Sun Tzu said, “Warfare is the greatest affair of the State. It is the basis of Life and Death. It is the Tao of Preservation and Extinction. Its study cannot be neglected.” In other words, no war is a stand-alone military operation. It is an embodiment of all the elements of national power — politics, economy, military and diplomacy.

Sun Tzu propounded four major principles of war — analysis, initiative, flexibility/adaptability and surprise. If these are to be bracketed by one element called “response,” it has captured the essence of air power and its application. Because of the inherent dynamic characteristic of air power, air strategy and its application is complex in its study, planning and execution. Air power is one of the few elements of national power that has the capability to contribute directly to security across the entire range of possible scenarios. In fact, the potential provided by air power, even without having to commit any acts of war, is enough to contain or escalate a conflict. The fact that it transcends all levels of warfare, from the strategic to the tactical, is testimony that an Air Force is always a government’s choice to coerce or to provide deterrence. So even in times of peace, air forces are required to maintain a certain operational tempo and the quantum of air power available must be the major factor in defence planning and strategy. If this be the case, it is but natural that availability of resources and the ability to sustain the operational dynamism are the limiting factors for any Air Force.

“Nabhah Sparsham Deeptam” — taken from the eleventh chapter of the Bhagavad Gita — means “Touch the Sky with Glory”. This motto of the Indian Air Force could not be more inspirational and soul-stirring for the magnificent men and their flying machines. It epitomises the pride of those who serve, knowing fully well that theirs is the “Sword-Arm” of the Indian Armed Forces, the service that is critical to project power and deterrence in any confrontation. The statement is not parochial but rather a statement of fact.

The steady increase in sophistication and lethality of conventional arms and the factor of proliferation of WMDs in the immediate neighbourhood is juxtaposed with the steady draw-down of fighter squadrons in the IAF and a critical state of arsenal across the spectrum. What an antipodean situation! You turn on your TV today and what do you see? Obnoxious debates on the procurement of Rafale jets for the IAF. Mired in controversy with the detractors clueless about procedure and form, the country has become the laughing stock of the military business houses, with its credibility waning day by day. There seems to be no sense of fear that national security is being compromised or that an ill-equipped military is a repository for disaster. We are literally sitting on a bomb.

Tasked to provide Air Defence cover to the nation, deter and counter aggression across the spectrum of conflict, achieve air dominance to allow surface forces to operate with impunity, conduct humanitarian missions in aid of civil society — the IAF’s cup runneth over. It is criminal to expect a predominantly legacy equipped force to cope with the expectations when the curtain is raised. But with great pride and fervour, the IAF rallied from a depressing scenario to showcase its reach, flexibility, proportionality, penetrative capability, multi-spectrum capability and seamless integration of sensors during Ex Gagan Shakti 2018. The biggest take-away from the exercise was possibly the response and flexibility achieved when confronted with a two-front scenario. This was possible only because of centralised control of limited resources, categorically dispelling the possibility of the IAF operating in an Integrated Theatre Command structure. The distribution of limited numbers of high value assets or force multipliers cannot be frittered away in penny packets.

As it heads towards its 87th year, the IAF is reeling under the pressure of having to perform across the canvas of operations with limited resources. The much awaited ‘transformation’ predicted by the last three Chief’s Of Air Staff does not seem to be making any headway as long as the politicians continue to meddle in the defence acquisition process. Traditional long gestation periods in acquisition are unnecessarily stretched to critical lengths while the service suffers the consequences. The complexities of associated manpower planning and their training, retention of technical expertise to maintain legacy systems, creation of infrastructure as the service evolves and transforms, all seem to be lost on the irresponsible politicians.

The Prime Minister’s “Swachh Bharat” program needs to be extended to the ministries to clean up and streamline procedures and cut the red tape. Accountability of service providers, the stumbling blocks, must be given high priority. Whether it is DRDO or the PSUs, the DGQA / DGAQA or HAL or the innumerable processing agencies in the pipeline, their charter has to be reviewed and the factor of user interface integrated to extract and optimise the supply chain. Inadequate hand holding in the defence sector is not allowing the SMEs to flourish and permit “Make in India” to become a success story.

The IAF’s blue crystal ball should have had a rosy hue. Alas…

An alumnus of NDA and DSSC, Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji has served the IAF as a fighter pilot with distinction. He has commanded three units, a MiG-29 Sqn, a MiG-25 SR Sqn and TACDE (considered the ‘Top Gun’ school of the IAF) and also served as the Air Attaché in Washington DC. He retired in 2011 as the AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command.

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