IAF chief discusses acquisitions, integrated command proposal, LoC and Maoists with SUSHANT SINGH
Air Chief Marshal B S Dhanoa took over as Chief of Air Staff at the end of last year. A few months into his stint, the fighter pilot, who commanded a frontline squadron in the Kargil War, became the first Air chief to write a letter to all officers of the Indian Air Force, asking them to be ready for operations at short notice.
Excerpts from an interview:
The IAF, it has been said, needs 45 fighter squadrons to fulfil its role of countering a “collusive two-front threat”. With only 32 fighter squadrons now, how confident are you of fulfilling that role?
Reduced numbers place a severe handicap, akin to a cricket team playing with seven players instead of 11. Though we are operating under challenging conditions, we have devised mitigating strategies. The government has signed an intergovernmental agreement for procurement of 36 Rafale aircraft in direct flyaway condition. Further, inductions of the remaining Su-30 MKI aircraft and Light Combat Aircraft are in progress… When the planned inductions of the Single Engine Fighter under the strategic partner fructify, IAF will attain its authorised strength of 42 squadrons, which is expected by the end of the 15th Plan Period and which we feel is the minimum strength necessary to “dominate” a two-front conflict. The plan is to have an optimum mix of single/twin-engine aircraft and light/ medium and heavy aircraft to cover all terrains and operational areas in India. The IAF is likely to induct two squadrons of Rafale aircraft. In addition, four squadrons of Tejas are also planned to be inducted. Eventually the structure would be four types of fighter aircraft. IAF’s plans of prosecuting a two-front scenario with available resources are based on a judicious force employment philosophy. Once, the strengths/capabilities are augmented, we would be in a better position… to dominate air space.
Amid talk of an appropriate response to Pakistan for its activities on the LoC, does the IAF give options to the government? A kind of “surgical strikes” from the air?
The use of air power in response to heinous acts or terrorist attacks is an option that is to be taken by the government. IAF is prepared for any eventuality.
In its inputs to the Shekatkar Committee report, the IAF has argued against the proposal for integrated theatre command. What are your objections? Are you in favour of a permanent chairman of Chief of Staffs Committee?
The IAF is of the firm opinion that reorganisation of the military should suit the requirement. The spirit behind integration is synergy in action and unity of purpose. This unity of purpose, advocates of the concept of ITC argue, is best met by unity of command and can best be met by dividing the subcontinent into theatres of command. You could argue that this concept was worth attempting if we had older types of air assets whose reach was limited, for which they would have to be placed in specific locations and their efforts concentrated to achieve the military objectives in a sector.
But with our modern acquisitions, it is possible now to exploit the agility and reach of our platforms to near-simultaneously affect the battles in the two fronts. Air power needs space for manoeuvre to exploit its varied characteristics of surprise, shock and speed. If restricted to one sector, the potential of this arm of the military will not be optimally exploited, and thus Air Force desires to have independence for execution so that the purpose of conflict is best served. We are not against integration of functions, like communications, intelligence etc, but we feel joint planning and execution for achieving national military objectives is the key. Given our
geographic space, this has to be done at the national level, not subdivided within theatres.
The creation of a permanent chairman, CoSC, is an ongoing process and supported by the three services. He would be the fourth four-star officer who would also be responsible for the various tri-service commands. The service chiefs however, will continue to exercise operational control and training over their respective services and have direct access to RM (Raksha Mantri). The proposed set-up will allow HQ IDS (integrated defence staff) under the permanent chairman to function as an effective advisory system to the government… The issue is still under consideration by the political leadership.
Where does the IAF currently stand on the use of air power against Maoists?
The Indian policy to tackle internal security situations does not envisage the use of kinetic means of force application on our citizens through the medium of air. Thus, our roles are restricted to providing intelligence and surveillance to forces on the ground. We use remotely piloted aircraft extensively for intelligence collection as well as helicopters, mainly for speedy movement of forces between areas of operation and casualty evacuation… We do not envisage carrying out air attacks on our territory, to prevent any sliver of a possibility of collateral damage. But we have the capability and are in a position to strike as and when we are cleared to do so by the government.
Few women have become fighter pilots after the first batch. Why?
The three women fighter pilots are at present undergoing stage-III semester-II fighter training on Hawk aircraft at Air Force Station, Kalaikunda. They have completed their simulator training and are being progressed in flying training, with performance commensurate to the stage of training. The criteria for selection of women pilots for the fighter stream in IAF are the same as that for male pilots. Selection is based on women pilots opting for the fighter stream followed thereafter by selection based on individual flying skills and inter se merit. In June 2016, three women trainees had opted for the fighter stream and they were recommended for the same, having met other laid-down criteria. In the succeeding courses, there have been women opting to be fighter pilots but they have subsequently not met the skill capability and qualification requirements for selection into the fighter stream.
Are there other gaps in modernisation that you are concerned about?
One of our main focus areas is to build up to the authorised strength of fighter squadrons at the earliest. Air Force being a technology-intensive service, modernisation is an ongoing process. Slow acquisition throws it out of gear. Other key capabilities include strengthening of the air defence of the country by timely induction of LRSAM (Long-Range Surface-to-Air Missile) & Close-in Weapon System. IAF is also in the process of acquiring additional combat support platforms like Airborne Warning and Control System and Air-to-Air Refuelling.
A lot of equipment with the IAF are of Russian origin, which have faced a problem of poor serviceability. Sukhoi is a case in point, which was pointed out by the CAG too. How does the IAF plan to overcome that?
Sukhoi serviceability was facing some constraint during early 2015. However, this has improved. Enhanced serviceability was achieved by ensuring setting up of complete repair facilities at HAL division, overcoming engine reliability problems by design improvement and targeting improvements in high failure rate components to improve their reliability. This will be pursued so that even higher serviceability is achieved in the coming years.