How IAF transitioned into a formidable force

Ahead of the 75th Indepence Day celebration, a look at how IAF has persued force modernisation and strength enhancement with vigour in order to maintain an edge over the adversaries.

How IAF transitioned into a formidable force

By Air Marshal Nirdosh V Tyagi (Retd),

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is the fourth largest air force in the world today, the top three being US, Russia and China. It is bigger than the air forces of the UK and France. Though short of its sanctioned strength, it is a modern and strategic force with internationally recognised credentials. It has been a transformational journey in the last 75 years for the youngest of the three services of our Armed Forces.

At the time of independence, India had inherited the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) with six fighter squadrons equipped with Tempest and Spitfire aircraft, one squadron of C-47 Dakota transport aircraft and one Air Observation flight. RIAF dropped ‘Royal’ to become IAF only in 1950, when India became a republic. This fledgeling force was still trying to absorb the impact of division of resources between the two nations, when it was pressed into operations. Intrusion of insurgent forces into Kashmir from Pakistan called for a quick response. Troops were airlifted on October 27, 1947 from Palam to Srinagar and the Indian army went into action to save Kashmir. This airlift was remarkable because operations were successfully executed without losing time in detailed preparations. Within days, fighters were engaged in strafing the raiders and their advance was checked. The fighting continued for 15 months till cease fire came into force on January 1, 1949.

Our national leadership was quick to realise the importance of air power in the then existing geopolitical scenario. Initial effort was directed at creating an organisational structure under Air Headquarters and increasing the force strength with whatever resources could be mustered. USAF (US Air Force) discarded B-24 Liberator bombers were retrieved to equip an additional squadron. The Jet era arrived soon with the induction of Vampires in November 1948. Due to deteriorating relations between India and Pakistan, it was decided to expand the IAF to make it fit for a full-scale war. 100 Ouragans (Toofanis in IAF) were procured from France, starting in 1953. Progressively, French Mystere and British Hunters were inducted by 1957, which heralded the beginning of the transonic era for the IAF. Canberra Bombers and Fairchild Packet transport aircraft also put into service during this period. Incidentally, Ouragan and Mystere were products of Dassault, the same company from which Mirage-2000 and Rafale were procured later.

By early 1960s the IAF had grown to be a 33-squadron force. Indian Canberra bombers participated in UN operations in Congo in 1961-62. China had emerged as another adversary for India by then. India had started procuring aircraft from the Soviet Union. Induction of Mi-4 helicopters and An-12 transport aircraft had a profound effect on the air logistics capability of the force, as demonstrated during the 1962 conflict with China. In October 1962, Government of India accorded sanction for 45 squadrons for the IAF.By then, it had been decided to get urgent supplies of fighters and missiles from the Soviet Union and order was placed for MiG-21 supersonic fighters and SA-2 long range surface to air missiles.

Air power was utilised to full extent in 1969 and 1971 conflicts. Pakistan had been armed with active support of the USA. The Gnat proved immensely successful against the F-86 in 1965 war and earned the sobriquet of ‘Sabre Slayer’. By 1971, the MiG-21 had been operationalised. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) designed and manufactured Marut HF-24 had also been inducted. In order to bolster ground strike capability, it was decided to procure Sukhoi-7 from the Soviet Union. At the start of 1970s, the IAF had 26 fighter and bomber squadrons, 12 transport squadrons and a handful of other units of smaller planes and helicopters. Aerial action during the 1971 war started almost 12 days before the outbreak of full-fledged conflict on 03 December.

On 22 November, a formation of Sabres attacking Mukti Bahini positions in East Pakistan was intercepted by Gnats and three Sabres were shot down. The highlights of 1971 in the eastern sector were Tangail AirDrop to induct Indian troops behind the enemy line and air attacks on enemy’s lines of communications and Command centres to weaken its war waging capability. MiG-21 strike on the Governor’s House in Dhaka finally expedited surrender of Pakistani forces and formation of Bangladesh. MiG-21 proved superior to the US origin F104 starfighter in every engagement in the western sector.

Force modernisation and strength enhancement was pursued with vigour in order to maintain an edge over the adversaries. HAL started production of the MiG-21 and it remained the mainstay of IAF in various versions for decades. Four squadrons of MiG-21 Bison are still in service.  In the decade starting 1978, Jaguar, MiG-23, MiG-25, MiG-27, MiG-29 and Mirage-2000 were added to the fighter fleet. Of these Mirage-2000 proved to be the most successful. Airlift capability got a major boost with the procurement of An-32, IL-76 transport aircraft and Mi-8 helicopters. Mi-25 attack helicopters and heavy lift Mi-26 were also sourced from the Soviet Union, so were the surface-to-air missile systems. Mirage-2000 was a class apart amongst the fighters of that era. For the first time operators got the feel of modern computer-based systems and precision guided weapon systems. This aircraft is still in service. It proved to be a game-changer in Kargil Operations in 1999 and was used for an air strike over Balakot in 2019.

The financial crisis of the early 1990s created a setback for modernisation. The Light Combat Aircraft program was running behind schedule. China had initiated modernisation of her armed forces. There were replacements needed for retiring aircraft. India decided to procure the SU-30 from Russia. The planned strength of 190 finally got enhanced to 272 and 12 more are likely to be procured. This fighter in SU-30MKI version has been manufactured by HAL through transfer of technology.

Experience of the Kargil operations highlighted the shortfalls in military hardware in India. The matter was examined by a group of Ministers and various committees were set up to overhaul India’s defence procurement system. An Acquisition Wing was formed in the MoD and instead of processing cases on files; decisions were taken in collegiate meetings. Acquisitions were to be made based on competitive merits, instead of political and other considerations, as was the case earlier. Defence procurement procedure gave elaborate guidelines in 2005/06, which streamlined the process. Despite criticism of the procedure, the forces have been able to modernise to a great extent during the ensuing period.

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Indian Air Force today has Rafale and Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) as the latest additions to the fighter fleet. C-17 and C130-J have given strategic airlift capability to the IAF, which is unmatched in the region. Apache attack helicopters and Chinook heavy lift helicopters are top class assets. IAF has made tremendous progress towards Network Centric Operations. Radars, missiles and air defence fighters deployed all over the country are linked to the Integrated Air command and Control System. This included the airborne radar systems such as AWACS and AEW&C. Air defence capability of the nation has also been boosted by providing tiered missile defence to all vital points and vital areas. The S-400 system procured from Russia is being deployed. MRSAM and Aakash are the main elements of the inner tiers.

It is very heartening to see indigenous capability coming up very fast. Several long gestation projects of DRDO are reaching their fruition point. Some examples from a long list are Uttam radar for fighters, Astra air-to-air missile, Nirbhaya Cruise missile and Rudram anti-radiation missile. HAL has consolidated its design and production capabilities in helicopters through ALH and LCH programs and it is ready to move on to medium lift helicopters. Next generation AWACS will be made in India. Indigenous fighter program is also well on track with HAL executing an order for LCA Mk-1A. ADA is continuing with design and development work on LCA Mk-2 and AMCA. A large number of start-up entities have shown great promise in developing small high technology systems and subsystems in areas such as unmanned platforms and precision guidance. The private sector is being encouraged to play a greater role in development of full systems. Creation of indigenous design and development capability has strategic imperatives. The IAF is supporting the national endeavour of capability building under the banner of Atmanirbhar Bharat. As the shortfall in equipment gets filled largely through indigenous routes, the Indian Air Force will remain poised to take on a two-front contingency.

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Author is a former Deputy Chief of Air Staff.

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