Transforming Indian Air Force

Sub Title : The article outlines the way ahead for the IAF to face emerging challenges

Issues Details : Vol 16 Issue 6 Jan – Feb 2023

Author : Air Marshal Anil Chopra PVSM AVSM VM VSM

Page No. : 46

Category : Military Affairs

: February 6, 2023

As new threats emerge and rapidly changing technologies impact the character of war, Indian armed forces need to refocus to meet the challenges and  look at doctrines, force levels, modernisation and training. The article outlines the way ahead for the IAF

China has become more aggressive on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), and the number of skirmishes have increased. China is already becoming a global military power and preparing to take-on the USA. The global focus is also shifting to the Indo-Pacific. India has already begun refocusing to meet the challenges of evolving new threats. Meanwhile new technologies are changing the ways of war fighting. There is thus a need to refocus the priorities of Indian armed forces, and to look at doctrines, force levels, modernisation and training.

China Focus

For long the country build its military infrastructure for a possible war with Pakistan. Till date there are significant Indian Air Force (IAF) airfields facing the West. This has since begun to change. IAF has been strengthening the airfields and advanced landing grounds (ALG) facing China. Infrastructure at Leh airfield in Ladakh has been strengthened including with hardened fighter aircraft shelters. Thoise airfield in Ladakh now has regular fighter aircraft operations. The ALG at Nyoma has been operational for some time. Similarly all the ALGs in the eastern sector have been modernized. The IAF airfields in eastern sector have more hardened shelters. Also IAF’s latest operational aircraft including Rafale, Su-30 MKI, C-130, Chinook and Apache have all been positioned in the east in significant numbers. Compared to China’s nearly 11 airfields in Tibet and Xinjiang, IAF has nearly 25 airfields for China operations. Chinese airfields being at very high altitude, put serious load carriage restrictions, while IAF airfields are at much lower altitudes. IAF will thus have the capability to launch nearly three times the number of aerial missions.

Fighter Fleet Numbers Restoration

At just 30, IAF’s fighter squadron strength remains at all-time low. This is the first concern that needs to be addressed. The approach to get back the numbers is well understood at all levels, but there is a need to accelerate actions. The Light Combat Aircraft ‘Tejas’ LCA Mk1A and LCA Mk2 development has to be accelerated. The LCA production must be increased to around 18 a year to begin with. The stealth fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) design and development would require a whole of the nation approach. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) must give an early approval so that project can take-off in all earnest. Ideally a national task-force should be set up for AMCA project. Despite induction of two LCA Mk1 and four LCA Mk1A squadrons by 2030, the retirement of remaining MiG 21 ‘Bison’ squadrons by 2025 would mean that there will still only be 33 squadrons. This is an unacceptable figure considering the threat on India’s two borders. Therefore, the case for 114 new “Made-in-India” fighters needs to be hastened. The Request for Proposal (RFP) must go out at the earliest. If hastened, this process could add at least four of these six squadrons by 2030. Without taking sides, if the Indian Navy were to choose Rafale-M, then it would perhaps make good sense for the IAF also to go for more Rafale. Having already paid for India specific modifications, the increased numbers would make good economic-cum-combat sense.

Other Combat Fleets

IAF is fairly well off in its transport and helicopter fleets. With production of C-295 W in India, the numbers will keep adding. Similarly, with the induction of a large number of indigenous helicopters such as ALH ‘Dhruv’, LCH ‘Prachand’, and later the Light Utility Helicopter (LUH), IAF assets will continue to build. IAF still has mostly Israeli UAVs and UCAVs. Drone production

eco-system in India is picking up. However large sized indigenous UAVs ‘Tapas’ and ‘Ghatak’ will take some time to induct. The proposal to acquire 30 UAVs from General Atomics would still be required and should be hastened. Two other areas that require immediate attention are the Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) and Flight Refueling Aircraft (FRA). The current numbers 3 large and 3 smaller AEW&C and 6 FRA are too inadequate for a continental sized country like India and the current threat assessment. The DRDO projects for these using Ex-Air India aircraft would take at least 6-8 years. India may consider out-right purchase or leasing of these assets in the interim. IAF has a fairly robust network of ground radars and many are indigenously built systems. Similarly India has a good program of indigenous air defence and aerial missiles, and other PGMs. The lessons from Ukraine conflict indicate the need for large weapon stocking and therefore there is need for continuous review. Kamikaze drones have turned game-changers and having large inventories of these has become important.

Critical Aviation Technologies Development

The first most critical area for aviation is the capability to build an indigenous aero-engine. Having not succeeded in the past, it will be best for India to take a joint venture route with a friendly foreign company such as Safran, or any other. New technologies are transforming the way militaries will fight in the future. Most technologies have direct bearing on aviation. Stealth encompasses many technologies. Stealth aircraft are expensive to produce and maintain. India needs to invest more in research. All combat is based on advanced electronic sensors. Electronic warfare (EW) is thus an area requiring greater attention. China has a dedicated EW aircraft fleet. India needs to develop state-of-the-art EW technologies for all the armed forces. Network-centric warfare means need for capability to neutralize adversary networks and defend own. Cyber warfare technologies must get very high priority. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics will allow autonomous operations, drone swarming and support Manned Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T). Much greater investments are required in these. Private sector is investing big in AI and that needs to be harnessed. China already possesses hypersonic weapons. DRDO is working on hypersonic systems. This process needs to be accelerated. Lastly, the directed energy weapons (DEW) are already beginning to mature. This is going to be a game-changing technology and needs to be harnessed quickly.

IAF’s Doctrine Approach

IAF’s Doctrine 2022 clearly reflects the change of IAF from just an Air Power to Aerospace Power. IAF is fast transforming from a continental air force to one with global reach. It now has trans-domain operations capability, and prides itself for its reach, flexibility and versatility, responsiveness, and offensive lethality. It works towards favourable asymmetry. All top end fighters refuel in the air. IAF repeatedly flies long 8-10 hour missions. It is in a position to dominate from Malacca Straight to Gulf of Aden. There is a need to strengthen the air infrastructure and assets at the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. IAFs capability for Anti-Access and Area Denial (AA/AD) is increasing. IAF is totally networked and its automated Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) allows combat engagements control across the sub-continent. IAF is working closely with other services for joint operations. The joint doctrines are continuously being updated.

Training and Exercises

The IAF has continuously been reviewing basic and combat training. Large force engagements supported by UAVs, AEW&C, FRA and the huge ground radar network are being exercised continuously. IAF is also exercising regularly with major air forces of the world. The recent exercise ‘Pitch Black’ at Darwin in Australia had 17 air forces participating. IAF is working and exercising closely with the QUAD air forces in particular. They recently carried out an exercise with the Japanese Self Defence Air Force (JSDAF) in Japan. IAF has a structured annual plan of exercises with the other two services.

Atmaribhata the Only Way Ahead

India is the fifth largest economy and the fourth most powerful military. For its global profile and stature, and defence requirements, India must have a vibrant defence industry. One of the biggest lessons of Ukraine conflict has been that global supply chains can be easily disrupted. In the recent past Atmanirbharta (self-reliance) in defence is being pushed at the highest level. Global defence manufacturers are coming to India in large numbers. Many Indian large business houses are now in defence manufacturing. DRDO has begun involving private partners and transferring technology. HAL has been outsourcing Su-30 MKI and LCA fuselage aero-structures manufacturing to private sector.

A large MSME eco-system has got build. Some of the greatest advantage of Atmanirbharta actually accrues in aerial systems and platforms because of higher rate of obsolescence and much higher costs. The Drone Federation of India (DFI) has become very active and driving indigenisation. The IAF is closely interacting with industry and academia to promote indigenisation. They conducted the Mehar Baba competition for drones. Indigenisation has to be a whole of country approach. The steps taken by the government of expanding the positive indigenisation list and earmarking increased percentage of Defence Capital Budget for Made-in-India products would promote atmanirbharta. Time to act is now-lest we get left behind.