Sinews for the Indian Air Force

-Air Marshal K.C. Cariappa (Retd), IAF



It has been stated that the Indian Air Force (IAF) exists to ensure that our skies remain inviolate in peace and in war. Therefore, with that in mind, and considering economic constraints, the armed forces, and Air Force leadership specifically, must look far ahead into the future and not restrict its vision to the near term. It must not be lulled into a state of complacency because political indications portend a safe, war-free future. This will require a fine balancing act between what it would like and what can be afforded. The state of euphoria that obtained just because of the satisfactory outcome of the recent talks in Islamabad is no surety that peace will prevail. Even now events have proved that our optimism was premature. Even the Joint Working Group that was established in Rajiv Gandhi's time cannot guarantee that our relations with the People's Republic of China (PRC) will remain harmonious for all time to come. As with Pakistan, where the "bone of contention" is Kashmir, so too is the territorial dispute over vast areas occupied by China in 1962.

It may be all very well to suggest that the three countries accept the "line of control" as the international border in the hope and belief that all will be well thereafter. But will it? Maps1 published in 1954 show a vast chunk of Indian territory in the north-east, Nepal and Bhutan as being areas illegally ceded by the British at various points in time starting from the first half of the 19th century. Can we expect these "claims" to be forgotten and that the map was an aberration? Or, should we expect that this issue could raise its "ugly head" once China has attained the status it seeks, and what is today virtual reality? Will pragmatic, astute leadership in Pakistan finally accept the futility of war with India and accept the status quo as of now? Will we as a nation accept what has been forecast on our behalf where "world power" status is concerned and not do anything substantial about it in the belief that we are already one of the centres of power in Asia? Wishful thinking will not make it happen. We will have to stave off international pressures which are even now being applied, to struggle and to make sacrifices to attain that stature. Development and defence preparedness will have to go hand in hand, and for this to be meaningful, it will be necessary to clearly identify our priorities and our threat perceptions, in both the short and long terms. Paul Kennedy has stated that the Pentagon today realises "...that military power rests upon adequate supplies of wealth, which in turn derive from a flourishing productive base, from healthy finances, and from supeiror technology."2 He goes on to say that "...economic prosperity does not always and immediately translate into military effectiveness, for that depends on many other factors..."3 and Edward Luttwak elaborates by saying, "Technology or no technology, in the reality of warfare...the intangibles of leadership, command experience, tactical ingenuity and skill of troops are much more important than material factors."4

Over the last few years Air Force leadership has often talked about a "lean and mean" Air Force. It is debatable whether it was meant as an exercise in semantics and being used as a fashionable catch phrase, or did circumstances foil the implementation of such well meant statements? Today, if we are to believe that the Air Force is serious about actually trimming the extra personnel and material then the hard decisions will have to be taken, sooner rather than later, to give meaning to the professed statement. The "financial crunch" is here to stay for a long, long time and the armed forces, especially the Air Force, the most "high-tech" equipment intensive of the three, will have to be pared to "sinew and bone"! This is in the long-term financial interests of the nation. For too long has our country been forced to spend enormous amounts on defence, and even that has not been enough. Our procurements have been reactive to whatever arms purchases have been made by Pakistan. This, alas, is not the fault of the armed forces but that of the decision making process at government level which has blamed financial constraints in delayed decision making resulting in a "penny-wise pound-foolish" policy. As a result, when purchases have been made as a "knee-jerk" reaction, the country has had to pay much more than the original price. But that is in the past, hopefully.

Today, if the IAF is not to be a burden on the exchequer, CAS must look at force reductions which would have a "domino" effect on the overall AF budget. Reductions will automatically mean fewer personnel, fewer bases and, therefore, reduced infrastructure. Therefore, reduced salary and maintenance costs resulting in a more manageable Air Force and in a more responsive Ministry of Finance.

There are perhaps nearly 50 major Air Force airfields or bases, and a large number of smaller ones that require year round maintenance. These establishments have been necessitated and located across the length and breadth of the country not only because of the perceived threat and strategic depth that is afforded. Another reason is because of the various types of aircraft in the inventory and their capability, or lack thereof, to fulfill the many and varied tasks that are expected of the Air Force. Some aircraft have limited "radii of action" which means that if they take off to fly to their target with a full bomb load they would have to land somewhere on their way back to refuel before returning to base. The other alternative is to replenish them in the air for which they would need to be suitably modified, and Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA) should be in the Air Force inventory. In the absence of this facility, these aircraft would, therefore, of necessity, have to be based close to the border, making them and those bases vulnerable to enemy attack. To thwart such attacks, the airfield would need to be defended by a variety of measures, "passive" and "active". The former requires protective "blast pens", one for each aircraft that is based at that station. These reinforced concrete structures can withstand all but a direct hit, with each costing over Rs one crore; then there should be semi-underground shelters to protect vital support facilities such as fuel and ammunition storage, the command and communication infrastructure and a myriad sensitive sections which make an airfield an effective operational base. Further, these airfields could be put of action by the runways being "cratered", or by the use of time-delay bombs and sub-munitions dropped by the enemy and which are set to detonate at irregular intervals thereby disrupting the "runway rehabilitation" or repair process. The equipment for this very vital task is an expensive and inescapable need on all airfields. Till such time as the IAF acquires the required sophisticated equipment, it will be "manpower intensive" with reliance on civilian labour forces to perform this dangerous job. "Active" air defence measures would require interceptors and surface-to-air missiles for long range air defence, and low level air defence artillery for close in protection to take on enemy aircraft which may have penetrated the multi-layered air defence screen. To take the battle to the enemy in the offensive role, the "range limited" aircraft would need to be replaced either by deep penetration multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) such as the recently acquired Su-30. These aircraft could be based well away from the border making them almost invulnerable to enemy air action. Alternatively reliance would have to be placed on the as yet unproved, conventionally armed, liquid-fuelled Agni/Prithvi class of surface-to-surface missiles.

By surrendering some of our forward air bases, the politician and the bureaucrat alike would be delighted, as it means many thousand hectares of valuable real estate being made available for whatever use they may have in mind. There is also the safety factor which affects the resident civil population and the Air Force. Our cities and towns are unfortunately, particularly uncaring about the disposal of garbage and refuse which attract thousands of carrion birds. These are a particular hazard to all aircraft and more so to single-engine military jets which are most vulnerable during the take off and landing phases when they are not as manoeuverable as at normal operational speeds. The hazard is twofold; first, to the unknowing civil population who may unfortunately live in an area where an aircraft has crashed, and then to the pilot, who more often than not will attempt to steer his stricken aircraft away from populated areas in an attempt to save lives and could in the process lose his own.

The Threat

The only two countries that threaten India militarily are Pakistan and the PRC. The former with its nuclear capability, does so in the short term, and perhaps for some time into the future. The latter does so in the long term, after it has attained the superpower status to which it aspires but is reluctant to acknowledge. Besides, China is not really concerned about any real challenge being posed by India to its primacy in Asia. As militants are fighting a proxy war on behalf of Pakistan in Kashmir, and the infamous Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is doing its damndest to destabilise the country in other areas, so too is Pakistan fighting a proxy war on behalf of China by constant "sabre-rattling" and keeping us on edge. This is forcing India to spend vast sums to counter the threat posed by Pakistan thereby weakening the already precarious state of the Indian economy. Further, contrived leaks in the Press make for good copy which encourages India in its penchant for "knee jerk" reactions. As long as there is tacit understanding between these two countries which will always remain covert, but which surfaces from time to time, then the hysteria over their possessing "nuclear-tipped" missiles and the availability of other weapons of mass destruction will always be the spectre looming in front of our "leadership"!


At one time India was seen as being a satellite of the erstwhile Soviet Union whose interests were inimical to her own. Then the world order changed and that once Great Power disintegrated into oblivion and India was no longer seen as a threat. At about the same time, India accepted Chinese hegemony over Tibet thereby improving the strained relationship somewhat. The Joint Working Group set up during Rajiv Gandhi's tenure as PM augured well for future relations. Meetings were held and apparently a tacit understanding arrived at agreeing that the status quo over the disputed areas in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh would remain as "thorns in the flesh" which did not need to be extracted. This seems to suit us well because it creates a sense of security(?), or are we being lulled into complacency by "conning" ourselves into believing that we have only one adversary to contend with. General Sundarji believes, "There are some who think that there has not been genuine reorientation of Chinese policy with regards to India and that the Chinese speak with different voices depending on whether their visitors are from India, Pakistan or the USA."5 He goes on to relate an amusing anecdote when some Americans delegates at a meeting hoped to provoke Chinese apprehension with respect to the Agni missile. The Chinese delegate is supposed to have said. "We have no intention of targeting or firing nuclear weapons at India; India will not fire nuclear-tipped Agnis at us unless we hit them first, so we are not worried! Why are you...?"6 Could it be that India's nuclear capability (if we possess it) is of no serious concern to them? It is also interesting to note that as far back as 1995, the Chinese postulated that India did have operational nuclear tipped Agni missiles. Does this not give food for thought as to why then so much nuclear and missile support is being provided to Pakistan? While the Chinese delegate's statement referred to may be comforting to the politician and the pacifist, it is the military man whose life is on the line. The PRC's continued and indeed increasing support to Pakistan, economically, militarily and specifically nuclear-technologically must be viewed in the light that China is fighting an undeclared "low cost" long-term war against India with Pakistan as its proxy. The Chinese are practising Sun Tzu's doctrine of bloodless victory. Further, the most recent statement made by the PRC leadership on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of their armed forces that the country's economic boom will be made use of to further modernise them is something which needs to be taken note of.


Recent US actions and its continued reluctance of confront China in its nuclear support to Pakistan have brought about a new dimension to Indo-Pak relations at a time when there seemed to be a breakthrough in the offing. As a result, the euphoria that followed the talks between the two Foreign Secretaries seems today to be a "damp squib." K. Subrahmanyam in an article in the Times of India7 suggests that Nawaz Sharif does not really "call the shots." Any dispensation in terms of Indo-Pak relations is made by the Army who have the necessary backing of the Pentagon. Here it is interesting to highlight the similarity in strategic thought between Pakistan and China. Malaysian strategic analyst Razak Baginda questions the inconsistency among the three tiers of power in China and states, "The (PRC) Foreign Ministry would make a position clear in meetings with ASEAN, but then you get action taken independently by the PLA."8 It is the "military-industrial complex" that are the real brokers where US interests in this region are concerned. Thus, State Department briefings, prognostications and reassurances should be considered mere platitudes and taken for what they are worth.

It has long been acknowledged that Pakistan is no military threat, conventionally. The fear, however, about irresponsibility of the finger on the "nuclear trigger" forces India to spend thousands of crores of rupees to counter possible acts of desperation. Sadly such expenditure is inescapable because there are no such things as "nuclear umbrellas" or guarantees. We must fend for ourselves. Though there have been numerous statements about our nuclear capability, nothing has been stated explicitly. What is the Indian public to believe, especially when in this day and age, truth is stranger than fiction, politically speaking!! That conundrum is another issue and goes beyond the scope of this paper.

The Economy

Paul Kennedy states in part, "...there exists a dynamic for change driven chiefly by economic and technological developments which then impact upon...military power..." Then, quoting Engels, he says, "...nothing is more dependent on economic conditions than precisely the Army and the Navy."9 There was no Air Force in those years!!! Today military establishments realise that their strength depends "on adequate supplies of wealth, which in turn derive from healthy finances and from superior technology."10

India like all other countries must prioritise between improved infrastructure and the standard of living of its peoples, the needs of agriculture and industry, and the requirements of the armed forces. Simultaneously, while being confronted with the hard decisions, the government permits debilitating subsidies on food, fertilisers and on some petroleum products which it can, but will not, reduce. As a result, the two major sectors that have been severely affected are defence and power. Though recently there have been enormous amounts released for the Air Force, it does not mean that the service is as balanced as the Chief of Air Staff would like it to be. It is with this in mind that "Affordability" is discussed.


Air Defence

If the Air Force is to do its job, the crux lies in affordability. The basic issue is "numbers or sophistication?" There are many arguments for one or the other, but it must be emphasised that in both cases the integrity of the nation can be safeguarded. This can be done by either deploying a large number of not very sophisticated aircraft which will be relatively inexpensive, or by using a smaller number of much more expensive "state-of-the-art" aircraft. The former will often be single-role mainly but will have limited multi-role capability. However, there are many other tasks that require specialisation such as reconnaissance, deep penetration, and long range interception/escort of the deep strike aircraft which will require dedicated machines, with specially trained crews, special avionics and, of course, the upper range of special weapons. Then, these aircraft would have to be available in sufficient numbers to make their procurement meaningful. There are the other types of specialist aircraft too, for transporting personnel and equipment, for airborne early warning and for air-to-air refuelling. Helicopters in their various roles are also an essential part of the overall inventory. All this costs a great deal of money and is the dilemma that faces the service. What is the Air Force to do? Continue as at present with a "mixed bag," or go in for large numbers of unsophisticated aircraft but buy "hi-tech" weapons? A third option is what the IAF, like many other Air Forces, has exercised. It has contracted for a "mid-life update" on some of its aging fleet which would give those aircraft a lease on life. This involves retro-modifying a particular type to almost "state-of-the-art" levels as is being done with the MiG-21.

Though relatively unsophisticated, these aircraft will need a great deal more by way of "support" to provide the pilot with "situational awareness". This means that the pilot is always aware of his position with relation to any other (especially enemy) aircraft in the vicinity, or the knowledge that his aircraft is not being "tracked" by enemy ground or airborne radars, and that neither ground nor airborne missiles have been launched at him. Thus, what is required is an airborne warning capability, the much vaunted Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) or the Airborne Early Warning (AEW) which have sensors to warn the pilot of any danger. They will provide him the necessary information to help in achieving his task, be it in effecting a successful interception or a strike on an enemy target in his hinterland. Of course, there is the other way of providing such information, to a limited degree and one which is current. This method requires a long, extensive and multi-tiered radar network all of which must be interconnected. It is technical manpower intensive and will mean additional bases, infrastructure and the paraphernalia required to meet the needs of an Air Force station.

AWACS is an expensive way to go about the business of air surveillance, but the personnel requirements will be somewhat reduced and the possibility of enemy aircraft intruding our space in war will be made known well before it actually happens. In war just one aircraft will not be enough because of the extent of our land borders and our coastline. The eastern seaboard is safe just now, but it may not always be. For the present, however, it is the threat from the west and along our northern frontiers that will have to be catered for. Given the size of our country and our perceived threats, and also allowing for maintenance and operational reserves, planners would need to consider figures of up to 50 per cent more than the numbers of aircraft to be deployed. This would amount to mind-boggling costs, but then nothing in defence can be had on the cheap. Also, there would have to be a "mix" of both the AWACS and static radars. The former would be used more in war, and the latter in peace to keep an eye on the infamous "Purulia type" of border violation. It must, however, be remembered that nothing is truly "fail-safe."

As James Fallows questions in his book National Defence, "Consider a confrontation between one F-15 and six MiG-21s. Would you rather be the pilot of the F-15 or one of the six MiG 21s?"11 Today with an upgraded MiG-21 and availability of AWACS and air-to-air refuelling capability this is a moot point and one which will probably have as many views as there are pilots!!!! Yet, the fighter pilot breed is one which will always want the best, and if asked to weigh the options pragmatically, given available resources, I would still not hazard a guess on their behalf!! Or does the answer lie in listening to the sceptics who feel that the day of the manned fighter is numbered and it would be more cost effective to depend entirely on surface-to-air and surface-to-surface missiles, leaving the human being almost entirely out of the decision making loop?

Strike Aircraft

These are a variety of aeroplanes which would be used to provide massive firepower support to the Army in the tactical battle area when the latter's own artillery and attack helicopters cannot tackle enemy positions, or when it is fighting with its back to the wall. These aircraft are heavily armed and can attack a wide array of targets. As a rule they would be used to carry out interdiction missions which involve attacks against the enemy's "centres of gravity," that is, those targets whose destruction could have a major impact in reducing the duration of the war. The IAF presently uses its fleets of MiG-23/27, Jaguars and some of the MiG-21 variants in this role. Also these aircraft when suitably modified can carry out reconnaissance missions within and beyond the tactical battle area.

Transport Aircraft

These can be divided into three categories viz. heavy, medium and light. The first would be used to carry outsized loads, have long range capability and could position troops and their equipment over large distances in the shortest possible time if inter-theatre moves are required either in war or as a contingency measure. During peace-time their utility is somewhat limited because such requirements very seldom arise. However, it must be stated that in the last few years our transport aircraft have been used frequently to position paramilitary forces whenever there has been a "panic" call from one state or another because of law and order problems. Operating these large aircraft is expensive, amounting to some lakhs of rupees per flight, but the pilots need to keep in touch with their roles and would require to fly a certain number of hours every month. Keeping such aircraft on the ground would be wasteful, and, therefore, it could be considered making available these aircraft to civil agencies, private or government for whatever consideration may be considered adequate.

So, should the Air Force go in for large numbers of such aircraft? Or could they perhaps rely on the national "flag carriers" to meet the war-time requirement, or for such contingencies as occurred during the Gulf War in 1991 when Air India and Indian Airlines were pressed into service to evacuate Indians in the Gulf states? Since these are large, bulky aircraft, they would need long runways and suitable infrastructure at the take off and destination airfields. Such airfields would not for obvious reasons be too close to the border, therefore, will be no threat to the safety of crew or aircraft. Should there be a need to land closer to the battle area, Air Force aircraft would do the needful. Perhaps not more than 24 such aircraft of the Ilyushin 76 class would be required, provided at least some 18 aircraft are available at all times. Further, these aircraft can also be modified as air-to-air refuellers thereby extending the range of our fighter aircraft which would no longer have to be based close to the borders as at present. The change of internal configuration is not as expensive as buying specialised aircraft for the purpose. Another possibility is the use of these aircraft suitably modified for the AWACS role.

The medium transport aircraft is the mainstay of the entire transport fleet and sufficient numbers will always be required given our responsibilities in the north-eastern states, particularly in Arunachal Pradesh, and in Ladakh. The aircraft doing this job at present is the An-32, which has load capacity of approximately four tonnes. It has all the requisites of the demands of the Air Force, but were there to be an aircraft capable of carrying up to 10 tonnes and operating from restricted field lengths then the numbers required would be much less than what there are at present. There are a number of such types available in the market today but these too are expensive and cannot be bought off the shelf. However, some time ago there was some talk of a collaborative/joint venture for producing a civil aircraft. In fact, this is something which must be actively pursued with say Malaysia and Indonesia. Were this to come to fruition, such an aircraft could be suitably modified to meet the Air Force's operational requirements. The savings would be enormous.

Then there is the light utility aircraft required for communication duties such as conveying commanders and their staff from place to place in the course of their respective duties. At present, this is being done by the 12-seater Dornier which has very limited capability, further reduced in our pre-monsoon and monsoon climatic conditions. Perhaps were the same aircraft to be updated with modern avionics and undergo some other modifications, it would meet that requirement too.


Coming next to helicopters, here too their classification is somewhat similar to the transport fleet. These versatile machines have a number of important roles in peace which include casualty evacuation, flood relief missions and VVIP communication flights. Among the "heavy" helicopters we have the largest in the world, the Mi 26. Its peace-time utility is extremely limited and in war too one wonders whether the concerned commander would expose this lumbering "giant" to enemy action. Now that we have it in the Air Force inventory perhaps it could be leased out to interested commercial or governmental departments with a strictly "for cash" deal and not as a paper transaction.

The medium and light roles are presently being flown by the Mi 8/Mi 17 and the Chetak/Cheetah respectively. These helicopters are used for tactical purposes or for rescuing pilots who may have been "downed" by enemy action The Mi 8/Mi 17 will be replaced by the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) which will be available in Army and Navy versions too.

Army and naval aviation have specialised roles which they are best qualified to execute. The former would require attack or armed helicopters to counter enemy armour in the tactical battle area, or perhaps for counter-insurgency tasks. In addition, other helicopters would be required to evacuate battle casualties and provide for the movement of commanders in or around the battlefield. There is no reason why the Air Force should continue to fly such aircraft which are meant solely for the Army. By freeing itself of such commitments the Air Force will have that many more pilots available at a time when there is an acknowledged shortage. The Navy requirement of Anti-Submarine Warfare, and Search and Rescue (SAR) at sea has been recognised as a specialist task for which they are best suited and at no time has the Air Force ever sought to fly such missions. There was a time though when the IAF did operate Maritime Reconnaissance (MR) aircraft, but this has been a Navy responsibility for over 20 years, as it should be.

In helicopter operations there is one responsibility which should remain with the Air Force and this is in special (or clandestine) missions. Since both the Army and the Navy have such requirements to be carried out over land, though it might involve either transiting over the sea or even dropping commandos off shore, the Air Force is best suited for the purpose. This would ensure economy of effort and conservation of resources, especially when funds are hard to come by. Besides, such special missions would be mounted to "take out" vital targets or such that are termed as "centres of gravity." Given the importance of such missions there is need for a joint training establishment where Army, Navy and Air Force personnel work up together and each knows the capability and the limitation of the other. State-of-the-art helicopters would be required to guarantee that such missions are always successful even though the hostage rescue fiasco in Iran showed that this cannot always be so. In that case it was proven that command of the mission was exercised by the Pentagon, and that the crews involved had never flown with each other before.


If finances are to be the constraining factor that they presently are then we cannot have the luxury of having a large inventory of surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles (SSM/SAM). There must be commonality in procurement where the latter are concerned. This is something which should not be difficult to achieve because our prime source of supply is Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Similarly, in the matter of the SSM, there is no doubt that these should be the operational responsibility of the Air Force. This statement is not to suggest any "empire building," a much used phrase in the service, but is being viewed as an operational expedient, in much the same manner as would be suggested for the use of space vehicles. It must be made clear at this juncture that by SSM is meant those missiles whose operational range is more than 50 km; shorter range missiles would remain with the Army. The Navy requirement is altogether different and would not come under the purview of this suggestion.

Other Operational Dimensions

This would encompass the use of the ether and space which are more and more critical for war prevention or the successful conduct of "war fighting." This author has proposed in an earlier paper that there must be commonality in the vital sphere of communications and in Electronic Warfare (EW). Though there have been and still are Joint Services Committee to discuss precisely these areas, that "jointness" in thinking still seems to evade the forces. In the last three years, there have been attempts to correct the situation, but it is only with single-minded purpose to do so will the vital "economy of effort and resources" be effected. Our use of space as a medium to further our military capability remains somewhat esoteric.

The vast expanses of space are even now being exploited for peaceful and military purposes. Communications and reconnaissance facilities will be greatly enhanced were this area to be viewed jointly and with the Army and Navy providing their requirements to the Air Force so that each is able to obtain the information required.

Re-equipment of the Air Force

Today as per published material available almost anywhere at all the IAF comprises some 40 combat squadrons of air defence, strike, close support and specialist aircraft. Then, there are about 10 squadrons of heavy and medium transport aircraft and a few light, utility aircraft. In addition, there are nearly 20 helicopter units. If the next 15 years are to be looked at in terms of what the Air Force will have vis-a-vis the current holdings, the picture will be very different because some of the fleets will have become obsolescent and would need replacement. At the moment, the only new additions that we are told will appear will be additional Su-30 aircraft and the LCA as yet an unproved entity. There is apparently nothing yet to replace our transport fleet 10-15 years hence. And where helicopters are concerned, the Advanced Light Helicopter will augment but cannot replace the medium and light Mi-8/17 and the Cheetah/Chetak. In a further 15 years beyond that the picture will be very different unless there are some new alignments, or collaborative/joint ventures because the country cannot "go it alone" in an increasingly expensive investment.

It would appear that in the first instance, the Air Force would need to look at the possibility of "mid-life updating" other combat fleets which may initially be an expensive proposition, but is one which should look after our short-term interests. Among the fighter fleet, perhaps the MiG-27 could be considered as this strike fighter will meet the requirements of offensive operations to complement the greater radius of action of the Su-30. I am not sure whether the Jaguar at this stage of its life can be retro-modified, and where the Mirage 2000 is concerned it should hold out till at least 2010. The MiG-29 too will be getting "long in the tooth" by that time and hopefully the LCA will be able to function as true multi-role combat aircraft with somewhat limited radius of action. Since the ability to attack the enemy in depth is essential, what will confer this capability is the availability of air-to-air refuelling (FRA) capability.

FRA brings us to the requirement of modernising the transport fleet whose roles and tasks have been covered earlier. Aircraft like the Il-76 and the An-32 have been around for some time now and cannot be expected to continue much beyond 2015. However, here too the possibility of refurbishing them, of updating their avionics and other state-of-the-art modifications should see the Air Force through till such time as collaborative efforts and joint ventures take shape. The offer by Airbus Industrie to build the Airbus in partnership with HAL could be the opening we seek.

In the realm of helicopters, again the present work horses should be given a fresh lease of life through updating/retro-modifying; the possibility of buying something off the shelf is not one which can be easily afforded. Though ALH will make an appearance, its capability does not allow it to take the place of the existing fleets. It has a limited payload and as yet its performance at high altitude is as yet unproved.

Give a carte blanche, a realistic "wish-list" would to my mind read as follows:

Fighter Aircraft

Su-30 3 squadrons

Mirage 2000 2 squadrons

MiG 29 3-4 squadrons

MiG Bis (updated) 10 squadrons

MiG 27 (updated) 3 squadrons

LCA 5 squadrons

Transport Aircraft

Il 76 24 aircraft to be used as follows: Inter-theatre troop/equipment lift. FRA for which modification would be less expensive than buying dedicated aircraft for AWACS/AEW.

An-32 60 aircraft for tactical and intra-theatre commitments and training of transport crews.

Dornier 30 aircraft for communication duties suitably modified to improve their utility for local conditions.


Mi-6 4 helicopters to meet any specific heavy lift requirements of the services.

Mi-17 At least 6 squadrons

ALH At least 6 squadrons

Cheetah At least 8 squadrons

It will have been observed that no mention has been made of updating/replacing either surface-to-air missile units, or radar units. Similarly, no discussion has been initiated in respect of training aircraft, be it for basic training, and transport and helicopter conversion. For the latter, the operational fleets should be able to spare enough aircraft to meet those requirements.


If the Air Force means business about "shedding the fat," then the time to start the process is now. It cannot rely on the mandarins in South Block to make any prognostications about the political alignments in the next five years let alone the next thirty. In conjunction with the Army and the Navy, the Air Force must carry out its own "crystal ball gazing" to "appreciate" what threats it is likely to face till at least 2030, and then to work to a plan with that time-frame in mind. Discussions with the other two services will give Air Force planners an insight as to what and how they propose to prosecute operations. There cannot be any doubt in anyone's minds that a future war, if it must be fought, will have to be a synchronised, syncopated operation. Each service has its very definite role to play, and it is the business of Air Force leadership to emphasise that no operation of war can be successfully conducted unless the air space above is free from enemy activity. If the IAF is to play its part, then it must ensure the freedom of the skies by taking the war to the enemy, and in doing so, its aircraft must not be hindered by single service myopia and petty minded rivalries and jealousy. In the same vein, the Air Force too must respect the requirements of the Army and the Navy.