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The Indian Air Force Today: Evolution and Future Challenges
By IANS | Bharat Defence Kavach | Publish Date: 8/13/2012 12:00:00 AM

Kapil Kak

Post-Independence Decades
New Delhi:
The Indian Air Force (IAF) has come a long way from its four Wapiti biplanes, six officers and nineteen airmen in 1933 to being the world’s fourth largest Air Force. What brought this about? For one, its early pioneers, who transformed a fledgling air unit into a formidable force; and for another, the professionalism, dedication and a highly innovative spirit of its leadership of early years. What comes readily to mind is the daring bombing attack undertaken by the intrepid Wing Commander KK ‘Jumbo’ Majumdar, in 1942, on the Japanese-occupied Mae Hong Son airbase in northern Thailand that benchmarked the doctrinal stirrings of IAF’s role transition—within a decade of its birth—from ‘army cooperation’ to a ‘multi-role’ capability to its being the country’s only truly strategic armed force today.

India-Pakistan War 1947-48

The best measure to trace and judge the capabilities of a fighting force is to evaluate its performance during conflicts. IAF was catapulted into India’s first war with Pakistan within 72 days of independence, landing an infantry battalion by Dakotas on October 27, 1947 at the improvised Srinagar airstrip, when the Pakistani forces were within sniffing distance. This was a strategically defining success. Jammu and Kashmir was saved from the jaws of attacking Pakistani forces which nearly wrested the Kashmir Valley! IAF’s fascinating innovations in this conflict merit a recall for a proper understanding of how creative ‘best practices’ can turn into ‘next practices’! Landing on the Indus riverbed at Leh to deal with a precarious military situation, night take offs and landings at Poonch by Dakotas in the face of enemy fire, and their emergency employment for bombing, and in a reversal, use of Tempest fighters for dropping supplies at the besieged garrison at Skardu truly constitute Indian air power folklore today. But on the flip side, a flawed joint army-air force approach, strategic blindness of the politico-military leadership and political-level uncertainties together contributed to two blunders: surrender of the Skardu garrison, when it should have been held at all costs, and not recapturing Indian territory in northern Kashmir, that provided access to Afghanistan and Central Asia, which is considered so vital today.

India-China War 1962

Equally regrettably, non-employment of IAF’s offensive air power in the 1962 conflict with China could be ascribed to poor intelligence, fears of escalation and punitive retribution by the Peoples’ Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF).The choice to skitter away from a vital decision was thus shaped by concerns on not provoking China, lest PLAAF IL28s bomb Indian cities and interfere with the limited ground logistics, and a question mark over Pakistan’s attitude. It is not widely known that a comparative evaluation of the PLAAF threat and IAF capability favoured the latter. PLAAF combat aircraft were not only no match for IAF’s state-of-the art force, but faced severe limitations in deployment at their only two airfields in the East. In contrast IAF faced no such constrains, and its offensive missions would have resulted in an adverse psychological impact on attacking Chinese land forces.  A pre-conflict White House summary and a CIA study in 1964 are said to have reinforced these postulates. Given the Army’s critical deficiencies in logistics supply, IAF rose to the occasion with its transport and helicopter aircrew and maintenance support elements demonstrating utmost dedication and ‘can do’ spirit in sustaining these critical air-supply missions for forward-deployed Army troops, often in the face of enemy fire.

1965 Indo-Pak War

IAF’s capabilities and preparedness were put to test, yet again, less than two years later when Pakistan—after its failed armour offensive in the Rann of Kutch and subsequent infiltration in J&K by irregulars—launched a surprise war on India. It would be pertinent to recollect how heroically IAF performed in the face of PAF’s US-assisted technological superiority. From decisively preventing Pakistan’s armour offensive in Chhamb-Jaurian, to deep bombing and air-to-ground attacks inflicting far higher levels of destruction on Pakistani tanks, guns and rolling stock. In the end PAF’s total comparative attrition, based on air effort undertaken, was 21 per cent higher, with attrition in the air being even higher at 36 per cent.

Indo-Pak War 1971

The two-front 1971 War was doubtless IAF’s finest hour for its crucial role in the first ever employment of India’s armed forces for a successful politico-strategic outcome. Attaining total air dominance in East Pakistan, helicopter-bridging of troops across river obstacles, air-dropping a Battalion Group at Tangail, and Mig 21s undertaking a pinpoint rocket attack on the Governor’s House at Dhaka—that hastened Pakistan Army’s surrender—were some of its crowning successes. Not that its achievements in the West were any less: attacks on strategic targets like energy nodes, power, road and rail networks; air offensive support for land and maritime operations; effective blunting of Pakistani tank offensive at Longewala; air attacks on Kargil mountain tops that led to their capture all contributed in no small measure to eventual victory in that war.

The 1999 Kargil Conflict

In the 1999 Kargil conflict as well, the IAF’s decisive support for the Army in the eviction of Pakistan army intruders was a source of admiration to the Indian public. This notwithstanding the misperception and its articulation in some quarters of IAF’s ‘delayed’ support. Highly innovative Mig 21 night attacks, Mirage 2000 attacks on Tiger Hill, Tololing and the critical logistics node at Muntho Dalo, along with extensive transport and helicopter missions, all helped to clinch a victory. As then Army Chief, Gen VP Malik wrote, “these successes could not have been achieved but for our air force having jointly performed with equal valour and commitment in complete coordination.”

Contemporary Developments

 IAF’s key contribution in the success of India’s post-independence wars must not induce it to rest on its laurels, but seriously ponder over the manifold challenges it faces. There are many lessons from the conflicts world over in the last two decades that have relevance in the next two. One, that wars today tend to be ‘limited’; two, that in such wars, leveraging the verticality dimension comprising air, near space, space, outer space, cyber and information, particularly air power, has a critical bearing on overall success; and, three, how exploitation of technologies—galloping as these already are—in surveillance, reconnaissance, assessment, decision-making and high-precision target attacks holds the key to a successful politico-strategic outcome.
   
Impact of the nuclear over-hang  and an expanded conflict spectrum—from sub-conventional to nuclear retaliatory readiness—combined with India’s imperatives on peace sustenance for socio-economic development and poverty alleviation, and technology absorption all make for reduced salience of conventional wars, other than when vital national interests are threatened, as during Kargil.

Thus, while cooperative security, strategic restraint and conventional and nuclear deterrence tend to run in tandem, the criticality of further building India’s Air Force that has a high-calibre leadership and is technology-intensive, cyber-savvy and effectively networked hardly merits emphasis. More so when the cost-benefits of its attributes of instantly-deliverable, punitive, coercive, long-range, high-precision strikes with minimum blood-letting makes for its employment in crisis situations, that demand a military response, far more politically acceptable to the apex political leadership.

Future Challenges

 IAF’s role and missions would require to be contextualised to India’s unique force application impulses and compulsions, involving unresolved boundary disputes with a rising and of late assertive China and its nuclear-armed proxy, a highly-unstable Pakistan; protection of India’s long border and coast line, EEZ, and critical trade and energy flows; and, as India’s regional responsibilities increase, in shaping its strategic neighbourhood. But, worryingly, there appears a disjunction between IAF’s wherewithal for its roles and missions, and existential capabilities.

Because progressive phase out of its combat mainstay, the Mig 21s, in large numbers, without matching induction of the long-planned and delayed LCAs as replacements and a stretched modernisation process have served to blunt its combat potential, notwithstanding assurances to the contrary by our defence policy mavens. Over the last decade, IAF’s negative aerospace imbalance with PLAAF has been palpable and India just cannot afford to have its Air Force proven impotent in a contestation with the PLAAF.

IAF’s combat strength stands reduced to about 30 squadrons today from nearly 40 squadrons, sustained over quarter of a century after the 1971 war—a development that would not have gone unnoticed in Beijing and Islamabad. This when the PLAAF with its characteristic foresight, alacrity and resoluteness is modernising and streamlining combat capabilities at a dizzy pace, with the strategic objective of matching, if not overtaking the world’s best Air Force, that of the US, in two decades, when PLAAF combat strength is likely to be 60-65 squadrons. Our aerospace power planners need not get the heebie-jeebies at this looming prospect, for it is not one-to-one equivalence that the IAF must seek but a deadly and robust deterrence potential in being.

While it is encouraging that the IAF is being beefed up to 42 combat squadrons by 2020, it is even more important that planning to up-scale and up-number IAF combat potential to at least 50 combat squadrons by 2032, when it celebrates its centenary, must commence without delay. Because as India rises, its conflict impulses are likely to exacerbate; winning the air war would be even more important than now; and, the need to have in place smart aerospace-centric military capabilities for stability in our strategic neighbourhood would acquire even greater resonance. This notably so in ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power oceanic aerospace operations in conjunction with maritime forces.

No doubt induction of combat and combat-support aircraft, and force multipliers in recent years like Su 30 air superiority fighters, in-the-pipeline multi-role and fifth generation fighters and heavy-lift C 17s, and force multipliers like IL 76-based airborne warning and control system (AWACS), IL 78  in-flight refuelling aircraft, dedicated special operations C 130 J Hercules networking systems and precision weapons et al would not only serve to redress the capability imbalance with PLAAF but also enable the IAF to dominate battle-spaces of interest and simultaneously address multiple enemy centres of gravity in vast geographical spaces. From among the myriad challenges the IAF faces, three specific areas would deserve special attention.

First, the increasingly changing nature of war has made for the Air Force in India being central to conventional and nuclear deterrence, and coercion and punitive effect. Consequently, regardless of typology of conflict, air dominance of land, sea and air battle-spaces would be vital for success in war, especially for land and maritime operations that would be hugely vulnerable to Chinese and Pakistani air power, possibly even in collusion.

The second and perhaps a daunting challenge would be of building future aerospace leadership through education, intellectual capacity enhancement and strategic orientation.

In his book, How to Control the Military (1969), John Kenneth Galbraith described the Air Force Generals of that time as being the “most comprehensive literate warriors since Julius Ceasar”. While the Air Force leadership of recent years has demonstrated an encouragingly increasing proclivity towards the need for a much-needed transition from ‘stick and throttle centricity’, this is indeed a long haul.

Lastly, a potent aerospace capability demands a concomitant indigenous industry. Proactive policy initiatives moving beyond the Ordnance Factory-Public Sector Undertaking dyad to civil-military, public-private and Indian-owned foreign partnerships constitute the way forward.

Defence policy makers need to gainfully leverage the ‘animal spirits’ of the private sector in India’s traditionally weak design and development sector. It is to be hoped that the recommendations of the Naresh Chandra Task Force on energising India’s defence-aerospace industry, including reform of the DRDO, would be implemented speedily.

As the major stakeholder, the Air Force must strive to drive the national aerospace policy and strategy. But in terms of cost- and technology effectiveness, such a policy can be implemented only if the aerospace sector, including civil aviation and space, are conceptualised, organised and enabled to be a composite un-compartmentalised whole.

(Air Vice Marshal (retd), a noted security analyst, was until recently the Additional Director, Centre for Air Power Studies, an appointment he held since its inception in 2002.)

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The Indian Air Force Today: Evolution and Future Challenges

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