Time to Act

Aerial warfare today not only needs capable platforms for various roles; but also in the right numbers to neutralise targets effectively

Issue: 5 / 2019By Air Marshal V.K. Verma (Retd)Photo(s): By Karthik Kumar / SP Guide Pubns
The ace up our sleeve: the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft

“A MiG-21 Bison shoots down an F-16.” This once-in-alifetime event has been the cause of celebration in our country for the last few days. As media frenzy is now cooling down, it is time to reflect.

BRIEF LOOK AT THE PAST

Always extracting the maximum from whatever platforms it has been provided with, has been the saga of the Indian Air Force (IAF). As the C-119 Packet aircraft procured from the United States (US) and powered by two piston engines could not climb to heights necessary to provide logistic support to forces deployed there, the IAF mounted an Orpheus engine on top of the aircraft to enhance its performance. In 1950s, The IAF wanted to induct the F-104 Starfighter from the US as it was a modern supersonic fighter armed with a missile. However, the cold war dynamics ensured that instead, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) acquired it. Imagine the euphoria when the ageing Mystere aircraft of the IAF piloted by Squadron Leader Devaya, shot down an F-104 in the 1965 war. The F-86 Sabre, a much acclaimed US fighter aircraft with the PAF, found its nemesis in the tiny Gnat aircraft flown by capable pilots of the IAF in the 1971 war, earning the nickname of “Sabre Slayer”. During the Kargil war, the Mirage 2000, not designed to deliver weapon loads at high altitudes, was modified by the IAF. Its capability of accurate bombing in the difficult terrain, changed the narrative of the Kargil war and helped the Indian Army script the famous victory. The MiG-21 abused with the title of “Flying Coffin” by the media, is now the toast of the same media and the nation.

These are some examples of the innovative spirit and excellent piloting of the aircraft provided to the IAF in the past which brought laurels to the nation.

CRAFTING THE FUTURE

Movies and aerial warfare have some similarities. Movies have “Stars” whose presence is supposed to guarantee a hit. Mostly, this does not happen unless backed by a good story/script. Aerial Warfare also has its star system wherein aircraft such as the F-16 acquire star status. These aircraft too need a good story/script to succeed. In the Indian context, not only are the stars missing, even the story/script has gaping holes in the narrative. The declining number of fighter aircraft will not allow the story to unfold seamlessly with the end result that the viewer is forced to exclaim “what happened”.

Aerial warfare today not only needs capable platforms for various roles; but also in the right numbers to neutralise targets effectively. Take the case of the recent strike at Balakot. One mission alone needed aircraft in excess of 20. When we review the size of our air space that needs to be defended and the innumerable targets that need to be pulverised in enemy territory, the dwindling number of fighters in the inventory of the IAF is a sure shot recipe for disaster. The number of aircraft available with the IAF resembles a sharpshooter in a “Western” movie with just one gun in his holster with only half the rounds loaded in its chamber. He is forced to look for alternatives as he faces the enemy. The recent report that Pakistan closed its airspace due to fuel shortage and the desire to save precious fuel for its Air Force should the need arise, if true, is some succor to our defence planners. But the sigh of relief is a shortsighted response as China, with its abundant supply of resources and modernised armed forces with a doctrine in place which takes into account all the modern facets of conflicts, is the real challenger.

All that Balakot has shown is that the IAF has the capability and the training levels to deliver what the nation needs; but only in small doses

Tomorrow’s war needs the process that is used in “ensemble cast movies” – a dramatic production which leans heavily on a good storyline and depends on a collection of principal actors and performers who are typically assigned almost equal focus and time. Good resources are a necessity – star quality is not given unnecessary importance. It is how the screenplay assembles them and moves the storyline through myriad threads achieving a wholesome product. Tomorrow’s war similarly needs a large good cast with a good narrative steered well in a coordinated manner – trailer of which was shown at Balakot. All the elements of Air Warfare including space were present. Each element need not be the best; but must perform optimally. It is the case of the final product being greater than the sum of its parts.

The IAF had recognised long ago what needed to be done. The British left us with an Air Force that had obsolete and vintage aircraft with very short range, mainly a Tactical Air Force. Our Air Force Leaders realised that the country needed an Air Force capable of performing at a level higher – the Strategic Level. They set about acquiring assets that reflected this mindset. Consequently, the Hunter combat aircraft and Canberra bombers were inducted. Then the Cold War dynamics forced the IAF to accept Russian origin aircraft with very poor range. As the cold war was receding, the IAF made a bid for Deep Penetration Strike Aircraft and inducted Jaguars and Mirage 2000. To increase the range of its fleet, mid-air refueling capability was added. Drones and satellites were procured to make targeting timely and accurate. Better missiles were purchased and retrofitted on fighters. Strategic lift capability has also been introduced. Surveillance and Electronic warfare capabilities have also been enhanced. Pilots and other air warriors have been trained to optimally utilise these assets. All of this was proved in an operational environment at Balakot.

THE WAY FORWARD

Does Balakot signify that the IAF has reached its pinnacle? Definitely not. All that Balakot has shown is that the IAF has the capability and the training levels to deliver what the nation needs; but only in small doses. For full treatment, its armoury needs to be filled. The very basic asset – fighter aircraft – is in short supply.

It has been many decades since the IAF fighter aircraft inventory started shrinking. Today, it is at an absolute nadir. Politicians and the bureaucrats who control the acquisition process are fully aware of this, but are unable to untangle the web they have created for themselves.

Then what is the answer? This problem has been created by the process evolved for defence acquisition and the solution also resides there. For decades, India purchased defence equipment including fighter aircraft in a Government-to-Government deal without difficulty or delay. Why not use this route always? This is what was done recently when the Indian and French Governments agreed on a deal for 36 Rafale jets. This process was set in motion when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited France in April 2015 and the deal was concluded in September 2016 – mere 17 months later. Compare this with the selection of Rafale in January 2012 and the negotiations failing to clear the impasse for the next three years and eventually failed. Thus, the first answer lies in scrapping the current defence acquisition process and dealing only at a Government-to-Government level. As in the case of direct deal for 36 Rafale jets with the French Government, the balance 90 must also be purchased without further ado.

Here only the case of 126 fighter aircraft has been highlighted. There are numerous other items that have failed to arrive – the most prominent amongst them being the six flight refueling aircraft where the process has been abandoned twice already.

The current controversy and mudslinging over the Government-to-Government deal with France for 36 Rafale jets brings into focus the role played by the opposition. No matter who is sitting in opposition, any and every defence deal can be criticised by it. Why not include them in the process. The existing system already has a Parliamentary Committee for Defence comprising representation from both the ruling party and the opposition. Modify the acquisition process to include this Committee and you will have a controversy-free process available for defence procurement which will be able to deliver in a time-bound manner.

There is a large time lag between the signing of a deal and delivery of the aircraft. No company can produce 126 aircraft in haste even if the need of the IAF is urgent. So, what do we do in the meantime?

The ace up our sleeve is the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft. Go the full stretch for its production at a much higher rate than visualised or planned so far. As the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) will not be able to do it, co-opt the IAF as it has Base Repair Depots which have the inherent capability for serial production of aircraft. Task them to become the extended arm of HAL. This will shorten the time frames and allow the elbow room to our stretched IAF in its endeavour to secure the nation’s skies.

The time for “Reflection” is over - it is now time to “Act”.