Beyond the Air Show
The biennial air show and aviation expo, Aero India 2023, is scheduled in between February 13–17 at Yelahanka Air Force Station, Bengaluru, which has hosted it since 1996. Though during the five-day event, mighty manufacturers of the fighter planes from all over the world will showcase their products, India is going to stress on ‘Aatmanirbharta’ in defence through “Make in India ” measures. One will also hear of the tremendous scopes for collaborations between the foreign manufacturers and the indigenous ones that exist to boost India’s aviation sector.
Aero India is essentially a defence trade show. Hence it is natural to wonder whether the current needs of the Indian Air Force, its gradual evolution from being a tactical force to a strategic force, from being defence- oriented to the one aiming at air domination, from having the capability of meeting a single threat at one time to fight a two front war simultaneously against China and Pakistan, from protecting territorial assets to guarding India’s space assets, can be met by the “Make in India” products.
All told, given the deteriorating geopolitical environment that India finds itself in, it is a matter of serious concern that the IAF is having only 30-31 fighter squadrons, though its authorised strength is of 42 squadrons. The gap between the desirable and actual strength has been widening in recent years because the rate at which fighter aircraft are retiring after completion of their total technical life exceeds the rate at which their replacements are being inducted into the IAF. As a result, to maintain the combat capability of IAF — MiG-29, Mirage-2000 and Jaguar aircraft are undergoing midlife upgrades. But that is not the real solution, which, in turn, lies in the induction of more Su-30 MKI, LCA (Tejas I and II), Rafale and more medium multirole combat aircraft.
Safeguarding the Indian skies is the primary responsibility of the IAF. The transition of the Indian Air Force from having been a tactical force to a strategic one is a natural progression that is a product of the overall growth of the country. As Air Chief, Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari, says, our threat landscape has also evolved with the growth of the country. Today we are seeing increasingly collusive potential scenarios take shape which adds a new dimension to the problem. Of the three services, the IAF would be the one most heavily committed to ‘swing operations’ between fronts in the Northern Sector if needed. We have evolved specific plans for such contingencies and optimized our posture accordingly.
Inductions of assets have been done with this in mind, and a time bound plan for making good deficiencies has also been put in place. The IAF, in keeping with national responsibilities has also expanded its horizons and has devoted increasing attention to the protection of India’s territorial assets.
In fact, as Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said the other day, the IAF needs to evolve into an Aerospace Force. This role derives naturally from air and space being one continuum with “air-related” functions transforming seamlessly into “space-related” ones. This logic extends as well to situational awareness, as it does to defence against any inbound threats. Therefore, in keeping with the Defence Minister’s vision, the IAF is reportedly equipping & training itself in a manner that it can adapt to space-related functions in a seamless manner. The areas where the IAF is developing its capabilities in space include Communications, navigation, ISR & Space Surveillance Network.
Assuming that Pakistan lags behind India in air power, China is the potent challenge. How then does India stand vis-a-vis China? To begin with, unlike the IAF, whose latest offensive combat experience was in the 1999 Kargil War, the Chinese Air Force (PLAAF) has not fought a major war since the Korean War in 1950s. In fact, the IAF had a glorious role during the Kargil in devising unique and innovative methods of bombing in the night at altitudes never before attempted in the history of air warfare. But then, the fact remains that China has augmented its air power immensely in Tibet by building more airfields and deploying more aircraft, even though the IAF will have an initial advantage over the PLAAF, as unlike ours, Chinese planes will be taking off from high altitude airfields and hence would carry less amount of ordinance and fuel, affecting its performance.
Along with MiG-29s, Mirage-2000s, C-17 Globemaster-III transport aircraft and the C-130J Super Hercules airlifters, our air assets also include the Su-30MKI that has a range of 3,000 km on internal fuel and can carry out a 3.75 hour combat mission. And now we have the potent Rafale in our inventory.
But then, modern air combats no longer witness much direct air-to-air fights (known as “dogfights” in military parlance) between comparable military powers. “The era of dogfighting is largely over,” says Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute, specialising in combat airpower. “Modern air combat is almost entirely decided by situational awareness [from radar and other sensors] and missile technology,” he adds.
On the missile front, the Indian position is not that bad. Not to speak of the intermediate and long range Agni series, the BrahMos cruise missiles can change the nature of air power considerably. With a speed of Mach 2.8, that translates to 952 meters per second, these missiles make the radars of the enemy defunct in the sense that even if they are detected at a range of 30 kilometres, they will give the enemy less than 30 seconds before they are tracked, illuminated and shot down. The result could be that the BrahMos missiles can cause incalculable damage to the enemy’s defences, tanks, air bases, ships, and command and communication centres – a task which, earlier, was assigned to a fighter pilot with jet fighters.
However, it is debatable whether the IAF is a match to China’s PLAAF in other aspects of modern air warfare – strategic space assets such as surveillance, reconnaissance, communication, targeting, electronic warfare and navigation. Unlike India, China has many more dedicated low-earth and navigation satellites to multiply the power of these assets. They can neutralise our superior fighter aircraft. We have to take into account our “defensive capability” against electronic warfare and there are reasons to worry.
Be that as it may, any assessment of the IAF cannot be limited only to its prowess in only safeguarding the Indian skies. Going by “the basic doctrine” of the IAF, as enunciated in 2012, its “vision” is “to acquire strategic reach and capabilities across the spectrum of conflict that serve the ends of military diplomacy, nation building and enable force projection within India’s strategic area of influence”. Obviously, the IAF must be capable of manifesting power outside the borders of India.
Is the IAF comfortable to pursue this vision in an intellectual environment that continues to highlight a continental view of external threats, in which the Army will have the dominant role? Take, for instance, the ‘Joint Training Doctrine Indian Armed Forces – 2017’, which says that “India’s threats primarily emanate from the disputed land borders with our neighbours” and thus is much narrower and more traditional in scope than that of the IAF (even the Indian Navy). These “vision-differences” among our three services explain, perhaps, why the service-centric structure of India’s higher defence management remains problematic. Though the Joint Training Doctrine aims at promoting ‘synergy’ and ‘integration’ amongst the three Services and other stakeholders leading to an enhanced efficiency and optimum utilisation of resources, the “jointness” remains only a notion in concrete terms.
Naturally, the IAF has legitimate concerns over the proposed integrated or theatre commands. Air Chief Chaudhari has a point when he questions “the methodology and the kind of structures that need to be future-ready”, while supporting in principle the need for “the integration process”. As he said the other day, “Each service has a doctrine. The doctrinal aspects of the IAF should not be compromised in any way by the new structures.”
Chaudhari’s essential point is that the IAF has updated its doctrine, according to which it is not the Air Force but the “Aerospace Force”. As he says, “We see space as a natural extension of the air medium and we understand the need for exploiting this domain…Space-based assets significantly enhance the potency of air power and therefore our strategy is to fully integrate our air and space capabilities to have a common picture of the aerospace medium and to enable optimum force application…..Traditionally, wars were fought on the land, sea and in the air. Today, newer domains like cyber and space are increasingly affecting the conduct of operations even in the traditional realms …..To absorb these changes, the IAF is on the path of transformation so that we can fight and win tomorrow’s wars.”
To put it differently, the Air Chief is worried that in the name of jointness, the decision-making chains from the existing levels should not be altered in the space and cyber domains. And this seems to be a worry that deserves the attention of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.