The Balakot strike by the India Air Force showcased the new visage of Aerial Warfare in the skies of South Asia. Aerial refuelling, airborne surveillance, drones, electronic warfare resources, precision weaponry, air defence elements, escorts etc—all riding on waves of excellent communications— produced huge blasts in one mission whose reverberations are being felt everywhere even after so many days. It was a “trailer” which the world witnessed and whose impact is being evaluated globally, in military and political circles.
Barely ten days earlier, on 16 February, the IAF had demonstrated its capabilities at the Pokharan Range in its “Vayushakti 2019,” wherein its aircraft pulverised the targets. That demonstration was in a “controlled” environment and hence perceived militarily as muscle flexing for a photo-op. Balakot certainly changed that perspective. Earlier, during the Kargil War, the IAF had instructions not to cross the LoC. At Balakot, it was different. The target attacked was across the international border, well beyond the LoC and the IAF pressed into action all the necessary elements for such a mission. Aircraft in excess of 20 were used for this single mission.
What did the global aerial warfare experts observe in this strike? They observed that the IAF had come of age. It now had the capability seen earlier only with the air forces of the advanced world. No longer tactical, IAF was now seen at the strategic level. South Asian skies had not witnessed such a co- ordinated strike till date.While every Indian felt proud, the professional air warrior was also introspecting.
Nature of aerial war had changed dramatically with each target demanding lots of resources. Does our Air Force have the capability to defend such large expanses of sky that it is responsible for? Does it have the capability to neutralise the infinite number of targets across the huge borders with Pakistan and China? The answer that he got, unfortunately, was a big NO. While our air warriors are well trained and the IAF possesses the elements necessary for success in today’s scenario, it woefully falls short in the number of aircraft that it possesses for fulfilment of its responsibility. Since 2001 it has been trying to acquire 126 multi-role fighters. Eighteen years later the score is still zero. Sad part is that what is available is also shrinking.
Realising this, our Prime Minister on his visit to France in April 2015, set in motion a Govt to Govt (G2G) deal for 36 Rafale aircraft. The contract for it was signed in September 2016 and their delivery is expected in the current year- 2019.This pace is a clear indicator that this should have been followed up immediately by purchasing the balance 90 in a similar G2G deal. But sadly,this did not happen.
With available inventory shrinking, how do we safeguard our skies? Luckily, there is a silver lining in this cloud. Our indigenous Tejas has just received its Final Operational Clearance (FOC). The IAF has already ordered 40 and plans to order another 83. Order for these must be placed without further ado. Currently HAL has a capacity to produce 8 Tejas per annum. Preparations are on at HAL to double it to 16 per annum from 2019-20 onwards. This is not enough and a higher production rate is necessary and essential. HAL must be tasked to stretch itself and increase the numbers. If it cannot, then the IAF should be co-opted along with HAL for serial production. The IAF possesses BRDs(Base Repair Depots) which have the inherent capability to manufacture aircraft. A little imaginative tie up between HAL and IAF in work share arrangements will be necessary for this to succeed. The most crucial element, for any leap in manufacturing, is the availability of trained manpower. The machines and jigs can be produced in a short time frame but not the human resource. And that is where the IAF scores for it not only has the numbers but also the quality necessary for this task. Thus, the answer lies in enhancing the capacity of HAL for production of Tejas by using the BRD route of IAF. Only then will the IAF get the necessary elbow room to defend our vast skyline.
Air Marshal VK Verma, PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM has had an illustrious career in the IAF which included command of a fighter squadron in Jodhpur, AOC at AFS Hakimpet, Commandant at Air Force Academy, Dundiyal and Director General (Flight Inspection and Safety) at Air Headquarters. Post retirement, the Air Marshal served as Director, Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Akademi (IGRUA)