The Indian Air Force, which turns 89 on October 8, is a decade and a half older than the country it serves. It operates 24/7, in all weather conditions and in all terrain: hot, high, humid and ice. It is thus time to reflect on how it should re-emerge from its lean patch. India is yet to achieve self-sufficiency either in producing modern fighter jets or in learning what it takes for a major power to earn its place under the sun.
This issue has huge strategic implications for India, which will complete 75 years as an independent nation on August 15 next year, as a couple of congenitally hostile neighbours, China and Pakistan, collude to cramp New Delhi in its backyard and are unrelenting in efforts to slice off its territory. From Walong in the Northeast to Galwan in Ladakh, to areas north of Wagah, the anti-India activities of the Communist Party of China and the Pakistan Army’s Inter-Services Intelligence are there for all to see.
The IAF has done signal service in these past decades both to defend our land borders and protect India’s airspace with its expensive flying assets, but what continues to be a real worry is this country’s over-dependence on critical imported assets. While India undoubtedly needs the best of machines and equipment for the best of manpower, the agonisingly slow pace and unacceptably long gestation period of “conception to commission” projects require emergency intervention and navigation.
Simply put, New Delhi must catch up with the domestic production of at least fourth generation fighters like the Mirage-2000 and Sukhoi-30 within a decade, thereby enabling it to face long or protracted external “hostility”. Indian policy or strategy certainly can no longer bank on the 22-day or 14-day wars of 1965 and 1971. Indeed, even the longest of the hostilities we have faced -- the 34/35-day Chinese invasion of India in 1962 -- should be a grim reminder and constitute the template for future eventualities.
Today’s scenario isn’t what it was five decades ago. Every current threat to India is multi-front, multi-dimensional and multi-fanged. The two enemies are constantly prowling on macabre missions. They are mobile, shifty, deceptive and diabolical, with a deceitful choice of date, time and place. The target: “Mission Disruption Delhi”.
The Beijing-Islamabad axis -- which has recently got an added shot in the arm with the ISI-supported Taliban’s capture of Kabul and the rest of Afghanistan – has perfected its anti-India hostility to a fine art, and it does not even need conventional warfare to bring this country to its knees. The strategy is to use economic warfare to bleed India dry, in a bid to curtail its capacity to fight back and resist. That is why we need to realise the supreme importance and vital necessity of reducing the Indian Air Force’s dependence on imported warplanes and other military equipment to defend our territory. India needs to produce at least three types of fighter aircraft, because the main danger of “imports” begins as the country of origin ceases production of the aircraft used by the IAF. Acquiring spare parts and logistics inevitably turns into a nightmare, leading to the fleet’s grounding and the “cannibalisation” of aircraft. That is no way to defend our skies.
A glimpse of what the IAF faces is available from Military Balance 2021 and Jane’s World Air Forces. “In 2015, about 576 fixed-wing combat aircraft are claimed as operational, significantly down from 850 in 2006”. Though the number of “combat capable aircraft” is reported to be 768 in 2020, the fact is that except the Russian Sukhoi-30, first delivered in 2002, and now 20-odd French twin-engine Rafale fighters inducted in 2020, one has reason to be concerned (given) the age of a large number of “senior citizen” IAF fighters with “co-morbidity” symptoms. The MiG-29 came 35 years ago (1986); the MiG-21 “Fishbed” has already served 48 years (1973); and the Anglo-French Jaguar will shortly complete 42 years (1979). After prolonged turbulence the French Rafale has arrived, the “sole baby” of the fleet, just a year old, while the India-made Tejas is yet to make its mark, owing to the peculiar internal dynamics.
Contextually, therefore, India today faces a bitter truth on the eve of the 75th anniversary of its independence. Military Balance 2005-2006 showed the IAF had 38 operational squadrons with “852 combat-capable aircraft”. Pakistan, in contrast, had, “13 squadrons with 331 combat-capable aircraft”. Simply put, 16 years ago the IAF was two and a half times more powerful than the Pakistan Air Force. China too did not present an existential threat – there was no Xi Jinping and his “Belt and Road”, and Deng Xiaoping’s “go slow” philosophy was still in vogue.
In 2021, however, it’s alarm bells for India. After the CPC’s brazen bid in 2020 to seize Indian territory in Ladakh, the Chinese are targeting India’s economy. The IAF is facing a live multi-front threat. Just peruse Military Balance 2021. It comprises 30 squadrons of fighters of various types (down from 38 squadrons in 2005) – “3 squadrons MiG-29; 4 squadrons Jaguar; 6 squadrons MiG-21 Bison; 3 squadrons Mirage-2000; 11 squadrons Sukhoi-30; 1 squadron Rafale (forming) and 2 squadrons Tejas”. In comparison, the PAF’s strength has gone up from 13 to 15 squadrons with “413 combat-capable aircraft”. The most ominous, however, is the intent of the CPC-controlled PLA Air Force, which has “2,367 combat-capable aircraft”. Does India realise what lies in store as the CPC continues making billions of dollars from the Indian market and constantly bullies New Delhi from each and every forum? What stops India today from emulating the robust policy adopted by Indira Gandhi in 1971 to put the CPC, the Pakistanis and the Nixon-Kissinger duo in their place?
Lastly, a note of caution for the few who see the IAF as a “subordinate” or “supporting arm” of another branch of the armed forces. The IAF has a unique status and important role to play in its own right. It has an enduring and admirable proven track record in the Second World War and all post-1947 conflicts. Despite the huge inventory deficiency, it always fought with great elan. Classic examples are the Battle of Britain (1940); Hiroshima, Nagasaki (1945); and even in a tactical land battle, it made a profound strategic point in Longewala (1971). The belittling of a sister wing of the armed forces is avoidable as it only helps the enemy and demoralises one’s own side. The military must not emulate the civil service’s tendency to undermine their own colleagues. The IAF deserves the nation’s respect and honour on October 8, its foundation day.
Friday, October 8, is Indian Air Force Day...