The Indian Air Force (IAF) turned 89 on October 8. The world’s fourth-largest air force has come a long way since 1932 when it began with just half a dozen officers, a score of ‘hawai sepoys’ and a couple of Wapiti aircraft. Today, the men and women in blue can proudly look back on years of having taken the challenges of enemy military, the weather, and hostile terrain in their stride. On October 5, while interacting with the media, Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria highlighted this resilience. “The IAF is prepared for any conflict,” he said when asked about a possible two-front war with China and Pakistan. “There is no question that China can get the better of us… If China decides to use Pakistan for attacking us, it would mean a collusive threat and the IAF is ready to tackle it.”
This confidence would have been misplaced a couple of decades ago when the IAF was struggling to cope with the loss of almost a quarter of its combat jets. It was the Nineties and with the Soviet Union — its key supplier — gone, there were less than 30 of the fighter squadrons operational. To make matters worse, the induction of the Russian Su-30 MKI frontline fighters was delayed and the indigenously-built Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) refused to leave the drawing board. The spate of air accidents plaguing the IAF also put a question mark on its operational preparedness.
The IAF, however, encounters fair weather now, thanks to a renewed acquisition process of defensive and offensive equipment. These include augmenting the Su-30 MKI fleet, operationalising the LCA and ending the impasse over the French Rafale fighter jets (which was held up by financial issues before New Delhi finally decided to buy 36 Rafales off the shelf). Aerial refuelling helps the Rafale strike deep into enemy territory and it is considered a potential game-changer in the ongoing India-China stand-off at the LAC.
Platforms such as the Apache attack helicopters, heavy-lift Chinooks and air surveillance Phalcon airborne warning and control systems from the United States, Russian Mi-25/35 and the indigenously-built advanced light helicopters have put more wind beneath the IAF’s wings. Add to this Israeli Heron and Searcher drones for reconnaissance and surveillance and Harpy attack drones and India’s offensive air capabilities look formidable.
If the IAF had an Achilles heel, it was the absence of robust air defence (AD) assets such as the radar or surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries on the eastern border, as successive governments — obsessed with Pakistan — downplayed the importance of securing air dominance in the region. This also robbed the IAF of opportunities to study China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) during war gaming exercises. In that sense, the tense standoff between Indian and Chinese forces along the LAC has been a wake-up call for New Delhi to take a closer look at the IAF’s key role in conflict prevention and resolution.
Bhadauria’s announcement of the creation of an Air Defence Command (ADC) to integrate AD weapon systems of all the three services reflects this. An ADC will provide synergy between the three services to pool their resources and help create an AD umbrella. This will boost India’s efforts to build up infrastructure such as roads and forward air fields protected by SAM units and frontline fighter aircraft in eastern Ladakh and the LAC.
Defence sources say most war games these days begin with the two-front scenario where the IAF takes on two air forces on the western and eastern flanks simultaneously. This leads to the crucial question: in the event of an actual conflict, can the IAF best the PLAAF? On paper, the PLAAF outnumbers the IAF inventory two to one, but numbers do not always tell the truth.
The PLAAF pilots seldom train with other militaries, unlike IAF pilots who have immense combat experience and often train and learn new tactics with the best air forces in the world. The IAF also has a strategic advantage over the PLAAF as Chinese airfields are at higher altitudes where the rarefied air impacts aircraft performance. Due to Beijing’s obsession with dominating the South China Sea, Yellow Sea and the East China Sea, the PLAAF squadrons are mostly based on the eastern side. This increases the PLAAF’s vulnerability against the IAF which, logistically speaking, has the ‘home advantage’.
No wonder Beijing has an extraordinarily dense AD system to their west and has even deployed the powerful HQ-22 (developed specifically to counter US planes and ships). As Bhadauria says, “The strength of China is in the long surface-to-air systems, which they have put in the areas. And we are ready to cater to those in our matrix.” With this in mind, India has hastened the S-400 Triumf SA-21 long-range SAM systems deal with Russia. The S-400’s ability to detect and destroy high and low flying targets provides an impenetrable umbrella shield for AD assets.
As they say, there is an opportunity in every crisis and the border tensions are no different. India’s policymakers have seized the opportunity by deciding to augment the country’s conventional air power capabilities. They could not have given a better birthday present to the IAF.Prakash Chandra is former editor of the Indian Defence Review. He writes on aerospace and strategic affairs. Views are personal.