Challenges that the IAF faces on its march ahead
By Air Commodore Jasjit Singh (retd)
The ongoing transformation of IAF is something it is likely to take in its stride as it has done through many transitions and challenges in the past. But what makes this transition extremely significant is that for the first time in its history of the past 78 years, it is moving into the same class as the air forces of the leading and most developed countries of the world. Thus, it is important to keep a close watch on the type and nature of challenges that either arise out of its own transformation process or are triggered by the balance of air power especially where it tilts adverse to it.
The complexity of the challenges for the IAF may be gauged from the fact that while it is well on its way to play a strategic role in peace and war in the coming years, one of its first priority is to reverse the unplanned decline in its combat force level that has hit it during the past few years. Hence, we can at best deal with a few of the challenges in this article.
The air force has been authorised 39.5 combat squadrons since the late Eighties as an interim force against the 50 combat squadron force sanctioned by the Cabinet in 1963 after the post-Sino-Indian war assessment.
But by all accounts the force level has dropped to around 28 squadrons or so and may well go down further before it starts to move up. This is what makes the MMRCA acquisition so important; and if managed well and the quantity is raised to 190-plus aircraft (because of time over-runs, especially with a new engine in LCA, and delayed aircraft replacements) against the original calculation of 126 aircraft it is possible to recover from the depletion and start moving toward at least 42+ squadrons by 2022.
The recovery and build up to authorised level of 50 combat squadrons has become essential in view of the rapid build up of the Chinese Air Force as well as by China’s strategic partner and neo-ally, Pakistan.
China is well ahead of India in shear numbers of fourth generation aircraft, conventionally armed intermediate ballistic missiles, ASAT capabilities and space programme for military purposes, cyber and information warfare etc.
Pakistan Air Force is being furiously modernised by accessing arms from the United States as well as China (which now produces 4th generation combat aircraft and claims to have designed the fifth generation fighter).
This is a far cry from the Chinese Air Force of early Eighties when it had aircraft of 1950 vintage, though in huge numbers, and weakened PAF in the late Nineties forcing the latter to stay out of battle during the Kargil War in 1999.
The central factor that makes these and other issues so important is the reality that air power has played a crucial role in all and every war during the past century that it has been around. Fundamentally, air forces enjoy a unique capability not available to surface forces: that air forces can exercise influence over and even control the movements and actions of surface force while the reverse is not possible except in a very limited way through terminal defences.
Hence air forces are far more capable of generating strategic effect than the land forces (and naval forces cannot operate effectively without cover of mostly integral air power).
Modern air power does not have to fly over the well defended target or even close to it and yet destroy or at least neutralise it from beyond visual range. Technological capabilities have made long range precision strike a reality. Two main issues need attention.