The Indian Air Force: Flying into the 21st Century

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This article was first published in the BHARAT RAKSHAK MONITOR – Volume 3(1) July-August 2000 Issue

The Indian Air Force (IAF) enters the 21st century bloodied by a brief, but educational conflict. Air strikes over Kargil provided the IAF a unique opportunity to evaluate its own strengths and limitations. It afforded the IAF a chance to acquire expertise in the operation of Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) and Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles under combat conditions. It also put the service’s transport and logistics capability to the test. The tragic loss of aircraft in combat exposed the dangers of operating in today’s Man Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS) rich environment. The purpose of this article is two-fold. First, it considers how the IAF has evolved through the 1990s and where it is headed in the first decade, or so, of the 21st century. Second, it offers some recommendations on how the IAF might deal with specific challenges in the future.

The 1990s

The 1990s started on a very inauspicious note for the Indian armed forces in general, and for the IAF in particular. Economic difficulties in the early 1990s, along with the collapse of the Soviet Union severely affected future expansion and modernization plans. Various modernization programs were pushed back by at least half a decade. Major problems with the availability of spares and support from the ex-USSR affected operations severely during the period 1991-1994. Peacetime daily serviceability rates declined from an average 70-72% in the preceding decade to as low as 60% for some types. The MiG-29 and An-32 fleets were particularly hard hit. In case of the former, serviceability had declined to as low as 55%. It should be noted that daily serviceability rates during peacetime represent the number of armed and operational combat aircraft that the IAF can put into the air at immediate notice. While wartime serviceability has been historically much higher (in 1971 it was 96%), reduced peacetime availability does affect routine operations. This was evident from the near stagnation in flying hours during the early 1990s. Pilots averaged a mere 120 hours/year in 1992/93, compared to 180-200 hours in 1988/89 and today. Total annual flying hours declined from 256,200 hours in 1991/92 to 239,000 hours in 1993/94. A recovery began only in 1994/95 and in 1997/98, the IAF crossed the 300,000 hours mark.

These tense times offered the IAF several lessons, namely the need to establish local overhaul facilities and the conservation, where possible, of equipment and spares. An increase in simulator availability has gone a long way allowing for the latter. These lessons seem to have been learnt well and have benefited the force immensely. Sensationalism in the media notwithstanding, the 1990s have been the safest decade in the IAF’s history even as flying hours soared post-1994. Indeed 1997/98 saw the IAF’s lowest ever accident rate. Moreover, between 1991 and 1998, IAF attrition (1.07 per 10,000 hours) has remained well below that of its principal adversary (PAF: 1.37 per 10,000 hours). India’s economic revival since the mid-1990s together with changed geopolitical circumstances has allowed the IAF to take up its long overdue upgrade and reorganization programs with vigor.

Stepping into the new

Two events in the early 1990s laid the groundwork for the transformation of the IAF. The Allied air campaign over Iraq was closely studied and its lessons incorporated, as far as possible, into the IAF’s own operational doctrines. During the same period, the IAF emerged as India’s strategic service – the only leg of India’s nuclear deterrent. The formulation in 1997 of its first ever Air Power Doctrine (APD) is a culmination of the IAF’s research into the changed nature of air warfare, its implications for the force, and the challenges of operating nuclear weapons. The APD lays emphasis on four fundamental issues:

  1. The need to accord offensive air operations the same priority as air defense.
  2. The acceptance of a reduction in force levels, compensated by an increase in technology levels.
  3. Emphasis on the acquisition of force multipliers.
  4. Improvements in C4I structures and a revamped, modernized air defense and communication network.

The preceding points provide the “macro” map to modernization and are aimed at ensuring that the IAF remains a viable deterrent against both of its principal adversaries (PAF and PLAAF). The four issues also provide useful headings around which to base further discussion of the IAF’s combat fleet. It should be noted that the four are connected and there are many areas of overlap.

Air Defense and Offensive Air Operations

Air defense was the primary function of the IAF until offensive air operations were also accorded the same priority. It remains an important component of the air power doctrine and the IAF has invested heavily in upgrading it. The air defense set up has three components – namely – armed interceptors, surface to air missiles and an extensive sensor network.

The backbone of the IAF’s air defense fleet comprises of MiG-21s. Almost 16 operational squadrons fly in the air defense role. The oldest MiG-21 sub-types are being progressively retired, but both the MiG-21M and MiG-21bis continue to carry the IAF’s primary air defense mantle. They continue to pull all the routine alerts along the border and form an important component of the air force’s tactical reconnaissance force. The Gulf War and conflicts since have highlighted the need for aircraft with sensors that are more advanced and the ability to engage targets at increasing ranges. The baseline MiG-21M and MiG-21bis, given the vintage of their designs, are sorely lacking in these capabilities. However, the sheer size of the IAF’s MiG-21 fleet has meant that any modernization plans would have to include these aircraft. While the MiG-21FL/Ms are now over 25 years old, the oldest MiG-21bis airframe is only 18 years old and the latter type is eminently upgradable. In the 1980s, the IAF did carry out a limited upgrade to configure the MiG-21Ms and MiG-21bis to carry the Matra Magic II air-air missile (AAM), and later for the R-60 AAM. A number of MiG-21bis were also fitted with head-up displays (HUD), but the aircraft remained sorely lacking in sensor ability.

Until the mid-1990s, a comprehensive upgrade of the MiG-21 had to be repeatedly postponed for either a lack of funds, or a dearth of suitable upgrade packages. However, a comprehensive upgrade of 125 “new” MiG-21bis is now underway. The program is almost two years behind schedule. The delay has been caused primarily due to re-design problems. The replacement of the MiG-21’s original avionics by newer generation lightweight systems had altered the aircraft’s center-of-gravity. These have now been overcome and the first 36 upgrade kits arrived in India during the last quarter of 1999. Under this program, the MiG-21 will be fitted with new avionics, the lightweight Super Kopyo multi-mode radar, IRST, and a comprehensive self-defense suite. While endurance and payload restrictions will remain, the MiG-21s will now be able to deploy almost as wide a range of air-air and air-surface ordnance as the most modern aircraft – including the R-77 AAM (AA-12 “Amraamski”) and the Kh-31 ASM. One can expect to see this potent point defense fighter remain in service well into the second decade of the 21st century. Indeed the MiG-21s proposed replacement – the LCA – is not expected to begin entering service until 2010.

The move to make the MiG-21 fleet BVR capable, underscores the importance that the IAF accords staying on the cutting edge. The benefits of a BVR capable air defense force was much appreciated during operations over Kargil, where offensive air operations went unchallenged by the Pakistan Air Force. By all accounts, R-77 and R-27 armed MiG-29s on escort duty and CAP, ensured that PAF fighters stayed well over 40 km away from the border.

Even more modern types are undergoing comprehensive upgrades as well. The MiG-23MF, however, is an exception, with the sole remaining unit, filling an important role as a BVR training unit. Both the IAF’s second-generation BVR types – the MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 – are also being upgraded with sensors that are more modern. In case of the former, it is expected that all aircraft will have their N-109 radar replaced by an electronically scanned Phazatron system. The older “A” versions are also being upgraded to fire the R-77s, like the newer “SE” variant. While the latter has more capable radar (NO-19M), it too will be the subject of an avionics upgrade. The MiG-29 is also being equipped for air-air refueling to increase endurance. A major component of upgrade programs for air-superiority fighters across the board will eventually see them equipped with the HMS/R-73 combination. Both squadrons of Mirage 2000s will undergo an avionics upgrade, although the exact nature of the upgrades remains unclear. The Mirage 2000 was India’s first second-generation BVR capable aircraft and its multi-role capabilities came in very handy during PGM strikes over Kargil in 1999. The aircraft has consistently maintained the highest serviceability of any type in IAF service (>90%) and has a superb safety record. The flexibility offered by the type has led the IAF to consider “topping up” existing units with a purchase of ten additional Mirage 2000Hs. Also under consideration is the purchase of the up to two squadrons of Mirage 2000Ds. Whether the latter deal comes through will depend as much on finances as on a successful completion of the Su-30MKI development program. Russia is currently filling an order for 50 Su-30MKIs. Eighteen Su-30MKs are already in service with No.24 squadron and a second squadron (No.20) has been earmarked for conversion.

In an effort to simplify logistics, the IAF has successfully integrated western missiles with its Soviet designed aircraft and vice versa. Under the first such program, MiG-21s were retrofitted with a capability to launch the Magic II AAM. More recently, MiG-29s have been adapted to carry the Super-530D. Integrating Soviet missiles with the Mirage 2000s proved more of a challenge, but was overcome by the mid-1990s. Indeed Mirage 2000s on missions over Kargil in the summer of 1999 were carrying R-73 AAM. The Mirage 2000 is also capable of deploying the R-27 AAM. It is more than likely that once the R-77 enters service in quantity, it will be integrated with the Mirage 2000.

As noted earlier, the IAF’s APD now puts offensive air operations on par with air defense. Allied air campaigns since the Gulf War have been very closely studied by the Indian Air Force. A series of studies from the College of Air Warfare (CAW) have acknowledged that the quickest way to bring a military campaign to a successful conclusion is to destroy the enemy’s war making potential. Not surprisingly, the IAF’s attack fleet is increasingly being equipped with enhanced standoff attack capabilities. Since the early 1990s, the IAF has made a determined effort to build up stocks of PGMs. There has been an increase in the number of armed helicopters within both the IAF and the Army Aviation Corps (AAC). This has allowed the IAF to reorient its attack away from the role of “flying artillery” that has been demanded of it in the past. Indeed as the air campaign over Kargil demonstrated, the IAF achieved the best results only when it was able to persuade the Indian Army that it’s fighters were better utilized in closing enemy supply lines and taking out C3I nodes, rather than providing support to company and battalion sized operations. It should be recognized that the situation in Kargil was unique, and that close air support still has some applicability in the plains. Joint exercises since Kargil have convincingly demonstrated the merits of the IAF’s re-orientation of its air support doctrine.

Kargil provided the air force with unique environment to hone its attack skills. The IAF launched PGMs in anger for the first time. Mirage 2000s, MiG-27s, and MiG-23BNs carried out devastating attacks against enemy command nodes and logistics in the area. In what became a much-celebrated event, Litening equipped Mirage 2000s took out the Pakistani battalion HQ atop Tiger Hill with pinpoint accuracy. 1000 lb. bombs fitted with IR seekers were used extensively against vital C3I facilities. The Mirages tracked ground targets from 15 km out and then released their weapons at about 6km and holding the lasers onto target at the closest of about 3-4 km. This allowed them to remain well outside the envelope of enemy air defenses. As mentioned earlier, the conflict also exposed some of the limitations of the attack fleet and tactics. In particular, battlefield interdiction was found to be of greater utility than close air support in the mountains. It also alerted the air force to the ever present dangers of operating in a MANPADS (and indeed SAM) rich environment. The IAF lost two fighters, one MiG-27 and one MiG-21M, and an attack helicopter over Kargil. While the MiG-27 was lost because of an engine flameout due to ingestion of smoke and debris, the MiG-21 was lost to a SAM while searching for the downed MiG-27. It is now appreciated that a lack comprehensive of countermeasures (chaff/flare dispensers) across the MiG-21 fleet contributed significantly to the tragedy. Until Kargil, only the MiG-23BN, few Jaguars, and a handful of MiG-27s were fitted with automated countermeasures (in addition to the air defence types). Upgrading the self-defense and jamming capabilities of the rest of the attack fleet has now assumed a sense of urgency and base repair depots have taken on the task of upgrading chaff/flare dispensers.

The bulk of the IAF’s attack fleet is relatively young, most of the aircraft having been procured since the 1980s. The MiG-27 forms the backbone of the IAF’s tactical strike aircraft, equipping some eight squadrons and one training establishment. Three squadrons of MiG-23BNs support these. Their sophisticated electronic warfare capability has caused them to be called “most modern” of IAF strike aircraft. Five squadrons of Jaguars form the IAF’s deep penetration strike fleet. The IAF expects all of these types to remain viable for the near future. Both the MiG-27 and Jaguar are expected to remain in service until 2020. To this end, a comprehensive sensor and electronic warfare upgrade program has been initiated. The IAF’s commitment to keeping the Jaguar in service for many years to come has been re-affirmed by its decision to order two more batches of the type. A 1999 order for 17 two-seaters is currently under production. An additional 20 single-seaters have been ordered this year. Extremely versatile Mirage 2000s and Su-30s complement the dedicated strike fleet.

In addition to fulfilling overland strike duties, the IAF is tasked with the providing tactical air support to the navy. One Jaguar squadron has been specifically earmarked for this role on the western coast and is equipped with a mix of Sea Eagle armed Jaguar IS and IMs. Additionally, the IAF is in the process converting a MiG-27 squadron to cover the eastern coast. These aircraft operate in conjunction with the Navy’s own air assets – including Sea Harriers and Tu-142s.

The 1990s have seen the IAF’s strike fleet take on the additional task of delivering nuclear weapons. The Jaguar was the first aircraft evaluated for the role and was found too sluggish with the first generation gravity bombs. Consequently, Antilope equipped Mirage 2000s have taken on the task of providing India with a viable nuclear deterrent. It is now believed that the compactness of the second generation of nuclear warhead has allowed the nuclear delivery role to be taken on a by a larger number of aircraft – namely MiG-27s and Jaguars. It can reasonably be expected that in the future the Su-30 is likely to provide the backbone of India’s manned deterrent force. It is also believed that the IAF is entrusted with the operation of India’s emerging nuclear missile force. Unspecified numbers of Prithvi SRBMs and Agni IRBMs form the basis of this force. It should be noted that as the size and sophistication of the missile arsenal grows manned delivery platforms will loose a great deal of their importance. As things stand today, the IAF offers adequate deterrence vis-à-vis Pakistan, however the situation vis-à-vis China is less clear. Unfortunately, until the Indian missile arsenal reaches maturity, India’s ability to inflict unacceptable damage on China remain restricted. While the IAF is likely to remain the sole strategic service for some time, it is likely to be joined by the navy when the latter deploys cruise missiles and if its lease/purchase of Tu-22Ms materializes.

Reduction of force levels and increased technology

The IAF has accepted for sometime that the increased costs of maintaining a modern and effective air force in the future would necessitate the need for a reduction in force levels. Consequently, procurement and upgrade programs since the late 1980s have emphasized the need to extract the maximum out of every aircraft. This means two things in practice. First, it means that all existing aircraft will be the subject of upgrades that make them more lethal and enhance survivability. The installation of new radar, avionics, weapons aiming system, electronic warfare suites are all consistent with the IAF’s prevailing philosophy. Second, the IAF has decided that all new types of fighters added to inventory will be multi-role – the Su-30MKI and LCA are both designed to meet this requirement.

Where possible, existing platforms are being adapted to multi-role use. Indeed the extensive upgrade package for the MiG-21bis gives it a true multi-role capability. Similarly, trials are in progress to provide upgraded MiG-27s with a secondary air-air capability. The integration of the pod mounted Komar radar will allow the MiG-27 the ability to operate BVR AAMs such as the R-27 and R-77. With the imminent withdrawal of all three of Eastern Air Command’s MiG-21FL squadrons, the MiG-27s will have to don the air defense mantle in the east, in the absence of any permanently based air defense units in the region. The quest for additional Mirage 2000s also fits this pattern. It is yet unclear whether the Mig-29 upgrades will bestow the type with multi-role capability.

The IAF’s 1990s projection of a leaner meaner force for the beginning of the 21st century is likely to be quite accurate. The force will be meaner and more capable. It is also likely to be smaller. The last remaining MiG-21FL/M squadrons are likely to give up their aircraft in the near future, as is the solitary MiG-23MF squadron. Although the relative age of the latter unit’s airframes and the training role that they fill, will likely allow them to outlive the older MiG-21s. If IAF decides to restrict the number of MiG-21bis upgrades to 125 airframes, we could expect to see a more substantial drop in number of operational squadrons. Hypothetically speaking, if procurement and modernization programs remain at present levels, by 2005 we could expect to see total numbers for fighter squadrons decline from the current peak of 39 to 32. The capabilities of newer aircraft ensure that the older MiG-21s need not be replaced one on one (even if cost permitted). For example, a single Su-30 can deliver as much ordnance as a squadron of MiG-21FLs and at greater ranges, and with greater accuracy.

The desire to reduce the multiplicity of combat aircraft types in IAF service is unlikely to produce any significant results for the next decade or so. The retirement of MiG-21 and MiG-23 variants will reduce the number of types in service from 10 to 7. Indeed, as is underscored by the extensive modernization programs, most of these aircraft remain too useful to discard. MiG-21/MiG-23/27/29, Mirage 2000, Jaguars, and Su-30 are likely to fly side by side well into the next decade. And while the multiplicity of types has not adversely affected the IAF’s combat performance, it does make logistics more complicated. However, increased commonality between avionics and other sub systems across the fleet is expected to make maintenance and logistics easier than they have ever been. Not only will this fleet be capable of delivering larger amounts ordnance more accurately over greater distances, but can also expect a greater level of survivability thanks to the increasing availability of force multipliers.

Emphasis on force multipliers

The IAF has been slow to induct force multipliers. While quick to deploy sizeable numbers of EW, ECM, and Reconnaissance assets, the IAF lacked an in-flight refueling capability and AWACS for years. Until the arrival of the Su-30s, only two aircraft types came with plumbing for in-flight refueling – Jaguars and Mirage 2000s. However, the IAF had the refueling probes of these aircraft removed in service. Until the early 1990s, the IAF remained a largely tactical force in its outlook. The prevailing view was that in case of a war with Pakistan, all major targets could be reached without the need for in-flight refueling. It was envisioned that any conflict with China would remain largely localized, again putting all targets within easy range of its aircraft. However, nuclearization and an expansion in the size of the IAF supporting aircraft forced a reconsideration of this view. The need to deploy specialized aircraft for duties such as Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) and the lengths of time that such aircraft would have to kept airborne created a pressing need for an in-flight fueling capability. The first in-flight refueling trials were conducted between IAF Jaguars and a RAF VC-10 tanker on loan as recently as 1996. Since then, the IAF has placed orders for a number of IL-78 tankers. It is expected that eventually eight such aircraft will be acquired. In the interim, the IAF has inducted UPAZ buddy refueling system for its Su-30s, Mirages, and Jaguars. The MiG fleet too is being equipped with in-flight refueling capability as part of their upgrades. In the context of nuclearization, the introduction of in-flight refueling provides the IAF with a rudimentary, if somewhat less than secure, deterrent capability against China.

The deployment of MiG-21s as airborne radar pickets in 1971, provided the IAF with an early introduction to the benefits of Airborne Early Warning (AEW). Unfortunately, an initial paucity of funds and an eventual inability to find a suitable platform set the IAF’s efforts to acquire an AEW/AWACS back by many years. The IAF evaluated the Soviet A-50 in 1988 and rejected it for being incompatible with the existing air defense grid. Recent efforts to build a such a system indigenously has been hampered by the inadequacy of the trials platform (a Hs.748) and the loss of one prototype (of three) along with the R&D team. The need for an AWACS was sorely felt during the Kargil war in 1999. Consequently, the IAF has resumed its search with much vigor. A pair of A-50s with the new Shmel-2 radar was leased from the Russian AF in May of this year to help familiarize the service with operation of such systems. The IAF is reluctant to purchase the A-50 “as is” because, as in 1988, it would be a challenge to integrate the system with the Indian air defense set up. The IAF is also unhappy that some of the information processing for the A-50 has to be done via ground stations. The IAF would like to customize the system with Indian and non-Russian electronic subsystems so that it can be integrated with the Indian air-defense grid with less difficulty. For this reason, it will still be sometime before the IAF fields a viable AWACS/AEW force. The service has a requirement for up to six such aircraft.

There are two further dimensions to the IAF’s quest for force multipliers – namely, EW and Reconnaissance. The IAF has rather extensive ELINT gathering and reconnaissance assets available. The bulk of the ELINT aircraft (B707, An-32, and B737) are operated under the auspices of the Aviation Research Center (ARC) and photographic reconnaissance assets are operated by directly by the IAF. Scores of MiG-21MRs and MiG-23BNs form the backbone of the tactical reconnaissance force. For strategic reconnaissance the IAF deploys squadron each of Canberra PR 57/67 and MiG-25Rs, complemented by a few Gulfstream III SRA-1s fitted with oblique cameras, which can look deep into enemy territory. Additionally several types of combat aircraft can be fitted with reconnaissance pods. It is expected that the MiG-21MRs are will be withdrawn in the near future. However, the IAF is looking at potential upgrade packages for the Canberras (both P 67s and B (I) 58 versions) in order to keep these forty-year old aircraft in service until 2010. Most recently, the IAF has acquired the Viten Vicon reconnaissance pods for use in strike squadrons, in order to give then an autonomous reconnaissance capability. The recent introduction of high altitude unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) gave the IAF its first significant experience with real-time reconnaissance capability. It is expected that in the next 5-7 years the defense forces will deploy dedicated satellites to enhance their intelligence gathering capabilities.

The IAF accepts the fact that losses in men and materials are to be expected during the course of combat operations. However, the IAF has invested quite heavily in trying to make sure that such losses are kept to a minimum. Budgetary constraints notwithstanding, the IAF has attempted, with some success, to create a comprehensive countermeasures force. Specialized aircraft have been acquired to support strike packages with ECM and ECCM cover. Stocks of anti-radiation systems – both missiles (ARMAT, Kh-25MP, Kh-59) and drones (Harpy) – have been diligently built up for this purpose. A number of MiG-23 airframes have been modified for SEAD duties with ARMs. It is also understood that the both of two-seat Jaguars currently under production will augment existing SEAD capabilities. The Jaguars greater endurance may have contributed to its selection as the primary EW support aircraft for the future.

Improvements in C4I and land-based air defense

Nuclearization of the Indian subcontinent has important implications for the future of both C4I and land-based air defense. Cognizant of this, the IAF has been working continuously since the early 1990s to shield and harden its communication network/nodes against nuclear attack. This is critical because of the second strike doctrine adopted by India. As the principal operator of India’s nuclear weapons, the IAF’s C4I network must be able to survive a first strike. In addition to the radiation hardening, it is understood that several levels of redundancy have been built into the network. The IAF has also undertaken the task of incrementally upgrading the strike fleet with EMP shielding.

The IAF already fields a formidable (in a regional context) ground based air defense system. India’s air defense network is essentially divided into two parts – the Air Defense Ground Environment System (ADGES) and the Base Air Defense Zones (BADZ). These two components are closely linked and share information relating to air defense tasks. The ADGES and BADZ along with their associated sensor network and SAM units provide India with an extremely potent defense against both Pakistani and Chinese manned aircraft. Additionally, SAMs and fighters of the Navy also defend sensitive nuclear installations along India’s western coasts. The ADGES is currently being upgraded with the new Indian and Israeli radar. The Pechora SAMs which form the backbone of the IAF’s SAM units are also undergoing upgrades which will see them fitted with more sensitive seeker heads. The IAF is also looking at the Akash to provide it with the next generation SAM.

The emerging challenge to the air defense network is defense against ballistic missile attack. Over the last two years, the Indian press has been awash with reports that the government has sanctioned the building of an ATBM defenses. The IAF feels that the limited ability of the current sensor network to detect and track missile launches needs to be substantially upgraded. Furthermore, the Russian S-300 SAM is being considered to provide the backbone of ATBM defenses. While the system has undergone several trials in India (and may even be deployed in limited numbers), the IAF and the government are wary of relying excessively on the baseline system which has been compromised. Negotiations are underway for Indian to acquire a transfer of technology for the indigenous production of an S-300 derivative with Indian developed electronics and subsystems. It is likely that technology developed for the Akash SAM will be incorporated into any Indian manufactured S-300 derivative. Indeed, it is believed that the Akash SAM and the associated Rajendra phase array radar have some ATBM capability. The creation of an effective ATBM screen is high priority for the IAF but it will be many years before such a screen is operational.

Having dealt with issues covered by the air power doctrine, I now turn a discussion of the IAF’s supporting arms.

Transports and Helicopters

The IAF has a sizable fixed and rotary winged transport fleet. While not as glamorous as their counterparts in the fighter stream, the IAF transport and helicopter formations contribute more than half of the IAF’s annual flying hours. Operating out of some of the world most dangerous and inhospitable airstrips, the IAF’s transport and helicopter formations play a crucial role in keeping the Indian Army and Air Force supplied. During last the Kargil operations last year, transport pilots were the unsung heroes of the war – flying day in and day out to maintain an uninterrupted air-bridge to the world’s highest battle zone. Indeed post-Kargil the transport squadrons are logging almost 30% more hours than their counterparts in the fighter stream. India’s airlift capabilities are significant. The ability to airlift the equivalent of a brigade plus their equipment at a time easily gives the IAF the largest military lift capability in Asia.

Two squadrons of IL-76 provide the IAF with its heavy lift capability, some 1,080,000 kg in all. These aircraft regularly operate out airfields in Ladakh situated at over 10,000 ft above sea level. The IAF is considering replacing the engines of these aircraft with western engines with a view to increasing operating efficiency. Increased logistical commitments in the aftermath of Kargil have caused the IAF to revive plans to add to its IL-76 fleet.

The An-32 from the backbone of the IAF’s medium lift capabilities. Originally equipping six operational squadrons and a training unit, several of the type has now been put into storage. The An-32s were hit hard by the chaos in the ex-USSR as spares became harder to obtain. In response to these problems, the IAF successfully fitted several An-32s with An-12 power plants upon the retirement of the latter, and put a number airframes into storage. Although the spares problem is no longer as acute as in the early 1990s, the IAF has seen fit to keep the type flying with four operational squadrons and prevent wear & tear on the rest. The IAF still maintains one and a half squadrons of Hs.748 military freighters. The retirement of these aircraft in the near future is bound to affect the IAF airlift capabilities. It is not yet clear what aircraft the IAF considering as replacements for the type, although a fleeting interest has been shown in the ATR-42. The An-32s will also need replacements by the end of the decade as spares become harder to come by and airframe life will rapidly expire. The IAF Do-228 light transports are relatively new and the type is still in production in-country and one can expect the type to stick around well into the future.

The IAF helicopter fleet has come a long way from its humble beginnings. The IAF currently operates dozens of helicopter units, including three dedicated attack helicopter units. The “Hip” family is the workhorse of the IAF helicopter fleet. Hundreds of Mi-8/17s fly everything from liaison to assault missions. The Mi-17 fleet was quite active over Kargil and one of the type was lost in action. The recent deal to add 40 new Mi-17-1B helicopters to the IAF, is consistent with the IAF policy to replacing the older Mi-8s with its more modern and powerful stable-mate. A number of Mi-17s are also to be upgraded with sensors such as Forward Looking Infra Red (FLIR) in order to help augment the attack helicopter fleet. The IAF’s attack helicopter fleet comprises of between two and three Mi-25/35 units. The Mi-35 recently underwent a comprehensive upgrade in Israel. It is also understood that there is solitary Chetak unit for anti-armor operations. Additionally, the “Hip” family can be fitted with a range of guided and unguided weapons. The IAF flies several Cheetahs and Chetaks in the liaison, SAR, and training roles. These types will eventually be replaced by Advanced Light Helicopter from Hindustan Aeronautical Limited, that has recently entered production. The IAF also operates a solitary unit of Mi-26 heavy-lift helicopters. The prohibitive cost of operating the type means that they are usually employed on special duties that are beyond the capabilities of other aircraft in the force. There is an ongoing tussle between the Army and IAF, over control of the attack & assault helicopter fleet. The former argues that the optimal deployment of these aircraft is only possible when ownership rests with the service that is expected to benefit from them.


The IAF offers a very rigorous flying training schedule for its pilots. Before being assigned to operational squadrons, pilots are expected to log over 300 hours of flying at the basic, intermediate and advanced levels. However, maintaining the very high standards of training will pose a challenge for the air force in the new century. The problem is particularly acute at the advanced fighter training level. The problem arises form the age and unsuitability of the MiG Operational Flying Training Unit’s (MOFTU) aircraft. As of now fighter pilots are expected to log 125 hours on the unit’s MiG-21FL and UM before being assigned to squadrons. The some of these aircraft are now over 30 years old and in very poor state of repair. The MiG-21FLs were phased out of Indian production in the mid-1970s hence spares for the type are very difficult to come by. Whatever spares are available are second-hand. Furthermore the early generations of MiG-21s are unforgiving aircraft and pushing over a certain AoA at over 600 knots, sends the aircraft into an uncontrollable spin. Old airframes together with the fact that many IAF pilots go straight from basic training to MiG-21FL/UM explains the high accident rates for the type. In addition to the human cost, this has an unfavorable impact on morale for younger pilots. The IAF has been trying for years to purchase suitable Advanced Jet Trainers (AJT) to ease the transition to high performance aircraft. Both the Hawk and Alpha Jet were evaluated in the 1980s, but funding problems & dithering on the part of the government kept IAF from placing orders. More recently, the IAF has revised its interest in purchasing the Hawk (the Alpha Jet being long out of production). However, Britain’s inability (and reluctance) to refurbish Indian Navy Sea Harriers in the face of a US arms embargo have thrown into doubt the UK’s ability to provide support for any Hawks that may be purchased. With the acquisition of AJT hanging in the air, the IAF’s training problems are likely to get more acute. It is unfortunate that neither the IAF nor the Ministry of Defence has shown any interest in turning the HJT-36 intermediate trainer, now in development, into an AJT.

After a bad patch in the early 1990s, the IAF has been able to restore training in operational squadrons to their normal levels. Increased use of simulators have made a substantial difference to IAF training programs in recent years by making enhancing safety and preserving airframe life. Advanced fighter training has received a boost with the acquisition of Air Combat Maneuvering Instrumentation (ACMI) systems for the Tactics & Air Combat Development Establishment (TACDE) at Jamnagar. TACDE now offers courses in EW and helicopter combat. It also provides Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) facilities to the Sea Harriers of the Navy.

Manpower Issues

During the 1990s, India has experienced the highest levels of economic growth since independence. For the armed forces, this growth has had positive as well as negative consequences. On the positive side, economic growth has allowed them to benefit from larger budgetary allocations. On the negative side, an explosion in private sector jobs and salaries, have lured many away from careers in the armed forces. This is not a problem unique to India. Even wealthier countries, such as the United States military, have problems filling vacancies with suitable candidates. According to the Minister of Defence, the IAF was 500 pilots short of its authorized strength of 3347 in 1999. While the IAF still manages to maintain an adequate pilot to cockpit ratio and smaller force levels may yet alleviate some of the problems, the shortages are disturbing. The IAF will have re-visit its personnel policy not only for pilots, but also for the technical branches as these are also likely to be affected by a greater demand for technical skills in the civilian sector. The recent decision to recruit women into the technical and flying branches has been a step in the right direction. By enlarging the pool of applicants, the IAF is sure to raise the overall quality of entrants.

Some Recommendations

The IAF is a thoroughly professional and increasingly well equipped force. It has emerged stronger through very trying times at the beginning of the 1990s. One should, however, not underestimate the challenges that lie ahead. The IAF, I am sure, is quite conscious of its own operational deficiencies and a discussion of these issues is quite clearly outside the scope of this paper. However, based on emerging trends one can offer a number of macro recommendations that can only benefit the IAF in the future.

The Kargil war demonstrated the importance of joint operations between the services. After some initial setbacks and disagreements, the Army and the Air Force evolved a satisfactory, if somewhat ad hoc, mechanism for joint operations. This, unfortunately, was a temporary arrangement brought on by demands of war. The lack of a more formal mechanism for inter-service co-operation hampers an optimal use of the armed forces. The question of “jointness” and service integration is essentially political and is dealt with in a preceding section and I shall therefore not pursue it further.

The biggest challenge facing the armed forces in general, and the IAF in particular, is the recruitment of suitable manpower for future needs. It is inconceivable that the IAF, or any air force, can offer compensation packages on par with private sector in a fast growing economy. Nor should they try. To this end, the IAF should adopt more an imaginative recruitment policy. Instead of listing amounts for base salary, house rent allowance, flight pay, etc. in its recruitment brochures, as is the case now, the IAF should highlight the intangibles that the private sector could never provide. The promise of adventure, camaraderie, the lure of fast jets and a chance to serve one owns country is something that draws many young people towards the IAF. This is not to say that material benefits do not matter – they do. However, a professional air force can not be built on the size of compensation packets alone. Judging by the number of daily inquires that we at Bharat Rakshak receive, there are many dedicated young men and women who are interested in a career with the IAF – and not just in the flying branch! It is ultimately to the IAF to reach out and encourage such people. And this is only possible if the IAF raises the profile of its recruitment drive. Taking a leaf out of the Army’s PR campaign would be step in the right direction. Backseat videos, documentaries and advertising campaigns in the media are the best way for the IAF to reach out to the public.

There are other measures that the IAF can introduce to tide over personnel shortages. These shortages should be expected to remain a perennial feature. The pyramidal structure of any armed force ensures that each year large numbers of qualified individuals are lost through a natural process of attrition. Many people leaving the service do so with between 10-15 years of service. These individuals retain the physical and mental capacity to carry out a variety of operational tasks. Many of these retirees are often still willing to help out, given the opportunity. The IAF should consider instituting a reserve system that can exploit this trained pool of manpower. The institution of a reserve system along the lines of the United States National Guard system merits some thought. In addition to helping fill peacetime shortages, a reserve system would enhance the IAF’s war making potential. Additional ways in which manpower management can be improved includes the secondment of administrative and facilities officers to oversee the administration of facilities. This would allow the command and operational staff to remain focused on their primary task.

Overt nuclearization of the Indian subcontinent behooves the IAF to take up NBC training with greater urgency. While essential units are well versed with the procedures of dealing with an NBC attack, much more education is required. The air force has an important role to play in helping formulate disaster management policies in the face of unconventional attacks.

Last, but by no means the least, changed geo-political circumstances mean that the IAF should no longer rely on uninterrupted flows of arms and equipment from abroad. The spares crisis of the 1990s and recent Sea Harrier episode highlight the need for greater reliance on in house maintenance and production. More recently, the Israeli decision, under US pressure, to cancel the sale of a Phalcon AWACS to China highlight the dangers of excessive dependence on outside suppliers. While there are no quick fixes to the production dilemma, the IAF can do much by ensuring that it builds up substantial stocks of critical spares and ordnance. The co-production of PGMs, avionics, and engines should be encouraged where possible.

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