The Indian Air Force (IAF) is today operating at its lowest combat strength— and the numbers are expected to dip further in the coming five years. The threat assessment however is indicative of both China and Pakistan ramping up their air capabilities, which necessitates that India be prepared to fight an air war on two fronts, should both our potential adversaries collude in a conflict against India. Considering present capabilities, India needs to be wary of both countries, but essentially of China and its swift rate of military modernisation. The Pakistan factor too has to be considered as that country looks up to China for a large part of its military supplies including jet fighter aircraft.
The Chinese Challenge
The Chinese doctrine of ‘Active Defense’ posits a defensive military strategy and asserts that China does not initiate wars or fight wars of aggression, but engages in war only to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity and attacks only after being attacked. Beijing’s definition of an attack against its territory, or what constitutes an initial attack, is left vague, however. In the Indian context, an unresolved border dispute could well result in China using force to reclaim territory which China claims—and justify the action as self defence. To that end, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is modernising its forces, emphasising preparations to fight and win shortduration, high-intensity conflicts along China’s periphery. This includes scenarios for Taiwan, building counters to third-party, including potential U.S. intervention in cross-Strait crises and Chinese claims along its borders with India. While China’s ability to project conventional military power beyond its periphery as of now remains limited, its modernisation programme, which includes an expanding force of ballistic missiles (long-range and short-range), cruise missiles, submarines, advanced aircraft, and other modern systems will sooner rather than later enhance her capability to project power well beyond her shores. This will be a major cause of worry to India.
In the event of hostilities breaking out with China, a criticality for the IAF will be dominating the air space over the Tibetan plateanu. While it has the capacity to do so at this juncture, within a decade from now, the PLAAF will have superiority in both numbers and in more capable aircraft. The PLAAF has made real progress in enhancing its fighter capability with the continuous induction of more modern air frames while shedding second and third generation frames from its fleet.By 2010, modern fourth-generation variants accounted for almost 30 percent of the jet fighters in PLAAF. This figure crossed the halfway Mark in 2015 and assessed to be close to 62 percent today. Between 2010 and 2015, China inventory of Fourth-generation fighters increased from 386 to 736, yielding an impressive average of 70 modern fighters added per year. This includes the J-11, which is a strong 4th generation platform that compares favourably with U.S. jet fighters such as the F/A-15s to F/A-18s. However, as almost all Chinese aircraft lack quality engines capable of lasting more than a few hundred hours, Chinese capability would stand greatly diminished in long drawn out campaigns, though they would be highly potent in short duration wars.
China also has two ongoing stealth fighter programs—the J-20 and the J-31. The J-20’s frame suggests a stealth interceptor designed around countering an AWAC using air force like the United States while the J-31’s frame suggests a modern air-to-air fighter that may be Combat ready in the next 15 Years. While the capabilities of these aircraft are yet to be seen, they represent the PLAAFs progression towards a fully modern air force capable of delivering offensive deep strike missions against similar modern air defenses. By 2025, it is assessed that China may be in a position to deploy anywhere between 300 and 400 sophisticated air craft against India. By this time, the PAF would likely have between 100 to 200 advanced fighters, and the IAF would have to cater to both threats, if faced with a two front scenario.
Fighter Jets for the IAF Till the 1990s, the IAF had a qualitative edge over the fighter jets available with both Pakistan and China. This edge got eroded with the Chinese modernisation of its military, especially the PLAAF, with a consequent impact on the PAF as well. Towards the late 1990s, the IAF was however contending with a fleet that was ageing and getting technologically obsolescent, with poor reliability and high maintenance costs. The modernisation plan of the IAF sought an optimisation of its force structure through reducing the range of aircraft types and enhancing operational capability with a focus on technological relevance and force multipliers. The planning process envisaged equipping the IAF with the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), Tejas, as a replacement for the Mig 21 fleet, to cater to the lower/lighter end of the fighter fleet. The Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) as the lynchpin of the IAF’s envisaged operational capability for the 21st century was to replace the entire fleet of MiG-21 Bis/MiG-23/27 jet fighters and the heavier fleet, with focus on air superiority would be the Su 30 MK1.While the Tejas has been delayed, it is India’s indigenous aircraft and so must be supported to the hilt. The IAF has placed orders for 200 Tejas aircraft which can equip six squadrons. As of now, with the present capacity to produce eight aircraft a year, it will take at least two years to equip the first squadron with the Tejas. As this capacity is set to double with the setting up of another production line, it would take at least another five years to come up to the six squadron mark.
India’s quest for acquiring a new MMRCA to supplement and eventually supplant its ageing inventory of MiG-29s and Mirage 2000s has been a work in progress for more than a decade. The proposal was to induct 126 new fourth- Generation foregin-designed fighters,with all but the first 18 to be manufactured in India by HAL and with an option for a follow-on acquisition that might ultimately yield a total of 200 new MMRCAs for the IAF in due course. The MoD issued a formal RFP (Request for Proposals) in August 2007 and finally chose the Rafale in January 2012 as its preferred follow-on MMRCA was a government to government deal,it fell through due to contractual disagreements. India wanted Dassault to accept final responsibility for the products that were manufactured in India. Dassault however, was unwilling to accept final responsibility for the quality of the products that were to be manufactured by HAL in India, over which it would have no direct control. The deal fell through, but the impasse was partially broken in April 2015 by the decision of the Modigovernment to purchase 36 Rafales in a fly away condition, straight off Dassault’s production line. This will certainly help meet India’s air defence requirements, given the potent air superiority capabilities of the type, but the numbers are too small to address India’s concerns with respect to defending its vast airspace from intruders and potential hostile strikes. Also for consideration is the fact that the Rafale will perhaps be the only remotely credible type operated by the IAF for an airborne nuclear delivery mission against Chinese and even eventually Pakistani air defences in the years to come, which makes it plausible that the Rafale will be used for nuclear deterrence. Hence other similar aircraft types will still be required to fulfil the requirements of the conventional multirole and air defence domains While the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets in fly condition partly assuages the problem of the depleting fighter squadrons available with the IAF, the long term requirement of the IAF of 126 to 200 new fighters to fill out its desired follow-on MMRCA inventory still needs to be addressed. To fill this need, India is now looking into foreign collaboration to manufacture the same in India under the ‘Make in India’ initiative, with the foreign producer partnering with India’s private industry, rather than with HAL. Towards that proposed end, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Saab have all expressed their readiness to move their entire production lines for their respective F-16s, F/A-18 s, and Gripes to India .These Firm have as of now indicated their willingness to continue to produce the most