IAF 2032 – Stand Tall at 100 : From Biplanes to Global Dominance: Charting the Century-Long Journey of the Indian Air Force

Sub Title : A comprehensive commentary on IAF’s glorious past and future trajectory

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 4 Sep – Oct 2023

Author : Air Marshal Anil Chopra, PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM

Page No. : 14

Category : Military Affairs

: September 22, 2023

As the IAF approaches its centennial in 2032, it reflects on its achievements in various wars and humanitarian efforts. Despite the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) of China advancing in modern aerial technology, the IAF maintains comparable capabilities. India emphasizes the need for a combined air and space domain approach, recognizing the blurring lines between them. With rapid technological advancements, India seeks to invest in game-changing technologies, while also emphasizing joint military operations and the importance of a National Security Strategy.

A Century in Flight

Although aviation is a relatively young field, with the first flight of heavier-than-air platforms occurring just 120 years ago, it has seen rapid advancements. As the Indian Air Force (IAF) approaches its centenary in 2032, it looks back on a past rich with achievement and honour. Aerospace technology has consistently led the way in modern innovations, bringing in revolutionary combat capabilities. It’s a long-held belief: control the skies and space, and you control the Earth. This maxim underscores the pivotal role military aviation plays in determining the outcomes of battles in the air, on the surface, and underwater.

Established on October 8, 1932, the IAF has witnessed a transformative journey. Its humble beginnings featured just four Westland Wapiti IIA biplanes. By April 1, 1933, the No.1 Squadron, consisting of six RAF-trained officers and 19 Havai Sepoys (air soldiers), was established at Drigh Road, Karachi.

Fast forward to today, India ranks as the world’s fifth-largest economy and fourth-strongest air power. By 2032, projections indicate India will ascend to the third-largest economy. The nation’s vigorous Atmanirbharta (self-reliance) initiative is poised to yield significant advancements in the next decade. This will ensure that India’s airborne and space platforms, as well as its aerial weapons production ecosystem, align with global standards.

A Glimpse into the IAF’s Illustrious History

Over the last 90 years, the IAF’s proficiency and combat prowess have faced numerous tests. From its operations in the North West Frontier Province in the 1930s to its pivotal role in World War II, its capabilities have been proven time and again. During the 1947-48 conflicts in Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh, IAF’s airlifts across challenging terrains and its fighter assaults were crucial in repelling Pakistani intruders. In 1962, the IAF had a distinct edge over the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). Yet, a strategic decision prevented it from fully deploying its might during the Sino-Indian war. The IAF’s decisive contributions to the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pak Wars, especially in the liberation of Bangladesh, underscore its strategic importance.

The 1999 Kargil War witnessed the IAF’s massive effort in Operation “Safed Sagar,” causing significant damage to the enemy’s operational and logistical strongholds. This facilitated the speedy removal of intruders and substantially minimized Indian casualties. Further back, the IAF’s “Operation Vijay” in December 1961 was instrumental in the swift liberation of Goa, Daman, and Diu. The IAF remains a lifeline, especially in ‘Operation Meghdoot’ in the Siachen Glacier. Presently, IAF jets are frequently stationed at Ladakh airbases, with advanced landing grounds like DBO kept operational. The IAF’s commitment is evident in its consistent air maintenance missions throughout the Himalayas, supporting both the Indian Army and the civilian administration.

PLAAF Pushing Ahead

PLAAF, supported by a growing Chinese aviation industry, has pulled ahead by acquiring modern aerial platforms and weapons. They are also ahead in modern technologies such as stealth, hypersonic, Artificial Intelligence (AI), cyber, electronic warfare (EW), and modern missiles. They are building long-range precision strike capability, giving high priority to intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), and information operations. PLAAF is preparing for hybrid network-centric war by integrating air and space assets. They have advantage of stealth fighters, significant number of H-6K bombers, home-grown large transport aircraft, and inventory of indigenous aerial weapons and drones. PLA Navy (PLAN) will add air power with two more aircraft carriers getting operational by 2032.

IAF Current Broad Capabilities

IAF has around 31 fighter squadrons. Most aircraft are comparable to PLAAF. IAF fighters are regularly flying long-range missions to train for and showcase its long-range strike and air patrol capability. These are mostly flown by twin-engine fighters supported by the IAF’s IL-78 Flight Refueller Aircraft (FRA) for inflight refuelling, and the IL-76 based Phalcon Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft for aerial radar cover, and command and control. Indian Navy has two operational aircraft carriers. Any significant military power must have the capability for “global vigilance and global reach”. The air defence radar cover and the Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) make a good potent combination.

IAF has a significant transport fleet with global reach and airlift capability. The helicopter fleet numbers are good, and more indigenous ALH variants are inducting. IAF is currently a little low in number of AEW&C and FRA aircraft for the continental sized country and the two front threat, and the need to cover the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).

International Air Exercises and Interoperability

Today IAF exercises with all the major air forces of the world on regular basis in bilateral or multilateral exercises. These exercises improve tactics and interoperability and expose crew to newer tactics, ideas and concepts. On this count, and exposure to actual combat operations, IAF has clear edge over PLAAF.

Air Power across Himalayas

India has clear advantage in terms of number of airfields vis-à-vis China. Indian airfields also have the advantage of lower altitude allowing better load carrying capability. IAF will be able to launch higher number of missions. More airfields and Advance Landing Grounds (ALG) are being made operational, including one at Nyoma, Ladakh. IAF is building stronger air defences and also increasing cruise missile inventories. India will work towards achieving local sectorial air superiority. Interdiction will pay high dividends in the mountains.

The radar cover has terrain related constraints in the mountains. However there are also vantage points for their positioning. Yet, much greater dependence would have to be on AWACS. Numbers will have to go up. Satellites and UAVs would have to be used for ISR. Drones will also support over-the-hill surveillance.

Effects based, network centric operations would be employed. The side that better employs electronic warfare and cyber means and tools will have advantage. Securing own networks and denying the same to adversary will be important.

Peacekeeping and HADR Missions

IAF’s contribution in the UN Peace Keeping operations is significant and praiseworthy. IAF is invariably the first responder in the Humanitarian Aid and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations. Its transport fleet with heavy lift capability and global reach has earned international praise, and made the region dependent on India. IAF’s large helicopter fleet sees HADR action through the year.

Rebuilding IAF By 2032

IAF is likely to retire the remaining three MiG 21 fighter squadrons by 2025. It will add around 5-7 squadrons of LCA Mk1A by 2032. 114 new MRCAs, when acquired, will add another four squadrons. There should be at least one squadron of LCA Mk2 by then. This should take IAF to around 38 fighter squadrons by 2032. The Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) would still be in final stages of operational trials. Effectively IAF may have to stretch the Mirage and MiG 29 fleets.

The 56 C-295W transport aircraft would have been inducted. IAF would have to take a call to add more numbers to replace the An-32 also with C-295. Some numbers of Saras-2 should have replaced the Dornier-228. The six each of indigenous FRA and AEW&C should have inducted by 2032. Large number on indigenous helicopters including LUH and LCH would be flying. The Indian Medium Multirole Helicopter (IMRH) should be inducting by then.

DRDO’s TAPAS BH-201 and “Ghatak” UCAV should have been inducted in large numbers. Indigenous drones and drones warms would part of IAF inventory in large numbers. IAF would have good radar cover, significant ground-based air defence systems. More advanced variants of BrahMos, Astra and other indigenous weapons would have inducted.

Integrating Air and Space Realms

Space has become an increasingly significant vantage point, necessitating its prioritisation. The distinction between air and space is gradually fading. Many vehicles and weaponry seamlessly traverse between these realms in unified missions. Both domains share similarities in situational intelligence, tactical deployment, and management. Leading nations like the UK, France, and Russia have unified these sectors. The USA has aligned its air and space forces under the Air Force’s umbrella. India must consider integrating these under the IAF’s leadership. Preliminary efforts in this direction have commenced. It’s imperative for assets like ballistic missile defence (BMD) and anti-satellite tools to be managed by the IAF. This integration should be swift. Satellite-driven intelligence, navigation, pinpoint targeting, secure communication channels, and command structures are paramount. Advanced features of the NAVIC will be crucial. The IAF should prioritise advancements in space-centric monitoring, alert systems, and satellite tech, ensuring the availability of dedicated satellites. Additionally, safeguarding space assets is paramount for India.

 Evolving Dynamics of Aerial Combat

 Technological life cycles for aerial assets are shortening. India must channel more resources into revolutionary technologies. This encompasses areas like cyber and electronic warfare, stealth capabilities, AI, autonomous systems, and hypersonic technologies. Hypersonic instruments can provide an edge, especially against high-value naval targets such as PLAN carriers. There’s considerable momentum in Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) and lasers capable of incapacitating missile systems or blinding sensors. For India to hold its ground, mastering aircraft engine and AESA radar technologies is essential. Joint ventures offer a promising pathway to assimilate advanced technologies. There’s a need for extended-range weaponry, encompassing aerial missiles with approximately 400 km reach and cruise missiles with a range close to 1,500 km. As technological frontiers expand, aerial combat strategies adapt. Autonomous systems, collaborative operations between manned and unmanned units, drone technologies, and advanced runway rehabilitation techniques will be pivotal in shaping the future of IAF.

National Security Strategy and Doctrinal Reviews

As a major military power with global ambitions, India should articulate its National Security Strategy (NSS). From this strategy, the foundation for capability development, defense budgeting, command structures, and higher defense management will be set. The IAF recently unveiled its Doctrine 2022, while other services are revising theirs. Future doctrines must adapt to emerging technologies and operational scenarios. Emphasizing a joint doctrine is paramount.

Increased Joint Operations & Core Competencies

Air power is pivotal for both surface and sub-surface battles, essential for safeguarding our sea-lanes. While forces should specialize in their domains, collective, simultaneous operations across multiple arenas are crucial. This demands a deep understanding of each force’s strengths, challenges, and the imperative for synchronizing operations, minimizing the risk of friendly fire. Joint responses are vital in confronting asymmetric warfare, necessitating shared intelligence and frequent, realistic joint drills.

Joint Structures

Joint structures will be established to boost joint planning, heighten operational efficiency, and respond swiftly to security challenges. Potential structures include theatre commands, joint helicopter maintenance centers, centralized logistics, and additional joint training institutions. These will enhance resource utilization and decision-making speed. Resource allocation will be overseen by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The dynamics of these new structures will evolve, requiring the political leadership to deepen their military understanding and involvement.

Skilling Manpower

Emerging technologies necessitate continuous upskilling in design, development, manufacturing, maintenance, and operations. Training programs will need ongoing revisions. Civilian expertise will become invaluable in areas like cyber warfare, electronic warfare, and drone operations. Maintaining a youthful force is essential, achievable through short-service commissions and Agniveer entry schemes.

Critical Areas in Atmanirbharta

The DRDO must expedite key technological advancements. India’s journey in indigenous aero-engine development needs acceleration. Mere license production isn’t sufficient. Joint ventures should prioritize India retaining intellectual property rights. Initiatives like hypersonic weapons, modern EW systems, and state-of-the-art avionics are imperative. The private sector’s increasing involvement in the aerospace industry has been fruitful, a trend that should be encouraged.

Way Ahead for IAF

The IAF’s mandate is to protect Indian airspace against evolving threats. It must safeguard space assets, leveraging cutting-edge technologies and superior training. While modernization is underway, the IAF should restore its force to 42 squadrons. The notion that newer aircraft like Rafale and Su-30 MKI can replace older MiG 21s and thereby reduce squadron numbers is misguided, especially when adversaries field fifth-generation fighters without reducing their fleet.

Further, the IAF needs to expand its inventory of AEW&C, FRA, UCAVs, and indigenous air defense SAM systems. Lessons from the Ukraine conflict highlight the necessity for extensive weapon stocking. Innovations like kamikaze drones are revolutionizing the battlefield. Investments in counter-drone systems, cruise missiles, and SSMs are vital. While India’s missile program, featuring the BrahMos, Akash, Helina, and Astra missiles, is commendable, its expansion is essential.

While India pursues indigenous solutions for FRA and AEW&C, operationalization will take 6-8 years. Interim solutions, like leasing FRAs, should be considered. As the IAF grows, it should intensify its focus on doctrine, force levels, modernization, and training, ensuring that by 2032, it continues to “Touch the Sky with Glory.”