Tuesday 04 October 2022, 04:32 PM
By AVM Manmohan Bahadur VM (Retd) | Bharat Defence Kavach | Publish Date: 11/10/2016 2:06:22 PM

New Delhi: Aerospace Power has acquired a unique niche in warfare due its indispensable position in any type of conflict. The success of operations over land and sea is largely dependent on the use of the third dimension, as a protective shield, for offensive action as also in combat support operations like C4 ISR – Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.  The rapid increase in technology has added to the exponential increase in the value that aerospace power has come to acquire in achieving security objectives laid down by the Government.

In India, the prime exponent of Aerospace Power is the Indian Air Force (IAF). For sure, the arm arms of the other Services and the civil commercial element of the Indian airline fleet too are major components of the nation’s air power, but the arm that carries the war in air to the adversary is the IAF. Aerospace power does not come cheap; it is prohibitively expensive, all the more for nations like India whose government has a large social obligation to fulfill. However, what is also true is that if India is to achieve its regional power ambitions, then a secure security environment is the prime requisite for other endeavours of the Government to be successful. The IAF has played, and would continue to play, a major role in ensuring this. This article looks at the strengths and requirements of the IAF, even as it expands to a well rounded force.

Fighter Fleet:

The media is agog with reports that the Squadron strength of the IAF is fast depleting; this is true and has been accepted by the latest Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, where-in its report states that the IAF is down to 34 Squadrons and will continue to reduce unles urgent remedial steps are taken. The IAF had proposed to overcome this with the induction of 126 Medium Multi Role Combat aircraft (MMRCA), a proposal that started almost a decade ago and resulted in the short listing of the Eurofighter and Rafale after a fly-off between six leading aircraft from five countries.

Eighteen aircraft were to be made abroad and the remaining 108 in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). As is well known now, the French Rafale was selected due a lower cost quote, but the negotiations on the role of HAL in the manufacture of the Indian-built numbers brought the talks to a standstill and only 36 aircraft will now come-in through a Government to Government deal. With MiG-21s and MiG-27s being phased out at a quick rate, the shortage of numbers is worrisome, especially as the Light Combat Aircraft, Tejas, being made by HAL has not been able to progress as per schedule.

The Tejas was supposed to have replaced the MiG-21 fleet more than decade back, but the programme, which started in 1983, has yet to reach maturation. The IAF will induct two Squadrons of Tejas Mk1 and four Squadrons of Tejas Mk2 but this is not likely to happen before 2020 and 2024, on a conservative estimate. Thus, it is vital that the 36 Rafales being bought are brought into the IAF a quickly as possible - -but even on a conservative estimate, the supply of all the 36 will take at least five years from the time the contract is signed.

The Sukhoi-30 will continue to be the mainstay of the strike and air defence fleet and the Mirage-2000, MiG-29 and Mig-27s are being given a new lease of life through very costly and expensive upgrades. It is vital that maintenance of these aircraft gets its due through well managed maintenance contracts. Media has been reporting the low serviceability of these fleets, and this is not a good sign as far as deterrent force projection is concerned.

Transport Fleet:

The transport fleet of the IAF has been considerably strengthened in the past five years with the induction of the C-17 Globemaster and the C-130 Super Hercules, both of which have formidable capability. The C-17, with its 70 ton payload, has true trans-continental reach which it showed during the recent evacuation of Indian nationals from Yemen. Similarly, the special ops aircraft C-130 has done yeoman service in Uttarakhand flood relief and Nepal earthquake, where very short runway strips were available for bringing-in relief material. The Il-76 fleet is going strong and would continue to be the link for air maintenance of our army troops in Leh and beyond.

The short haul 100 aircraft strong An-32 fleet has been the link with India’s remote forward areas in the North East. Most of the aircraft have recently been upgraded in Ukraine (though there has been a slow down due the unrest in that country) and would be good for another decade or so. The venerable Avro, inducted in the 1950s, would be replaced by the C‑295 made by Airbus Industries. This is indeed a novel project under which, 16 aircraft would come from abroad and 40 would be made in India by the Tata Group. It is for the first time that an aircraft would be manufactured by an agency other than HAL and it is hoped that India’s private sector would take off with this project.


The rotary wing fleet has got a new infusion of 159 Mi-17 V5 helicopters from Russia. These Medium Lift Helicopters (MLH) are the backbone of the IAF’s support to the Army during war and peace, as also in aid to civil power in the Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) role. The Uttarakhand and Srinagar flood relief and assistance to Nepal after the devastating earthquake this year were possible mainly through the enormous flying effort put-in by these machines. The Chetak/Cheetah fleet has become old and is due for replacement. It is understood that the twin-engined Ka-226 would replace it for the high altitude operations that the Chetak/Cheetahs have been performing for the past five decades. The heavy lift Mi-26 helicopter would be replaced by fifteen Chinooks and 22 Apache attack helicopters would be coming –in from the US for the anti-tank role. Both these machines are war tested and formidable in their own right and would add a credible punch to the IAF. Thus, all in all, the Rotary Wing fleet of the IAF is well placed for the next two decades at least and when one considers that HAL built Dhruv helicopters are also being inducted for the utility and armed role, the operational planners have a potent air asset to use in war and peace.

Air Defence Systems:

The IAF is the Service responsible for the air defence of the nation under the Union War Book. This gives it the authority for coordinating the air defence assets of the other two Services too so as to have an integrated air defence picture of the national airspace. Besides air defence fighters, the system consists of ground based radars, Surface to Air Missiles (SAMs) and anti-aircraft guns. Lately, Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft of the IAF have become important cogs in the air defence architecture. While the AWACS are new and so are some indigenous radars, there is an immediate requirement to modernize other equipment, especially the SAMs.

The Pechora, OSA‑AK and many Igla (shoulder fired) SAMs Units have approached obsolescence and are being fielded after having undergone many life extensions. Long Range SAMs and Medium Range SAMs from Israel have been contracted, but their projects are running behind schedule. The same is the case with Spyder point defence SAMs (also from Israel). The only shining beacon in the air defence set-up is the success of Akash air defence SAM system, which have been inducted into the Air Force and Army. One sincerely hopes that this drives DRDO into completing other missile projects, prominent among them being the Beyond Visual Range ‘Astra’ missile for fighters. Similarly, ground based radar projects need to be expedited so that dependency on foreign countries is minimised.


The Government is aware that indigenisation in the defence manufacturing sector has been conspicuous by its absence despite the support given to Defence Public Sector Undertakings and the DRDO. The Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) has been revised may times to enable the private sector to enter the defence market. Some changes were introduced in DPP 2013, including modification in the prioritisation hierarchy for categorization of procurements, so as to prefer Indian firms. The new Government has set up a Committee of Experts to revise the DPP so that soon to be issued DPP 2015 would address the many existing speed breakers in the indigenisation route.

The Committee has submitted its report in which it has made far reaching recommendations that are being studied by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) (the report has been hosted on the MoD website too). It is expected that, considering India’s dubious position as the largest arms importer of the world, wise sense would prevail and steps taken to facilitate defence manufacturing in the private sector. This is a seminal moment in the history of the Indian defence industry and the chance should be grabbed by both hands so that India regains its strategic autonomy, which at present can be interfered with by countries inimical to our interests.


The Indian Air Force is the guardian of the national skies and has proved its mettle in all the wars that India has faced since independence. As the country commemorates the 50 years of the 1965 Indo-Pak war, it is only right that operational gaps that exist are addressed in a timely manner. It would also be right for the countrymen and women to know that, despite the shortfalls in procurement, the men and women in blue have the experience, skill and determination to safeguard the sovereignty of India.

AVM Manmohan Bahadur VM (Retd)



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