When the go­ing gets rough

India Strategic - - CONTENTS - By Air Chief Mar­shal AY Tip­nis (Retd)

IWAS JUST get­ting down to read­ing the morn­ing’s top head­liner, “In­dia Strikes Across LOC”, when one of my most dy­namic, goget­ter com­man­ders-in-chief of yesteryears (also a dou­ble VrC to boot), with a mis­chievous pen­chant for pulling a fast one, called in, “to en­cash the one I owed him!” Be­fore I could counter this pre­pos­ter­ous claim, he con­tin­ued smoothly,”Sir, I need an ar­ti­cle from you for my Air Force Day is­sue of IN­DIA Strate­gic!” Ha, ha, old, no, rather the ever-green Jimmy, was at his tricks again!

“In­dia Strikes Across LOC” had in fact im­me­di­ately flashed a thought: “Things are get­ting rough, from our side, at last!” Jimmy Bhatia was in luck. With some of the finest and tough­est air war­riors get­ting set to cel­e­brate their 84th An­niver­sary in a week and a day, and a loom­ing very real pos­si­bil­ity of their honed skills be­ing called upon, af­ter a gap of some 18 years, to qui­eten a pip-squeak­ing trou­ble-maker to our West, a com­par­a­tive re­view of spe­cial traits of our re­spec­tive air war­riors was surely in or­der, even if the study is con­sid­ered some­what ec­cen­tric!


PROPEN­SITY FOR FOOL­ING THEM­SELVES Psy­war is a use­ful tool to crack the con­fi­dence of the en­emy and bol­ster one’s own, by hyp­ing one’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties by mak­ing fal­la­cious claims of suc­cesses on one hand, and be­lit­tling prow­ess of the ad­ver­sary. But it is a dou­ble-edged weapon: if a ca­nard is blown apart, the in­tended ef­fect is re­versed and the re­sult far more dev­as­tat­ing on the ini­tia­tor. Pak’s pro­pa­ganda ma­chine is al­ways kept well-oiled, but used and cracked open far too often to con­tinue to be an ef­fec­tive tool against us.


In the days gone by, PAF was burst­ing with over­con­fi­dence: their pi­lots were made to feel ten feet tall and the IAF’s were por­trayed as “Lil­liputians”. This mind­set was in­evitable given their close as­so­ci­a­tion and training with the US Air Force who ex­cel in pro­ject­ing a ma­cho im­age of them­selves and be­lit­tling of their ad­ver­saries. They were equipped with the Korean war-fame Sabre and the bi-sonic Starfighter. Starfighter was then a US front-line air de­fence fighter sport­ing the Gatling gun, with an as­ton­ish­ing rate of fire of 6,000 rounds per minute, and car­ry­ing the then con­sid­ered “un­dodge­able” Sidewinder air-to-air mis­sile. A per­fect recipe for bloat­ing up egos! Our hu­mil­i­at­ing rout­ing, at the hands of the Chinese in 1962, left no doubt with PAF, if there was any, that the IAF would be easy pick­ings in the air. De­spite the 1965 ex­pe­ri­ence to the con­trary, the cock­i­ness re­mained.


At the dawn of the ‘70s decade, “Tango” Tir­lochan Singh and I found our­selves as IAF’s first two weapons and tac­tics in­struc­tors (WTIs) (QFIs had been on dep­u­ta­tion to fly­ing training schools for years) in a Iraqi Air Force MiG-21 squadron based at Bagh­dad. At that time three PAF pi­lots were run­ning the Iraqi AF Fighter Leader School (FLS) at Hab­baniya; they had been gloat­ing over PAF’s early suc­cesses of 1965 strikes at Pathankot and Kalaikunda, but con­ve­niently miss­ing out on

the later re­ver­sal of their for­tunes; Tango and I dis­tinctly sensed that the Iraqis were clearly out to make a com­par­i­son!

With­out want­ing to sound boast­ful, I can say with con­vic­tion we made our mark early. A com­pre­hen­sive training syl­labus had been drawn up, which the Iraqi squadron com­man­der con­sid­ered too am­bi­tious/ad­vanced, un­til we “Flew-the-Talk”. The re­sult was that we duo were split and I pro­ceeded to an­other MiG-21 squadron based at Hab­baniya. With both squadrons giv­ing pos­i­tive re­ports of ben­e­fit from the In­dian WTIs, Iraqi Air HQ formed an Op­er­a­tional Training Unit, with an aug­mented air­craft strength, at Bagh­dad. The only hitch was that the FLS was also moved to Bagh­dad to time-share our as­sets, al­beit to a lim­ited ex­tent.

The PAF pi­lots chose to ig­nore us ini­tially to the point of not re­spond­ing to/ ac­knowl­edg­ing cheery greet­ings from us! I had an enor­mously hard time once, hold­ing back my laugh­ter at a vis­it­ing PAF wing com­man­der’s put-on swag­ger and falsetto Amer­i­can ac­cent. But it was our Iraqi col­leagues who let out the sup­pressed guf­faws af­ter he de­parted! As the ap­proach­ing war clouds of 1971 be­came darker, the morale of the 30-strong IAF con­tin­gent was sky-rock­et­ing, given the up­beat morale of our friends back home; on the other hand, the three PAF pi­lots, their cock­i­ness hav­ing long left them, were look­ing in­creas­ingly mo­rose.

De­spite unan­i­mous re­quest from the IAF con­tin­gent to be re­called home for the in­evitable hot con­flict, we were di­rected to con­tinue with our tasks at hand. As the sit­u­a­tion got crit­i­cal back home, the PAF pi­lots re­mained hardly vis­i­ble; they were re­called when war was fi­nally de­clared.

With the de­par­ture of the Pak­ista­nis, Iraqi Air HQ req­ui­si­tioned the ser­vices of Tango to con­tinue their FLS training. They were in fact con­tem­plat­ing com­plete re­place­ment of PAF as­sis­tance by In­di­ans; but there were po­lit­i­cal con­straints. Two months af­ter the war, the PAF trio was back at FLS and its com­man­der had to re­luc­tantly al­low Tango to re­turn to the MiG-21 OCU.

A cou­ple of months fur­ther on, hav­ing al­ready ex­ceeded our con­tracted ten­ure of two years by sev­eral months, Tango and I were soon to be back home. To make his farewell calls, Tango popped over to the FLS; hear­ing of his pres­ence in the unit, the PAF team leader, a squadron leader came over to bid him, “Happy Land­ings and a suc­cess­ful ca­reer”! C’est la vie! (that’s life). A tail-piece to this story gives it a poignant touch: In 1989, as an air com­modore, I found my­self back in Iraq as a mem­ber of the Na­tional De­fence Col­lege study team. We were at a brief­ing at the Iraqi Air HQ, when I was re­quested to present my­self at the air chief’s of­fice. As I stepped into the chief’s of­fice, be­fore I could of­fer my sa­lu­ta­tion, the chief rose from his seat, saluted, greet­ing, “Ah­lan wa Sahlan, saidi!” (Wel­come sir). The chief, an air vice mar­shal, was my pupil nearly 20 years ear­lier, as Mu­lazhim (lieu­tenant) Miza­him Has­san! It was a de­light­ful re­u­nion.

The de­light­ful shocks con­tin­ued through­out the week-long tour; I dis­cov­ered that the Iraqi air de­fence com­man­der, also an air vice mar­shal, was Tango’s pupil. The com­man­dant of the air war col­lege, com­man­ders of the Fighter Leader School and Air Base Moas­car Rashid (Bagh­dad) all turned out to be pupils of Tango and self!

From the mo­ment I had landed at Bagh­dad I had been want­ing to meet our fel­low in­struc­tors, Ge­orge and Safa. It was only on the last day of our tour that I man­aged to meet both. The com­mon re­frain in con­ver­sa­tion with erst­while col­leagues and pupils alike was the un­for­tu­nate ter­mi­na­tion of IAF’s dep­u­ta­tions to the Iraqi AF some­time in the ‘80s - all con­sid­ered that part­ner­ship as the most ben­e­fi­cial to them; they all were of the opin­ion that the PAF had only an ul­te­rior mo­tive of get­ting to fly air­craft that were also on the in­ven­tory of the IAF; there was no real com­mit­ment on their part to im­part­ing in­struc­tion and guid­ance as they would to their own pi­lots - a dis­tinct de­par­ture from the ethos of the IAF.



In­dian Air Force (IAF) has not con­sis­tently en­joyed the ben­e­fit of hav­ing air­craft, other com­bat sys­tems and sup­port in­fra­struc­ture of the de­sired level; even more con­strain­ing, has been the short­age in strength nec­es­sary to de­ter our in­im­i­cal neigh­bour to the West from hav­ing fool­ishly ad­ven­tur­ous vi­sions of bet­ter­ing In­dia in a con­flict; such a pipe-dream evolved read­ily in the early ‘60s as they re­ceived the best of Amer­i­can equip­ment and training. Our own short-falls in weapon-sys­tems ca­pa­bil­i­ties and num­bers have been off­set by well-trained cock­pit-crew; but more tellingly, by an unique rear­ing-to-go dash­ing spirit that is at its best when the chips are down.


Re­cent re­search has clearly es­tab­lished that in 1965, In­dian in­tel­li­gence had ab­so­lutely no prior knowl­edge of ei­ther Oper­a­tion Gi­bral­tar or of Oper­a­tion Grand Slam; we were caught flat- footed. There was im­mi­nent dan­ger of Pathankot-Jammu road be­ing sev­ered, of J&K get­ting phys­i­cally iso­lated from the rest of the coun­try. Given the ravined/rut­ted/stony lo­cal ter­rain on In­dian side of the Chamb-Jau­rian Sec­tor, it was well nigh im­pos­si­ble for our army to stop the Pak­istani ar­mour. IAF stepped in with a cold-start; though the frag­ile, vin­tage Vam­pire was no match for the “Korean-fame” Sabre, it saved the day by hav­ing kept the Pak ar­mour un­der pres­sure un­til the tank­bust­ing Mys­tere stepped in and lit­er­ally slammed to a still, the “Grand” plans of Pak­istan.

Can one imag­ine the un­der-pow­ered, ground­tar­get at­tack­ing Mys­tere down­ing a Starfighter, the much-toted su­personic top US air de­fence air­craft of that era? Well, that’s ex­actly what it did, that too when it was crit­i­cally crip­pled. So what was the win­ning fac­tor? The in­domitable In­dian air war­rior spirit!

Sim­i­larly, the diminu­tive home-made Gnat, whose aerial close-com­bat suc­cesses later earned it the men­ac­ing so­bri­quet of “Sabre-slayer”, was be­set with a host of re­cur­ring tech­ni­cal prob­lems: a run­away trim that made air­craft-con­trol near im­pos­si­ble; gun-stop­page at the cru­cial mo­ment of down­ing an ad­ver­sary, al­lowed many a Sabre, with the Gnat’s gun­sight pip­per, dead-cen­tre on it, live an­other day. De­spite the very lim­ited com­bat fuel-re­serve avail­able on the Gnat and the ever-present wor­ri­some con­cern of gun-stop­page/con­trol mal­func­tion, their pi­lots were qui­etly con­fi­dent that their fly­ing and fight­ing skills could fully ex­ploit the Gnat’s agility and its low vis­i­bil­ity pro­file to their ad­van­tage to down the Sabre and to out-ma­noeu­vre the Sidewinder AAM of the Starfighter, giv­ing top-cover to the Sabres .


In 1971 In­dian armed forces did not buckle to po­lit­i­cal pres­sure to com­mence hos­til­i­ties un­til they had pre­pared them­selves fully for forc­ing a de­ci­sive vic­tory. The neg­li­gi­ble ef­fec­tive­ness of the air-to-air mis­sile in 1965 had clearly in­di­cated that our gun-less MiG-21s would be im­po­tent in air com­bat if this de­fi­ciency was not rec­ti­fied. In record time, with most co-op­er­a­tive sup­port from the Rus­sians, a slap-on gun-pack was de­signed and pro­duced in ad­e­quate num­bers to meet our re­quire­ment. This changed the very char­ac­ter of these faithful air­craft, giv­ing them a de­fin­i­tive edge over the ad­ver­sary’s Starfight­ers, Mi­rage IIIs, MiG-19s and Sabres; with the mis­sile-gun com­bi­na­tion and our rear­ing-to-go pi­lots man­ning them, not only did they get the bet­ter of all these PAF air­craft, ex­cept the Mi­rage III, and that only be­cause it de­cided to live up to its name and stayed out of sight!

With the MiG-21s form­ing the largest fleet of the IAF, there was no way they could be re­stricted to the air de­fence role only. De­spite their in­her­ent de­sign un­suit­abil­ity for any role but air de­fence, the adap­tive IAF pi­lots over­came the de­sign lim­i­ta­tions to use them most ef­fec­tively in the ground-at­tack role; MiG-21s were used for run­way-bust­ing, in­ter­dic­tion, close- sup­port and yes, Pres­i­den­tial palace dere­lic­tion, which had the Pak­ista­nis buckle un­der sud­denly to give way to the for­ma­tion of Bangladesh!

One of the strangest op­er­a­tions that

to­tally baf­fled the PAF, were the night low level at­tacks over PAF bases by MiG-21s and Su-7s. With noth­ing but a not-very-re­li­able gyro-com­pass, mem­o­rised check-points, iden­ti­fied by dimly seen rail-tracks, roads and wa­ter­ways, crossed at ac­cu­rately cal­cu­lated and main­tained timings, these in­trepid pi­lots cre­ated havoc by show­ing up like bats out of hell! Be­sides the phys­i­cal da­m­age they caused, their ha­rass­ment had as much, if not more, de­bil­i­tat­ing ef­fect on the PAF.

Op­er­at­ing singly, they stretched their air­craft’s en­durance to the limit to ex­tract max­i­mum range, hopped across high ten­sion elec­tric cables, main­tained ab­so­lute ra­dio si­lence, un­til they neared their base of re­cov­ery af­ter mis­sion com­ple­tion. No ques­tion of ex­pect­ing re­cov­ery as­sis­tance from the base as low al­ti­tude made two- way com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the two im­pos­si­ble. Hav­ing fuel for only a straight-in ap­proach and land­ing, and with air bases main­tain­ing ab­so­lute black-out, a method had to be de­vised to get the run­way lights com­ing on, un­fail­ingly, at the re­quired time! So, an­other MiG21, dubbed “Spar­row”, perched above to es­tab­lish a com­mu­ni­ca­tion link be­tween the re­cov­er­ing air­craft and the re­cov­er­ing base. On re­ceiv­ing a coded re­quest for run­way lights from the home-com­ing at­tacker, Spar­row di­rected the base to switch on the run­way lights. With hearts in their mouth and a prayer on their lips, the phys­i­cally and men­tally ex­hausted pi­lots had no time to even give a sigh of re­lief on sight­ing the run­way lights - they had to land and duck into air­craft shel­ters be­fore a counter-at­tack en­sued and the run­way lights went off.

In­ge­nu­ity, iron-clad aerial dis­ci­pline, nerves of steel, ul­ti­mate pro­fes­sion­al­ism, couched in non­cha­lance of rou­tine-at-the-of­fice at­ti­tude - the hall­mark of cool in­no­va­tive­ness - that’s IAF in busi­ness!

The PAF was so flum­moxed by these at­tacks that they thought the Rus­sians had given the IAF some su­per-duper air­craft to do the im­pos­si­ble!!


This pen­chant and ge­nius for in­no­va­tive­ness is by no means a pre­serve of the IAF fighter fleet; trans­port air­craft and he­li­copters in fact have to be so, on a rou­tine ba­sis. The tasks, both mil­i­tary and civil, that come their way, often have no prece­dence and as such there may not be pre­vi­ously de­signed op­er­at­ing pro­ce­dures; hence they have to be de­vised in dou­ble­quick time. Their cur­rent op­er­a­tions in hos­tile ter­rain and weather con­di­tions, often with non-ex­is­tent aids, stretch­ing air­craft to the lim­its of their op­er­at­ing en­velopes, some­times, be­yond, re­quires ev­ery trait that the IAF im­bibes in its air war­riors.

A dar­ing feat, by the lum­ber­ing 4-en­gined An-12s of the ‘60s-’70s era, dur­ing the ‘71 war is worth re­count­ing here. In­tel­li­gence had re­ported as­sem­bly of Pak­istani ar­mour and dump­ing of am­mu­ni­tion in the planted for­est of Changa Manga, sit­u­ated be­tween La­hore and Ka­sur. As it spelt sin­is­ter de­signs, there was need to neu­tralise it ear­li­est. Fighter at­tacks were un­likely to achieve the de­sired re­sults as the ar­mour was ex­pected to be widely dis­persed and the for­est of­fered ex­cel­lent cam­ou­flage. Area bomb­ing was the need of the hour. A brain-wave of an idea had Wg Cdr Vashisht, com­mand­ing an An-12 squadron, plan­ning a car­pet bomb­ing at­tack with An-12 air­craft. The fi­nalised plan had six An-12s car­ry­ing 20x500 pounds bombs each, de­liv­er­ing their ord­nance at ex­treme low level within a space of 15 min­utes. Only the dark­ness of night of­fered any sort of se­cu­rity against a tar­get ex­pected to be heav­ily pro­tected against aerial at­tacks. Dire con­se­quences were in the off­ing on two counts: ei­ther a glitched oper­a­tion or an ef­fec­tive re­sponse from Pak air de­fence. Nei­ther hap­pened, the first be­cause IAF air war­riors lived up to the faith placed in them; and the sec­ond, be­cause the Pak air de­fence was caught to­tally off guard. Sub­se­quent in­tel­li­gence re­ports af­firmed a highly suc­cess­ful at­tack caus­ing ex­ten­sive loss of Pak ar­mour and ord­nance.


Mil­i­tary his­tory’s high­est al­ti­tude air-to-ground at­tacks dur­ing Oper­a­tion Vi­jay (Kargil War), also saw the IAF reach the pin­na­cles of adapt­abil­ity, in­no­va­tive­ness and courage. IAF’s air at­tacks on Pak­istani troops in oc­cu­pa­tion of our posts along the Line of Con­trol (LOC), in sup­port of army’s as­saults to re­pos­sess them, were code-named Op Safed Sa­gar (White Ocean), al­lud­ing to their snow-bound con­di­tion.

Army’s ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the sit­u­a­tion had them put

in a de­mand for air sup­port by armed he­li­copters. IAF, on the other hand, tak­ing stock of the ranges ris­ing steeply from the Dras-Kargil Val­ley; the land de­nuded of veg­e­ta­tion; the clear at­mos­phere of­fer­ing vis­i­bil­ity in ex­cess of 10 km; rar­i­fied at­mos­phere plac­ing se­vere penal­ties on the power avail­able to the he­li­copter, hence re­quir­ing it to at­tack tar­gets from above and not be­low, where they could hope to stay con­cealed; ap­proach­ing the tar­gets at leisurely speed of 220-240 kmph would give the de­fend­ers am­ple time to ac­quire, aim and fire their ground-to-air in­frared mis­siles, so to say, at leisure; the en­tire sce­nario was stacked heav­ily against the use of he­li­copters. So, the IAF rec­om­mended fighter at­tacks in lieu. IAF’s ra­tio­nale and per­sua­sive pow­ers proved in­ad­e­quate and the army stuck to its guns. Re­al­is­ing that an im­passe had been reached, the IAF re­luc­tantly re­lented, but with a non-ne­go­tiable pro­viso: he­li­copters would be used in con­junc­tion with fight­ers!

When ad­vised that aerial at­tacks on the LOC po­si­tions, which runs West-to-East would re­sult in trans­gres­sion of the LOC be­fore or af­ter the at­tacks as our pre­ferred di­rec­tions of at­tack would be Northto-South or vice versa, the prime min­is­ter ex­pressed deep con­cern; it must be our en­deav­our to re­main on our side of the LOC, he di­rected. Know­ing the ter­rain well and be­ing able to vi­su­alise how we could ad­here to PM’s di­rec­tion, yet be able to carry out the at­tacks, al­beit with some ac­cept­able penal­ties to ef­fi­cacy of at­tacks, I could ac­cept this con­di­tion with­out hes­i­ta­tion. While con­vey­ing this stip­u­la­tion to Western Air Com­mand, a pro­viso was in­ter­jected: in the event of any air threat de­vel­op­ing from across the LOC, it was to be ad­dressed with­out re­gard to the sanc­tity of the LOC. It is to the credit of Western Air Com­mand and the skills of our air war­riors that there was never any come back from com­mand - that’s pro­fes­sional adapt­abil­ity!

The fight­ers also had to over­come sev­eral chal­lenges, not all of which were ap­pre­ci­ated im­me­di­ately. Hith­erto, the high­est al­ti­tude at which our fighter pi­lots had en­gaged ground tar­gets was 10,000 feet; the low­est tar­get ob­tain­ing in the area of OP SAFED SA­GAR was above 14,000, the high­est ris­ing above 17,000 feet! Com­mence­ment of at­tacks would be from 18-25,000 feet. Tar­gets so small and un­de­fined, that un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stance, use of any form of air­power would have been lu­di­crous! But given the predica­ment of our as­sault­ing in­fantry, Econ­omy of Ef­fort was cer­tainly not the prin­ci­ple of war to be quoted here. Even if our ord­nance could not land ef­fec­tively enough on tar­get to neu­tralise it, its ef­fect would be enough to shock and be­numb the wits of those hold­ing it, al­low­ing our in­fantry to take ad­van­tage to move for­ward.

Although there was no suo moto in­tel­li­gence re­port of pres­ence of in­frared ground-to-air mis­siles, Air HQ had di­rected, in its op­er­a­tional or­der to Western Air Com­mand, that self-pro­tec­tion flares are manda­tory on all air­craft par­tic­i­pat­ing in the oper­a­tion. It was also stip­u­lated that fighter at­tacks were to pre­cede the he­li­copters, creat­ing a shock-ef­fect just be­fore the lat­ter fol­low up. Stan­dard anti- in­frared mis­sile tac­tics were to be adopted dur­ing and af­ter the at­tack. To en­sure sur­prise, there would be only first-run-at­tacks (FRA) (mean­ing no loi­ter­ing over tar­get).

The first day’s air at­tacks went through well, giv­ing con­fi­dence, but also pos­si­bly a sense of in­vul­ner­a­bil­ity. On the sec­ond day, one of the pi­lots, Flight Lieu­tenant Nichiketa, failed to ac­quire the tar­get in his FRA, and in con­tra­ven­tion of spec­i­fied pro­ce­dure, made two more passes, be­cause the sec­ond pass also failed in tar­get ac­qui­si­tion. With a sense of fail­ure and frus­tra­tion, he ap­proached the tar­get closer than he ought to have and fired his rock­ets in a salvo; rar­i­fied at­mos­phere, heavy fumes from mul­ti­ple rock­ets, a per­fect recipe for en­gine surge, fol­lowed by a flame- out; that’s ex­actly what hap­pened. De­spite his pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with ful­fill­ing the task given to him, he had the pres­ence of mind to trans­mit his predica­ment be­fore he ejected. In one sense, Nichiketa’s fo­cus on mis­sion ac­com­plish­ment could be lauded; for un­der grave cir­cum­stance, pi­lots are re­quired to throw cau­tion to wind, but en­sure mis­sion ob­jec­tive is achieved at any cost; but that day, that was not the case, and ad­her­ence to brief­ing would have saved a pi­lot and an air­craft.

lev­els and their de­sign lim­i­ta­tions. It’s a game-chang­ing as­set of the IAF, which has tipped the bal­ance in our favour, time and time again! Notwith­stand­ing IAF’s un­prece­dented cur­rent top-drawer as­sets, in­no­va­tive­ness will al­ways be called upon to counter un­fore­seen chal­lenges or cir­cum­stance. Young brains, strain­ing at the reins for a freer hand for their ge­nius to flour­ish, must be en­cour­aged, al­beit un­der watch­ful su­per­vi­sion.


EN­HANCED STA­TUS - TAC­TI­CAL TO STRATE­GIC The cur­rent qual­i­ta­tive states of the IAF’s com­bat as well sup­port air­craft are truly amaz­ing, a far cry from the stan­dards ob­tained barely a quar­ter of a cen­tury ago. The mighty Sukhois have dou­bled in­her­ent ranges of oper­a­tion which could be fur­ther en­hanced by aerial fu­el­top­pings be­fore and af­ter mis­sion com­ple­tion. 30-60 min­utes’ du­ra­tion was the sor­tie norm in my time, barely 15 years ago; to­day it could run to sev­eral hours. Load car­ry­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties have nearly quadru­pled; an as­sort­ment of mu­ni­tions can be car­ried simultaneously, in air- dom­i­na­tion, in­fra­struc­ture- an­ni­hi­la­tion or in hy­brid multi- role avatars! Air­borne radar ranges have in­creased ex­po­nen­tially and their vul­ner­a­bil­ity to coun­ter­mea­sures min­imised. Ac­tive and pas­sive self-pro­tec­tion de­vices are in­te­grated into ev­ery fleet. The vastly en­hanced radii of ac­tion and po­tent fire­power on tar­get, have with­out doubt, al­lowed the IAF to trans­form its sta­tus from purely tac­ti­cal to re­gion-strate­gic.


Given the full night-adapted cock­pits, night-vi­sion glasses, and of course the su­per-ac­cu­rate nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems, with mul­ti­ple re­dun­dancy, IAF fight­ers and he­li­copters now have a 24 hours high fidelity con­ven­tional and spe­cial op­er­a­tions ca­pa­bil­ity.


In­duc­tion of the gi­ant C-17s and the up­dated spe­cial­op­er­a­tions C-130Js have given an ex­po­nen­tial fil­lip to the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of IAF’s trans­port fleet. Strate­gic move­ment of mil­i­tary forces and their stealthy in­duc­tion into for­ward ar­eas of oper­a­tion are no more pipe-dreams, they are re­al­i­ties in be­ing. These ca­pa­bil­i­ties have been proved be­yond doubt in dis­as­ter man­age­ment/as­sis­tance mis­sions over the last cou­ple of years.


IAF’s home air de­fence has long been sus­pect be­cause of its be­low par ground en­vi­ron­ment, par­tic­u­larly at low level. There were huge gaps in radar cover at low level and wor­ri­some un­cov­ered cor­ri­dors at medium level; the su­pe­rior cover at high al­ti­tudes hardly mat­tered, given the na­ture of op­er­a­tions of the pre­vi­ous decades. The in­fir­mi­ties were com­pounded by the stand-alone oper­a­tion of our radars, an

in­ef­fi­cient land com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tem, jammable air-to-ground/air-to-air voice com­mu­ni­ca­tion sys­tems. These de­bil­i­tat­ing short­falls have been largely re­moved: radars, as well as sec­tor op­er­a­tions cen­tres, com­mands’ and Air HQ op­er­a­tions have been to­tally in­te­grated and com­pos­ite air sit­u­a­tion pic­tures are avail­able; op­er­a­tions may be to­tally man­aged cen­trally or del­e­gated to lower for­ma­tions/cen­tres.

The big­gest boost to IAF’s air de­fence man­age­ment has been the ac­qui­si­tion and in­te­gra­tion of the AWACS into the air de­fence network. Whether at ex­treme low level or at high level, a stealthy in­tru­sion would be very a dif­fi­cult propo­si­tion to our ad­ver­saries. On the other hand, our of­fen­sive mis­sions would be of­fered radar cover as well as di­rec­tion deep into hos­tile ter­ri­tory. Mis­sion ac­com­plish­ment would be highly en­hanced by ef­fec­tively re­duc­ing vul­ner­a­bil­ity to jam­ming and/ or radar-homing hos­tile mis­siles, by main­tain­ing com­plete air­borne radar si­lence or skill­fully shift­ing use of for­ward-look­ing radars from air­craft-to-air­craft within the mis­sion force. There is no doubt the present bunch of air war­riors will “cook up” a whole bunch of tricks, as has been the wont of IAF’s air war­riors through the var­i­ous op­er­a­tions in the years gone by PO­LIT­I­CAL COM­PRE­HEN­SION AND RE­SPONSE TO IAF NEEDS, ES­SEN­TIAL Given IAF’s past per­for­mances when the chips were down and its present state-of-the-art hold­ings, we may re­main con­fi­dent that it will de­liver again in an armed con­flict, if re­quired to do so. It may con­tinue to ex­tract full ben­e­fits of its hold­ings, but it will be im­pos­si­ble for it to meet its pro­jected chal­lenges, par­tic­u­larly in a two-fronts con­tin­gency, with the yawn­ing short­falls in its au­tho­rised hold­ings and a nig­gardly lo­gis­tics sup­port.

The IAF is au­tho­rised to hold 42 fighter squadrons. IAF vi­sion 2020, a doc­u­ment sub­mit­ted by me to the govern­ment in the year 2000, pro­jected com­pre­hen­sively IAF’s force level re­quire­ments to face the an­tic­i­pated threats to na­tional se­cu­rity 20 years later; it de­fined num­bers of com­bat squadrons, force-mul­ti­pli­ers, trans­port squadrons, he­li­copter units, ground-to-air air de­fence mis­siles.

The to­tal num­ber of com­bat squadrons added up to 50, role-wise bro­ken down to 16 multi-role (Su-30/ Mi­rage 2000 class), 18 strike, 16 air de­fence, 3 tac/ strat recce, 2 elec­tronic war­fare. Leave alone up­ping au­tho­ri­sa­tion, govern­ment ap­a­thy has brought down the ac­tual ef­fec­tive squadron strength to be­low 30.

IAF had tabled a de­mand for 126 multi-role, medium range, com­bat air­craft in the Mi­rage 2000 class. I was per­son­ally in favour of ac­quir­ing the most up­dated ver­sion of M 2000, as it had proved out­stand­ing, both op­er­a­tionally and in its front­line avail­abil­ity record. An at­tempt was made to make MoD un­der­stand that hav­ing cre­ated an elab­o­rate in­fra­struc­ture for main­te­nance of air­frame, en­gine, radar, ord­nance and elec­tronic sys­tems, it would be fool­ish to have any­thing less than 10 squadrons. Bu­reau­cratic lethargy in fol­low up had the French man­u­fac­tur­ers dis­man­tle their Mi­rage pro­duc­tion lines, as they moved on to mar­ket­ing their lat­est ware - the Rafale.

Had MoD acted upon IAF’s rec­om­men­da­tion, the present sorry state of fleet de­ple­tion would not have oc­curred; the ex­che­quer would have been saved a whole heap of money; but most im­por­tantly we could have pre­vented the cur­rent pip-squeaks from our West, as well as bel­liger­ence from the North! It is im­por­tant for civil­ians, po­lit­i­cal and bu­reau­cratic, to ap­pre­ci­ate that re­spon­si­ble na­tions do not start gearing up their forces when se­cu­rity gets threat­ened; they gear up to pre­vent threats emerg­ing, or if they do, have an ex­ist­ing ca­pa­bil­ity to counter them.

Should any­one in MoD or the of­fice of the NSA hap­pen to come upon this ar­ti­cle dur­ing their ca­sual leaf­ing through the heaps of jour­nals ly­ing in their of­fices, my ad­vice, if they care to lis­ten, get dou­ble­quick on to pro­vid­ing the re­quired lo­gis­tics flow to get air­craft op­er­a­tionally grounded on to the flight-line with­out fur­ther de­lay!

Hop­ing against hope­less­ness, if any­one should have the ear of our dy­namic and bril­liant Prime Min­is­ter, please do re­quest him to use his pow­er­ful in­flu­ence, as well as his per­sua­sive charm, with his French coun­ter­part to loan us fly-away Rafales from their re­serves or their squadrons un­til ours start com­ing off the pro­duc­tion line - it’s the best way to build a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial strate­gic part­ner­ship.

Get dou­ble­quick on to pro­vid­ing the re­quired lo­gis­tics air­craft op­er­a­tionally grounded on fur­ther de­lay!


Dif­fi­cult times lie ahead for In­dia in the days to come. In­dia can­not af­ford to rely on its vastly im­proved diplo­matic skills to iso­late Pak­istan and thus pre­vent it or its spon­sored ter­ror­ists from act­ing ir­re­spon­si­bly. Show of strength and re­solve, as dis­played re­cently, would be nec­es­sary again and again, with the real pos­si­bil­ity of a big­ger flare up. Pak­istani egos are big and they have been bruised, aveng­ing put-downs is in their DNA. Army’s reprisal for­ays across the LOC were shal­low in na­ture; deeper ground at­tacks could jeop­ar­dise the safety of own troops, hence we may have to opt for air at­tacks.

We may stay con­fi­dent that IAF has the weapon sys­tems, the re­quired skills and the re­solve to de­liver deep reprisal at­tacks as well as counter the bravado of PAF in pos­si­ble aerial en­coun­ters, for these tough air war­rior like it best, when THE GO­ING GETS ROUGH….!!!

A Mys­tere IV-A takes off: Indo-Pak War 1965

A Mi­rage 2000 drop­ping a clutch of “iron bombs” over a high al­ti­tude moun­tain tar­get in the Hi­malayas, in the Kargil con­flict of 1999

Gnats un­der cam­ou­flage nets at a for­ward base in Pun­jab: Indo-Pak War 1965

An-12s were used in an in­no­va­tive area bomb­ing role dur­ing the 1971 Indo-Pak War

An In­dian Air Force Su-30 MKI

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