gfiles magazine

February 9, 2011

fighting capabilities | air commodore jasjit singh

God is on the side of bigger batallions
The way out of the adverse air balance is to acquire combat aircraft swiftly and make up for earlier mental blocks in South Block

MORE than two decades ago, China publicly acknowledged that the Indian Armed Forces were among the best in the world. There was a clear respect and even a touch of envy in those words because China’s military was nowhere close to Indian military capability. China, the PLA and the Chinese Air Force had hardly recovered from the effects and after-effects of the Cultural Revolution. The links with the US military had started but became a victim of the Tiananmen tragedy in 1989. With that, China’s hopes of modernization of its armed forces were also dashed. It sought closer ties with India and showed keenness to establish military to-military relations. That was then. And that was the period when – though heavily criticized at home – the IAF’s modernization reached its peak for the first and last time.
The modernization began its downslide two decades ago. The AOC-in-C, Western Air Command, the premier operational command, and others started to caution against the expected drop in force level if modernization was not restored. This author had strongly and frequently argued for re-opening the manufacturing line of the MiG-21 and upgrading it. About 125 aircraft were finally upgraded nearly a decade later. But there was no modernization and even when it was partially restored it would not keep the force level up to strength even though the Russians came to our rescue and extended the design life of the MiGs, providing a reprieve from force levels dropping in the 1990s. The LCA, which was to have replaced the MiG-21 by the end of the 1980s, was nowhere in sight and the first aircraft under the fancy title of Initial Operational Capability has been handed over to the IAF very recently. It will take at least another year before a squadron is established and even then one wonders how much of the weapons would have been integrated and cleared for operational use.
We are manufacturing the Su-30MKI at HAL, Nashik, but its output has been far less than the mandatory life-end retirement of frontline aircraft. The effect of all this and more has been an unplanned deleteriously rapid drop in the combat force level of the IAF. By publicly known data, the combat force level has shrunk by nearly 40% of the authorised levels.

I had frequently argued for re-opening the manufacturing line of the MiG-21 and upgrading it. About 125 aircraft were upgraded a decade later.

This would mean that, on the Pakistan front, the IAF will have less combat squadrons than the Pakistan Air Force even if it maintains a mere eight squadrons on the China front! It is not as if we did not have the money or foreign exchange. Both were available and budgeted but nearly Rs 50,000 crore were surrendered unspent during BJP rule, probably because of the “Bofors Syndrome”. This made a mockery of “India Shining” and the high economic growth rates. If the government had spent even a quarter of the sum returned to the exchequer, there would have been no shortfall in the combat force level today.
But the story does not end there. Defence Minister AK Antony informed Parliament last year that the IAF is short of 600 pilots. He said “pilots” and not officers, implying that the shortage is at the operational level. As it is, shortage in the higher ranks can actually be welcomed so that a larger number can be promoted against existing vacancies and not against hypothetical figures of “cadre reviews” which are not based on responsibility, authority and accountability. The actual number of pilots required will keep going up since the Su-30MKI, of which over 300 will be in service, require two pilots per aircraft. Also, the 250-300 Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter is designed for two pilots per aircraft, not counting the non-effectiveness due to a number of reasons. These shortages have occurred not so much because there are not enough recruits, but because sufficient flying training establishments and aircraft have not been created over the decades. Even now, the primary trainer is no longer available to provide the foundations of a service pilot.

On the Pakistan front, the IAF will have less combat squadrons than the PAF even if it maintains a mere eight squadrons on the China front!

THIS provides a grim picture of the IAF and its combat capability. But there is another side to the picture – and that concerns the quality of training. The IAF’s fighting capabilities are among the best of the leading air forces of the world. The culture of the Air Force is such that few can survive in flying assignments unless they are professionally very competent. At the same time, the best of them undergo one or both of the two courses – the Fighter Combat Leader course (FCL) at Tactics and Combat Development Establishment, and the Qualified Flying Instructor course at FIS (Flying Instructors School) which hone flying skills to higher levels of professional competence.In every war that India has fought, the IAF and its aircrew (fighter and transporter/helicopter) and ground crew – all now termed air warriors – have demonstrated exceptional professional ability and initiative.

In a Nutshell
THE obvious solution to redress the adverse air power balance is to acquire combat aircraft on high priority and make up for the earlier lack of decisionmaking in South Block. The IAF has been waiting for an MMRCA since 2001. The RFP was issued only in 2007, a good three years after the decline in the force level began. The IAF’s evaluation of all six aircraft in the run was complete last year and further action is now up to South Block. But there is a long process ahead. We will be fortunate if the first squadron is equipped by 2015 at the earliest and the total supplies of 126 aircraft are delivered in the following decade. By that time, most of the MiG-21s and some of the MiG-27s would have finished their design life.

In 1965, Pakistan launched surprise air attacks and managed to destroy a large number of IAF aircraft on the ground. The IAF was in the middle of reorganization and expansion, equipped largely with low technology and even semi-obsolete aircraft. It tackled the far superior PAF, then equipped with high technology aircraft and radars supplied by the US, rapidly pushing it on the defensive and literally out of the war in a few days. The PAF, a pretty professional air force with state-of-the-art weapons and aircraft, cried out for help and President Ayub Khan flew a secret mission to Beijing at night to seek assistance. And China obliged, even offering a couple of nuclear warheads! Overall, in the 23-day war, the PAF was losing three aircraft to one of the IAF in air warfare.
In 1971, the IAF hit back at the ambitious line-up of “Tikka Offensive”, aimed to break through the Indian defences in the west. But while the Pakistani forces were assembling for the offensive, the IAF began knocking out Pakistani tanks. Pakistan was forced to abandon the offensive. Farther south, at Longewala, the IAF destroyed a regiment of tanks when a Pakistani Division tried a clandestine offensive into India. Many more examples can be cited, and the past gives us a degree of confidence for the future.

Exercises held with the air forces of various developed countries have consistently proved that the IAF can hold its own against the best in the world.

But a lot of water has flowed down the Ganga. The IAF’s greatest handicap now would be the adverse airpower balance in the coming 10-15 years. This means that the current force will have to do more, especially if there is coordination in a potential conflict with China and/or Pakistan, or both. But the air exercises held with the air forces of various developed countries, especially the US, have consistently proved that the IAF can hold its own against the best in the world. Extensive studies are being undertaken in the West to understand how the IAF manages to achieve such dramatic results. (The MiG- 21 taking a camera shot of the frontline USAF F-15 fighter after getting behind it in a mock air combat exercise is still the talk of the crew rooms and training establishments in the West, probably as much due to the skill of IAF pilots as to injured pride!) Consequently, more countries are seeking air exercises with the IAF to train their air forces.
Thus, the capability for air dominance is undeniable. The problem is the quantitative balance against the IAF. Even in the days of high technology aerospace warfare, Napoleon’s dictum that God marches with the biggest battalions remains valid. More robust decision making to fill the void of depleted force levels would enormously help to avoid the fighting people having to bear the cost of errors of the planning people.

No comments:

Post a Comment