Guest Column | A Match Made in Sky

The IAF has a long way to go still vis a vis PLAAF which has rapidly modernised its inventory

AVM Manmohan BahadurAVM Manmohan Bahadur (retd)

The aerospace challenge facing India in the coming decade would be a sub-set of the wider landscape of the security environment that is developing around its neighbourhood. The environment would have Pakistan and China as adversaries, with China being the major one. The multi-sectoral technological advancements ongoing in China have had their clear impact in the way the Peoples’ Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has modernised rapidly.

Where does this place the Indian Air Force (IAF), which has just undertaken a massive pan-India Exercise Gagan Shakti to test its operational preparedness and logistics stamina? The aerospace domain itself would be linked with the overall security environment and hence, despite the focus on the aerospace challenges that this essay would be examining, there would be some overlap in the assessment.

It’s a cliché, but India’s security environment is truly getting ever more challenging due to the following factors.

  • The rise of China – in more ways than one.
  • The economic improvement in Pakistan (the GDP growth rate is expected to rise from 5.2 per cent in 2017 to 5.5 per cent in FY18 and 5.8 per cent in FY19 as per the World Bank), and an associated rise in its confidence. This is based on the massive influx of Chinese funds as part of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and could be transitory, as most analysts predict; the real woes of CPEC funding would strike Pakistan’s economy in the coming years when debts have to be paid off.
  • The rise of extremist parties in Pakistan.
  • The inextricable China-Pakistan economic and military link, which implies that China would not allow Pakistan to be asymmetrically disadvantaged vis-a-vis India.
  • The combination of the above realities would mean that there would be an increasingly more capable Pakistan military that would have greater stakes in projecting India as a threat to retain its importance in Pakistani society; part of this thrust would be to keep its political parties confined to matters other than defence and foreign policy.
  • It would be in China’s interest to keep propping up Pakistan as a military threat to India — and keep India bogged down qua the quintessential Liddell Hart’s indirect strategy.
  • China’s strategy of ‘loan warfare’ would continue to make India’s neighbours dependent on Beijing; supplicants in a way.

Three Sukhois fly overhead in formation

In this security milieu, to understand where PLAAF’s modernisation is heading, one would have to go conceptual and map the trajectory of the threat as it has developed. To see the slope of the curve, and where it would be 10 years from now, it would be right to start from 10 years back — from 2008.

The Past

Geo-political Standings: By 2008, after its downslide post the USSR break-up, Russia had begun re-asserting itself while the US was tending to plateau. China had begun throwing its weight around through its economic clout. India was progressing economically at a growth rate of around 9.32 per cent while Pakistan was a straggler.

Hard Power Equations: Russian arms industry was in disarray in the Nineties after the USSR broke-up, with manufacturing and R&D plants scattered over many newly-created nations. By the beginning of this Century, consolidation had begun and Russian arms were back in contention in the world market. China’s hard power had increased dramatically on the back of doctrinal reforms done after the 1991 Gulf War, where technology had come to the forefront. The US was far ahead of every other nation. India was stagnant while Pakistan was in the driver’s seat for foreign military aid/ purchase from both China and the US.

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