India needs an up­graded, two-front Air Force

The Sunday Guardian - - & Comment Analysis -

The re­cent stand­off be­tween the In­dian and Chi­nese Armies at Dok­lam re­in­forced India’s need to de­velop and main­tain the ca­pa­bil­ity of fight­ing a two-front war. The two fronts, of course, be­ing China and Pakistan, with which India has had long-stand­ing bor­der dis­putes. India has al­ready fought three Kash­mir-spe­cific wars with Pakistan in 1947-48, 1965 and 1999, and one with China in 1962. Be­sides, for the last 34 years, India and Pakistan have been locked in a “no war no peace” sit­u­a­tion along the 740-km-long mil­i­tar­ily il­log­i­cal Line of Con­trol, and a 110-km Ac­tual Ground Po­si­tion Line run­ning along a high al­ti­tude rugged ter­rain, in which hun­dreds of soldiers have been killed and wounded. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, In­dian troops have been wit­ness­ing ag­gres­sive pa­trolling and wan­ton en­croach­ments by China’s Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army along a con­tentious Line of Ac­tual Con­trol and McMa­hon Line, not­with­stand­ing sev­eral bi­lat­eral agree­ments, in­clud­ing one specif­i­cally on main­tain­ing peace and tran­quil­lity along the bor- der, with­out prej­u­dice to bound­ary claims by ei­ther side.

Un­for­tu­nately for India, none of the three Ser­vices are suf­fi­ciently equipped to fight a two-front col­lu­sive war with China and Pakistan. This has been pub­licly ac­knowl­edged by se­nior Ser­vice of­fi­cers and also in re­cent re­ports pre­pared by the par­lia­men­tary stand­ing com­mit­tee on de­fence. Of par­tic­u­lar con­cern is the In­dian Air Force (IAF), which is cel­e­brat­ing its 85th an­niver­sary to­day. Raised as an aux­il­iary Air Force in 1932, with just four vin­tage Bri­tish Wapiti air­craft, the IAF has since grown to be­com­ing the world’s fourth largest Air Force. In the last decade-and-a-half, the IAF has un­doubt­edly added some ma­jor ca­pa­bil­i­ties. Most no­table are the three Air­borne Warn­ing and Con­trol Sys­tems (AWACS) that serve as an “eye in the sky” and six air-to- air re­fu­elling air­craft that have en­hanced the fly­ing en­durance of the Air Force’s key front­line fighter air­craft, no­tably the Sukhoi 30 MKIs, Mi­rage-2000s and Jaguars.

In two years from now, the IAF hopes to be­gin tak- ing de­liv­ery of the new gen­er­a­tion Rafale multi- role fight­ers from France. The IAF has also added to its fleet C-17 heavy lift trans­port air­craft and C-130 trans­port air­craft from the United States. Con­tracts have also been signed for the pur­chase of Apache at­tack heli­copters and Chi­nook heavy lift heli­copters, also from the US. In the near future, the IAF hopes to ben­e­fit from the Fifth Gen­er­a­tion Fighter Air­craft that India and Rus­sia have agreed to co-de­velop. As of Au­gust 2017, the gov­ern­ment had in the last two years signed 24 Cap­i­tal Pro­cure­ment con­tracts, which in ad­di­tion to the above listed air­craft also in­clude pur­chase of two more AWACS and sev­eral air de­fence radars, S-400 sur­face to air mis­siles and close-in weapon sys­tems to pro­vide a multi-lay­ered de­fence.

Im­pres­sive as this may seem, this is, un­for­tu­nately, only a part of the story. Even though Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Mar­shal B. S. Dhanoa did say the IAF had al­ter­na­tive plans to fight a two- front war not­with­stand­ing its cur­rent de­fi­cien­cies, the un­pleas­ant truth is that the IAF con­tin­ues to suf­fer from ma­jor draw­backs that need ur­gent ad­dress­ing. This in­cludes a short­fall of nine fighter squadrons (144 air­craft ex­clud­ing trainer ver­sions). The squadron strength is down to 33 from the sanc­tioned 42. Con­sid­er­ing that the cur­rent rate of re­tire­ment of fighter air­craft is faster than the pace of re­place­ments, the IAF’s fighter squadron strength is cur­rently pro­jected to de­cline to as low as 25 over the next five years, i.e. 2022. It’s only in 2032, i.e. a decade- and- a-half from now that the IAF hopes to reach its sanc­tioned strength of 42 fighter squadrons, ac­cord­ing to Air Chief Mar­shal Dhanoa, as­sum­ing that new air­craft and mu­ni­tions are ac­quired on time.

In ad­di­tion to the quan­ti­ta­tive de­cline, the en­tire fighter fleet other than the Sukhoi- 30 MKI is well over a quar­ter cen­tury old. IAF’s fighter air­craft such as the MiG-21 Bis and Jaguars are be­tween 35 and 40 years old. While it is true that many of these air­craft have un­der­gone a mid-life up­grade, what is note­wor­thy is that their en­gines and air­frames re­main the same. In some cases, the up­grades of these air­craft have been nei­ther com­pletely suc­cess­ful nor com­pre­hen­sive. For ex­am­ple, only 43% (around 54 air­craft) of the 125 MiG21 Bis air­craft up­graded be­tween 1998 and 2009 are equipped with self-pro­tec­tion jam­mers, leav­ing the re­main­der air­craft vul­ner­a­ble to en­emy radars and elec­tronic war­fare threats. Then again, only 18 auto pi­lots had been in­te­grated on the IAF’s 117 Jaguar strike air­craft as of March this year, even though this im­por­tant fly­ing aid ca­pa­bil­ity had been en­vis­aged as far back as in 1997.

The IAF has faced and con­tin­ues to face ma­jor prob­lems re­lated to ser­vice­abil­ity. A sig­nif­i­cant per­cent­age of the air­craft have not been air­wor­thy, re­flect­ing ad­versely on the op­er­a­tional sta­tus of this vi­tal arm of the coun­try. For ex­am­ple, be­tween 2004 and 2009, the ser­vice­abil­ity of MiG-21 Bis ranged be­tween just 41% and 51%, while 23% to 37% air­craft re­mained grounded. The case is no dif­fer­ent for the IAF’s lat­est in­duc­tion, the Sukhoi-30 MKI multi-role fight­ers that reg­is­tered a ser­vice­abil­ity record of just 55% to 60% be­tween 2005 and 2010.

It’s a sim­i­lar story in the case of trans­port air­craft. For ex­am­ple, in 2013, as much as 61% of the IAF’s 100-plus An-32 trans­port air­craft were grounded be­cause fa­cil­i­ties for ex­tend­ing the tech­ni­cal life and over­haul of the air­craft could not be estab­lished in time. Then again, 41% (about six) of the IAF’s to­tal 14 Soviet- ori­gin IL-76 trans­port air­craft pur­chased be­tween 1985 and 1989 re­mained grounded be­tween 2011 and 2016, while 32% (about two) of the to­tal six Rus­sian-ori­gin IL-78 air-to- air re­fu­elling air­craft re­mained grounded dur­ing this pe­riod. This is not all. The IL-76 air­craft, which can carry up to 225 troops and are used for air main­te­nance oper­a­tions to Ladakh, in ad­di­tion to other tasks, con­tinue to fly with 1985 vin­tage avion­ics, in the ab­sence of any worth­while cock­pit up­grad­ing.

Such ex­am­ples are end­less. But this also serves as a sad tes­ti­mony to the state of af­fairs within the IAF, which will play a vi­tal role in the event of both con­ven­tional and nu­clear wars. IAF fighter air­craft, which were kept out of the 1947-48 Kash­mir War and 1962 War with China, rose to the oc­ca­sion in 1971 by es­tab­lish­ing com­plete air su­pe­ri­or­ity over East Pakistan. Dur­ing the Kargil War in 1999, the IAF did some bril­liant in­no­va­tions un­prece­dented in the an­nals of military avi­a­tion his­tory. Its fighter air­craft flew 1,730 mis­sions that in­cluded car­ry­ing out ex­tremely dif­fi­cult high al­ti­tude night oper­a­tions in moon­light, dropped about 500 bombs in air strikes con­ducted from 25,000 feet on Pak­istani troops spread in penny pack­ets on the high ridges of Kargil’s killer moun­tains and made in­cred­i­ble in­no­va­tions on its fighter air­craft de­spite it not hav­ing ever been pre­pared for fight­ing such a high al­ti­tude war. Yet, 18 years af­ter the war, the state of the IAF re­mains grave. This is of par­tic­u­lar con­cern, con­sid­er­ing that China has made con­sid­er­able ad­vances in de­vel­op­ing ad­vanced fighter air­craft and con­tin­ues to as­sist Pakistan. In con­trast, the in­dige­nously built Te­jas light com­bat air­craft has been only sym­bol­i­cally in­ducted into the IAF and is still some years away from op­er­a­tional de­ploy­ment. Surely, the gov­ern­ment needs to take no­tice and ad­dress the many con­cerns on a war foot­ing. Di­nesh Ku­mar is a Chandi­garh based De­fence An­a­lyst.

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