May - 2013 ISSUE

Force Magazine
Strategic Reach - October 2012
As Indian Air Force is 80, its overarching vision is turning into a reality
By Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab

What makes the Indian Air Force (IAF) an exceptional defence service is this: since 1993, when the air force turned the intellectual and operational corner, there has been a uniformity of purpose by all chiefs of air staff (CAS). It has been to decipher global trends in aerospace power to procure and absorb available technology to stay relevant to contemporary needs. Conscious that of the three defence services, air power is most influenced by technology, the IAF has assiduously followed the dictum that organisational doctrine must change to stay current. Organisational doctrine refers to roles and missions, current objectives, operational and administrative organisations, and force employment principles. While epithets such as ‘Transformation’ and ‘Strategic Reach’ sound dramatic and spectacular, it has taken the IAF 19 years and four decisive moments to reach where it finds itself today at the end of the 11th defence plan (2007-2012), with two envisioned five-year defence plans (12th and 13th) until 2022 to unfold.

The first transformational moment for the IAF was in 1993. The Mahavir Chakra recipient of the 1971 war, Air Chief Marshal S.K. Kaul, on assuming command in 1993, was faced with the dilemma of fast dwindling combat squadron numbers. The Hunters had been phased out, the Canberra were on the last leg, four squadrons of MiG-21 (FL, M, and MF series) had reached obsolescence, with another 4.5 squadrons reduced to ineffectiveness. The indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) was nowhere in sight (though the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) chief, APJ Abdul Kalam argued to the contrary), and worse, India was passing through economically difficult times. After the defence profligacy of the Eighties, the dispensation of Premier Narasimha Rao and finance minister Manmohan Singh had tightened the defence outlay. This was not all. The Soviet Union had ceased to exist on 31 December 1991, and Russia was in urgent need of finances. This meant that the bilateral system of friendly prices, loans and buy back arrangements was not possible.

The IAF could not maintain its sanctioned 39.5 combat squadrons (it was down to 30 squadrons), and was at a loss for suitable options. Should the IAF approach the government to buy MiG-27 (ground attack) and MiG-29 (air defence) aircraft from Russia was the question. Having followed the US-led 1990-91 first Gulf War closely, ACM Kaul was not inclined to remain a tactical air force (completely in support of the army), something his predecessors took pride in being. But then he knew that cost will be a major factor for New Delhi. At this time, in December 1993, a senior Russian delegation led by its deputy prime minister visited New Delhi and made two presentations on MiG-29 and Su-30MK to the CAS. The Su-30MK, which was showcased for the first time, caught the fancy of ACM Kaul on two counts: its long range and huge payload capability. Kaul instinctively knew that the IAF needed this to stay technologically relevant. The challenge now was to convince the government as well as his own air force that Su-30MKI was the transformational platform which would catapult the service towards an aerospace power.

Visualising an air force with a total of 34 combat squadrons by 2005, of which one-third should be multi-role, ACM Kaul took three actions. He instructed the IAF’s ace test pilot, Air Commodore S. Krishnaswamy (later CAS) to ascertain Su-30MK’s suitability; met the defence minister for clearance to visit Moscow for starting Su-30MK talks in 1994; and set-up a team to write the first doctrine of the IAF. The doctrine with ‘restricted’ classification was released in October 1995 under ACM Kaul’s signature (the other two defence services were to emulate this and write their own doctrines), and had three fundamental goals (‘India’s first airpower doctrine takes shape’ by Pravin Sawhney, Jane’s International Defense Review, June 1997). One, offensive operations priority was upgraded alongside focus on air defence. This was based on the principle of deterrence and the need to achieve maximum performance from limited resources. The concept of point air defence was sought to be replaced by strategic or deterrent air defence — hence the need for long-range aircraft with great loiter time, designed to further extend by air-to-air refuelling capability. Two, greater emphasis was placed upon acquisition of force multipliers such as Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), mid-air refuelling, and electronic warfare to maximise impact of the existing force, and at a later date to make up for any probable reductions in that force. And three, plans towards improvements in C3I structure, and a modernised air defence and communications network.

Armed with the brief, ACM Kaul left for Moscow with an open mind to assess the Su-30MK option. On offer were MiG-29, Su-30MK and an advanced jet trainer (Hawk was not in sight); the CAS flew the Su-30MK during his visit. The Russian terms were attractive: they could give six to eight squadrons of Su-30MK soon to arrest IAF’s dipping combat strength; they were willing to modify the aircraft to Su-30MKI as per IAF requirements, and would exchange the given Su-30MK with modified Su-30MKI, provided India gave loan to do it; and they would transfer Su-30MKI technology. The cost of a Su-30MKI worked to Rs 110 crore as compared to over Rs 150 crore for an upgraded Mirage. The rest, as they say, is history. Was China a factor in deciding purchase of Su-30MKI? No, China was not considered a military threat. In the government’s assessment, as given out in the five-yearly defence minister’s directive to the three defence services, China was only to be dissuaded by advice or persuasion (by diplomatic means). Certain quarters in the government were unhappy when ACM Kaul, during a valedictory seminar in September 1995, said that ‘China is not a threat, but certainly a challenge.’ Thus, Su-30MKI was the first attempt by the IAF to utilise air power to its fullest.

The second transformational moment for the IAF came during the 1999 Kargil war. If the Indian Army was stunned to find infiltrators occupying the Kargil heights in Kashmir, the IAF was equally taken by surprise. It was neither well equipped nor trained for combat in mountainous terrain. In an exclusive lengthy article written by the then CAS, ACM A.Y. Tipnis in FORCE (October 2006), it becomes evident how improvisations were done to assist the land forces. For example: “An off-the-shelf Sony hand-held movie camera was brilliantly used to study the terrain and locate the target”, and “The innovation I (ACM Tipnis) consider as the biggest contribution to ingeniousness from Western Air Command was the use of the GPS for bombing under conditions that prevented use of normal equipment. With this technique, bombing was possible in poor visibility conditions, with an overcast of clouds, even at night.” Consequently, two lessons were learnt. In the immediate term, the IAF needed to equip and train itself for mountainous terrain (in addition to plains and deserts where it had expertise). This requirement would make the IAF unique from any other air force in three respects: it held large numbers of disparate aircraft, adding to maintenance and product support imperatives; it was required to operate in all types of conceivable terrains; and given the immutable operational roles, quality cannot substitute quantity. A certain number of combat aircraft strength had to be maintained for conventional deterrence. In the long term, there was the need for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities for high-altitude areas where weather was a formidable challenge; the answer lay in exploitation of space assets. While the call for aerospace command was renewed, small-steps within the purview of the service were initiated by ACM S.P. Tyagi only in 2005.

Another issue of enormous consequence (but little known) was the nuclear weapons aspect. As India and Pakistan had brought out their nukes from the closet a year earlier in May 1998 through a series of nuclear tests, this factor had to be dovetailed into operational planning. The IAF was hastily chosen by the government as the preferred vector for nukes delivery; hence the need for quick training. As an aside, there has been sufficient think-tanks literature from western nations suggesting IAF practicing toss-bombing technique on the Jaguar in the Eighties; implication being that India would use the aircraft vector for its covert nukes capability. In reality, the IAF pilots on Jaguar practised toss-bombing as an available technique without a clue of possible nukes delivery. It was during the 1999 Kargil war when chips were down that ACM Tipnis selected a two-star officer to head towards Mirage base in Gwalior. FORCE met the officer in later years who confirmed that he selected a few Mirage and Jaguar pilots for nukes vector role. For the first time, the scientists in June 1999 shared yields of useable nuclear weapons with the IAF; needless to add strategic targeting was ad-hoc. Moreover, with little change in the ritual five-year defence minister’s directive, China was still not a military threat.

The third transformational moment came with the taking over of ACM S.P. Tyagi on the last day of 2004. In the next two years, he would change the IAF: its thinking, acquisition planning, and interestingly, how it was perceived outside. Unlike his predecessor, he welcomed if not wooed the media; it was incorrectly interpreted that he was seeking publicity for personal gains. He met FORCE newsmagazine for nine formal interviews in two years, the highest ever by a CAS. His message was direct: IAF was focussed on strategic reach. Repeatedly he would explain what it meant so that the crux of the matter sunk in. With the growing Indian economy and trade, its energy needs were increasing and hence, its areas of interest were expanding. The sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean area needed more attention; India had to protect its own island territories and help littoral friendly nations, like it helped Sri Lanka and Maldives during the 2004 Tsunami. “I believe that Peninsular India will get more importance in the coming years,” is what he told FORCE in his November 2005 interaction. CAS ACM Tyagi visualised a closer interaction between the IAF and Indian Navy in the coming years.

In order to be prepared for these tasks, the IAF needed long-range aircraft, air-to-air refuelling, strategic and tactical lift capabilities, AWACS to cover vast areas, and exploitation of space for communications, reconnaissance and surveillance. This required the IAF to move away from threat-based to capability-based acquisitions, and this is what ‘Transformation’ was all about. It was during ACM Tyagi’s tenure that the IAF’s three defence plans (11th, 12th and 13th from 2007 to 2022), encapsulating the concept of capability-based acquisitions, were conceived.

Two events led to ACM Tyagi’s added interest in aerospace command, a demand that the IAF had first made in late Eighties. The Defence Space Vision-2020 document was formulated in 2005 and aimed to achieve space-based military capabilities in three stages. In the near term, which coincided with the 11th defence plan (2007 to 2012), IS&R (intelligence, surveillance & reconnaissance) and navigation was the focus. Meanwhile, the 2005 Standing Committee on Defence had strongly proposed the raising of aerospace command in sync with global trends. While making a pitch for aerospace command in 2005, ACM Tyagi created the post of Assistant Chief of Staff (Operations) under a two-star officer at Air Headquarters, who was meant to interact with the department of space on passive utilisation of space. In 2006, when it was clear that aerospace command had fallen prey to services’ rivalry and bureaucratic dithering, ACM Tyagi approached the government for formulation of ‘a space group’, an independent organisation under the Air Headquarters; it still remains unaccepted.

While strategic reach meant a rising nation’s air force’s peace-time roles and operations-other-than-war, it had inherent military implications as well. Given that future wars would be swift, lethal and limited in scope, ACM Tyagi conceded that the IAF would need a number of deep strike and medium range ground-attack squadrons, backed by a sizeable fleet of multi-mission capable aircraft and a strong air defence network. “New tactics that enable rapid engagement of time-sensitive targets, networked intelligence, surveillance and precise target engagement would be the focus of future wars,” he told FORCE in October 2006. What was ACM Tyagi getting at? That ‘parallel war’ precede ‘joint war’. The IAF would launch its campaign before land forces joined battles; the aim would be to neutralise enemy’s strategic and operational level war assets through ‘effect-based’ operations. The IAF was determined to have an important role in a war with Pakistan.

What about China? FORCE met with ACM Tyagi well after his retirement. He clarified that during his tenure (ending 31 March 2007) China was not viewed as a military threat. While he did not say it, the 2004 defence minister directive had maintained status quo. This is surprising considering that the defence minister, George Fernandes, responsible for the 2004 directive, had publicly spoken of Chinese military threat. However, more by default than design, the capability-based acquisitions plan initiated during ACM Tyagi’s tenure catered to Chinese threat. Given air power’s flexibility, the strategic reach meant for Peninsular India could easily be directed towards the Chinese front. The problem, of course, was infrastructure along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) which had been neglected since decades (after the 1988 Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to China).

Presiding over the latest transformational moment in IAF’s history, which began in end-2007, ACM F.H. Major, in an exclusive interview to FORCE in May 2008, said that: “Over the years, due to paucity of resources, infrastructure in our eastern parts (LAC) has undergone a bit of decline. We have now decided to beef up our assets and more importantly the infrastructure in the eastern sector, in the 11th and 12th (2007 to 2017) defence plans. We intend to modernise our airbases to make them capable of undertaking operations of all types of aircraft, both heavy transport and fighters, including the Su-30MKI.”

The IAF and the Indian Army were finally seized of the Chinese military threat, and approached the defence minister to allocate resources, hasten acquisition plans, and issue a fresh directive. The 2009 defence minister directive stated that the military prepare capabilities for a two-front threat. Considering that Chinese intrusions across the LAC had intensified after the 1999 Kargil conflict, it took the government 18 years and intense goading by its military since beginning 2008, to wake up to the dragon’s snarls.

FORCE is fortunate to be the only defence magazine to have visited the central air command stations at Gwalior and Bareilly (May 2005 and September 2008), western sector, Leh and Thoise (northern Kashmir under Western Air Command in September 2006, 2007 and 2008) and the eastern sector (under Eastern Air Command) in September 2010. FORCE is also the only media (print or electronic) to be present at air force station, Leh to witness the first trial landings of Su-30MKI in September 2008. The Air Officer Commander-in-Chief, Western Air Command, Air Marshal P.K. Barbora who was present there told FORCE: “The designers of Su-30MKI did not envisage the use of these systems in high altitudes.”

Western Air Command
In the Western Air Command (WAC), two air force stations at Leh (10,680 feet) and Thoise (10,066 feet) (acronym for Transit Halt of Indian Soldiers Enroute, though one theory says that it is a distortion of the Ladakhi word Thos) are at the centre of all air maintenance activities north of Khardung La with the overall control vested in Air Officer Commanding, Jammu and Kashmir Headquarters, based in Udhampur, in addition to the operational roles against Pakistan and China. While both air bases complement one another, their importance lies in the fact that they are on either side of Khardung La; for air maintenance the formidable 18,380 ft pass is no longer a handicap during winter months. Between the two, Leh is more difficult than Thoise for combat operations. In addition to altitude problems that result in reduced load carrying capacities, electrical and communication problems and so on, Leh, surrounded by mountains, provides a difficult funnel approach to the aircraft. This means that the pilots will require lot of practice, which is what began with the arrival of four Su-30MKI fighters from 24 Squadron in Bareilly to Leh for a 10-day period in September 2008.

It will take a lot of sustained and regular flying in the area to understand the problems of flying with and without weapon loads in high altitude areas, the targeting profiles which are different from those in the plains, and to understand the operational logistics eventually needed at the Leh air force station once the Su-30MKI aircraft come under command of the WAC. Even as the pilots fly the Su-30MKI and eventually do exercises with MiG-29 aided by force multipliers like AWACS and Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA), the Leh air force station will look into the aspects of their permanent parking (whether the present blast pens are sufficient or not), the need for the storage of high expendable items like oils, spares, tyres and various rubberised seals for maintenance.

The often heard argument that given the FRA there is little need to station the Su-30MKI in Leh and other forward areas is untenable. The advantages of having Su-30MKI in Leh are: it can take off with full weapon loads and be refuelled by FRA for providing the entire 800km radius of turn; its mere presence is deterrence against China, especially when People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is planning to base its Su-27 aircraft in Tibet Autonomous Region; and it provides the Su-30MKI with the twin operational option of being stationed in high altitude as well as in the depth.

However, before the Su-30MKI come to stay in Leh, the air force station needs to substantially improve its air defence and intelligence gathering capabilities. Leh, after all, is the nodal airfield in the area. The need is for Aerostat radars which provide a comfortable identification range, and long-range missiles capable of hitting up to 10km. The redundancy for intelligence gathering would be provided by the combination of Aerostat, Heron UAV presently available in the area (to be replaced by Heron TP or another high altitude long endurance [HALE] in the 12th defence plan) and satellite-based high resolution footprints. Another option available for intelligence gathering will be the Su-30MKI aircraft itself. India has procured reconnaissance pods for the aircraft whose synthetic aperture radars would be able to see deep inside adversary’s territory.

The other airfield Thoise has an operational role against both Pakistan and China. For example, in the Eighties, the heavy Mi-26 helicopters (it carries half its authorised load capacity of 20 tonnes here) were flown from here to para-drop artillery guns on the glacier itself. Night flying is a major accomplishment of this air base. Both fixed wing and rotary aircraft including An-32 and Mi-17 have flown from here to Leh at night; the helicopters have done this between Thoise and the Base Camp also. This is not all. India’s premier aircraft Su-30MKI has landed at Thoise. While agreeing that this air base would be operationally valuable in case of a hotting-up of relations with China, field officers underplay this option. The most attractive thing about Thoise air force station that makes it an operational as well as a crucial air maintenance base is its location. Today, Thoise has developed into the frontline base to support all operations in the Siachen glacier. It is located south of River Shyok, between the Saltoro Ranges and the Great Ladakh ranges (Khardung La). The Saltoro Ranges end up in the Siachen Glacier from where the Nubra River flows to become a tributary of the Shyok River. As the major river in the region, Shyok originates near Daulat Beg Oldie and joins the Indus in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. It becomes evident that Thoise is well-placed to supply along the river lines, Shyok and Nubra, both the Indian posts in Sub-Sector North (SSN) against China and in Siachen.

In SSN, over 20 important posts like Daulat Beg Oldie, Track Junction, Gapsham, Chungtash and so on are supplied round the year. All these posts including many others held by paramilitary forces (ITBP) are connected by tracks that have been ravaged by rain and landslides. It takes soldiers up to 21 days march from Partapur (the 102 brigade headquarters, near Thoise, responsible for the Siachen war) to reach these posts in SSN. For this reason, many sorties are undertaken by Mi-17 1V to ferry troops alone. While Mi-17 1V can land at DBO, Gapsham and Chungtash, drops are done at Track Junction. Unlike on the Chinese side, the lack of roads on the Indian side in SSN has added to the burden of air maintenance from Thoise.

Work on Advanced Landing Ground (ALGs) continues apace in the WAC. History was re-created when after a gap of 44 years, An-32 aircraft landed at DBO (with AOC-in-C, WAC, Air Marshal Barbora) on 31 May 2008. Work continues on the DBO runway to soon make it three km long. Fukche ALG at 14,200 ft has been refurbished and the first landing of An-32 with the AOC-in-C, WAC on board was successfully done on 24 September 2008. The most interesting ALG to come up in the area is in Nyoma, south of Chushul at 13,400 feet. This ALG was activated with the landing of An-32 (with AOC-in-C, WAC, Air Marshal N.A.K. Browne, present CAS) on 18 September 2009. The Nyoma ALG is right under the nose of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on the LAC. With the Durbok-DBO road that already exists up to Sasoma expected to be completed by end-2012, the accretion of army in SSN will easily be supported for operational logistics and casualty evacuation by the combination of vehicular traffic during summer months till posts on the SSN and the increased air maintenance capability by more ALGs close to the LAC. The IAF will then truly match the increased airfields that have come up in Tibet Autonomous Region in recent years. These include ones at Gunsa, Hotan, Hoping and military airstrip in Lhasa, and Gonggar. By 2013, if work on infrastructure and acquisitions continue apace, the IAF will be in a good position to support air maintenance on Siachen and to the accretion of troops in SSN, alongside providing the deterrence against China for a border war.

Eastern Air Command
Specific to the IAF, the government cleared the formation of the Apex Committee for the Northeastern region in July 2009 with an initial funding of Rs 2,000 crore. Headed by the then vice chief of air staff Air Marshal P.K. Barbora, the committee comprising members from the defence ministry, defence finance, defence estates, army, military engineering services (MES), and a representative from Arunachal Pradesh) is responsible for improving the plethora of used and unused airfields and ALGs in the region. The entire region is strewn with airstrips made and used by the US forces during World War II.

At present, a total of 10 airfields and eight ALGs have been identified. While the airfields are at Chhabua, Bagdogra, Kalaikunda, Hashimara, Jorhat, Tezpur, Panagarh, Purnia, Mohanbari and Kumbigram; the ALGs are at Vijaynagar, Machuka, Tuting, Pasighat, Along, Walong, Zero and Tawang. When FORCE team visited the IAF forward area in the east in September 2010, it was told that the airfields and ALGs, depending on the location, will fly different combat and logistics aircraft and helicopters. According to sources at Air Headquarters, six to eight more ALGs have been planned by the IAF to support the army.

Will the IAF be available for Close Air Support (CAS) operations in support of ground forces? According to a senior officer in the Eastern Air Command (EAC), the air force will undertake ‘effect-based operations to shape the battlefield and ensure limited air superiority.’ This is suggestive of the reality that given scarce and multi-role combat aircraft, and force multipliers in adequate numbers, the IAF will expend maximum effort on counter air operations with Battlefield Air Interdiction (BAI) operations getting the second priority. As the IAF is no longer a tactical air force, CAS operations will be the army’s responsibility (IAF will assist with attack helicopters which it will acquire soon). The basic difference between BAI and CAS lies in the proximity of targets to friendly forces and the control arrangements that are therefore needed. Unlike CAS operations, BAI missions require coordination in joint planning, they may not require continuous coordination during the execution phase. Moreover, CAS has its own problems, the biggest being target acquisition especially in high altitude mountainous terrain. Similarly, the fog of war could lead to misidentification and fratricide (a lesson learnt during the 1999 Kargil war).

And two, a regular review of the Joint Operations Directive (JOD) between the EAC and the Army Command in Kolkata is being done to understand each other’s operations and do joint target planning for BAI operations. While JOD is a standard operating procedure for air-land battle, since 2008, the interaction between the two services has become regular, frequent and intense leading to joint exercises. This is needed as there has both been an accretion of army strength for the Chinese theatre and dual-tasking troops which on the eastern army’s order of battle were operating on the Pakistani front and have come back to parent formations. Since four years, the IAF and army have been doing two joint exercises. ‘Pralaya’, a corps level exercise (between the offensive 3 corps and air force units) is conducted twice a year, and ‘Prayas’, a smaller tactical level joint exercise is done every month. “This underlines the seriousness given to joint operations,” says a senior air force officer.

Moreover, beginning November 2010, the EAC has begun interacting with the Eastern Naval Command for possible maritime air operations in the Bay of Bengal and even the Arabian Sea. “This is a new thing. Given the possibility of the PLAAF operating from friendly bases in Pakistan and Myanmar (PLAAF 15 Airborne Corps), the JOD between the IAF and Indian Navy (IN) has become necessary,” explained an officer at the EAC. In case of a war with China, the IAF could be called upon for two maritime missions: anti-shipping and maritime strikes. While the responsibility of maritime target detection and identification will be of the IN, the IAF with secure communications between the strike and support aircraft (IN maritime reconnaissance aircraft), and with the availability of AWACS will be able to successfully execute maritime air missions.

For extended reach and capability, the IAF is acquiring network centricity so that it can use space-based assets along with a terrestrial backbone in real time. The EAC has acquired mountain and medium powered radars. “As UAV assets against China are in short supply, the EAC and the eastern army command took a decision in 2009 to regularly share assessments of respective Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) flights,” said a senior officer. Regarding space-based assets, the IAF is interacting directly as well as through the tri-service space cell in the Integrated Defence Headquarters with ISRO. A clear distinction has been made between militarisation and weaponisation of space; the former relates to using space to enhance military capabilities, while the latter refers to using offensive capability like Anti-Satellite (ASAT) demonstrated by China and the US. India’s use of space will be for ISR requirements. For this, India has embarked upon a programme of satellite-based navigation system project. Similarly, to ensure high degree of communication security and connectivity, a satellite-based dedicated defence network has been planned for the armed forces. What is being attempted is provision of ‘informationalised’ conditions backed by dedicated air and rotary wing assets similar but in much reduced quantity as available to PLA forces.

In this context, the IAF hopes to acquire 12 AWACS by 2020. With the setting-up of the Air Force Net (AFNET), the stage has been set for ground networking (Integrated Air Command and Control System), and space networking (Operational Data Link). A pilot ODL project done by ELTA of Israel has been approved by the Air Headquarters and request for proposal (RFPs) are expected to be issued soon. According to a senior officer, “Introduction of AWACS, UAVs and high altitude loitering munitions like the HAROP (acquired from Israel) has created a favourable environment for India.” The IAF is also acquiring additional air-to-air refuelling aircraft, strategic and operational lift capabilities (see box). Once all these capabilities are in place, the IAF will have the advantage of forward deployment of Su-30MKI and ability to support operations in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) from bases as far as central India.

All this, however, will be possible if Pakistan-centric bias gets eliminated. “For India to pay full attention to China-centric threat, there is a need to reduce the level of threat from Pakistan,” said a senior officer. The government needs to mull over this loaded response.


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