Beyond Balakot: The way forward for Indian Air Force

New Delhi | Published: May 25, 2019 7:19:57 PM

With the election results in, the new Defence Minister’s position would be an unenviable one. The critical necessity of ramping up the capabilities of the armed forces is immediate, while finance is scarce.

The depletion of fighters is indeed a worrying trend as the IAF squadron strength is down to 30 from the 42 minimum required for a two-front scenario.

By Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur VM (retd.)

The ‘Balakot’ strike has thrust the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the limelight in more ways than one. While the 26th February strike demonstrated a change in resolve of the political leadership, it also showed the professionalism of the air warriors in converting political directions to desired effects. Thus, the Pakistani state now has to cater to an adversary that is not shy of attacking its ‘mainland’ in response to any terrorist action that originates, or is instigated, by people on its soil. The Indian leadership too has an issue at hand – – would it need to react kinetically each and every time a ‘Pulwama’ occurs? What if there is a ‘mini-Pulwama?’ And where does one draw a line between the two – – would it be in terms of the number of casualties caused or be governed by the ‘effect’ of the terrorist action, though the numbers affected could be small? Be that as it may, the reality is that expectations from the IAF have gone up many fold, and to measure up to them the air force would have to be suitably equipped and trained; this essay takes a ten year time period to discuss this.

Thucydides, the 4th Century Greek historian had said that, “Right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” History is witness to the fact that a nation’s economic and military power determine its standing on the regional and world stage. However, when it comes to realpolitik the underpinning to economic status is the hard power of a country – notice how Japan, an economic giant, is scrambling to build up its military again since support of US hard power may not be a given in future. And, with the exponential manner in which computational power is increasing, the service that is technologically intensive comes out as the spearhead of power projection of a nation. Air power, thus, is the politicians weapon of first choice in any future conflict – – as ‘Balakot’ demonstrated in our context; IAF’s power needs to be nurtured and not allowed to degrade.

The depletion of fighters is indeed a worrying trend as the IAF squadron strength is down to 30 from the 42 minimum required for a two-front scenario. The two front situation cannot be wished away and while the IAF is well placed at present, with a slight edge in terms of technology and aircrew training, the advantage will slip away in the next ten years. One has already seen that the vital Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile capability advantage that the IAF possessed a decade back has been overturned by the AIM-120C BVRs that the Pakistan Air Force used in their retaliatory attack on 27 February. Overall, though, the combat potential of the IAF, with its Sukhois, Mirages, Jaguars, MiG-29s and the soon to be inducted Rafales is much better; the Tejas induction and 114 fighter acquisition project must not see any further delay. The same can be said too with respect to the combat enablers, i.e., AWACS and Flight Refuelling Aircraft. With respect to China too, the IAF has an edge, especially since its airfields are all at low altitude permitting aircraft to carry payload to their full potential as against PLAAF aircraft that would have to use Tibetan airfields that are at 12,000 feet and above. The IAF is well equipped to take the battle to the depth areas of Tibet and beyond. However, when one considers the rapidity with which the PLAAF is modernising, especially with fifth generation aircraft, more Gen4+ fighters like the J-16 and J-10C and combat enablers, that would soon be based in indigenous Y-20 transport aircraft, the future power ratio is a cause for concern. This is especially since the Chinese are modernising their training patterns across all fleets – moving to Western concepts of ‘individuality’ and network centricity from the present centrally controlled Soviet era ethos; this will be a big factor that will blunt the edge that the IAF possesses in terms of a superior training profile.

In the air defence arena the IAF network is on fairly sound footing, as was demonstrated against the Pakistani retaliatory strike on 27 February over the skies of Rajauri. Our transport and helicopter fleets are very potent, and are better than both the adversaries in terms of modernity and airlift/heli-lift capability. In fact, India can declare itself to be a regional provider of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) with the capability that we have. The situation in the combat enabler field is, however, very tenuous, with no forward movement for acquisitions of more AWACS and FRA discernible in the coming decade. This is bad news, as in this period, China will overtake India in this capability due the fact that its Y-20 heavy lifter has started entering the PLAAF inventory in a big way due their R&D and manufacturing capability being ramped up. It is a sobering thought that from being eight in the world with a 0.72% of GDP allocation (US $ 13.4bn) for R&D (for all sectors) in 1991, China has now become second with the allocation (2015 figure) hiked up to 2.07% (US $ 377bn).

With the election results in, the new Defence Minister’s position would be an unenviable one. The critical necessity of ramping up the capabilities of the armed forces is immediate (and this piece has talked only of the IAF), while finance is scarce.

When viewed against the fact that ‘capacity,’ which is a measure of the ability to sustain a nation’s war effort, is also not on a firm foundation due the lack of any meaningful defence R&D and manufacturing base, the challenges are indeed mind-boggling. Add to that the fact that, while the requirement of being equipped with state-of-art equipment is an immediate one, the indigenisation capability takes decades to build.

Thus, India would necessarily be import dependent for the coming decade and a half; the test of ingenuity and planning for our decision makers would be in overcoming these two contradictory realities in India’s quest to have adequate hard power to ensure unhindered economic development of its masses.

(The author, a retired Air Vice Marshal, is Addl Director General, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi; views are personal).

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