Earlier this month, the Vice Chief of the Indian Air Force (IAF), Air Marshal BS Dhanoa caused a flutter when he said that the IAF doesn’t have an ‘adequate’ number of fighter aircraft to simultaneously protect the western and north-eastern borders.
“Our numbers are not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front scenario. The probability of a two-front scenario is an appreciation which you need to do. But are the numbers adequate? No. The squadrons are winding down,” said Air Marshal Dhanoa.
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The Vice Chief and his boss, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha have constantly reassured the public that the government is seized of the situation and is working towards ameliorating the shortfall. But what is the shortfall? Against an authorization of 42 fighter squadrons, the IAF currently has only 33 squadrons but the effective numbers are even lower due to poor serviceability and maintenance standards.
‘Troubles, they come in battalions: The Manifold Travails of the Indian Air Force’, a new report from Ashley Tellis, Senior Associate at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, validates the concerns of the IAF top brass. In his 88-page report, Tellis argues that IAF is handicapped both by diminishing numerical strength and a troubled force structure, and its inability to resolve the two dilemmas satisfactorily.These problems are made more dangerous, according to Tellis, because India’s major adversaries, China and Pakistan, are making concerted efforts to resolve their own airpower problems in ways that will make them dangerous challengers of the sort unimaginable barely a decade ago.
China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) now consists of more than 1,500 fighter aircraft and includes more than 600 advanced J-10 and Su-27/30 variants. This high-end component of PLAAF is somewhat less than the total combat strength of the IAF today.
Unlike India, China’s aeronautical research efforts have yielded dramatic gains with new aircraft, sensors, weapons, and signature reduction advances which will see the IAF face serious challenges on the ground from PLAAF in any future India-China conflict.
With the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), which has more than 400 fighters in service, the IAF has a numerical superiority of less than two-to-one. This is a considerable degradation from the 1980s when the IAF enjoyed a three-to-one superiority. If the number of aircraft which are operational due to maintenance and upgradation is taken into account, the IAF will find itself way below the advantageous ratio necessary to underwrite its obligations against both Pakistan and China.
Tellis fears that the situation is alarming for the IAF. By 2020, PLAAF is likely to have about 800 advanced fighters, and the PAF around 200 modern aircraft. This means that the IAF would need about 60 combat squadrons to deal to counter the challenges posed by a serious two-front threat. But when the IAF sought an authorization of 45 fighter squadrons a few years ago, the government approved a Government Authorised Establishment (GAE) of only 42 squadrons which it hopes to achieve by 2027.
The IAF also suffers from being “unusually diversified,” with “seven types of fighters, six types of helicopters, four types of airlifters, and three types of trainers, as well as tankers, new AWACS [airborne warning and control system] platforms, and a variety of remote piloted aircraft,” Tellis quotes in his book. This problem is bound to worsen with the IAF entering into final price negotiations for the acquisition of 36 Rafale fighters with France. The LCA Tejas induction is still in a limbo, and the future composition of the IAF portrays a depressing picture of India’s air combat potential a few years down the line.
In conclusion, Tellis goes to the heart of the problem: “These weaknesses highlight the central problem facing Indian security managers where the IAF is concerned: how do they resolve the tension between securing self-sufficiency in the production of advanced weapon systems and the need to maintain technological superiority over the nation’s adversaries for the purpose of successful deterrence? If India were capable of developing and manufacturing potent combat aircraft and their associated weaponry as well as the sophisticated combat support aircraft needed, this dilemma would naturally dissolve.”