The journey from the Wapiti to the Su-30 for the Indian Air Force (IAF) has been truly historic. Looking back, it is clear that as the air force developed, the stress on numbers changed to that of acquiring the capability of delivering more punch per aircraft. But this realization has been slow in coming and has been delayed further by the snail’s pace of the acquisition process. Little wonder then that there has been a delay in the induction of a Medium Multi-Range Combat Aircraft [MMRCA] in the air force!
One needs to recall that while the IAF was officially established in October 1932, its first flight came into being on April 1933. The inventory was four Westland Wapiti IIA Army cooperation biplanes as the “A” Flight nucleus of No.1 Squadron. During the Second World War the IAF (then Royal Indian Air Force) grew rapidly. Major tasks assigned were support to the land forces and tactical reconnaissance. At the time of Independence in 1947, the IAF’s strength were Nos. 3,4,7,8 and 10 Squadrons with Tempest’s, No. 2 Squadron with Spitfires and No. 12 Squadron with C-47s, plus No. 1 Air Observation Flight, the establishment of which with AOP Auster 4s, 5s, and 6s, coincided with independence. No. 6 Squadron, which had been in process of converting from Spitfires to C-47s, was transferred to Pakistan.
In 1947, the IAF had some six and a half squadrons, which slowly rose to twenty-five by the end of the fifties although the planners had reckoned on a twenty-squadron force as early as in 1951. It was only in the aftermath of the Sino-Indian conflict that a forty-five squadron force was mooted. What the IAF has been able to achieve, over a period of time, in fits and starts is periodic replacements with available equipment that was usually of Soviet/Russian origin. This has had many effects on the IAF’s combat capability and more importantly its doctrine and thinking. For instance, acquisition of short-range aircraft has meant that the IAF could play only a subordinate and supportive role.
Most of its strike aircraft had limited range and its interceptors little endurance as the same type of aircraft were used for both the tasks. The MiG-21 aircraft, which was essentially a high level interceptor designed to stop the B- 52 bombers during the Cold War, became the mainstay of the IAF. The Hunters, Mysteres, Gnats, S-22s, and later even the MiG-23/27 class of strike aircraft were essentially short on range and armament carriage. It was only with the induction of the Jaguar and later the Mirage-2000 multi-role fighters, that the IAF addressed these shortcomings. This inventory shows an enduring obsession with the Pakistani threat and an unplanned and unchecked multiplicity of types. The IAF has continued to emphasize on air defence while hoping to get the best out of the existing rudimentary multi-role capability of these aircraft for strike missions. As a result both the strike and air superiority missions have suffered. Air Defence
accounted for some forty-five percent of the air effort in the 1971 war. It would be easy to see the adverse effect of such massive defensive effort on IAF’s throwweight or offensive capability.
The IAF in the last decade has accepted that the increased costs of maintaining a modern and effective air force does necessitate a reduction in quantitative levels. The MiG-21 Bis-UPG (or MiG-21 Bison as the IAF calls it) upgrade programme is underway. The IAF’s second-generation fighter types – the MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 – will see intensive avionics upgrades as well as the ability for some of the MiG-29s being equipped for air refuelling. The multirole capability and very high serviceability of the Mirage 2000 (close to 90 per cent), led the IAF to order an additional ten aircraft. The HAL-built MiG-27M remains backbone of the IAF’s tactical strike force, equipping some six squadrons plus a remaining squadron of MiG- 23BNs. Five squadrons of Jaguars form order for 17 two-seaters was followed by
an additional 20 single-seaters ordered later. These Jaguars are to DARIN II standard and have much enhanced precision strike capability than the early batches, also incorporating the muchneeded autopilot.
In addition to fulfilling overland strike duties, the IAF is tasked with providing tactical air support to the Navy. The Jaguar maritime squadron has been specifically earmarked for this role on the western coast and is equipped with a mix of Sea Eagle-armed Jaguar IS and IMs. Additionally, the IAF had tasked a MiG-27 squadron to cover the eastern sea board, to operate in conjunction with the Navy’s own air assets including Sea Harriers and Tu-142s. There has been a delay in acquisition of 126 new multi-role combat aircraft, and this will lead to the first lot of these fighters being delivered only by 2012 at the earliest. By then, the IAF would have retired many more squadrons of MiG- 21s, which constitute the bulk of its combat fleet, and 40 more MiG-27s. To counter the sharp fall in numbers, the IAF has upgraded 125 MiG-21 ‘Bisons’ and 100 each of the MiG-27MLs and Jaguars with new avionics, weapon systems and life-extension refits. There is also a deal with Russia to upgrade 69 MiG-29s, while a similar package is underway for 51 Mirage-2000s with France.
The IAF has already phased out about half a dozen of its MiG series of combat squadrons in the past couple of years – the latest phase out being one of an MiG- 23MF squadron in March 2008. Consequently, the present strength of the IAF fighter squadrons is now down to about 30, down from 39, which was declared as a minimum requirement a couple of years ago by the then Chief of Air Staff. Of the available inventory, MiG-21, MiG-27 and Jaguar aircraft have already been upgraded and Mirage-2000 and MiG-29 aircraft are planned for upgradation. In the helicopter fleet, upgrade of medium lift helicopters mainly the Mi-8, Mi-17 and Mi-17-IVs is being looked at, while the acquisition of C-130s and C-17 Globemaster, has improved overall capability. In the next few years, the force will induct more Su- 30 MKI aircraft, the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) and the MMRCA. Rotary wing capabilities will undergo a paradigm shift when new platforms like the Chinook helicopter and Apache attack helicopters are inducted. The Chinook will be inducted in the near term, while the Apache induction will take a little longer. Despite these upgradations and modernization, the IAF still faces some challenges which are outlined below:-
• Falling force levels
• Aging aircraft and equipment
• Inadequate modernization of assets to meet interim battlefield requirements
• As in the case of the other two forces, delays in acquisition of aircraft and platforms that will increase capability in all spheres of combat
• Attention to be paid to fighting future wars in all three spectrums of conflict. This requires analysis of the technology factor in helping air power in fighting future wars.
In the medium term, while the force grapples with new acquisitions and ensures that their induction is done as effectively as possible, there is also a need to identify sources of technology that will help battlefield situations in all spheres of combat. The plan to induct 126 MMRCA is a step in the interim to fill force gaps and to increase combat capability given the need to keep pace with technology.
Focus on the long-term force levels required in the context of the changes taking place across the frontiers and the tasks and missions of the IAF having increased manifold is necessary now. At the minimum this would require building up of force levels to 45-odd combat squadrons, in the knowledge that that ‘earliest’ could be 20 years or more away.
One must keep in mind that more aircraft will have finished their design life with a negative impact on force levels which would be difficult to compensate with currently known acquisition programmes. For example, the six squadrons of the upgraded MiG-21 (Bison) would need to be replaced in another 10-15 years while the fully operational LCA would barely enter service by that time. So the long-term acquisition plans of the IAF would have to be put in place beginning now. There are twin options for the IAF. First, maintenance of existing force levels by upgradation of all aircraft and equipment. This is happening in the case of the MiG-21 and other aircraft. But these upgrades will only last for a decade or so and then it will be time to replace all these aircraft. Upgradation also means an enhancement of maintenance facilities. With the Russian aircraft in the inventory, India fortunately has the infrastructure, but with aircraft of other origin, this facility is not there.
The second option, as is also being currently attempted, is to equip the force with a number of platforms that are capable of force multiplier effects. For instance, upgradation of all aircraft in the inventory with air-to-air refueling probes is a step in the direction of increasing endurance. The Su-30 MKI is presently the only aircraft in the inventory that is capable of long-range penetration strikes. More of these aircraft are required for a variety of roles, ranging from air superiority to maritime strike. The air force wants to reduce the inventory in its combat jet arsenal to three aircraft systems only, and over the next few years, it plans to use the Tejas as the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), the new MMRCAs as the Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA) and the 35-tonne SU30- MKIs as the Heavy Combat Aircraft
(HCA). The SU30-MKI is a near fifth generation fighter giving IAF substantial strategic reach, and future upgrades for it are already being planned to ensure that it retains ‘its cutting edge’ over the coming decades.
The combat experience and force structures of the IAF indicate a defensive-offensive doctrine, largely dedicated to tactical air support and
achieving air superiority in the battlefield. Providing close air support and carrying out ground strikes both at the forward edge of the battle area and deep penetration remain principal tasks of the IAF. While air defence has been a primary role for the air force, future wars suggest that we will have to take the war into enemy territory. Even though during Kargil the IAF was not allowed to cross the LoC, it is suggestive of the operational terrain that sometimes the air force has to engage targets that are on the borderline and beyond visual range.
This requires accuracy of a high level and Operation Safed Sagar is a tribute to the training and innovative capabilities of the force that it managed to fulfil its role within the given constraints. One must realize that the IAF has been created to fight and win wars and it has to prepare itself for future wars, where the attacker will have the initiative. Therefore, the IAF has to adopt an offensive-defensive posture that is capable of taking war into the enemy’s territory and dominate the airspace over the battlefield area. This requires force structures to be integrated with userfriendly sensors and electronic systems.
In terms of overall strength, the IAF will need at least one squadron or one and a half for every army division. If, of the 30 divisions, some 20 are fielded in war, the IAF would need at least 30 squadrons to support them. Current squadron strength is inadequate in this sense. Not only are the aircraft old, their capabilities are also limited. With air land battle being the call of the day, the IAF will have to operate in tandem firstly with the Army and then with the Indian Navy. Combat capability must also be extended to all weather and all terrain capability. During oral evidence before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence on 18 February 2014, the Committee asked the air force on it intended to going to achieve targeted strength of 42 squadrons. The Air Force’s reply is reproduced below in full:-
“You are right 42 is an ideal figure; and we need to work towards getting this 42. Insofar as the collusive threat is concerned, the collusive threat is very likely in case China starts the operations. If we are engaged with Pakistan, China may not pose a collusive threat. But Pakistan is certainly going to raise the level in case we engage with China. In regard to our engagement with China, you know that we had a policy of dissuance and now we have a policy of deterrence. We are quite focused on tackling with China. Collusive threat will be difficult to tackle but we are prepared for it. We have made plans in case of Contingency-III.”
Even with new acquisitions, India will only have 37.5 squadrons by end of the 12th Five Year Plan. Though the IAF has inducted advanced multi-role fighters such as Sukhoi-30 MKIs and forcemultipliers like IL-78 mid-air refuellers and ‘Phalcon’ Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), numbers do matter in the ultimate analysis. But then as modern technology informs us, sheer numbers may not give you the punch needed in a future war. What India now needs to focus on is transformative technologies for future warfare.