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A host of challenges greets India’s new Air Chief

C. Uday Bhaskar writes: One of the main problems confronting Chief of Air Staff, Vivek Ram Chaudhari, is that of IAF’s depleted assets

Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhary speaks during a press conference, ahead of the 89th Air Force Day in New Delhi. (PTI)

Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari assumed office as Chief of Air Staff on September 30 and hit the ground running in his maiden media interaction, ahead of the 89th anniversary of the Air Force on October 8. With a woman officer accusing a male colleague of rape at the Air Force Administrative College in Coimbatore, ACM Chaudhari assured the media that the Indian Air Force (IAF) will not show any “latitude for such misconduct.” Rape cannot be condoned anywhere, much less in the Indian military, which will begin inducting women into the prestigious National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla.

The IAF has played a stellar role in defending India, beginning with the 1947-48 war for Kashmir. The exploits of Air Commodore Mehar Singh are legendary for the innovative use of air power in the most challenging operational environment. While the combat power of the IAF was not deployed in the 1962 war with China for reasons that have more to do with the reticence and ineptitude of those at the apex of India’s higher defence, the Air Force has risen to the occasion when called upon. This includes the 1965 and 1971 wars; the daring strategic lift wherein a transport aircraft landed on a distant island in the Indian Ocean (the Maldives) without so much as a reliable map, let alone a safe runway; the Siachen glacier helicopter landings with rudimentary equipment; the launching of precision-guided munitions in the 1999 Kargil war — and regular humanitarian assistance and disaster relief support during natural calamities.

The new Air Chief has a wide spectrum of challenges to address, including the rewiring of India’s military into new theatre commands, the reservations expressed by the IAF about its “support” role and the visible depletion in operational air assets due to obsolescence and lack of new platforms. This is unfolding at a time when the country is coping with the Covid pandemic and its consequences on the exchequer, as also the geopolitical flux that includes the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the setback in Galwan apropos China which continues to fester.

The decline in platforms is stark and from a strength of 42 combat squadrons in 2002, the IAF now operates barely 30. ACM Chaudhari noted that this shortfall in numbers would remain through this decade. The purchase of 83 Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) will be a fillip even as the sturdy MIGs are finally phased out.

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A more optimistic scenario is envisaged for the next decade, when the IAF hopes to induct the indigenous fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) and the Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) — a new platform that would be built in India with a foreign entity, the “original equipment manufacturer” (OEM), and thereby move up to 35 squadrons.

While this is a highly desirable wish list with ambitious timelines, the reality is bleaker. The AMCA is “under design” and India’s track record in the design and manufacture of indigenous fighter aircraft is cost- and time-intensive. As regards the MRFA, the request for information for 114 jets has just been issued. The Rafale experience and the long delays associated with it would suggest that speedy selection of an OEM will be elusive.

Even as there are plans to create new theatre commands and allocate existing air assets to the new formations, the depletion in numbers merits urgent review. Former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar, has been more forthright and has cautioned that based on the acceptance of necessity accorded by the Ministry of Defence, the combat strength of the IAF will decline to 27 squadrons in five years and will come down to 19 in 10 years.

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Air power is becoming technologically more refined with unmanned platforms, cyber-space linkages and AI advances. The inherent trans-border nature of this military capability needs astute professional and political husbanding. China has demonstrated the degree of suasion and intimidation that airpower can bring to bear in relation to Taiwan.

Acquiring credible aerospace power with a meaningful degree of indigenisation will need a greater degree of national resolve, professional integrity and resource allocation than is the case now. A reality check about the quantity and quality of India’s air power and the roles it can undertake should precede its disaggregation to theatre commands in the run-up to India@75.

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 8, 2021 under the title ‘Rewiring the force’. The writer is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi.

First published on: 08-10-2021 at 04:00:20 am
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