The Indian Air Force at Eighty-Five
The youngest of the three armed forces of the Union, the Indian Air Force, turns a young eighty-five today. The journey has been exciting, to say the least; from a fledgeling force in 1932 that started with Wapitis in Karachi, it has grown into a potent, well-knit unit that can project power to areas where India's national interests need the most protection. From its fine showing in the Burma campaign in WW II to the Kargil conflict, the IAF has grown from strength to strength and has become the weapon of first choice for the government.
The air defence of the country has been mandated to the IAF, by the Union War Book and this directive forms the basis of the capabilities that it has developed. The fighter fleet has the extremely potent multi-role Sukhoi-30 MKI performing the air dominance role and spearheading the strike element that would carry the battle to the adversary. It outperforms anything that our immediate adversaries possess and the latent pessimism that appears to permeate the present discourse with respect to our Northern neighbour is ill-founded. The Rafale, entering service in a year's time, would have an armament and battlefield survival capability, that would be unmatched. The Mirage-2000 is being upgraded with avionics and a modern radar while the Jaguar will carry offensive firepower deep into the enemy territory. The indigenous Tejas, once it is available in sufficient numbers, would form the low weight component of IAF's inventory and be an important player in air defence duties. Of a worrying nature is the depletion of IAF's squadron strength from the 42 Squadrons necessary for a two-front war to the present 33. The Chief of the Air Staff has mentioned this in his customary presser on October 6, but has also said that a Plan B has been put in place to deal with any contingency; the government is acutely aware of this and must act post haste.
The transport aircraft fleet and helicopters are present in adequate numbers and bring with them a substantial airlift and heli-lift capability. This is vital for air maintenance of border army posts, aid to civil power and for Humanitarian and Disaster Relief (HADR), within the country and internationally. The new acquisitions of the very heavy C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft, C-130J Super Hercules special forces aircraft and Mi-17V5 helicopters form a formidable fleet that makes India a regional HADR provider; the airlift of relief materials during the Uttarakhand and Srinagar floods as well as the massive earthquake in Nepal, immediately come to mind. The C-17, in the recent past, has gained India immense goodwill with its relief flights to Bangladesh for Rohingya refugees and earlier to Fiji, a far away land.
The combat support elements comprise the IL-78 flight refuelling aircraft, Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control Systems (which are the eyes and ears in modern air combat) and Netra Airborne Early Warning & Control aeroplanes. The air defence has a string of interlinked radars through an Integrated Air Command and Control System that keeps a 24x7 watch over the nation's skies. Their numbers need to be augmented and the government has a tough task ahead in trying to procure funds for their acquisition, to cater to the deteriorating security environment in India's neighbourhood.
The security of any Nation is a multi-disciplinary effort, comprising of its military, diplomatic and political components. If kinetic war is thrust upon India it will be fought jointly by the Indian Army, Navy and the IAF. To do that, joint structures are being continuously refined so that the power of each service is synergised to achieve the desired effect. The medium of air is an inherent component of the surface forces and the equipping and training of India's air power has been optimised to assist in enhancing jointness with the other two services, which is a sine qua non for the prosecution of a war in the modern age. The nation can rest assured that, in these times of a challenging security environment, India's defence is in safe hands; the motto of the Indian Air Force, "Touch the Sky with Glory" is a true reflection of the josh that permeates every IAF air warrior.
(The author, a retired Air Vice Marshal, is Distinguished Fellow at Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi.)