Challenges Before the IAF

While the transport and helicopter fleets are in a good shape, the IAF needs to hasten the build-up of the fighter fleet and both medium and short range SAMs

Issue: 9 / 2017By Air Marshal Raghu Rajan (Retd)Photo(s): By SP Guide Pubns
In Service: IAF’s AEW&C on Embraer ERJ 145 platform, expected to fly on Air Force Day (October 8), this year, for the first time

The former Minister of Defence Arun Jaitley had stated in the parliament, that our Armed Forces are ready to face all challenges. Is this really so? A reality check at least for the Indian Air Force (IAF) will give us an idea of the state the IAF is in today.

The strength of the combat fleet of the IAF is down to 32 Squadrons and orders have been placed for 120 Tejas and 36 Rafale multi-role fighters. These along with the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL)-produced 272 Su-30 MKI, will hopefully help attain credible operational status in around five years or so. The transport fleet, while looking good, with the ten C-17 Globemaster and 12 C-130J acquisitions from the US, will need replacement for the obsolescent fleet of 56 Avro-HS -748 aircraft. Although action is in hand, replacement of the Avro fleet still seems to be some distance away. Helicopter acquisitions have seen some heft with the induction of Mi-17V5 and contract finalised for 22 AH-64E Apache Longbow attack helicopters and 15 CH-47F Chinook heavy-lift helicopters. Meanwhile, orders have been placed with HAL for 15 light combat helicopters (LCH) that was recently unveiled and cleared for series production. The IAF has been active in making good the shortfall even for trainer aircraft. However, all these orders will take at least three years to materialise.

The process of establishment of Command and Control set up for Air Defence operations is moving at a decent pace. The indigenously designed Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) is maturing. However, it is the force of surface-to-air missiles that needs a boost. The Akaash Medium Range and Israeli Spyder SAM units will take up the slack in terms of quality, but not in numbers, when the older Pechora SAM-3 and OSA-AK Short Range SAMs reach the end of their life and have to be retired from service.

It is in the critical area of force multipliers, that the IAF needs to concentrate. These include Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS), aerial tankers, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and the formation of an Integrated Space Command and an Integrated Cyber Command.

Criticalities in Forces

Aerial Tankers. The IAF has been operating a fleet of six Russian Il-78 aerial tankers since 2003. However, the IAF is not satisfied with the quality of after-sales service provided by the original equipment manufacturer and has faced problems with supplies of spare parts as well as high maintenance costs. The aerial tanker fleet should be able to support combat aircraft operating over both land and sea and specifically be capable of supporting operations over sea lanes from Aden covering the Indian Ocean littoral states to the Straits of Malacca. This could at a conservative estimate, require 18 aerial tankers, including reserves. In a fresh tender for additional aerial tankers, the only other competitor was the Airbus A330 multi-role tanker transport (MRTT) which is based on the Airbus A330 airliner. The IAF was ready to induct the aircraft; but the Ministry of Defence found the price too high and the tender was cancelled. The tender was floated afresh and once again the A330 MRTT emerged as the preferred platform. Unfortunately, the tender was cancelled for the second time for the same reason. It is understood that Boeing has offered the under-development KC-46 Pegasus aerial tanker which is based on the Boeing 767 platform. Compared to the A330 MRTT, this is a smaller aircraft with lower payload capacity and is less expensive. Also, it could be available through the Foreign Military Sales programme of the US government obviating the need for a global tender. Since the Indian Navy is also operating fighter jets and maritime patrol aircraft with refueling probes, it makes abundant sense for both the services to get together, plan for, train and operate together, to ensure optimum and effective utilisationof this precious resource.


AWACS. Notably, the IAF is looking for some ten AWACS aircraft in the next decade. At present, the IAF has three Israeli Phalcon radar-equipped Il-76 aircraft. This platform has a radar coverage of around 400 km or more. Two smaller AEWs based on Embraer 145 aircraft have already been inducted into the IAF. The coverage of the Embraer 145 aircraft is less than that of the Il-76 and hence the numbers may have to be increased. Numbers are important as not all aircraft can be in the air at the same time, with at least two flying in transit to and from the loiter area.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). UAVs are one of the fastest expanding fleets in the West. The USAF as well as the Israeli Air Force are finding that these ubiquitous vehicles can go in harm’s way, can stay on station for hours together and the armed version can fire missiles by day, night or poor visibility, with great precision. Their loss does not result in loss of lives and hence are the ideal answer as a recce or strike platform in counter-insurgency and border conflicts. The problem in India is of turf wars where instead of the most optimum utilisation of resources, various agencies wish to acquire these efficient vehicles for their own use. In the case of anti-naxal operations, the Home Ministry would like to have these platforms. The Indian Army, BSF as well as the IAF would like their own vehicles patrolling their areas of responsibility. It is in the employment of armed UAVs, where there is likely to arise a inter-force conflict situation resulting in wastage of precious resources. The answer lies in having planning and acquisition of as many common platforms for the diverse terrain and tasks as is possible, to have common training and maintenance facilities, to build up a cadre of UAV specialists, to have common armament stocks, etc. The Command and Control can vest in the designated Commander. For example, in an internal security operation, the Army could have the authority, whereas in the border areas, it could vest with the Army or the IAF depending on the situation.

Network-Centric Warfare (NCW). The Defence Communication Network set up in 2016 is the backbone for efficient and secure conduct of NCW. It is a strategic, highly secure and highly scalable system. It has pan-India reach from Ladakh to the North-East and the Island territories. The network makes voice and video data available to the three services. It is presumed that the three services have and are carrying out wargaming to ensure immunity to hackers.

Integrated Space Command. This is an area in which small steps have been taken. The Department of Space has propelled India to the forefront in space technology and a need arises for the protection of our space assets as well as their utilisation by the Indian military. The IAF, which has been referring to itself as an ‘Aerospace Force’, needs to put more of its specialists to become more familiar with space operations so that when the need arises, protection can be given to our precious space assets. The utilisation by the three services can be done in a manner to suit the service concerned.

Integrated Tri-Services Cyber Command. Amid media reports of a suspected cyber attack by a Pakistan-based group targeting the Indian Government, there is a need to progress the proposed tri-service command on cyber security that is still pending approval by the Ministry of Defence. The command could be led by the Indian Army, the IAF and the Indian Navy in rotation. “A draft proposal for setting up a separate tri-service command on cyber warfare was prepared in consultation with the chiefs of the three services after Chinese agents hacked into the computer systems of the headquarters of Eastern Naval Command in 2012 where the indigenously-produced Arihant nuclear submarine was undergoing sea trials,” a Navy official said. In 2013, computer systems of the Defence Research and Development Organisation were breached by Chinese hackers. “India released its National Cyber Policy in 2013 which had the ambitious aim of creating 500,000 cyber warriors,” a defence analyst said. “However, no tangible work has been done on the provisions of the cyber policy. Today, India is not prepared to counter cyber warfare, as is evident from the numerous attacks on national websites.”

Even as aircraft acquisitions are moving forward, acquisition of force multipliers certainly needs greater focus.


While the transport and helicopter fleets are in a reasonably good shape, the IAF needs to hasten the build-up of the fighter fleet and both medium and short range SAMs. Force-multipliers like the aerial tankers, AWACS and UAVs need to be inducted without further delay if the IAF is to have all-round capability to confront challenges. The government needs to push for the formation of an Integrated Space Command and an Integrated Cyber Command.