Indian Air Force – the fourth largest air force in the world, one of the three main arms of the Indian Armed Forces, sentinels of the skies, pride of India. Established on 8 October 1932, the IAF was initially an auxiliary force of the Royal Air Force and later, after independence, has been the guardian of Indian air space. In each of the post-independence conflicts (Indo-Pakistan Wars of 1947, 1965, and 1999 and Bangladesh’s War of Independence, 1971, and Indo-China War of 1962), the IAF and its fighter planes have been counted among the nation’s major strengths. When faced by natural calamities and domestic crises, the IAF has stood up to support Indians and administer relief. The glory of the Indian Air Force, however, is under grave threat due to lack of adequate modernisation. The sheen of this powerful force now dulls and we must take a hard look at the reasons.
Delayed Implementation Foils Plans
One of the major challenges that is crippling the Indian Air Force is the delay in implementation of major plans. The idea of procuring and inducting the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) to replace the ageing MiG21 fighters of the IAF dates back to the 1980s. In 1984, the government established the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and made it responsible for the production of a new indigenous LCA. The programme has been a disaster at least in terms of the delays and cost escalations it has brought. The Tejas was inducted in 2016, some 32 years after the ADA was set up and about 15 years after its first flight. While not many in the MoD or the IAF may admit to the fact but experts feel that the LCA has already gone obsolete. The Tejas, manufactured by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, is a short range aircraft and given the capabilities of the fighter planes being developed currently and the evolving war scenarios, its relevance is an uncertainty. As of September 2016, weapon and missile tests of Tejas were still on. To be of some advantage, the IAF needs at least 5-7 Tejas squadrons and this is still a very far cry. In fact, the MiG 21 fighters which were to be decommissioned in the 80s are still being used by the IAF. In 2015, just ahead of PM Narendra Modi‘s visit to the US, the Indian Cabinet cleared a USD 2.5 billion deal for the purchase of 22 Apache AH-64 attack helicopters na d15 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters from Boeing, the American aviation leader. Over a year and half later, these are still a far from induction and the IAF continues to make do with Mi 26 and Mi 17 choppers.
The White Elephant
In September 2016, India and France inked a deal (after years of negotiation), allowing the IAF to acquire 36 off-the-shelf Dassault Rafale fighter planes. The cost of procuring these twin engine fighters comes to about INR 58,000 crore. When the IAF sought the acquisition of 44 more Rafale fighters to plug the growing gap in deployable fighters in the force, the Ministry of Defence turned down the request asking the IAF to go with Make-in-India. The IAF was promised an improved version of the Tejas Mark 1A. What we are reluctant to admit is that the HAL is a white elephant we continue to feed, only at great cost to our national security. The HAL has manpower of about 35,000 personnel employed in its various centres at Nasik, Bengaluru, Korwa, Lucknow, Kanpur and Koraput. With an annual production less than INR 2000 crore, the armed forces are regularly forced to look at overseas producers to fulfil their requirements. This too, is now being dissuaded in the name of indigenous production (despite its dismal state).
A number of modernisation measures have recently been undertaken by the IAF. The upgradation of the AFNet (Air Force Network), implementation of the AEM VCCS (a Voice Over IP based communication system in all Radar sites, headquarters, aircrafts) and acquisition of the 3D Rohini Radars (to replace the older P-12, P-18 radars) are some great steps. Akash, the medium-range surface-to-air (SAM) missiles are on their way to replace the 16 Pechora SAM systems with the IAF. The question, however, remains if these are adequate in the absence of modern fighters in adequate numbers. India still lacks both manpower and machine numbers to fight a two front aerial warfare if the need arises.
In Need of More Private Enterprise
In April 2016, the IAF came up with a 10-year modernisation plan, putting forth technologies and processes that will put it at par with the best air forces in the world. Only 10 to 15 percent of these projects can, however, be executed indigenously. The best option India has at the moment (to balance imports and domestic production of IAF’s requirements) is to rope in private players. The Tata group was commissioned to produce battle tanks. The red tapism in the process is a major challenge and the Tata group has decided to import weaponry to test on these tanks pushing up the costs. One of the Tata companies has also bagged the largest defence contract awarded to an Indian company by undertaking to modernize 30 air forces bases across the country. The Modernization of Airfield Infrastructure (MAFI) programme will replace all radio navigational aids in these bases, install new runway lights and revamp the ground based avionics of these bases. More such partnerships with domestic enterprises will give IAF the cutting edge it badly needs. India must import aircraft, fighter planes, weapons and ammunition required to fulfil immediate requirements while strengthening its domestic production capabilities with the long run in mind. At a time when its neighbour is acquiring more Bell AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters and F-16 Fighting Falcon supersonic multirole fighters, India can ill-afford to neglect the modernisation of the Indian Air Force.