K V Priya
Air Vice Marshal (Retd), Indian Air Force & Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Air Power Studies
The men and morale of Indian Air Force (IAF) is unparalleled, the only thing India needs is to be a little more prepared in terms of manufacturing more air power, says Bahadur.
Air vice marshal (retd) Manmohan Bahadur, presently distinguished fellow associated with the Centre for Air Power Studies tells Biz@India ahead of the Paris Air Show 2017 that the Indian Air Force (IAF) is superior in terms of men, machine and morale compared with its arch adversaries, Pakistan and China. He says the government is seriously engaged in increasing the number of squadrons and is focusing on indigenous defence production by involving domestic private players.
How significant is India’s air power given the country’s geopolitical situation?
The Indian air power (not just the IAF) is pivotal for the defence of India and for the strategic objectives it wants to project, for the simple reason that airpower reacts very quickly.
The IAF, due to its long reach and quick ability to respond, has the strategic flexibility to bring force to bear across boundaries of surface commands. A Su-30 from Pune can address maritime threats down south as well as those across the Thar Desert in western India.
In other words, within two hours, certain elements of air power can be activated to carry out assigned missions. India faces two adversaries on whose borders things are not exactly cold, besides being challenging, India also needs to keep the guard up. So, India needs to plan for challenges from China and Pakistan that are generally seen as adversarial in nature. There is no gainsaying the fact that in any future conflict, air and space superiority will be contested with the aim of securing dominance in these two domains and indeed in the overall conflict.
The IAF being the lead element of the Indian air power, is aware of the responsibility it has on its shoulders. In a nutshell, IAF as the vanguard of Indian airpower is ready despite all internal challenges. We have got the narrative under control.
How do you see the current and future threat perceptions from Pakistan and China?
With Pakistan, the relationship has been hot and cold. More often than not, it is hot rather than cold. There is an element of non-state actors from across the border. This puts an additional pressure on the security forces. It is not so with China. With China, it is more to do with geopolitics. The signal China wants to give India is with respect to its larger strategic objectives – one is the border and the other is the balance of trade. While the balance of trade will not lead to armed confrontation, the border issue is critical. India has taken steps to ameliorate the situation so that an India-China conflict, like the one in 1962, does not happen.
In view of these two neighbouring countries, how do you see the preparedness of the Indian air power?
There are challenges. India’s squadron strength has to be brought up. The Indian government is aware of the issue. The IAF currently has 33 fighter squadrons as against the authorised strength of 45 squadrons. As we wind up MiG-21 and MiG-27 over the next three to four years, the numbers have to be made up. They are being made up with the remaining 30 or 40 Sukhois. India’s Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) has met stakeholders and strategic partners to manufacture four big-ticket items that have to be purchased as of now. These include single-engine fighters, tanks, submarines and helicopters.
Air chief marshal B S Dhanoa recently directed IAF commanders to prepare for a short duration but intense wars of 10 days involving Pakistan and 15 days with China to maintain razor-sharp operational preparedness and enhanced combat effectiveness. What does this signify?
It signifies putting where armaments should go in the right numbers and right intensity, and those that are capable of maintaining that intensity for a certain duration of time. Short, intense war is what generally everybody says happens. But one cannot rule out that such a war can get extended. That is where our industry comes in. We must develop the capability to have capacity production.
What is the status of such preparedness in terms of men, morale and machines of IAF?
There is shortfall of neither men nor morale in the Indian Air Force. There is no shortfall in respect of training or aircrew of IAF when compared with Pakistan or China. The Chinese don’t have experience. They get a hand-me-down type of training from the Russians. Although they are trying to learn very fast from air forces that have western orientations, the individuality of the aircrew, which is very important in aerial combat or aerial missions, is something they realise they don’t have. As far as training is concerned, India is in the top slot. As I said, it is just a question of certain numbers of fighter squadrons that need to be increased from 33 to 45. It is a long process. It will take 10 to 15 years.
India is procuring its fighter aircraft from foreign nations.
We are procuring Sukhois from Russia and Rafale from France. Already India has 230 Sukhois. They are the mainstay of IAF. About 40 more of them will be inducted over the next few years. Last year, India concluded an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) with France for the purchase of 36 Rafale fighters and they are expected to be delivered in early 2019.
Now India has to decide on single engine fighter jets. As per media reports, the two major contenders for it are Saab of Sweden with its GripenE and Lockheed Martin of the United States of America (US) with its F-16s.
How do you see the indigenisation programme of state-owned defence enterprises in supplying arms and aircraft to the Indian defence forces?
It has always been a sour point. The public sector defence undertakings including Hindustan Aeronautics Limited have been into licensed production. They have not innovated on their own. India is encouraging domestic private players to enter defence production. They will give competition to these state-owned enterprises, which have to innovate or else they will fade away.