Strategist George Friedman considers power as being complex: “The more of it you gain, the more ambiguous you become… you have not yet done anything that requires ruthlessness or brutality, but you have shown strength.” This is so true for an aspiring power like India, trying to balance the opposing requirements of meeting people’s aspirations and those of realpolitik in the real world.
After having absorbed many deleterious attacks, India finally executed surgical strikes, a demonstration of restrained reaction of a responsible nation, after the >Uri attack . “We can be nastier, but are avoiding doing so,” was the message. The government just wanted to break free from a situation that had developed in the past decade akin to 19th century Europe in turmoil which got German Chancellor Bismarck to remark, “We live in a wondrous time in which the strong is weak because of his scruples and the weak grows strong because of his audacity.” Uri had propelled a stronger India to confront an audacious Pakistan. From all accounts it was a pure Army operation, but the Indian Air Force (IAF) would have been on stand-2 for sure. Pilots in cockpits? Well, maybe the helicopter guys.
Where the IAF fits in In months leading up to the >IAF’s 84th anniversary on October 8, there was a flurry of articles disparaging its potency. One piece, released at an international function, said that “Indian Air Power had been brought to its knees” due to government inaction on its force requirements. Talking of retaliation ability, another analyst has written that the IAF has put in no effort towards precision strike capability. The truth is that force assets certainly need beefing up, capability shortfalls plugged and domestic R&D and manufacturing capability created in quick time to ensure sustenance of combat potential; however, it is also the truth that the IAF has the narrative under control to discharge its duty of protecting the nation’s skies.
Before we take stock of what it is that India is attempting in the current geopolitical situation and where the IAF fits in, it would be wise to revisit the difference between power, weight and influence. The combination of India’s democratic credentials, its track record of adhering to international norms, and its economic trajectory give it weight to influence activities in the region. But it is still some distance away from having power, which Shivshankar Menon, the former National Security Adviser, has qualified as the ability to create and sustain outcomes, and which is a combined function of all attributes of statecraft. Under these circumstances, when domestic transformation is first priority, the purse strings need to be adjusted just enough to enable the armed forces safeguard the nation’s sovereignty for unhindered economic development. To ensure this development, the armed forces must be able to deter war and if diplomats fail to avert war, then they (the armed forces) should have the power to create the desired outcome.
IAF’s combat readiness After a nervous two-year period following the permanent grounding of the HPT-32 basic trainer in 2010, the IAF’s training schedule is now rollicking based on the Pilatus trainer. That we do not have an intermediate jet trainer (IJT) is thanks to the unkept promise of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited to produce the Sitara IJT. The Hawk is doing fine in preparing rookie pilots transit to advanced machines like the Sukhoi but a lead-in fighter would help the cause no small extent in shortening the leap distance to high-end fighters.
The strength of fighter squadrons is an issue requiring urgent government intervention. The full strength of 272 Su-30s, incoming 120 Tejas and 36 Rafales would help absorb the phase out of MiG-21/27s but the decision to induct almost 100-plus more single-engine fighters (F16 or Gripen?) to meet a two-front threat should not be delayed. The force-multiplier fleets of AWACS (airborne warning and control systems) and flight refuellers need augmentation and the decision to cancel the Airbus 330 flight refueller deal is a retrograde step needing amelioration through the government-to-government route to shorten acquisition time. The transport fleet is going fine with its C-17, C-130, IL-76 and An-32 while the rotary wing element has become perhaps the most potent helicopter fleet that any air force of the region possesses. The air defence system needs careful nurturing but with the indigenous Akash surface-to-air (SAM) missiles proving successful and the Israeli-assisted long- and medium-range SAM systems reaching fruition, the IAF would be comfortable in the coming years; this is all the more so with India deciding to buy the very potent S-400 air defence system from Russia. Space is an integral part of any armed force and it is vital that the civil-oriented Indian Space Research Organisation pivots to meet the increasing needs of the Services for ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance) and net-centricity.
Conflict in the modern era has made air power the weapon of first choice for the politician due its attributes, among others, of low reaction time and lethality with precision. The government has to be aware that technological asymmetry can be a crucial difference in the coming years, especially vis-à-vis China, in military aviation. We still have a time window where the superiority of IAF’s human resource, its practical experience and better war-making assets would prevail against adversaries on both frontiers. The IAF is a prime instrument of national power projection, both soft and hard, and as India’s stature rises, so would its responsibilities. A potent IAF would be a mandatory arrow in India’s quiver. May the landings equal the take-offs for our guys in blue!
Manmohan Bahadur is a retired Air Vice Marshal, now a Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies.