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  Opinion   Columnists  25 Jul 2023  KAMAL DAVAR | What IAF needs to transform into to develop as an aerospace power

KAMAL DAVAR | What IAF needs to transform into to develop as an aerospace power

The writer, a retired lieutenant-general, was founder of the Defence Intelligence Agency and deputy chief of the Integrated Defence Staff
Published : Jul 26, 2023, 12:00 am IST
Updated : Jul 26, 2023, 12:00 am IST

Pakistan has also enunciated a “first-use” nuclear option against India, that cannot be taken lightly

The IAF needs a frugal 42-fighter squadron strength, if not more. (Representative image: PTI)
 The IAF needs a frugal 42-fighter squadron strength, if not more. (Representative image: PTI)

For the Indian Air Force to truly live up to live up to its motto of “Touching the Skies with Glory”, some critical transformational imperatives are needed. While the IAF is sincerely trying to move from air power to being an aerospace power, these imperatives have to be implemented with vision and alacrity. Faced with China’s rapidly growing military assertiveness and its unbridled ambitions, supplanted by a traditionally hostile Pakistan, the challenge to the IAF by both nations, individually and collusively, in the aerospace domain are indeed formidable. Aerospace is unquestionably the domain of the future.

To successfully confront a two-front threat, the IAF needs a frugal 42-fighter squadron strength, if not more. Successive Air Chiefs have publicly lamented that they are down to a strength of 31-32 squadrons, which is woefully inadequate to meet the emerging challenges from the Chinese PLAAF (Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force) and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). India’s strategic area of interest spans the entire region from the Malacca Strait to Strait of Hormuz, where China is gradually expanding its naval footprint.

The Chinese, in recent years are threatening our territorial integrity in Arunachal Pradesh, in areas adjoining Bhutan and Sikkim, in the central sector and in the eastern Ladakh region. They are also endeavouring to link the Xinjiang region in western China with Gwadar port in Pakistan, near the Strait of Hormuz via the overly ambitious China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Meanwhile, Pakistan retains the ability to indulge in terrorist activities or provoke incidents, especially along the Line of Control in J&K.

Importantly, Pakistan has also enunciated a “first-use” nuclear option against India, that cannot be taken lightly. Meanwhile, the vast Indo-Pacific region is emerging as a major arena for military and economic contestation between the United States and China, where India will have a vital role to play, and apart from its maritime muscle, India’s air power will come into reckoning in furtherance of its strategic interests.

The global geopolitical trajectory in recent years has shown an intense competition between the US and China. The US desires a “unipolar world but a bipolar Asia”, whereas China is striving for a “bipolar world but a unipolar Asia”. Invariably, India is a principal player in this rivalry. India therefore has to ensure that its overall military preparedness at the desired levels is ensured across the entire spectrum of warfare, including in its air power. Also, it is well-known that aerospace systems comprising manned aircraft, micro-satellites, diverse forms of spacecraft, unmanned aerial vehicles and ballistic and cruise missiles are evolving at a rapid pace.

Technology applying stealth, Artificial Intelligence, hypersonic aerial systems, direct energy weapons, improving genres of platforms assuming very long range and lethal, accurate, non-detectable dimensions which any modern military would like to induct in its arsenals. China’s advances in its aerospace capabilities is mind-boggling.

All governments are aware that the primacy, flexibility in and the speed of unleashing one’s air power, whenever faced with a conflict or emergency situation, cannot be substituted. Barring nuclear exchanges, the effective employment of air power has become not only the dominant form of military power projection but in the restoration of an adverse situation for any country.

The IAF’s retaliation at Balakot immediately after Pakistan’s terror strike in Pulwama in February 2019 did send an appropriate message to Pakistan, besides scoffing at their propaganda of nuclear retaliation. The IAF, a battle-hardened force, is gradually transforming itself from being a continental air power to one with a global reach.

The PLAAF has been working feverishly to augment its air power and aerospace capabilities, besides mentoring the PAF too. Currently enabling its fifth-generation fighter, the stealth capable Chengdu J-20, it is also developing the H-20 stealth bomber and the more modern J-31, besides a Chinese hybrid space plane and a variety of platforms. China, often dubbed as the “Walmart of UAVs”, is producing a fair variety of reconnaissance and armed drones while also assisting Pakistan in this field. Nevertheless, the US Air Force still remains miles ahead, both in overall capabilities and numbers of its modern aircraft like the F-22 Raptor/F-35A/ B 21 Raider (under induction). However, the race between these two nations is bound to get sharper by the day.

For India, faced with a formidable challenge from China, the yawning gap between the PLAAF and IAF needs to be bridged swiftly. The indigenisation in defence production is sine qua non to accord requisite numbers to the IAF, yet additional budgetary support for the acquisition of ultra-modern platforms from abroad is also essential. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visits to the United States and France are a step in this direction and hopefully the nations we are purchasing equipment from will readily agree to the transfer of technologies like manufacture of engines and critical avionics.

The IAF, besides getting requisite numbers of 4.5/5th generation aircraft, have to make up their minds for selection, ensuring cost-effectiveness, of the most suitable aircraft -- to choose from either the F-35A/Rafale/ Gripen /F-22/Russia’s Su-35 or Su-57. Our own Light Combat Aircraft, Tejas, may be a stopgap arrangement but is being also steadily improved which augurs well. The IAF’s planners should be absolutely clear on their specific requirements for the impending Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) project, and then leave their clinically professional recommendations to the government to follow up.

As is well known, Comprehensive National Power and its multiple military constituents takes inordinately long to fructify. Thus, it will only be prudent for the nation to accord the necessary budgetary support and prioritisation in defence acquisitions to the IAF for enhancing its overall air power capabilities.

Tags: iaf, pakistan air force, china- pakistan economic corridor, rafale, prime minister narendra modi