Imported fighters: Forlorn IAF

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Imported fighters: Forlorn IAF

Can the retired IAF fleet be replenished by suitable replacement? Theoretically. But in reality, a delusion as successive rulers have set precedent. Discuss. Doubt. Delay and denude the force

From the beginning of 1947,  the Indian Air Force (IAF) is a battleground of dual connotations owing to its 100 per cent foreign origin assets. Thus, alphabet “I”, though implying “Indian”, could also be “I for Imported”, thereby being referred to as “Imported Air Force.” That certainly cannot give any pleasure to Indians. Before moving further, therefore, it must be remembered that whereas the need/assessment of/for quality, quantity and type of combat aircraft is planned, proposed, projected by institutional procedure of IAF, all decisions of import are taken by the civil administration of the incumbent Government.

Let us, therefore, see where IAF stands, banking on authentic open source info. According to Jane’s World Air Forces-2017 (page 254-269): In March 2016, then Vice Chief of IAF (now Chief) stated publicly that “our numbers are not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front scenario…..The squadrons are winding down.” It further reported: “With the exception of Sukhoi-30 MKI, which experienced serviceability problems, notably engine failure — IAF  assets are ageing and it is essential that the inventory is speedily refurbished, upgraded, or as preferred by IAF, replaced type by type.” Foreigners are more concerned, and aware, of IAF plight.

The perilous fallout of the Indian establishment’s traditional procrastination and complacency was severely criticised by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence which “expressed concern over IAF’s decreasing squadron strength and noted in December 2014 that ‘shockingly’, Pakistan Air Force has 26 squadrons of operational combat fleet” and that “the country’s security requirements are being compromised by ignoring consistently widening gap between sanctioned and existing strength.” The Indian Parliament verdict: “Security requirements being compromised.” 

It further came to light that a “substantial number of MiG fighters (most MiG-21s, all MiG-23 interceptors, MiG-25 Reconnaissance) have retired” and “Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence” report stated that “14 squadrons of MiG-21 and MiG-27 will retire by 2024.” The alarming scenario is, in effect, “11 existing squadrons will remain, which are likely to be joined by 13 Sukhoi-30 squadrons by 2020. Therefore, only 24 squadrons are expected to be operational by 2020, unless substantial orders are placed for more Sukhoi-30s.” IAF sanctioned strength of 42 squadron becomes 24 squadron? How far is 2020? In less than 36 months, the “theoretical 42 squadron IAF” will turn into a “ground reality of 24”? Can the retired IAF fleet be replenished by suitable replacement? Yes, theoretically. But in reality, a grandeur of delusion as successive past rulers have set precedent. Discuss. Debate. Doubt. Delay and denude the force, crying for deployment. The IAF is professional, not politicised. Hence they are warning of a two-front threat/war. Do rulers know how to thwart?

Indeed, the cumulative effect of past wrongs appear to have piled up so adversely that human resources, too, appear contaminated. Thus, “in April 2015, a report tabled by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence stated that IAF is facing a crisis in fighter pilot numbers that is almost as serious as that facing its combat fleet, with a fighter aircraft to pilot ratio of 1:0.81 (Pakistan’s ratio is 1:2.5 and the United States is 1:2).” According to the world air force almanac,  “In March 2015 it was claimed that the IAF officer shortage was only 152, but this apparently small deficiency can be attributed to the fact that the number of squadrons has fallen, and thus, on paper, the authorised establishment strength has followed suit. It is estimated that a more realistic figure of pilot shortage is about 600…..mid-2016.” True or untrue, no alarm bells are ringing. Can’t we see the monumental negligence by/of ruling class and gross neglect of forces? Can the civilian rulers escape “irresponsibility” or “unaccountability?” Have we forgotten humiliation of Indian Army in October/November 1962? Do we recall names of “guilty men of 1962?” Hope history does not repeat itself.    

In this scenario, can one then blame the public statement of then Air Chief in February 2016 that “Rafale has been selected as L1 (lowest bidder). It is a replacement. It is important that we have the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) and we need to have it in the quickest possible time.” That for “MMRCA and Sukhoi-30, the requirements are slightly different. And they have their own capabilities. They complement each other but do not replace each other.”

In fact, any sensible observer, with functional antenna, will tell the reality quoting open source information-index. Thus, in May 2016, it was reported in Parliament that there were “34 occasions between April 01, 2014 to March 31, 2016 when the Sukhoi-30 MKI aircraft were forced to land on single engine due to mid-air engine problems.”

To make matters worse for IAF, even the plan to acquire 214 fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA), which was confirmed in October 2011, through an Indo-Russian co-development programme, is nowhere near action-station; Indian payment of US $ 250 million towards the project notwithstanding.    

Is IAF, therefore, becoming an “orphan/destitute?” Is it caught in the midst of “force structure decision making complicated by politics, oversensitivity to past corruption in procurement projects, conflicting budget priorities, continuing problems of indigenous systems, bureaucratic delays in tendering processes, and entry of US as a major commercial and political factor in procurement decisions?”

One thing is clear. And none should have any illusion about it. In a multi-billion dollar fighter deal, where six foreign vendors bid and five lose, one instantly creates five implacable foes, “the vanquished”, and one shaky/nervous “victor”, who too cannot be seen to be overtly friendly. Importing India must be prepared to be terrorised and traumatised by foreign losers/vendors.

The entire acquisition imbroglio, therefore, boils down to “perception management” which need not be based on truth and facts. When Indo-US transport aircraft deals are made, no questions are asked because it is “Foreign Military Sales.” When Indo-Soviet transactions brought Sukhoi-7, MiG-21, 23, 25, 27 and 29, they were a “Government to Government” deal. However, even though “India and France signed an inter-governmental agreement on September 23, 2016 for purchase of 36 Rafale fighters in flyway conditions” to at least partially mitigate critical shortages of the rapidly depleting fleet strength of the beleaguered IAF, politics supersedes all. Then there is the prevailing grave threat of the China-Pakistan axis. Historically, India’s forte has been civil war, not war. Late General Sundarji’s laconic definition/description of India’s ruling class still stands: “The blind men of Hindustan.”

(The author is alumnus, National Defence College, and Member, Aeronautical Society of India/M.AeSI. Views are personal)

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