Bottomline | Major Years

The air force chief leaves behind a rich legacy

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

I recently asked the air force chief, Air Chief Marshal F.H. Major, who retires on May 31, about his two-year tenure beginning 1 April 2007. In his inimitable style, he quipped, “It was a wonderful, tension free tenure.” ACM Major has been an amazingly accessible service chief, and has allowed the discerning media (FORCE included) to visit air force installations and decide things for themselves. This has helped me understand IAF’s gains during his tenure; and they are plenty.
Top on my list is the work done on the China front. After decades of neglect, the three defence services, with government support, are finally seized about the threat from the East.

Given the 4,056km long disputed land border in inhospitable terrain, the air force has taken a bold step: its war doctrine has changed from ‘dissuasive deterrence’ to ‘active deterrence’ against China. This means that instead of adopting a strategic defensive posture, which will allow the PLA to fight a border war on India’s soil, the switch-over is now to fight instead on the enemy’s territory. The new air force doctrine replicates the PLA war doctrine, and will ensure that our own forces are not placed disadvantageously. To implement the new war thinking, the air force needs matching equipment and infrastructure. And this has been a priority during ACM Major’s tenure.

In May 2008, he told me: “We have now decided to beef up our assets and more importantly the infrastructure in the Eastern sector. We intend modernising our airbases to make them capable of undertaking operations of all types of aircraft, both heavy transport and fighters, including the Su-30MKI.” The Su-30MKI are practising operational flying from the Leh air force base, and within two to three years, once the infrastructure for their logistics and maintenance is provided, the premier aircraft will be permanently stationed there.

To overcome the formidable Khardung La (pass), the Leh and Thoise air force stations are being upgraded to become independent nodal stations. Probably the more important work is the building of a network of Advance Landing Grounds (ALGs) and helipads for air-logistics delivery to provide air-connectivity to the numerous inaccessible areas. This will help both in war and peace, especially the latter as development work on border roads along the Line of Actual Control virtually stopped after the 1987 Sumdurong Chu crisis with China. Indian troops take days on foot to reach numerous border posts, which remain cut-off for most part of the year because of inclement weather. Once the ALGs are available, both the AN-32 and the newly acquired C-130J aircraft can land there to provide succour to the troops. Key ALGs in the Western sector (Ladakh) that have been activated are Daulat Beg Oldie, Fukche, and Nyoma, south of Chushul at 13,400ft right under the PLA nose. I was present at the Leh air force station two weeks before the AN-32 aircraft was to land at Fukche ALG; the mood was jubilant and it had to be seen to be believed.

For the Eastern sector (Arunachal Pradesh), it was envisaged that four ALGs at Tuting, Mechuka, Vajaynagar and Pasighat would be upgraded and a few new ones would be built. Unfortunately, work on the ALGs in Arunachal Pradesh is moving very slowly. Senior air force officers say that this is due to bureaucratic tardiness as various environmental clearances are not easy to come by. This may be partially true. I suspect that New Delhi is worried about Beijing’s reaction to military activity in Arunachal Pradesh. China, after all, recently objected to the visit of the Indian President and Prime Minister to the state, and what is unprecedented, they have blocked loan from the Asian Development Bank for a project in the border state; an area of 90,000sqkm that China is claiming as its territory. New Delhi should not succumb to Beijing’s pressure tactics as otherwise they will continue to press further.

Another area where ACM Major deserves accolades is the hard push he has given to the fitfully moving Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project being developed by the Aeronautical Development Authority (ADA) of the DRDO. Within a month of taking office, ACM Major had deputed a 12-member air force team under AVM C. Nanjappy to get embedded with the ADA as the ‘project monitoring team.’ The deputy air force chief since then has been reviewing the Tejas (LCA) project each month, and ACM Major himself gets an update every quarter. The earlier team leader was replaced by AVM Shankar Mani a month ago as part of regular rotation. The Tejas project director, Dr P.S. Subramanyam told me on two occasions (the second time a week ago) that the ‘project monitoring team’ has improved the pace of the programme substantially. When I asked him how this has been done, he replied that ‘we, scientists are very conservative with our assessments, whereas in actual flying such rigidity need not be followed.’ This has put the traditional wisdom on its head for the eventual advantage of the Tejas project. For example, Dr Subramanyam does not worry about the flying hours done, but is concentrating on the number of test-points that require to be successfully evaluated. Test points refer to the aircraft characteristics and manoeuvres like the altitude and speed changes that the aircraft can do in a given time. Dr Subramanyam is confident of the Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) by December 2010 and the Final Operational Clearance (FOC) by 2012. However, for the FOC, the IAF needs to decide the BVR missiles that it wants to use with Tejas. Regarding the Multi-Mode Radar (MMR) validation, which is traditionally done after the IOC, Dr Subramanyam told me that the ground testing has already been done, and in the next six weeks, the flight testing will be done. He has an order for 40 Tejas from the IAF which will be fitted with GE 404 IN20 and GE 404 F2J3 engines.

This is not all. The RFP for the new engine which will power the Tejas Mark II is expected to be issued shortly for GE 414 and EJ 200 engines. Dr Subramanyam surprised me by saying that he will validate Tejas Mark II in 14 to 18 months after the new engine is procured. A new engine would require re-designing of the rear fuselage, and the corners of the flight envelopment would need to be explored fully. According to him, he has set up two ADA teams already, one each to work on the design changes with either engine. Once the engine is decided, the other team, which would have gathered expertise in designing, would join the main team. Certainly a sensible thing to have done; he would have consulted his users on this. In his enthusiasm, it slipped out of his mouth that the IAF has already indicated an order for five squadrons of Tejas Mark II. By attaching the user team with the developer, ACM Major has demonstrated his preference for indigenisation, and the need to accomplish the project before it succumbs to inertia once again. With my visit to ADA six months ago and after the recent interaction with the Tejas project director, I am confident that the Tejas would join the IAF inventory in good time, just when the MRCA gets inducted into the service.

The MRCA technical evaluations are over, and senior air force officers say that the flight evaluations will commence in end-May/early June. A down-selection of the competitors is on the cards; not all of the six competitors who have bid for the MRCA are in possession of capabilities that they have projected on paper. Just as the RFP for the MRCA that was sent out on ACM Major’s watch was a comprehensive document, the flight trials would be a novel experience for the IAF. There will be flight trials in India and in the bidding country. The IAF would also be looking at the facilities in the bidding countries to understand aspects like product support, technology transfer and so on. The sense I have got is that the IAF has prepared itself to undertake broad-based and speedy flight evaluations.

Another highpoint of ACM Major’s tenure was the IAF’s reaction to the 26/11 tragedy. Within days of the terrorist attack, when the political leadership was vacillating about blaming Pakistan for the event, the collective military leadership had agreed that only the Pakistan Army could have carried out the precision strike. The IAF was in the forefront explaining to India’s top leadership that time had come to use the air power; even if it meant an escalation, the IAF could give a bloody nose to the enemy in minimal time while keeping hostilities below the nuclear threshold. Once the IAF’s considered advice was set aside, it was evident that New Delhi had chosen defence over offence. Defence of homeland became the buzzword and the government encouraged fast-track purchases of operationally critical equipment.

While not seeking any new purchases, the IAF made the case to strengthen air defence of the homeland, which ultimately is its sole responsibility. A breakthrough followed after years of indecisiveness. Purchases of various sensors and a large variety of land-based radars were promptly cleared by the defence ministry. Against a requirement of 72 radars, 22 numbers were agreed to be purchased within a month. While the medium range surface to air missile (MR-SAM) project jointly undertaken by the DRDO-Israeli IAI has run into rough weather, the IAF believes that it would not be serious enough to sever the contract. Meanwhile, the AWACS, which would revolutionise IAF’s air defence concepts, is expected to be finally inducted in May. The delay has been attributed to various tests that still needed to be done; the air force said that everything should be finished before the first AWACS arrives from Israel to the Agra air force station. The recent appointment of Air Marshal D.C. Kumaria to the newly created post of director general operations is to be seen in the context of improved air defence. Senior IAF officers opine that if acquisitions continue smoothly, in six to seven years, air defence capabilities would reach the desired goal.
The IAF is conscious that the ultimate surveillance of the homeland would be through dedicated military satellites. The Radar Imaging Satellite-2 (RISAT-2) which was launched into low earth orbit by the PSLV on April 20 was indeed a surveillance satellite meant to keep a watch on India’s borders. But contrary to what most media reported, RISAT-2 would be used by civilian intelligence agencies. The good news is that the military satellite, RISAT-1, with sub-meter resolution has been cleared by the cabinet committee on national security and is expected to be launched in the last quarter of this year. The IAF, under ACM Major has prepared itself well to exploit its capabilities fully. The space cell in the Air Headquarters has close coordination with ISRO, and over 100 air force personnel have already been trained by ISRO in technical aspects of data transfer, handling of images and interpretation.

Even as I write about IAF’s operations and acquisitions that have got unflinching support from their chief, I need to mention one morale boosting initiative. There have been cases when personnel below officer rank took loans from the bank and the individual met an untimely death. In what could be a double tragedy, the onus of repayment of the loan used to fall on the family. Under ACM Major, the IAF has set up a fund corpus by each individual contributing a pittance towards it to insure the loans. In case of a need, the insurance, instead of the aggrieved family, would repay the loan.

Air Chief Marshal F.H. Major started with the advantage of low expectations. However, after his low-key, non-controversial, but high on substance tenure, he has ensured a smooth sail for his successor.


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