The Indian Air Force (IAF) was first established in 1932 as an auxiliary of the Indian Empire during the height of the British Raj. Today, that much-expanded and greatly modernised institution has since become the world’s fourth largest air arm, with more than 1,300 aircraft and 170,000 personnel operating out of more than 60 far-flung bases nationwide. It is now looking forward as an able fighting force to its impending centennial in less than two decades.
Despite its impressive advances in capability in recent years, however, the IAF now faces a growing force structure predicament as a result of its declining number of fighter squadrons for accommodating the growing air threats posed by China and Pakistan. For years, the IAF had an authorised end strength of 39.5 fighter squadrons to deter and, if need be, defend India against these growing threats. More recently, that number of authoriszed squadrons was increased to 42. Yet, against that overall fighter force size approved in principle, the IAF maintains only 35 fighter squadrons in active service today. According to a recent assessment by the Indian government’s Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, that number of squadrons is at risk of declining even further to as low as 25 by 2022 as the service’s ageing and obsolescent MiG-21s and MiG-27s are progressively retired before they can be replaced by India’s indigenously developed new Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA).<1>
In light of this ever-deepening IAF fighter force-size predicament, it would be an overreach to suggest that it “has brought Indian air power to its knees,” as one Indian appraisal recently concluded hyperbolically.<2>
Yet, more than a few informed observers would readily concur with the more measured judgment of the respected American analyst Ashley Tellis that the IAF is now “in crisis” as a result of its steadily declining fighter inventory.<3>
Indeed, the situation was assessed as having become a matter of sufficient concern that the IAF’s Vice Chief of the Air Staff, Air Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa, declared frankly before the start of the service’s latest Iron Fist
firepower demonstration in March 2015: “Our numbers are not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front scenario.”<4>
That assessed predicament points to a growing need for both the IAF and the broader Indian defence community to begin bending every effort to halt and reverse this continuing decline in India’s fighter strength. That, in turn, will require some hard choices on the part of both before long to draw and duly honour an unsentimental line in the sand between what is absolutely essential for the IAF and what would merely be ideal for it to have in a perfect world. Towards that end, the discussion that follows will review the most urgent decisions now facing India’s leaders with respect to the IAF’s three fighter acquisition programmes that have long been in various stages of still-unfinished evolution—the just-mentioned LCA, the Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), and the Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), the last of these an advanced stealth fighter intended to keep the IAF in the major league of aerial combat capability.
Completing the Tejas Acquisition
The IAF’s LCA that is now, at long last, in its initial phase of being operationally fielded is the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Tejas delta-winged light fighter intended eventually to recapitalise at least a portion of what remains of the service’s long-serving MiG-21s, now slated for final retirement by 2020. The Tejas (which means ‘brilliance’ or ‘radiance’ in Sanskrit) recently completed a long-in-progress multi-year technical evaluation aimed at ensuring that the aircraft’s performance attributes would meet the IAF’s declared operational needs.
This indigenous product, which first flew in January 2001, has its programmatic roots running as far back as 1983, when the IAF first formally recognised its eventual need to replace its inventory of MiG-21 fighters that had been the service’s combat mainstay since the 1970s. In early 2006, the IAF signed a contract with HAL for the delivery of 20 Tejas Mk I fighters to be ready for squadron service by 2011 once the aircraft passed its initial operational clearance. That milestone was not met, however, owing to multiple recurring development problems and resultant schedule slippages that have repeatedly hindered the programme’s progress ever since.
Ever since the aircraft’s maiden flight in January 2001, the preproduction versions that have been in flight trials ever since have been powered by General Electric’s F404 engine (which also powers the earlier versions of US Navy’s F/A-18 Hornet) as HAL and the IAF continued to await—ultimately in vain—the maturation of a planned more powerful domestically-designed engine called the Kaveri. As a result, in its current configuration, the LCA is underpowered for its intended mission needs. For its part, the indigenous Kaveri engine programme ultimately proved to have been so afflicted by both design problems and rampant inefficiency that the IAF finally gave up on it.
To make a long story short here, after 32 years of continuously plagued and halting development, the first production Tejas Mk I aircraft was finally delivered to the IAF Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, in a formal handover ceremony at the HAL plant in Bengaluru on January 17, 2015. A retired IAF air marshal wrote soon thereafter, however, of “the low level of confidence the IAF has in this platform,” as attested by the fact that the aircraft had still so far received only its initial operational clearance and that the IAF to date has ordered only 40 Mk I versions to equip two squadrons, the delivery of which is now expected to be completed by 2020.<5> In this regard, India’s Comptroller and Auditor General later reported that the LCA Mark I “still has significant shortfalls... in meeting Air Staff requirements” that will cause it to have “reduced operational capabilities and reduced survivability, thus reducing its employability when inducted into IAF squadrons.”<6>
On the positive side of the long-protracted LCA saga, Air Chief Marshal Raha, an experienced fighter pilot, flew the Tejas two-seat trainer version in May 2016 and subsequently declared it “a good aircraft and fit to be inducted into the IAF.”<7> However, in light of the LCA’s relentless developmental problems throughout its three-decade-long history, the IAF’s current plan to acquire no more than six squadrons of that aircraft seems all the more wise, particularly considering that the IAF chief’s stated hope as recently as April 2016 that one Tejas squadron would be fully operational by year end has since proved overly optimistic.<8>
It might make even further sense for the IAF to abandon entirely its long-promised eventual Mk II version of the Tejas and to proceed instead with all deliberate dispatch towards filling out its remaining 12 MiG-21 and MiG-27 squadrons. Squadrons, that will have been vacated by their current aircraft retirements within four years with whatever domestically-built foreign fighter that the IAF and the Indian government may eventually settle on to be produced under the aegis of the ‘Make in India’ programme recently initiated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi (see immediately below for further discussion of this just-arisen new IAF fighter acquisition option). On this potentially liberating new count, an experienced former IAF test pilot who was closely involved in the Tejas’s development programme during his time in active service wrote in early 2015 that because of its “serious deficiencies in performance, the LCA cannot become the IAF’s frontline fighter at the low end of the mix,” nor can the IAF afford to “look for a one-to-one replacement of its rapidly ageing MiG-21 fleet.”<9>
Picking an acceptable MMRCA beyond the Rafale
In marked contrast to HAL’s long-troubled LCA programme, a more substantial and potentially rewarding undertaking that has been in train for more than a decade has been the IAF’s effort to acquire a new Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) to supplement and eventually supplant its ageing inventory of MiG-29s and Mirage 2000s. That programme initially entailed a $10 billion bid by the service to induct 126 new fourth-generation foreign-designed fighters, with all but the first 18 to be manufactured in India by HAL and with an option for a follow-on acquisition that might ultimately yield a total of 200 new MMRCAs for the IAF in due course. This competition initially pitted six contenders against one another for the intended winner-take-all prize—Lockheed Martin’s F-16 (essentially a latest-model Block 70 F-16E/F missionised to specific IAF needs), Boeing’s F/A-18E/F (likewise missionised to IAF requirements), the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Dassault Rafale, SAAB’s JAS-39 Gripen, and the still-developmental MiG-35 derivative of the MiG-29.
After protracted internal deliberations, the Ministry of Defence finally issued a formal request for proposals in August 2007 from the five foreign contenders that had opted to enter into the MMRCA competition. After having received formal bids from those contenders, the IAF then completed its technical evaluation phase and subsequent flight trials of the candidate aircraft in 2010, after which it chose the Rafale in January 2012 as its preferred follow-on MMRCA.
The ensuing government-to-government negotiations for the IAF’s pending Rafale acquisition, however, soon became mired in various contractual disagreements, the most notable being Dassault’s understandable unwillingness to accept final responsibility for the quality of one of its products to be manufactured by HAL in India over which it would have no direct control. A seeming break of sorts in this protracted impasse was finally achieved in April 2015 when Modi, during an official Indian state visit to Paris, unexpectedly offered a direct government-to-government buy of 36 Rafales for the IAF in flyaway condition straight off Dassault’s production line. At that point, with all on the French side having finally agreed to that proposed transaction, the remainder of the long-festering initial Indian tender for 126 to 200 co-produced Rafales that had hitherto failed to reach fruition was summarily cancelled, thus ending with the seeming stroke of a pen the IAF’s arduous decade-long quest for a follow-on MMRCA—yet still with nothing to show for it but the promise of a scant fraction of the number of new fighters it had initially sought.
In that important respect, the most significant downside of the arrangement achieved by Modi was its preclusion of any option for a follow-on procurement of any additional Rafales by India at the same price agreed to in principle, since the contract the two countries signed on 23 September, 2015, included no provision for any purchases beyond the 36 aircraft already agreed to—meaning that any desired subsequent buy would have to be renegotiated at a new price.<10>
All of that said, the IAF’s original declared requirement for 126 to 200 new fighters to fill out its desired follow-on MMRCA inventory remains the same now as it was at the competition’s start. On that count, Air Chief Marshal Raha recently reiterated that “it is important we have an MMRCA.” It may not need to be more Rafales than the 36 now negotiated for, he hastened to add, but “we need to have in the quickest possible time.”<11>
As for what such an alternative in the same fighter category might ideally be, the Modi government recently expressed its readiness, under the rubric of its newly-declared ‘Make in India’ initiative, to support the IAF’s eventual acquisition of one of the fighters evaluated during its initial MMRCA flyoff, albeit this time to be made in India by the chosen foreign producer, and with India’s private industry rather than with HAL now envisaged as partnering in any such domestic manufacture. Towards that proposed end, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Saab have all expressed their readiness to move their entire production lines for their respective F-16s, F/A-18s, and Gripens to India to continue producing the most advanced versions of those aircraft not just for the IAF, but also for prospective additional buyers worldwide, and with a substantial supporting involvement of the Indian domestic labour force under the auspices of Indian private industry participation with whichever of those foreign companies may ultimately be picked to meet whatever may remain of the IAF’s unfulfilled MMRCA requirement. Whatever course of action the IAF and the Indian government may ultimately choose to take in this regard, the stakes have become unprecedentedly high at a time when the IAF sorely needs such a continued recapitalisation effort to get its fighter squadron strength back up to a more reassuring level.
Achieving final closure with the FGFA requirement
The last of India’s three ongoing fighter acquisition initiatives entails its long-determined pursuit of a stealthy Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), to begin entering service with the IAF once its MMRCA induction nears completion. Towards that ambitious end, the Indian government in late 2007 signed an agreement with its Russian counterpart to co-develop a suitable variant of the Sukhoi Design Bureau’s long-awaited T-50, a prospective Russian stealth fighter that was and continues to be promoted as being comparable in its essential design features and performance capabilities to the US Air Force F-22 Raptor air dominance fighter.
The T-50 finally made its long-awaited maiden flight at Sukhoi’s manufacturing facility at Novosibirsk in January 2010, and it has undergone continuing developmental trials at the Zhukovsky flight test centre near Moscow, Russia, ever since. Sukhoi describes the aircraft as one that will eventually incorporate very low observability to enemy radar and sustained supersonic speed without the need for using engine afterburners that consume the aircraft’s precious internal fuel so voraciously.
In addition to promising to provide the IAF with a stealthy multirole fighter for the 21st century, a major aim of the proposed endeavour from the Indian government’s perspective was to enlist HAL’s involvement in a cooperative arrangement with Sukhoi to modify the aircraft to meet specific IAF mission needs. At the programme’s start, Russia and India each promised to contribute more than $4 billion to the FGFA development enterprise. However, throughout the nearly 10 years that have since elapsed, HAL has played no role whatsoever in the PAK-FA’s development, and a serious question has arisen regarding HAL’s likely opportunity for playing any significant role in the aircraft’s co-development, since its most basic design features have already long since been set.
Further compounding the mounting uncertainties that now cast a dark shadow over the IAF’s initial hopes for its FGFA venture with Russia, throughout the seven years that have elapsed since the T-50’s maiden flight in early 2010, Sukhoi has flown only six prototypes of the aircraft to date, and its flight test programme continues to show halting progress at best. With respect to its all-important promised engine development, the T-50 test airframes now flying are still powered by merely improved versions of the engines that power the IAF’s existing Su-30MKIs. The aircraft’s projected definitive engines that will be needed for it to be able to supercruise at supersonic speeds without the use of afterburners—an essential precondition for a fifth-generation fighter—have not yet even been developed, let alone flight-tested.
For its part, India’s state-owned aeronautics establishment from the very outset has counted on its promised co-development of the PAK-FA to provide it needed access to Russian stealth technology and design know-how that will eventually be applicable to its planned indigenously-produced Advanced Manned Combat Aircraft (AMCA) that remains solely in initial concept development thus far, with an engineering and manufacturing development phase expected to begin in 2017. Yet the Russians to date have steadfastly refused to allow India any close exposure to that technology or even any willingness in principle to share it, and IAF pilots—now seven years into Sukhoi’s T-50 test programme—have still not been permitted to fly the aircraft.
Apparently in light of the T-50’s continuing developmental problems summarised earlier, the IAF in October 2012 reduced its planned acquisition of the aircraft from its original expected buy of 214 to just 144. Yet a further curve ball with regard to the seriousness of the T-50 programme was thrown India’s way when the Russian Ministry of Defence announced its decision in July 2015 to reduce its own planned buy of the aircraft to just a dozen for the Russian Air Force, less than even a single squadron’s worth, and to opt instead for the less expensive and more reliable fall-back alternative of the Su-35, a much-improved upgrade of the now-venerable Su-27.<12> That may have been at least one factor behind a report the following month that the IAF had further reduced its planned acquisition of T-50s to just three squadrons totalling 63 aircraft—a 70 percent decline in numbers from what had originally been envisaged as the IAF’s prospective fifth-generation fighter force.<13>
In this regard, the IAF’s leaders argued before India’s Ministry of Defence towards the end of 2014 that the prospective Russian-developed FGFA—that had long been in their force-modernisation plans—had since shown clear “shortfalls ... in terms of performance and other technical features.” The service’s vice-chief later declared that the aircraft’s existing interim engine was unsatisfactory, its radar was inadequate, its stealth features appeared poorly engineered, India’s permitted work share was too low, and the aircraft’s unit cost would be prohibitive by the time the T-50 is eventually ready for series production.<14> These problems led one former IAF officer in mid-2016 to conclude finally that the Indo-Russian venture was showing “all symptoms of being still-borne.”<15>
All of this raises the inescapable next question as to whether the IAF and its civilian superiors might now conceivably have a growing incentive to begin giving close consideration instead to the American F-35 as a more promising FGFA candidate, since it offers the only realistic alternative available for the IAF’s eventually acquiring an effective stealth fighter by the time of the service’s centennial in 2032. At the outset of the IAF’s proposed joint FGFA venture with Russia in 2007, India’s defence minister at the time was so confident of its prospects that he rejected any thought of India’s signing up to the F-35 programme. That alternative has still not yet been openly explored in Indian force development discussions throughout the years since, even though the US government has expressed its willingness to entertain any such indication of Indian interest. Today, nearly a decade later, perhaps the time for such consideration by the IAF and by its civilian superiors in the Indian government may now finally be at hand.
IAF’S enduring strengths
Despite its gradually declining number of active fighter squadrons, the IAF has nonetheless evolved over the past decade and a half into an air arm of world-class respectability in every other significant respect. That abiding fact of life needs to be kept prominently in mind by any who would fret about the service’s force-structure tribulations in simple terms of numbers of fielded combat aircraft. Any Indian fighter pilot today from the Chief of the Air Staff to down would declare confidently that he and his service remain more than up to the demands of taking on any plausible combat challenge that might come their way any time soon.
The IAF’s most notable maturation milestones in recent years have been its emergence as India’s main means of nuclear deterrence, its growing role as India’s leading provider of conventional deterrence, its shift from being a geographically-limited force to one with growing transcontinental reach, and its ability to achieve not only prompt tactical but also strategic effects as the country’s first responder in case of a sudden military challenge to India’s core security interests. As just one indicator of the IAF’s continuing transformation in combat capability, the service now operates one of the world’s finest fighters in the Soviet-designed and Indian-built Su-30MKI multirole combat aircraft. This platform, with a total of 272 on order and possibly more yet to follow, is not just a stock Russian product like India’s earlier MiGs, but a true hybrid aircraft built expressly to IAF requirements and incorporating both indigenous and Western technology, including the Israeli-developed Litening targeting pod that enables the precision delivery of conventional munitions from safe stand-off altitudes beyond the effective reach of enemy short-range surface-to-air missiles.
With regard to its doctrine and concepts of operations, the IAF stands today at the cutting edge of modern air power thinking, with its leaders well mindful that any future conflict will be air-led and that the conflict’s outcome will turn heavily on what the IAF can contribute to the joint fight.<16> That continuing evolution in the service’s operational outlook was perhaps best reflected most recently through the release in 2012 of a new and updated version of the IAF’s earlier 1995 doctrine document aimed at capturing the latest in applied approaches toward air warfare.<17>
As for the mindset that governs day-to-day IAF sortie generation at the squadron level, the service’s latest doctrine manual expressly acknowledges the abiding rule of western air forces stressing “the need to validate through realistic exercises.”<18> Towards that end, IAF fighter pilots in their routine peacetime training now log 180-200 flight hours a year in a variety of air-to-air and surface-attack sortie profiles. This intensity of training is easily at par with the average number of flight hours flown annually by their US Air Force and Navy counterparts. Recent years have also seen an increased trend towards the periodic conduct of squadron-level large-force employment exercises involving multiple tanker hookups and the supporting involvement of airlifters, helicopters, and teams of Special Operations Forces.
High-profile bilateral international training exchanges have also become a new and welcome focus of IAF activity over the past decade and a half, offering both useful learning opportunities for IAF pilots and also invaluable occasions for showcasing the IAF’s increasingly refined air combat prowess. The service first opened itself up to the outside world of military aviation in February 2003 when it invited a detachment of French Air Force Mirage 2000 fighters to Gwalior, in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, to take part in the Garuda I air-to-air training exercise. It was only after that eye-opening experience that the IAF fighter community began to appreciate the importance of acquiring proficiency at beyond visual-range air-to-air combat, as well as the value of cross-training with western air forces rather than simply accepting as gospel what their Russian suppliers had long said with respect to the combat capabilities of Russian aircraft.
That cutting-edge operating capability was more recently showcased when an IAF contingent in 2008 participated for the first time ever in the US Air Force’s renowed two-week-long Red Flag large-force training exercise conducted four times a year out of Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. That IAF deployment of eight Su-30MKI strike fighters, two Il-78 tankers, and two Il-76 airlifters was by far the service’s most elaborate involvement in such international training events since the practice first began for it on a regular basis in 2003. The IAF included a mix of seasoned and novice pilots in its deployment package, and they rode a steep learning curve throughout the two-week exercise. Although its Su-30MKIs were not configured to tap into the American Link 16 communications network, they flowed seamlessly into the Blue Force’s daily game plan in every other respect. <19>
Another IAF force contingent, this time consisting of four Su-30MKIs, four Jaguars and two Il-78s, took part in Red Flag Alaska 16-1 conducted out of Eilson Air Force Base, Alaska, during a similar two-week period from April 28 to May 14, 2016. In that latest reprise of the IAF’s earlier Red Flag experience, IAF pilots planned, briefed, and led three coalition strike missions, with their Su-30MKIs taking part in both Blue and Red Force roles. Afterwards, the exercise’s chief operations officer, US Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Brian Toth, recalled of the experience, “The IAF’s participation has been very good.... For most nations, it takes an exercise or two to step up to meet the requirements of a mission commander. The IAF has been mission commander three times and also performed the package commander’s roles.”<20> One could scarcely ask for a more authoritative and credible foreign validation of the IAF’s operating prowess.
Understanding the IAF's declining fighter force size
For all its many organisational strengths summed up here, the IAF continues to suffer from a growing shortage of combat aircraft owing to the progressive retirement of its older fighters in the absence of a concurrent dedicated effort by the Indian government to maintain and sustain the service’s authorised squadron strength. The still-unaddressed question here concerns the extent to which the permanent Indian civilian government bureaucracy, with its ingrained corporate drag and impacted decision processes, and the country’s ruling political elites who oversee and approve all defence resource apportionment, will ultimately be able to muster the capacity for collective action that will be required for them to act most expeditiously toward providing a measure of enduring relief to this single most persistent IAF liability.
At bottom, when it comes to pursuing its legitimate force modernisation needs in the policy arena, the IAF has repeatedly faced a hard sell. Like India’s other two uniformed services, it wields little organisational clout in high-level defence decision making. By all accounts, political leaders and senior civilian bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Finance make all major strategy and weapons procurement decisions, with inputs emanating from the service chiefs only when expressly requested. This arrangement has been the outgrowth of an early determination by newly independent India’s first leaders in 1947 to ensure firm civilian control over the armed forces. Within its framework, there is an agreed and routinely exercised channel through which the service chiefs can let their programmatic needs be known. However, as two respected scholars of Indian security policy have pointed out, the services are “entirely at the mercy of the civilian bureaucracy, both in the Ministries of Defence and Finance,” when it comes to resource apportionment and policy matters.<21>
Yet another obstacle to rational IAF force development has long been what one Indian observer called the government’s “Victorian-era bureaucracy” and what a former Indian Navy chief described as that bureaucracy’s “archaic system of higher defence management.”<22> A former mid-level US defence official, who served in New Delhi, recalls from first-hand observation in 2009, “the government of India has a very hierarchical decision-making process whereby even minor decisions need to be approved at very high levels of the bureaucracy. This creates a major chokepoint for getting things done.”<23>
A final impediment to effective IAF force-development planning is the fact that there is no military representation in the formal structure of India’s government, since the service chiefs are excluded from a permanent role in the Cabinet Committee on Security. This arrangement, unique among the world’s major democracies, militates against the most senior political leadership’s interacting with the Chiefs of Staff Committee and with the service chiefs individually in a policy-useful way. It also has, in the words of one knowledgeable observer, “insulated the armed forces’ leadership from security and defence decision making and eroded the role of service chiefs as professional military advisers to the government.”<24>
Desiderata for reaching the IAF’S centennial on a high note
The above-noted political and bureaucratic facts of life in India lie at the heart of the IAF’s steadily declining number of fielded fighter squadrons and—arguably—are largely responsible for it. At its core, the problem here ultimately does not lie within the corporate confines of the IAF, which is as sophisticated and professional as any air force anywhere when it comes to its ability to conduct rational long-range force planning. Rather, the principal source of the IAF’s current force-structure malaise is what one Indian scholar recently described as “India’s lackadaisical military acquisition processes and a habitually obstructive and ... lethargic bureaucracy” that shows “little evidence of adequate understanding and will to prepare for the projected ... challenges of the future.”<25> Thanks to that ingrained failing on the larger Indian government’s part, the IAF continues to be burdened with a mounting crisis in fighter-force end strength, with its authorised goal of 42 squadrons now down to 39 on paper, but with only 31 squadrons currently in actual service and with an expected further decline to 28 or fewer squadrons as still more obsolescent MiG-21s and MiG-27s go to pasture before the promise of any recovery can be realised.
Given this ever-deepening predicament, the IAF’s pronounced edge over its most likely opponents in pilot proficiency and tactical acumen may well be its most valuable ace in the hole for offsetting its otherwise disturbing decline in numbers of fielded fighter squadrons. For more than a decade now, the IAF and its civilian superiors have endlessly agitated over three vital fighter acquisition initiatives that, to date, have delivered to the service the grand total of just two Tejas Mk I indigenously-made fighters, both of which have been deemed still not ready for unrestricted operational use. To reverse this self-inflicted adverse situation, India’s civilian defence bureaucracies will need to bend every effort to get beyond their past equivocations to both make and systematically honour three hard decisions to get the IAF’s three most important still-continuing fighter force modernisation efforts off dead centre and moving in a productive direction at long last.
First, the government of India must make a firm and final determination as to how many Tejas LCAs it will expect the IAF to acquire and then must support every needed effort to make that aircraft operationally acceptable to the IAF’s leadership. Second, it must soon choose a preferred MMRCA candidate from among the three foreign-designed alternatives now back in contention and support the earliest establishment of a domestic production line for that aircraft under Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Make in India’ aegis. This effort should be made not only to satisfy the IAF’s MMRCA requirement beyond the 36 Rafales already negotiated for, but also to help replenish at least some of the service’s MiG-21 and MiG-27 squadrons that will soon be losing their existing aircraft to long-overdue retirements.
Third and last, India must finally face up squarely to the question of whether it is still willing to continue gambling, at great likely cost for dubious gain at best, on Russia’s now manifestly flawed and faltering FGFA candidate. If it is not, and if the IAF is indeed determined to have a fifth-generation stealth fighter in its inventory by the time of its centennial celebration in 2032, the Indian government will need to take a searching look at the F-35 as its only realistic alternative for making good on that requirement. Either way, if it and the IAF can come to a definitive meeting of the minds on these most pivotal force-development issues once and for all, India’s air service will have every chance of reaching its 100th anniversary standing both proudly and with confidence as one of the world’s most able and respected air arms.
This article was originally published in ‘Defence Primer'
<1>Franz-Stefan Gady, “The Indian Air Force’s Big Problem: Not Enough Pilots,” The Diplomat (New Delhi), April 30, 2015.
<2>Abhijit Iyer-Mitra and Angad Singh, “Indian Air Power,” in Sushant Singh and Pushan Das, eds., Defence Primer: India at 75, New Delhi: Observer Research Foundation, 2016, p. 43.
<3>Ashley J. Tellis, Troubles, They Come in Battalions: The Manifold Travails of the Indian Air Force, Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2016, p. 5.
<4>Sandeep Unnithan, “IAF in Downward Spiral,” SP’s Aviation (New Delhi), Issue 3, 2015, p. 2.
<5>Air Marshal B. K. Pandey, IAF (Ret.),“Moving at a Tardy Pace,” SP’s Aviation (New Delhi), Issue 3, 2015, p. 42.
<6>Group Captain A. K. Sachdev, IAF (Ret.), “Tejas Mark-2 and IAF,” SP’s Aviation (New Delhi), Issue 6, 2016, p. 11.
<7>Air Marshal B. K. Pandey, IAF (Ret.), “Air Chief Marshal Raha Flies Tejas,” SP’s Aviation (New Delhi), Issue 6, 2016, p. 11.
<8>Quoted in Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak, IAF (Ret.), “Hitting the Nail on Its Head,” Force (New Delhi), March 2016.
<9>Air Marshal M. Matheswaran, IAF (Ret.), “Have We Lost the Plot?” Vayu Aerospace and Defence (New Delhi), Issue 2, 2015, p. 37.
<10>Vivek Raghuvanshi, “India Unlikely to Buy Additional Rafale Fighter Jets, MoD Source Says,” Defense News, October 5, 2016.
<11>Quoted in Rahul Bedi, “Aero India 2015: Indian Air Force Chief Adds to MMRCA Confusion,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, February 22, 2015.
<12>Air Marshal B. K. Pandey, IAF (Ret.), “Views: The Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft,” SP’s Aviation (New Delhi), Issue 3, 2016, p. 6.
<13>Shashank Joshi, “India’s Incredible Shrinking Air Force,” The Interpreter (New Delhi), September 21, 2015.
<14>Ajai Shukla, “Russia Can’t Deliver on Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft: IAF,” Business Standard (New Delhi), January 21, 2014.
<15>Group Captain A. K. Sachev, IAF (Ret.), “Tejas Mark-2 and IAF,” SP’s Aviation (New Delhi), Issue 6, 2016, p. 10.
<16>Air Chief Marshal F. H. Major, IAF, “Aerospace Power in a Changing National Security Environment,” Air Power Journal (New Delhi), Monsoon 2007, p. 6.
<17>See Basic Doctrine of the Indian Air Force, IAP 2000-12, New Delhi: Indian Air Force, Air Headquarters, Directorate of Operations (Space), 2012.
<18>Ibid., p. 116.
<19>“Red Flag at Nellis: The Indian Air Force in Big League,” Vayu Aerospace and Defence (New Delhi), Issue 5, 2008, pp. 40-47.
<20>Air Marshal B. K. Pandey, IAF (Ret.), “Perfect Red Flag,” SP’s Aviation, Issue 6, 2016, pp. 18-21.
<21>Stephen P. Cohen and Sunil Dasgupta, Arming without Aiming: India’s Military Modernization, Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2010, pp. 40-41.
<22>Gupta, “India’s Military Aviation Market,” p. 53 and Admiral Arun Prakash, IN (Ret.), “All ‘Chiefs’ and No ‘Indians’! Yet Another Case for the Chief of Defence Staff,” Force (New Delhi), November 2007, p. 14.
<23>Lieutenant Colonel Brian K. Hedrick, USA, India’s Strategic Defense Transformation: Expanding Global Relationships, Carlisle, Pa.: U.S. Army War College, Strategic Studies Institute, Occasional Paper, November 2009, pp. 39-40.
<24>Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak, IAF (Ret.), “Direction of Higher Defence: II,” Strategic Analysis (New Delhi), July 1998, pp. 504-507.
<25>Ajai Sahni, “The One Super Simple Thing That Is Holding Back India’s Military Might,” The National Interest, November 19, 2016.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.