The ‘Basic Doctrine of the Air Force’ issued in 2012 defines air power ‘as the total ability of a nation to assert its will through the medium of air. It includes both civil and military aviation, existing and potential.’ The doctrine amplifies that aviation related research and development, aeronautical and the nation’s space capabilities, all have a force multiplier effect on air power and rightly concludes that ‘the strength of India’s air power lies in the IAF (Indian Air Force), with the capabilities of air and arms of the other services reinforcing that strength.’
IAF today is the fifth largest in the world with the sanctioned combat force level of 42 Squadrons approved some decades ago. Over this period, induction of modern combat aircraft with far greater performance levels along with force multipliers like the Flight Refuellers and AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control Systems) have augmented the IAF’s operational potential manifold. Yet, for a two -front threat, a minimum number of combat squadrons is vitally important, and this is where the IAF has a problem.
Amongst the other elements of air power civil aviation is experiencing exponential growth and whilst India is the ninth largest civil aviation market today, it is forecast to be the third largest by 2020. HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) with 21 Divisions, has so far produced 15 types of aircraft from in-house R&D (Research & Development), and another 14 types under licence. Defence Research consists of fifty laboratories employing 5,000 scientists and 25,000 technical and non-technical staff with six laboratories dedicated to aeronautics alone. In addition, there is an independent design authority, the ADA (Aeronautical Development Agency) whose LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) is only now entering service. Our space capabilities under ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation), in many areas, are considered at par with the most technologically advanced nations. Added to these, the huge potential in the private sector is raring to go, untapped only due to policy indecisiveness.
Challenges in the Indian sky
There is little doubt that taken together, India has the potential to wield significant air power, and in terms of aeronautics R&D and manufacture, she ranks amongst the top nations of the world. That this potential is not being realised and that the IAF and commercial aviation are both predominantly dependent on imports is a subject that needs introspection. This contrast is more striking when we see that in our space endeavours, ISRO continues to excel and compete favourably with other advanced nations.
In terms of a conflict situation, the IAF will be faced with a two-front war pitted against Pakistan and China, both of whom have converging strategic interests, and both are rapidly modernising their respective Air Force. Whilst the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is a relatively smaller Air Force, it can count on its numerical disadvantage being offset by a large part of the IAF remaining committed to a simultaneous Chinese threat. Beyond this, both countries have jointly developed and are producing the JF 16 Thunder, a light weight multi-role fighter that will become the back bone of the PAF. The latter can hence be assured of not just adequate product support, but quick replenishments in the event of losses in a conflict scenario.
The IAF, on the other hand, continues to suffer from depletion of its combat squadron force. From an authorised 42 Squadron strength, its strength is around 32 Squadrons, expected to fall to 29 by year end as older platforms end their technical life. The IAF being both a technology and a capital intensive service, is not only heavily dependent on imports, but a victim of high costs as well. To these woes is added a lethargic and bureaucratic procurement system. A system that took a shocking two decades from the time a high-level committee identified the absence of an Advanced Jet Trainer as a major cause of high accident rates and the MoD (Ministry of Defence) accepted the need in the early eighties, to its first arrival. The requirement for the more recent MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) project was initiated in 2001 with the procurement process beginning in 2007, and what the IAF will see a few years hence is a severely curtailed number of platforms.
It was the then Vice Chief of Air Staff (now CAS or Chief of Air Staff) who last year had stated in a media briefing that the IAF did not possess adequate numbers to execute a full air campaign in a two-front scenario. Whilst this caused hardly a ripple in the corridors of MoD, a 2016 paper titled Troubles They Come in Battalions: The Manifold Travails of the Indian Air Force by Dr. Ashley Tellis of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, was far more forthright, and hence the subject of considerable discussion amongst the strategic community. Having meticulously analysed the IAF’s capability across the board, the author attributes the erosion in IAF force levels to ‘serious constraints on India’s defence budget, the impediments imposed by the acquisition process, the meagre achievements of the country’s domestic development organisations, the weaknesses of the higher defence management system, and India’s inability to reconcile the need for self-sufficiency in defence production with the necessity of maintaining technological superiority over rivals’.
Whilst it must be a matter of satisfaction to the IAF that professionally, Tellis considers IAF to be ‘exemplary among air forces of the developing world’, the IAF needs to ask itself why it has failed to convince the national security planners of air power’s crucial role in a future conflict.
It needs recalling that in the Gulf War, air power had played a dominant role based on which it was considered that many nations would imbibe lessons and increase their own emphasis on air power. One study sponsored by the US Air Force, was undertaken by RAND Corporation on the IAF. One of the conclusions of the 1995 report titled IAF-Trends & Prospects’ by George Tanham and Mary Agmon is: ‘Overall, the army continues to dominate consideration of Indian defense matters. The war in the Gulf has not appeared to improve the IAF’s political position in the Indian security community, nor has it spurred it to plan for a greater role for air power in India’s defense.’ It would be fair to say that some two decades later, this statement still rings true.
In many ways, the weaknesses that Tellis mentions are all inter-linked. At the heart of the problem is a higher defence organisation that is not responsive to modern day security challenges. The Kargil Review Committee had pointed out many grave deficiencies in India’s security management system, and concluded that the political, bureaucratic, military and intelligence establishments appear to have developed a vested interest in the status quo. This comment was indeed prescient, as more studies and committees later, except for minor tinkering, the system continues to resist change.
Misplaced bureaucratic authority?
As the armed forces continue to remain outside of the policy making echelons, it is the bureaucracy which holds sway in decision-making without being accountable for the operational consequences of this unfettered authority. Left to themselves, rather than explore jointness, rationalise roles and missions, and look for integrated war fighting and affordable options, the services prefer to zealously guard their respective turfs. The Joint Service Doctrine recently released with much fanfare clearly shows that the three services are not in favour of ‘jointness’ either in the managerial sense or in the operations domain of joint operational commands. In contrast, China with its defence budget thrice the size of India’s, continues on a path of reform reducing its seven military regions to five Theatre Commands towards synergised ground, naval, air and rocket forces’ operations.
Within the limited Indian defence budget allocations, each service continues to zealously guard its share of the cake, with the result that a capital intensive service like the IAF must make do with a traditional percentage share of around 22-24 % of the total defence budget. In FY 2016-17, the IAF was allocated Rs. 27,556 Cr towards capital expenditure of which Rs.22,871 Cr (83%) was for committed liabilities, with only Rs. 4,685 (17%) remaining for new schemes. (Ref IDSA Issue Brief by Laxman K. Behera). To put this in perspective, the cost of one Rafale fighter along with its weapons package and essential supporting infrastructre would roughly equate to around Rs. 750-850 cr! With mere crumbs allotted towards its capital acquisition kitty, it is no surprise that IAF modernisation continues to suffer across its transport, helicopter and air defence domains, whilst its combat force level continues to shrink.
As to the other components of air power that include civil aviation, aeronautics research and development and aerospace manufacturing, unless these are all aligned to a national aerospace vision and an integrated plan, the huge untapped aerospace potential of the nation will remain unrealised . Keeping the private sector out of defence manufacturing and now procrastinating interminably on how to co-opt it, we have consigned ourselves to being heavily dependent on imports!
The China story
China, on the other hand, has identified air and space to be high priority areas from the military and security stand point, as also towards a strategy to developing military technology, a sound military industrial base and for exports, which in turn will further their economic, geo-political and diplomatic interests. Such a long-term strategic vision for Indian aeronautics has singularly been lacking, notwithstanding the proposal for a National Aeronautics Policy driven by a National Aeronautics Commission; a structure for which was recommended by none other than President Abdul Kalam, when he was the President of the Aeronautical Society of India.
Concluding an article on the Affordability of Air Power in the Vayu magazine in 2012, this writer had wistfully concluded: ‘In these times of significant social, economic and security challenges, the best contribution that our MoD and armed forces can make towards effective and affordable defence is to plan jointly, wisely and with foresight. The choice is to ‘swim together – or sink individually!’
As we attempt to bolster our resolve to rule over the skies, we need to pause and reflect on whether ‘business as usual’ is an option any longer.