There are several challenges before the Indian Air Force (IAF) and each one merits a separate commentary. However, by virtue of the capacities inherent to this force, and the shortfalls that exist, it becomes difficult to differentially tackle each challenge. Assuming for a moment that the IAF is structured to fight a two-front war, with both strategic and tactical missions as part of its role, much more needs to be done than is presently on the cards.
The challenges are therefore manifold and to expect ready solutions is to defeat the very purpose of perspective planning. The IAF has to engage in a planned exercise that looks at force structuring combined with personnel, logistics and equipment.
Force accretions in terms of numbers alone will not get the IAF where it needs to be. If, as was envisioned some time ago, the IAF should become an Aerospace Force, then the tenets of force structuring and operations have to be drastically different. However, the tendency is to look at modernisation and new acquisitions in a piecemeal manner, driven by our ad-hoc and time-consuming system of buying weapons.
To take one example, the MMRCA has been in the offing for a decade and it will another before the platform in its full glory will fly the Indian skies. Is this hiatus not too long? The other aspect of the changing profile of the IAF is the geography of operations and the perceived threats that it seeks to counter. Clearly, recent developments have shown that the accent is on being prepared for any action by Beijing. But the mere movement of air assets to the North-East and Ladakh does not ensure security. This has to be backed by the logistics and mobility to be able to meet any contingency. How else can we avoid a repeat of 1962 when we refused to use the IAF for the fear of Chinese retaliation?
IAF and the need to modernise
The IAF is a young force but with an ageing fleet. Recent acquisitions have focused on transport and airborne surveillance, both crucial to the C4ISR system that is so badly needed. One realisation that has been apparent for some time now is that new acquisitions cost money, and upgrading existing platforms with expensive technology is an option that can be taken given the overall strategic posture in the South Asian region, with the exception of China. What constitutes a threat and how it can be countered using existing assets is an operational matter and one that is filled with risks but perceptions about the enemy’s intentions need to be matched by capability well before the beginning of any crisis.
The benefit of being prepared at least in terms of numbers was apparent during the run up to the Kargil crisis and as operations proceeded, one was able to modify existing systems to meet on the job requirements. Kargil 1999 demonstrated that it was no longer possible for each military force to operate on its own, at least in terms of doctrine and training. While little has been achieved in real terms, it is clear that the realisation of the necessity has dawned.
Two things stand out from the lessons of Kargil for the IAF. Modification and optimisation of resources can help in achieving a lot. Second, airborne artillery can be tasked to perform tasks well beyond their line of action, making man and machine operate to the best limits.
However, as one foresees in the future, war across the spectrum and yet limited in time and space is going to be a reality. In this sense, the IAF has to cater to the conflict spectrum from the low to high spectrum. This means forces have to be prepared for internal security operations, other than war contingencies as well as conventional military operations. Force mix and manpower has to be inducted and trained therefore for this combination.
Let us assume that there is a crisis in Syria or another hostage crisis like IC 814. National Policy apart, having the assets to intervene for both humanitarian and in war-like situations, to exert the maximum pressure from a national perspective is going to require the IAF to bolster capability and capacity.
The challenges are therefore manifold and to expect ready solutions is to defeat the very purpose of perspective planning. The IAF has to engage in a planned exercise that looks at force structuring combined with personnel, logistics and equipment. Threat-based exercises are okay, but starting ground up may give the armed forces a head start. Take one example, recent media reports suggest that the government has asked the Indian Army to re-look its plans to raise a Strike Corps against China in the northeast by seeking the inputs of the Air Force and Navy as well.
This might be unusual but it seems logical given the costs involved and the need to think this through on a strategic scale rather than as a tactical measure by merely add up numbers. The future combat zone of the IAF and its air envelope is going to increase over India’s extended neighbourhood, therefore reach and force projection capability is going to be a necessity. Working towards enhancement of this capability is going to require radical mindset changes in terms of approach to funding and acquisitions. Equally and importantly, synergy with the other two forces is needed to say the least. For example, there is no reason why air assets in a maritime role cannot be placed at INS Rajali, near Arakonam.
The need to reinvent
The combination of strategy and capabilities can make for success but underlying that must be the logistic and maintenance that can sustain operations over extended periods of time. Every aspect of the IAF’s future planning has to be synergised and synchronised. The essence of planning for the future depends on vision and caring of the leaders of the organisation.
That they should have the backing of the other service chiefs and the political establishment might be going too far but is a truism that only needs reiteration. Aiming of stars requires a grounded plan of action, one that is in sync with existing realities and financial burdens. It is logical to think of small accretions, but important ones, rather than go in for big-ticket purchases.
For instance, upgradations of the MiG-21 fleet are a stop-gap arrangement, while the induction of Tejas a far more urgent need. One gets the feeling that searching for technology to fit our existing platforms might just serve our immediate interests, while at the same time we search for alternatives to number plated aircraft. The men and women who serve in the IAF must remember that it is they who make the systems go. Each pilot who flies is no doubt a hero, but those who make the aircraft fly are no less. Therefore, the IAF and by the same logic, the other services must find better incentives to keep the human capital in shape.
A difficult judgment in the best of times, this aspect of management often gets covered under the carpet. The reason why thinking ahead is so important is that today can be worked out on the basis of yesterday but tomorrow could be different. Therefore, we must start thinking today of the IAF 50 years from now. Whether we choose to work backwards or start thinking of progress from D+1, it does not matter. What matters is the final result. Let us make a beginning now.