India needs an upgraded, two-front Air Force

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 border, 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 taking 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 MiG-21 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.