In its 81st year, the IAF has a lot of rethinking to do in order to meet the twin challenges of Pakistan and China

C 17 Globemaster
C 17 Globemaster

As the Indian Air Force (IAF) celebrates its 81st anniversary, it is conscious of the transformation it has been undergoing since 1995 when it wrote its first war doctrine, purchased Su-30 aircraft from Russia, raised the pitch for aerospace command and formally shed its tactical role for a strategic one.

While the 1990-91 Gulf War was the driver for the transformational thought, credibility for the new role came with the 1998 series of nuclear tests by India and Pakistan. Overnight, a new challenge arose: how to achieve sensible if not decisive results in a limited conventional war with Pakistan below the nuclear threshold? It was evident that the next conventional war with Pakistan would be limited in time, space and hence the sought objectives.

While the IAF knew it needed to forsake its diffidence and become the lead service, the army was not willing to give up its traditional dominant role in a land war so easily. It was unthinkable for the 13 lakh (1.3 million) strong army to accept an expansive role of the mere 1,70,000 strong air force. The army, therefore, came up with the Cold Start war doctrine in 2004 focussed on attrition and minimal territorial gains in a war that it hoped would last at least two weeks and also remain conventional against Pakistan. This thesis is questionable especially when the Pakistan Army has acquired tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). Moreover, the Indian leadership will find it extremely difficult to bear intense international pressure to allow a war with Pakistan for more than a week.

While the two services were grappling with the Pakistan reality, the dormant Chinese threat came alive by the turn of the century. The chief of army staff, General Deepak Kapoor in 2009 formally announced that a two-front war scenario with Pakistan and China was possible. Both the army and the air force agreed that a border war with China and a limited war with Pakistan were realistic threats. Both prepared their doctrines to meet the new threats. Both sought capabilities to meet the same challenges. Both are conscious that maximum operational cooperation between them is a critical requirement for cogent war results. Yet, both have failed to agree on the cooperation arrangement.
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