Apart from the deficiencies in the combat fleet of the IAF, reports by the CAG on other assets raise serious doubts about the operational preparedness of the service
On January 2, 2016, Air Force Station Pathankot, an important forward airbase of the Indian Air Force (IAF) operating combat aircraft and located around 12 km from the Indo-Pak border, was a target of attack by a terrorist group. Altogether a traumatic experience for the IAF, the attack in which eight Indian lives were lost, is believed to have been sponsored by Pakistan and was a part of the ongoing proxy war imposed by the hostile neighbour on the nation, a problem that the Indian security establishment has been struggling to cope with rather unsuccessfully, for years. As the episode revealed a number of weaknesses and deficiencies in the security apparatus, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) set up a committee under the chairmanship of the former Vice Chief of the Army Staff, to examine the security of military establishments with special emphasis on forward air bases that are valuable assets for the exercise of air power. Even while the study by the expert committee was in progress, a number of military bases namely Uri, Nagrota and Kupwara were victims of terror attacks.
However, despite the critical need for ensuring security of air bases of the IAF, it took over 18 months for the government to adopt measures to remedy the ills afflicting the security system. In the last week of July this year the MoD took a small but significant step forward in this direction and enhanced the financial powers of the Vice Chief of the Air Staff of the IAF to 800 crore for strengthening security of air bases. The mandatory requirement of obtaining prior sanction from the MoD and the Ministry of Finance has also been done away with. As per the MoD, “This step has been taken to expedite the decision-making process involved in the modernisation of the security apparatus of air bases and defence installations”. The IAF has been instructed by the MoD to lay down inflexible timelines to ensure that the works are undertaken on priority and in a time-bound manner to secure the critical defence assets.
Apart from the chinks in the armour evident in the attack on the IAF base at Pathankot, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has recently tabled a report in the Lok Sabha that has exposed a number of other weaknesses in the IAF. The CAG has observed that around 33 per cent of the indigenously produced Akash surface-to-air missiles are unreliable, unusable and untested, posing an operational risk during hostilities. Given the rising tension on the Sino-Indian border, the report by the CAG is indeed disconcerting as it raises doubts about our capability to thwart attack by the PLAAF of China. The CAG goes on to state “The missile system to counter aerial threats is vital for the country’s air defence and deterrence capability. Audit found that the system delivered by Bharat Electricals Limited was deficient in quality. Out of 80 missiles received up to November 2014, 20 were test fired during April-November 2014. Six of these missiles failed the test. Preliminary analysis report revealed that the missiles fell short of the target, had lower than the required velocity and critical units like Servo Control Unit and Connector malfunctioned. Two missiles had failed to takeoff because the booster nozzle had failed. These deficiencies posed an operational risk during hostilities”.
Commenting on the serviceability of the fleet of IL-76 strategic airlift aircraft and the IL-78 aerial tankers, the CAG stated that apart from the serviceability being low, the avionics of the IL fleet had not been upgraded and as a result, the fleet continued to operate with avionics of 1985 vintage. The CAG also observed “There was delay in carrying out first and second overhaul of IL-76 aircraft which meant that aircraft were flown without overhaul, well past the due date for overhaul. This was an undue risk taken by IAF. Air-to-air refuelling is a crucial capability both during combat and peace time operations. IL-78 aircraft are dedicated for this purpose. However, due to inadequate infrastructure and support facilities, the air-to-air refuelling capability was adversely affected”.
Apart from the debilitating deficiencies in the combat fleet of the IAF which is public knowledge, the recent reports by the CAG with regard to other assets raise serious doubts about the operational preparedness of the service. Unless the MoD, the IAF and the Indian aerospace industry undertake a combined effort to address the problem soon enough, the IAF may face serious difficulties in the next war, should there be one.