would go in vain if the MoD does not support the zeal and enthusiasm with which they, from airman to air marshal, discharge their duties day and night. 

(The writer is Professor of International Relations and Strategic Studies, Christ University, Bengaluru)

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