Meeting the Challenges: IAF 2020

Air Marshal BK Pandey (Retd), PVSM, AVSM, VM


Festivity during the 73rd anniversary of the Indian Air Force in October 2005 was covershadowed by the concern over its depleting combat power. Obsolesence appears to have overtaken the IAF as several components of its combat and supporting assets are reaching the end of technical or calendar life and need replacement. The Government appeared to be seized of the problem as a few days later at a Combined Commanders’ Conference held in South Block, came the assurance from the highest level that modernisation of the armed forces was a matter of high priority and that the required resources would be made available.



Modernisation of the IAF involves acquisition of expensive capital equipment that has a life span of three to four decades. Acquisition of equipment for the IAF in the past has generally been characterised by slow decision making and complex procurement procedures leading to delays in the operational integration of the equipment with the organisation. The process is a long drawn and in the best case may take seven to ten years to fructify. As such, plans drawn up today must remain valid in the decade of the twenties by which time changes in the operating environment might render decisions of today irrelevant. Modernisation plans must therefore take in to account the challenges of the evolving scenario in the geo-political, geo-strategic, technological and operational environment in the region and the world as these would impact on the role and responsibility of the IAF. It is therefore necessary to trace the historical perspective of regional equations and visualise the scenario that is likely to prevail in the twenties before undertaking plans for modernisation of the IAF.


Conflict and the Developing World



In the first half of the 20th century, the world went through the convulsions of two major wars that apart from the widespread death and destruction, divided the world in to two distinct camps hostile to each other and ushered in an era of cold war and global peace, essentially on account of a balance of power arising out of superpower rivalry. While the two superpowers continued to maintain a balance of terror, conventional proxy wars continued to rage and were confined largely to the developing world. These wars served the political and economic interests of the superpowers as they helped perpetuate strategic relationships and turn the wheels of the military industrial complex of the developed world.


Sino-Indian Relations


Emerging as a dismembered but independent nation in the middle of the 20th century, India inherited several thousand kilometres of land borders that had a potential for conflict whose origins lay in the flawed policies of the British Government. The border between India and Tibet had been defined unilaterally by the British Government during their reign in India without any formal agreement with China who constantly maintained that in the first place, there was no need for a redefinition of borders as the traditional boundaries were well known and that there was no need to indulge in the exercise at all. At no stage did the Chinese endorse or accept the British action with regard to the delineation of the border with Tibet. The alignment of the traditional boundaries claimed by China were also not universally known except perhaps to the Chinese themselves.


The unresolved legacy inherited from the past left an unwary nation traumatised in 1962. More than four decades later, efforts are now on to resolve the fundamental dispute and notwithstanding the inspiring rhetoric emanating from the political establishment of both India and China and the somewhat regimented bonhomie at the military outpost at Nathu La beamed on the visual media occasionally, the ground situation has not changed in favour of India. In fact, in some ways it has indeed worsened as in the intervening years, the Chinese have only consolidated their gains of 1962 in Ladakh and are continuing to develop regions bordering Arunachal on a scale that cannot be justified for economic reasons alone. It would be imprudent to believe that it is possible only through dialogue to alter the age old position held by China regarding the alignment of international borders between India and Tibet. But in the absence of any other option, the dialogue must continue. However, we need to ensure that the unfavourable situation on the ground is not aggravated by inadequacy in military capability. We ought not to ignore the fact that it is more important for us to come to an amicable settlement of the border dispute than it is for China. As per a renowned Chinese leader, it may be desirable to shelve the problem for now and leave it to the future generations who may be wiser to find a solution. A politically weak position combined with a visibly weak military posture on our part therefore could seriously undermine the process of the ongoing dialogue as also the fragile relationship that we seem to have succeeded in building in the recent past.


Apart from the ongoing border dispute, the economic rivalry that is building up slowly but surely between the two of the fastest growing economies in the region, has the potential for conflict arising out of clash of vital interests. While India aspires to emerge as a regional power, China’s sights are set on superpower status. China acquired nuclear power status several years ahead of India to achieve a credible deterrent against a perceived threat from a superpower. And now China has successfully completed her second space mission. China is clearly ahead in the race with India.



Indo-Pak Confrontation


On the western front, the status of Jammu and Kashmir, truly the only cause of conflict, also owes its origin to the legacy of the colonial past. In the wake of super-power rivalry, Britain was replaced in the region by the USA, and while Pakistan was drawn quite readily in to the American camp, India adopted a philosophy of non alignment opting for a diverse inventory of military equipment ie British and French. However for strategic, economic and political reasons India had to subsequently lean heavily on the Soviet Union to meet with the demands of national security. Even though formally not allied with the USSR, India was seen by the USA as being squarely in the Soviet camp and was treated with extreme suspicion and unconcealed disdain. Nearly six decades and four major conflicts later, there appears to have been some qualitative change in the equation between India and Pakistan. People to people contact, exchange programmes in a variety of fields, restoration of rail and road transport, liberalisation of visa regimes, trade both official and unofficial and cooperation in the wake of the disastrous earthquake in the recent past have rekindled hopes for peace between the two adversaries. The media has also by and large played a very constructive role in exposing the reality of India to the several brainwashed and misled generations of Pakistanis. All these developments have served to weaken the anti-each-other platforms that the political establishment on both sides have so far thrived upon.



However, the situation with regard to the status of Kashmir has not changed, and like a persistent virus, resurfaces with irritating regularity, seemingly frustrating efforts at forward movement. In spite of all noble intentions, it appears difficult if not impossible for the Pakistani establishment to retreat from or significantly alter their long held position vis-à-vis Kashmir as it would amount to political suicide for the leadership whether military or civilian.



As for the Indian view, it is only for Pakistan to demonstrate flexibility which the leadership is not prepared to do. And then there is the unfinished business of POK. In view of the inflexible position on both sides, Kashmir will continue to be a major impediment in any effort at securing the western borders from the possibility of conflict. Nothing short of reunification of India and Pakistan can help resolve the dispute over Kashmir. Solution to the Kashmir problem will however remain as much of a fantasy in the foreseeable future as the suggestion for the reunification of the two nations.


Apart from the Kashmir issue, the growing economic inequality between India and Pakistan could aggravate the sense of insecurity that a small nation perceives from a bigger and more prosperous and powerful neighbour with whom there are deep ideological differences and a long history of turbulent relationship. The sense of insecurity may be further aggravated if our western neighbour finds her position vis-à-vis Kashmir weakening. Under such circumstances for Pakistan, a conflict may appear to be an inevitable and desperate option. Under the shadow of the nuclear threat, in all likelihood, Pakistan may prefer to sustain low intensity conflict in the valley and undermine our interests through covert support to insurgency in other parts of the country bordering Nepal and Bangladesh. This certainly would be a more convenient and cost effective option for Pakistan.


Prospects of Peace


It should be clear from the preceding that India cannot rest on its oars and take permanent peace in the subcontinent for granted. Perhaps peace can only be ensured if one is well prepared to meet with any conceivable threat to national security by all the means at its disposal, be it political, economic, diplomatic, or military. Encouraging progress in efforts at settlement of disputes with both China and Pakistan ought not to be assumed as good enough reason for scaling down military capability. Besides, in future conflicts with either or both the neighbours, India needs to be prepared to fight and survive in a nuclear environment.


India as a Regional Power



The closing years of the 20th century witnessed a set of three major events that had a profound effect on the destiny of many nations as also on that of India. The first of these was the collapse of the Soviet Union which seemed to have severed India‘s moorings to set it adrift for a while. The second major event was the un-caging of the Indian economy and the process of economic reforms and liberalisation that thrust India on to the global scene. The third and most significant event was the explicit assertion in 1998 of the nuclear status by both India and Pakistan. Thus in the new century, the situation for the nation and her armed forces is qualitatively different in a number of ways. In the context of a unipolar world, there is a high degree of rapprochement between the USA and India.


The USA regards India as one of the power centres that can exercise a stabilising influence in the region and can be relied upon. In her own perspective, India’s energy security needs, is vital for sustained economic growth and infact survival. India’s zone of interest transcend her geographical boundaries and extends to South East Asia, the Central Asian Republics and the Gulf. India conveyed to the world a subtle message by her swift response to the Tsunami in December 2004. The geopolitical situation therefore is favourable for India to assume the role of a regional power. Also, with economic growth sustained at 8%, and considerably improved resource position, the gap between need and affordability could well be closed.


India would be expected to shoulder higher levels of military responsibility in consonance with its evolving regional power status. In addition, the fundamental reasons for conflict with China and Pakistan continue to linger, notwithstanding the ongoing vigorous political and diplomatic efforts. The search for solutions to disputes rooted deeply in history require prolonged and complex negotiations. However, to be successful on the political and diplomatic fronts, one needs to negotiate from a position of strength. India is well on the way to becoming an economic power. It is incumbent on the leadership to ensure that there is no dilution of military capability, if the equation with our traditionally hostile neighbours is not to be compromised. Rhetoric, assurances and promises must not lull the nation in to complacency and risk a replay of the 1962 debacle.



Security Environment in the Twenties


To summarise, in the geopolitical, geostrategic and security environment that is likely to prevail in the 2020s, the dictates of national security would place the following demands on armed forces of the nation:-


  • To be prepared for a prolonged and widespread multi front border war with China with only a remote possibility of employment of nuclear weapons.
  • To be prepared for a short and intense conflict with Pakistan with the real possibility of the first use of nuclear weapons by the adversary.
  • To be prepared for simultaneous conflict with both the potential adversaries acting in collusion.
  • To sustain the capability to fight a prolonged low intensity conflict in Kashmir and other sensitive regions of the country in the pursuit of internal security.
  • To develop and maintain the capability for rapid strategic intervention and power projection in the region extending from the Straits of Malacca to Central Asia and the Gulf to safeguard and promote national interests.
  • To play a dominant role in the management of disasters and natural calamity in the region of interest.


While considerable progress has been made on the political, economic and diplomatic fronts, the overall security situation continues to remain fraught with uncertainties. India’s growing political and economic stature in the world and commitments of national interests necessitates a move away from the taditional defensive mindset. India must acquire the capability for power projection in the area of interest which will require a qualitative change in the operational philosophy of the armed forces especially of the IAF. Within the broad structural framework that has evolved over the last five decades, there is a need to modify the composition and character of the various constituents of the IAF to provide extended reach and staying power. The focus must shift from the ‘Tactical’ to the ‘Strategic’ as also on ‘Force Multipliers’. The IAF must also develop interoperability with other friendly powers in the region and the world for furtherance of mutual interests.


The armed forces of India have matured through the five conflicts with our neighbours in the last five decades. The IAF in particular has benefited from the lessons learnt in these conflicts and has been quick to absorb the technological advances witnessed elsewhere in the world. Undoubtedly, in the military dimension of national security, the IAF would be called upon to shoulder enhanced levels of responsibility and would have a critical role to play both during peace and war especially in situations demanding swift response. Traditionally considered outside the zone of responsibility, the IAF will be drawn increasingly in to specialised roles related to internal security. The IAF therefore needs to draw up plans to acquire the wherewithal to meet with the challenges of the 2020s. As the pace of change is slow, radical change in the broad structure is neither desirable nor possible in the timeframe under consideration. However, there is imperative need to introduce qualitative change in the capabilities of the IAF driven by the technological revolution in Air Power.


Aerial Reconnaissance


In peacetime, apart from training for war, an important mission of the IAF would be the acquisition of strategic intelligence through technical means. Strategic reconnaissance by fixed wing aircraft would have to be replaced by powerful sensors mounted on space based platforms. Tactical reconnaissance would be assigned to a family of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) even over long range through the use of high endurance machines controlled remotely from thousands of miles away with the aid of satellite based data links. Employing a variety of photo, infra red and comint sensors, it would be possible to counter the element of surprise by maintaining continuous surveillance to assess intent through changes in enemy orbat and relocation of forces. Surveillance systems will be employed to map and update information on strategic target systems and provide in real time highly accurate data necessary for precision attacks by smart weapons particularly in the opening stages of any conflict. Assurance levels of smart weapons are contingent on the accuracy of target data and hence the critical importance of the capability of intelligence gathering platforms and airborne sensors.


Strategic & Tactical Strike Capability


To develop a credible deterrent as also meet with its commitments of power projection in the region, the IAF would need to have a fleet of potent, long range, nuclear capable, multi-role strike aircraft that would have the capability to neutralise any target system in the area of interest. The strike force must have at its disposal a variety of smart weapons with sizeable stand-off range and versatile electronic warfare suites to defeat known detection devices and fire control systems. The IAF is in the process of inducting 190 (ten squadrons) of the state of the art, 40-ton class SU30 MKI multi role aircraft. With in-flight refuelling, this fleet would have the attributes essential to fulfil the strategic commitments of the nation. With a lifespan of at least 30 years including a mid-life upgrade of avionics, the fleet of SU30 MKI would remain in service though the 2020s. However, the IAF would have to reassess the requirement of the size of the fleet periodically vis-à-vis changing scenario and constantly upgrade its weapon systems for the fleet to retain its front line status.


The IAF would need a fleet of medium range multi-role combat aircraft in the 20 ton class for which moves are afoot to acquire 126 (six squadrons) MRCA for air defence and strike tasks of tactical nature. With in-flight refuelling this fleet could also be used to augment the long range strike force. If the IAF is able to overcome the bureaucratic and procedural impediments and operationalise the fleet in the next five years, this fleet too would remain in service well beyond the 2020s. The current fleet of MiG 21, MiG 27, MiG 29, Jaguars and Mirages will largely be obsolete by the 2020s and only a handful may remain to undertake second tier tasks. The effective strength of the IAF is likely to deplete rapidly as we approach the 2020s.


The IAF must draw up concrete plans and take urgent steps to ensure that the fixed wing combat element of the IAF is restored to at least 40 squadrons, if not more. The LCA is a possible answer but only partly. Also, the uncertainty that has plagued the LCA project over the last two decades does not inspire much confidence. Acquisition of aircraft from foreign sources is a complicated process and cannot be conducted as a fire fighting exercise. Presently, there is at least a five year gap in the assessment by the IAF and the Indian Aerospace Industry of the timeframe in which the LCA is expected to be available. In any case, the rate of production may not be adequate to close the gap of 24 squadrons in a respectable timeframe leaving the IAF with no option but to search for solutions elsewhere. Given the size of the deficit, the investment would involve an outflow of resources to the tune of billions of dollars if aircraft are to be acquired from foreign sources. The IAF may run in to affordability barriers and may be compelled to stretch the ageing fleets through expensive upgrades and suffer erosion of capability. The IAF must find answers to this challenge in the context of the security concerns and the emerging regional power status of the nation.


Air Defence


Apart from the combat fleet, the IAF would need to put in place a gap free and responsive automated air defence surveillance system comprising an overlapping integrated network of low, medium and high level radar coverage. In a nuclear environment, an air defence system must be totally impregnable, as even a single aircraft or missile armed with a nuclear weapon could be catastrophic. Besides, own nuclear second strike capability must be protected against a nuclear strike by the enemy. Efforts to acquire a few AWACS and Aerostats are steps in the right direction but more needs to be done. ISRO and DRDO need to move ahead quickly in their ambitious project to develop a space based reconnaissance and surveillance system to cover the airspace over the entire country.


The existing ground based surveillance assets are woefully inadequate for even the current level of responsibility and need total revamp. Given the extent of our frontiers, infrastructure for total coverage solely through ground based surveillance systems would be prohibitively expensive and possibly unaffordable. The AWACS aircraft would be a more cost effective option as it would also provide low level cover deep inside enemy territory not only to direct own forces but also to track hostile aircraft departing for missions from their bases thus substantially increasing reaction time of the air defence system.


While there is no debate over the necessity of AWACS aircraft, the question is that of numbers. In the event of imminent or outbreak of hostilities, AWACS aircraft in adequate numbers would have to be ‘on station’ round the clock. Given the limitations of endurance of the aircraft and the crew, serviceability considerations of an infinitely complex machine and the volume of the airspace to be scanned, the IAF would have to reassess the size of the fleet required to be procured. The fleet of three Phalcon equipped IL 76 aircraft being acquired in the next two to three years, will only provide a learning experience. To meet with needs of the 2020s, the size of the AWACS fleet would have to be significantly larger. Integrating the AWACS in to the Air Defence System, developing the technical skills to maintain and operate the platform and finding the resources to procure these machines in the requisite numbers would be some of the major challenges for the IAF