Flying into a Glorious Future

The Indian Air Force will be celebrating its centenary of extraordinary service to the nation in 2032. Beginning with just four Wapiti aircraft and six pilots, the IAF is gradually transforming into a capable force to engage in multi-domain operations with acquisition of both manned and unmanned, supporting platforms, qualified manpower to operate and maintain these platforms, new weapons, critical information, ground infrastructure, new airfields, and decisive application of new technology

By Air Marshal Dhiraj Kukreja

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Comprehensive combat potential, emphasised by flexibility, quick response, and mobility, is a must-have for any nation. Aerospace power, with its ability to reach far distances, be they be within or outside the borders, fits the bill. This competence has been aptly demonstrated in many conflicts in various parts of the world towards the end of the last century. The need for such a capability is, therefore, inescapable for India, more so because of the ‘not so- friendly’ neighbourhood, and the forever-evolving geopolitical situation.

Formally established on 08 October 1932, the IAF will be celebrating its centenary of extraordinary service to the nation in 2032 – a decade from now! Beginning with just four Wapiti aircraft and six pilots, the IAF has transformed into a formidable aerospace force with an enviable prowess. After the successes in the conflicts with Pakistan, the planners initiated a process that is still ongoing. With fast pace of the modernisation, the IAF would celebrate its centenary year with world-class assets and capabilities.

The Planning Process

No modernisation process starts with just off-the-shelf purchases of aircraft, weapon platforms, systems, or other support equipment. Careful thought, assessment of the future scenario through an understanding of geo-politics, the emerging threat perception, are just a few of the ingredients that have to be studied, before initiating any changes. There is a set pattern, a deviation from which, or a shortfall in the process, can lead to a wastage of resources, not just material or fiscal, but also in delays of many years, which can prove to be the critical at times!

A study of the capabilities of the adversaries is, hence, important. Pakistan has been strengthening its Air Force (PAF) with Chinese assistance, over the last many years, not just with new aircraft, but also support systems and platforms. The PAF is growing in force with an aggressive application of its doctrine of the three Rs – Re-articulation, Reorganisation, and Relocation; this has made the IAF to sit up and take notice. The phenomenal growth of infrastructure all along the border with India, coupled with the increasing assertiveness of China with its recent airspace intrusions in the Ladakh region where only its army was to be seen earlier, is another cause of worry. Hence, the need to acquire weapons and delivery platforms and systems, which would have to be operated at high altitudes and at extremely low temperatures. The latter requirement is very difficult to find amongst the globally available equipment, therefore there is need for equipment made as per IAF specifications, at a comparatively lesser cost.

Netra Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft

The threat perception does not finish just with a comparison of quantity and quality; it has a wide spectrum. The IAF has to cater for a two-front conflict, which may be simultaneous, staggered or initiated with collusion, with controlled escalation. The challenges are manifold, with a blurred or blended nature of combat, merging into a hybrid war, a combination of conventional and non-conventional methods with cyber – as one example – which tend to disrupt the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) cycle. The aim for the IAF, therefore, is to build capabilities to not only defend the country, but also to reverse the enemy’s intentions.

As prescribed, the IAF is entrusted with the task of safeguarding the air space of the country for which it needs aircraft and allied equipment to fulfil its basic role. So far, it has maintained an edge over Pakistan in all conflicts and been at par with China. However, with Pakistan fast closing the gap, and the increasing asymmetry with China, the IAF cannot be expected to meet the challenges with vintage aircraft and weapons, surveillance systems, vulnerable communication systems and other support systems and infrastructure. Pranab Mukherjee, as the then Defence Minister, had mentioned in the annual PC Lal Memorial Lecture of 2006 that “India is not looking to imposing its ideology on its neighbours, yet it must possess capabilities of safeguarding its extended frontiers, from the Gulf of Aden to the Straits of Malacca”. The frontiers have since extended well beyond! To this end, the IAF and the other Services should possess:

(a) Deterrent Capability. The capability would primarily be to deter any adversary, state or non-state, with conventional and nuclear weapons.
(b) War-Waging Capability. In the event of failure to deter, the IAF should be able to inflict punishing damage within the limited time window, keeping in mind that the future conflicts are going to be short and swift.
(c) Force Projection Capability. The IAF must have a force projection capability, either individually or as a part of a joint expeditionary force, reaching to the extremes of our “extended frontiers” or places of strategic interest.
(d) Peace-keeping Capability. The IAF should have the capability to meet the increasing demands of UN peace-keeping missions, in any part of the world, to project India, as a responsible member of the international comity of nations.

Capability Voids and Corrections

Capability voids, as identified, exist not just in the offensive capability of the IAF, but also on ground, which includes infrastructure, an issue normally side-lined while acquiring new platforms and systems. There is a big gap in the availability of new airfields, hardened structures – also known as, blast pens – heliports, and other support infrastructure. All this is extremely important to gain a semblance of parity against China, especially in the Ladakh area, where China is way ahead. As the IAF goes in for an increase in numbers, no amount of infrastructure can be said to be adequate. So, the IAF plans for an increase in its offensive capability, the ground infrastructure – in Air Force parlance, known as ‘work services’ – must also be planned alongside, and not as an afterthought.

India Air Force AWACS: Beriev A-50EI Mainstay

In offensive capability, numbers do matter! Notwithstanding the multirole capabilities of the new inductions as also the 4.5 generation aircraft soon to be acquired, the entitled 42 squadrons is a target to be met in the shortest possible time-frame. Surveillance gaps need to be plugged with radars on the ground, and where it is not possible, through the acquisition of airborne surveillance and control systems – AWACS and AEWC aircraft. The systems, to cater for the upper reaches of the Northern sector, need to be more mobile over rough terrain, by being lightweight, with advanced technology and the capability of extremely low-temperature-operations.

The airborne surveillance and control systems are not just an ‘eye or an ear in the sky’, but also magnify the capabilities of a pilot by looking far ahead than the human eye – hence the term force multipliers! Coupled with the radars on ground and AWACS/AEWC in the air, there is the need for long range Surface-to-Surface missiles (SSMs) and shoulder-fired Surface-to-Air missiles (SAMs), as a complement to the other air defence weapons.

The success of such weapon /weapon-support platforms and surveillance systems depends upon secure and sound communications. The communications, hence, have to be tri-services integrated, for the systems to be effective and the three Services to be able to coordinate their activities, not just intra-theatre, but also inter-theatre. This domain has seen much progress, especially for the IAF, with its well-established Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS). It would surprise the reader that the IAF control room in Air HQ, New Delhi, can monitor all air movements on a radar screen, both friendly and enemy, be they even be in a distant location, and also interact with pilots of the aircraft, and the controlling AWACS or ground radars (Whilst in service, this writer has witnessed such an occurrence!).The upcoming communication networks of the IA and the IN will be integrated into the IACCS very soon, thus converting the entire communication system into a robust and secure means of interaction.

Another dimension that has been added into today’s conduct of war is Space. While the country has done well and earned a name for itself through the many successes of ISRO, unfortunately, the application of the capabilities of space-based assets has left many voids for the defence services. The inability to launch on demand, multi-spectral surveillance, hyper-spectral imagery, and geo-spatial intelligence are few of the many voids that need to be plugged. The IAF has used the capabilities of the many satellites launched thus far, but only minimally. There is scope for much more, and hence, considerable work needs to be done in this field.

The Air Force in 2032

Air power has increasingly become the decisive factor in combat ever since its introduction as a war-waging platform in World War I or as the historians would lead us to believe that it was even earlier, in the days of the balloons! Beginning with the 1991 Gulf War, and further confirmed in subsequent conflicts, the capabilities of new technologies has led to a realisation of the tremendous potential available through the medium of air and space. A word of caution though, airpower and space-power deployed in these conflicts by USA and its allies was against little or no opposition! The air and space power that was on display, comprised of some critical components that could be termed as “core competencies”, so essential to an Air Force, which can be enumerated as:

Pinaka Missile System

(a) Information superiority.
(b) Long range attacks with precision capability
(c) Strategic reach and logistics
(d) Air and Space superiority

What would the IAF of 2032 be like? While laying emphasis on building its core competencies to tackle situations through the arising new world order, it has moved ahead to develop itself into a major component of national power, with a capability of anti-access, target identification and force protection through swift and decisive application of technology and fire power.

New acquisitions are not just a booster to the deterrence and war waging capability, but the IAF has also looked beyond, with the desire to plug voids through new technology, not just by buying off-the-shelf from foreign countries, but utilising the indigenous knowledge-banks and industry. The prowess thus far achieved, has been displayed repeatedly in the recent past in various humanitarian relief operations, both within and outside the national boundaries, and participation in bilateral and multilateral air exercises. The robust agility displayed by the IAF is a window to its military deployment capabilities, which has not been lost to military observers over the world.

The IAF, as it flies into its centenary decade, will be a capable force to engage in multi-domain operations, able to deliver telling-effects with timing and tempo to extend the adversary’s OODA loop, simultaneously shortening its own, be they in the conventional domains of air and space, or non-conventional domains of cyber, information warfare (IW), and social media. The reader must comprehend that air and space power is intrinsically different from either land or sea power, hence its employment is guided by axioms different from those for surface and sub-surface forces. The transformation of the IAF commenced from the turn of the century with acquisition of firepower platforms – both manned and unmanned, supporting platforms – aerial and ground-based, qualified manpower to operate and maintain these platforms, new weapons, critical information infrastructure, ground infrastructure and new airfields, are just to name a few in the process of the ongoing overhaul. The IAF in the next decade would transform itself from Wapitis and Sopwith Camels to modern technology, and with a vision for tomorrow. ‘Change’ is the keyword – to move with the times!

–The writer is an IAF veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda