Hitting the Nail on its Head

Ashley Tellis’ latest book throws light on combat capacity shortfalls in the Indian Air Force
Kapil Kak


India’s national security commentariat is largely oblivious to the extent of nettlesome deficiencies in Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) combat power, couched as these often are in debates on changing nature of war, extant paradigm of low intensity conflict, imperatives of indigenous technological capacity-building and omnipresent budgetary constraints. Recent opinion piece and media captions are pointedly telling: ‘IAF on a Flight Path of Extinction’... ‘IAF in a Death Spiral’...’Can the IAF Fight the Next War Effectively.’ The list goes on...

Shorn of hyperbole, IAF’s operational capability in combat air power (numbers and quality) is grossly inadequate for India’s worrisome geo-political environment, given that an air campaign has had a decisive bearing on the final outcome of most conflicts over the last quarter century. To fully execute the government-mandated air campaign for a two front China-Pakistan collusive military threat, all three tiers of the IAF’s combat force mix face daunting challenges. The indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA), has been severely delayed: against an order of 40 aircraft (20 each in 2006 and 2010), it has received only one limited series production aircraft (emphasis added)!

Procurement of 36 medium-weight, twin-engine fourth generation plus French Rafales (against the approved 126 aircraft) by 2019 is currently at the final contract-signing stage. For manufacture of the remaining 80-90 relatively lower cost near-Rafale equivalents, the government is reportedly examining offers of Saab (Gripen NG) and Lockheed Martin (F16 IN) — both light-weight single-engine fourth generation plus fighters — and the medium-weight twin-engine fourth generation plus Boeing F/A 18 E/F. In the heavy twin-engine long-range category, the India-Russia collaborative project for fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) remains mired in issues of numbers, costing and higher Indian work-share. Some reports even suggest that the Russian Air Force is not yet fully committed to this programme.

Evidently, the Indian government’s decision-making process is neither nimble nor adaptive enough to be au fait with rapid geopolitical and techno-operational changes. Its overreliance on timely materialisation of the Tejas, conflated with inordinate delays in procuring the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) have caused a worrying draw-down of IAF’s 40 odd squadrons, it had for decades, to 31 today. With the extant anaemic combat potential, IAF’s air power gap with China’s Peoples’ Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has widened. This could seriously jeopardise IAF’s air campaign during a conflict, and make for severe constraints on the operations of the ground and naval forces. IAF’s post-Eighties three-to-one superiority over the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has tamped down to a two-to-one ratio. And with PLAAF and PAF together embarked on rapid modernisation, the US ever-willingly pitching in with additional Block 52 F16s for the latter, the current and future air threat scenario for the IAF darkens even more.

The air force has been justifiably demanding that a balanced end strength mix of 42-45 combat squadrons (approx 750-800 aircraft) is the minimum it requires for its laid-out mandate. Only such a number would ensure a modicum of its air dominance for effective joint operations with the army in the mountainous Himalayan region and provide it enhanced offensive reach, including assisting the navy, and for India to sustain ‘balance’ in the wider Indo-Pacific strategic space, more pointedly the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Most of all, it would help India achieve credible yet affordable deterrence stability in Southern Asia, the fulcrum of its strategic neighbourhood.

The above-mentioned shortcomings have been exhaustively fore-grounded by the redoubtable American security analyst and acknowledged India-hand, Ashley Tellis. In an insightful, objective and comprehensive monograph, Troubles They Come in Battalions: The Manifold Travails of the Indian Air Force (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace-CEIP, March 2016). He sees the IAF’s many afflictions reflected in the Bard’s words, perhaps so appropriate on his 400th death anniversary:

When sorrows come, they come not single spies
But in battalions.
Hamlet Act IV, Scene 5, William Shakespeare

Tellis is on point in ascribing these multiple crises to ‘India’s defence budget, the impediments imposed by the acquisition process, the meagre achievements of the country’s domestic development organisations, the weaknesses of the higher defence management system’, and, most pointedly, at ‘India’s inability to reconcile the need for self-sufficiency in defence production with the necessity of maintaining technological superiority over rivals (emphasis added).’

With the micro-precision of a surgeon’s scalpel, Tellis prises open the IAF’s light-medium-heavy combat force mix to a dextrous scrutiny and comes up with the unsettling diagnosis that all three segments require infusion of numbers and quality. This ‘tocsin-sounding’ should forewarn India’s security policymakers on the risks of losing air power superiority in the region even as it terms the need for IAF to have 42-45 combat squadrons as ‘compelling’ and is realistic enough to conclude that the likelihood of reaching this figure is ‘poor’. Although the IAF has already embarked on a major modernisation programme, the four pointed Brahmastra Tellis offers is timely: one, increase stockpile of advanced munitions; two, enlarge the number of its combat support aircraft; three, upgrade physical infrastructure; and, four, develop the necessary concepts of operations that will enable IAF to overcome what may be superior numbers of adversary aircraft over the long term (emphasis added).

In the ‘light’ segment, at least 12 squadrons of Mig21s and Mig27s would phase-out/retire over the next decade. IAF’s plan to acquire no more than six Tejas squadrons is evidently anchored in wisdom, a decision Tellis ardently supports. But a statement made by the IAF Chief, at a seminar in New Delhi on 20 April 2016 that ‘one Tejas squadron would be operationalised by year-end’ appears over-optimistic. Because should this happen, these aircraft would be the ones accorded initial operational clearance (IOC), and thus, neither fully-weaponised nor operationally deployable. Moreover, the six Tejas squadrons envisaged are unlikely to be fully war-ready before 2030 or so. This reality should serve to impart even greater energies to the efforts towards the MMRCA numbers originally planned.

CEIP assertion that at over USD80 million a piece (development cost included), Tejas ‘may end up being only slightly cheaper than the least expensive foreign competitor on the horizon, the Gripen NG’ needs to be seen in perspective. Because the LCA is doubtless the Holy Grail of India’s enormous push towards indigenisation, with the follow-on development of the fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) being perceived as the jewel in the crown. In this light, Tellis’s warning against the hubris on ‘AMCA being able to overwhelm comparable adversaries in combat’ is perhaps apt and opportune.

By convincingly underscoring the need for MMRCA, the CEIP report effectively counters pseudo-air power experts who propound that India should acquire additional Su30s and Tejas Mk1A supplemented by MiG 29s and Mirage 2000s until AMCA arrives. Media reports indicate the Prime Minister and the defence minister appear convinced that expanding the MMRCA component beyond the off-the-shelf 36 Rafales by another 80-90 relatively lower cost alternatives, under the ‘Make in India’ project, is an inescapable imperative. But here Tellis reiterates a point of which the government should be aware: “If the Indian government and the IAF expect that co-production in India will automatically translate into a ‘full’ divestiture of critical technologies...they are likely to be disappointed.”

That even the IAF’s heavy-weight segment, inhabited by the Su 30 MKIs, is not free from afflictions is indeed a sobering thought. Furthermore, a near decade-long project to induct the collaborative Indo-Russian FGFA, a fifth generation follow-on to the Su 30, is moving forward gingerly. CEIP counsel that India not cold shoulder the Russian offer appears sound, given that India’s capacity to build an FGFA ‘from scratch’ is fundamentally unproven. Nor should India expect that the AMCA programme would be able to access US expertise in the tightly-controlled stealth and related technologies.

Troubles They Come in Battalions: The Manifold Travails of the Indian Air Force is a balanced and objective analysis of India’s crisis-ridden combat air power. Nowhere in its 73 pages does one find traces of prejudice, pre-conceived notions or any ‘agenda’ — which India has long suspected in American security writings. Ashley Tellis, thus, lives up to CEIP Founder Andrew Carnegie’s conviction on the need for ‘smart, steady and strategic scholarship to advance international peace and cooperation’. At many places Tellis is justifiably critical of even the US government.

The report has admiringly enumerated IAF’s core combat strengths: professionalism, training and war-fighting quality of its pilots — attributes that have been repeatedly validated during IAF’s numerous exercises with major world air forces. And then offers a comprehensive set of measures to improve combat efficiency for gainfully facing future threats and challenges. The key lesson Tellis offers is to undertake a root and branch reform of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to have in place the best Western practices in manufacture, testing, quality control and flight safety. But his suggestion that India induct the American A10 Thunderbolt to enhance its ‘land attack repertoire’ is unlikely to resonate among air power force-application experts who best know the changing character of extant joint battle-spaces. A10 was designed for the Mughal era!

Ashley Tellis’s monograph should serve as an invaluable addition to the discourse on the problems and prospects of India’s combat air power and be of enormous interest to India’s security policy makers, force structure planners, defence research and production agencies, academia, media, the strategic and security community and most of all to the serving and retired fraternity of armed forces, particularly the air force.

Air Vice Marshal Kapil Kak (retd) is the founding Additional Director, Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi


Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, pg 72

— Ashley J. Tellis

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