Secure Skies

Indian Air Force celebrates its 86th anniversary

Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab

The Indian Air Force (IAF) should be at the front and centre of India’s defence in order to provide a semblance of deterrence and, should it fail, respectable warfighting outcome against China and Pakistan. This is what the chief of air staff, Air Chief Marshal, B.S. Dhanoa would be thinking as he takes the salute at the 86th Indian Air Force day parade.

S-400 Air Defence Missile System and Dassault Aviation’s Rafale

Even partial deterrence (to include political will) would work against China and Pakistan since they do not want war. China is committed to its peaceful ‘China Dream’ through the geopolitically significant Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and it is critical for Pakistan to adhere to timelines of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the flagship of the BRI.

However, since capabilities — instead of intentions — matter while undertaking threats assessment, ACM Dhanoa’s statement that China and Pakistan ‘are not sitting idle’ rings true. China, an aerospace power, is on its way to becoming an aerospace superpower by 2030. This is evident from the new PLA’s Strategic Support Force (PLASSF) created under the 2015 reforms to consolidate capabilities in the non-intrusive war domains of cyber, space and electronic warfare. This consolidation, which would support the five Theatre Commands, is meant to incapacitate an adversary’s C4ISR (command, control, computer, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), target acquisition and destruction ability, thereby posing huge challenges without fighting. Since Pakistan has good interoperability (ability to fight together) with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China is certain to share its SSF capabilities with the Pakistan military — the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) becoming the biggest beneficiary.

This is not all. ACM Dhanoa appeared to have underplayed PAF’s 20 combat squadrons capabilities in, at least, three other areas. These are its good pilot versus aircraft ratio of 2:1 — more sorties with fewer aircraft; ability to make up attrition loses of Chinese origin JF-17 aircraft fast; and PAF’s excellent air defence network.

The inescapable conclusion from the above is that the two-front war scenario which was approved by the government in 2009, and which formed the basis for the Indian military’s capability-building, is no longer valid. A fresh threat assessment for capability-building is in order. The reality is that the PAF has emerged as a major challenge for war outcome with Pakistan.

That said, the IAF’s quest for 42 combat squadrons is unrealisable for three reasons: defunct indigenous military-industrial complex which is incapable of producing and supporting high-tech aircraft; little understanding of deterrence at the highest political level; and politicisation of the army leadership — the political and army leadership believe in perception management of military strength by tactical level engagements. Consequently, the army leadership believes it should be the lead service in war — a sure recipe for disaster in modern warfare.

Conscious that 42 combat squadrons would not be available, ACM Dhanoa has sought the combination of 36 Rafale aircraft and (five regiments) of S-400 Air Defence Missile System to ‘plug the gaps’, according to his recent statement. He obviously wants to use the S-400 for offensive air defence rather than its designed role of protecting high-value targets like Delhi and other metropolitans. It is believed that the Air Headquarters has also strongly supported the purchase of the United States’ National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System (NASAMS) for protection of high-value targets.

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