Response Options: Future of Indian Air Power Vision 2020

R.V. Phadke, Senior Fellow, IDSA



Instead of further clarifying and illuminating the role of air power in national security, the 1991 Gulf War and the 1999 Kosovo air campaign raised a new debate about whether or not air power alone could achieve certain national security objectives.

This paper argues that air power will be increasingly used for power projection, deterrence, coercion and in more innovative roles even by those possessing modest air forces. It is clear that most regional and global players have learnt the lessons of the conflicts mentioned above and are busy adapting them to their specific needs and circumstances. This paper intends to examine the likely roles of Indian air power and the size and shape of the Indian Air Force to meet the national security needs of 2020. The vital roles of air power in future warfare include, (a) To avoid being surprised, (b) Deterrence through Punishment, (c) Information Dominance (d) Escalation Control and finally (e) Quick Victory or Conflict Termination on Our Terms.

This would be possible only if her air power is intimately linked to the process of formulating national security options and is used effectively to gain and maintain information dominance. To do this, the paper suggests that that the Indian Air Force be expanded to a sixty combat-squadron force. AWACs, air refuelling tankers, Cruise Missiles, UAV/UCAVs would also have to be inducted. In short, a modern high-tech air arm is unavoidable if India wishes to face coercive threats in the future. It will, however, be possible if India also builds a robust aerospace industry capable of designing and developing state-of-the-art equipment and aircraft.


Instead of further clarifying and illuminating the role of air power in national security, the 1991 Gulf War and the 1999 Kosovo air campaign raised a new debate about whether or not air power alone could achieve certain national security objectives. Many Indian strategic thinkers seem to suggest that neither of these examples has much relevance in the Indian context. The great asymmetry between the US and NATO Coalition forces on the one hand and those of Iraq and Yugoslavia on the other, appears to be the major reason for such a view. Most people however forget that the two wars highlighted the role technology played in giving air power the ascendancy that was only hoped for by its early proponents.

Air power employment in Kosovo also raised a number of other questions. Chief among these was whether or not the victory was that of air power alone or the threat of a ground war, Russia's withdrawal of support to Milosevic, and the role KLA played in the ultimate capitulation of the Serbian strong man. It is not, however, important if air power alone can do what its advocates believe it can, but how it can best be employed to meet India's security goals.

Another reason why we need to examine air power role in a different light is the way it has been employed in the recent past around the world. It is evident that in the uncertain post-Cold War era air power has emerged as a very attractive option compared to other military instruments especially when a long slogging match and the attendant casualties on the ground are to be avoided. According to Elliot Cohen," Air power is an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part, because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment."1 While this may be applicable in the case of the Western powers who might not be too keen to intervene in conflicts where the risk to their combatants were high, it should not cloud the real issue of the efficacy of air power employment in the future.

This paper argues that air power will be increasingly used for power projection, deterrence, coercion, and in more innovative roles even by those possessing modest air forces. It is clear that most regional and global players have learnt the lessons of the conflicts mentioned above and are busy adapting them to their specific needs and circumstances. This paper intends to examine the likely roles of Indian air power and the size and shape of the Indian Air Force to meet the national security needs of 2020.

One could safely begin with the 1995 analysis: 'Indian Air Force-Trends and Prospects' by George Tanham, a respected scholar of the RAND Corporation. Talking about the tradition of strategic thinking or more correctly the lack of it, he says, "Civilians dominate security policymaking and strategy in India. Because traditionally Indians do little formal strategic thinking, at least in the Western sense, the services must accordingly plan without clear guidance on national policy, objectives, and strategy". (Emphasis added)This has obviously had some adverse effects on India's defence planning. "Among the services, the army is dominant. It receives about two-thirds of the defence budget, is considered the main force in the defence of India against outside attack, and plays an important role in internal security." 2

Although India maintains the second largest air force in Asia, few people readily understand and acknowledge the enormous importance of air power. The term 'second largest' is in fact, quite misleading since the largest air force in Asia, namely the Chinese Air Force (PLAAF), has always been more than six times the size of the IAF. It seems that IAF's capabilities have not necessarily been factored into the overall strategic framework of the country. According to Tanham the operational experience of the three wars that the IAF has participated in, has not made any appreciable difference to its thinking or doctrine.3 Nor, would it seem that, it has been seriously considered as an effective military instrument to back national strategy. A brief look at the history of the last fifty-three years clearly shows that: -

l Her adversaries have surprised India on many occasions in the past.

l India has not succeeded in shaping her strategic environment or perhaps not made adequate effort to do so.

l Although clear indications of Pakistan's nuclear ambitions were available from the early seventies, India did not build enough international pressure nor resort to military action to stop Pakistan's nuclear programme.

l India is not merely a status quo power but has meekly accepted unfavourable changes to the status quo on many occasions.

All those who have studied the first Indo-Pak War (1947-48) would realise that without air power India would certainly have lost Srinagar, Poonch and Leh. And yet India did not take any significant steps to quickly enhance her air power punch in the years following that conflict. It is essential, therefore, to reiterate the vital roles of air power in future warfare which include, (a) To avoid being surprised, (b) Deterrence through Punishment, (c) Information Dominance, (d) Escalation Control and finally (e) Quick Victory or Conflict Termination on Our Terms. Here air power is referred to in all its dimensions and not merely combat air power or simply the capabilities of the IAF. A quick recap of the classical definition of air power would not be out of place here. "Air power is defined as the nation's capacity to impose its will through the medium of air or aerospace and includes the employment of all its aviation resources, civil and military, public and private, potential and existing".

Some assumptions are, however, necessary before proceeding further.

l India's minimum credible deterrent will be aircraft and land missile based for some years.

l Prithvi ranges would remain too short to qualify as a strategic deterrent.

l Agni is still some time away from operational deployment.

l The third leg of the triad, viz. the submarine launched missile, is still too far away in the future.

l In the interim, the Long Range Precision Strike (LRPS) element of the IAF will continue to be the only reliable platform for India's minimum credible nuclear deterrent.

l China is unlikely to relinquish her claims on vast tracts of Indian territory and will continue to pose a strategic challenge to India. China's military modernisation would add some 300 Su-30, 500 J-7/J-8 II/FC-1/J-10, AWACs, modern SAMs like the S-300s and a variety of Cruise Missiles in large numbers to her inventory; all under a reliable C3 I capability. This is already shifting the air power balance in the region. India has no option but to develop its combat air power to redress that.

l China's active military co-operation with Pakistan would also continue to help the latter modernise her air power including her missiles.

l China's continued co-operation with Myanmar and other littoral states would enhance her maritime presence in the IOR.

l Unless that country disintegrates due to internal turmoil and instability, Pakistan's larger goal of balkanising India would remain intact even if the Kashmir issue were to be resolved.

l Pakistan's quest for parity with India would force her to maintain a formidable air force. She will find the means to fund it through clandestine sale of narcotics. She will also continue her proxy war in Kashmir and other parts of India. She will continue to benefit from technology transfers from China, and may receive high-tech weapons from the Gulf countries, which can quickly upset the air power balance in the region.

l Pakistan's nuclear arsenal might not become too big. Even a few nuclear tipped missiles coupled with her 'First and Early Use' doctrine would be viewed by many as being adequate to deter India from launching a major war against her.

l To achieve a minimum degree of deterrence and security against these challenges, India would need missiles and combat aircraft that have the range that cover her immediate neighbourhood and her extended security sphere. China's capacity to build and maintain a sizeable military infrastructure in Tibet would become less critical once she has acquired the necessary complement of LRPS aircraft. Merely keeping a few obsolescent combat aircraft in the eastern region will not deter China. China's Su-30s with in-flight refuelling will threaten depth targets in the North and the East. So far India's focus has essentially remained on the West.

l The terrain in the North and Northeast favours the adversary as it does not permit sustained offensive ground action by India, further highlighting the role of air power.

l India's overall military strategy is founded on 'defensive defence and non-aggression'. This does not permit any proactive action and hence deterrence becomes even more important.

l India's economy will continue to grow at a modest rate of some 5-7 per cent per year and it would thus be possible to find the financial resources for the expansion of her air power.

Having outlined the likely challenges of the next twenty years or so let us briefly examine the future roles for Indian air power. As brought out earlier India's first need would be to avoid surprises. This would be possible only if her air power is intimately linked to the process of formulating national security options and is used effectively to gain and maintain information dominance. India would, however, have to develop, maintain and continuously fine-tune her surveillance and reconnaissance assets, both air and space based, so as to derive the maximum benefit. These will also have to be used regularly and intelligently to build a comprehensive strategic picture for timely decision-making. The next most important role would be that of strategic deterrence. India will have to build this capability based on Long Range Precision Strike (LRPS) fighter-bomber aircraft, Cruise missiles and UAV/UCAVs and other land based missiles. Without such measures it is likely that India may be subjected to coercion and 'salami slicing' as in the past. In fact, simply raising the alert status of these long-range forces can send a powerful signal to the adversary and dissuade him from embarking on a misadventure. Counter coercion strategies would call for a regular assessment of the strategic environment so that effective measures can be taken to shape the environment. This, in the author's opinion, is the only way to avoid a conflict from developing into a full-scale war. But only deterrence is never adequate as it may well fail. In such an eventuality a certain assured war waging capability has to perforce be developed with suitable force structures for the IAF. India would also have to enhance her strategic lift, AWACs, air defence and strike assets.

Air Power Mission

Air power missions can be summarised as: -

1. Air Superiority.

2. Air Defence.

3. Long Range Precision Strike (LRPS) for coercion, deterrence and for punishment.

4. Deep Interdiction

5. Strategic Reconnaissance and Surveillance.

6. Strategic Lift.

7. Operations in conjunction with the land and naval forces.

8. Aid to civil power.

These terms are self-explanatory and are well-known hence all that needs to be reiterated is that the air defence of the country will continue to be the most important mission of the IAF in peace and war but merely defensive measures cannot deter an enemy. 'Command of the Air' or more correctly 'Aerospace' will confer the necessary immunity from enemy interference but it is often forgotten that, 'with it anything is possible, without it everything is at risk'.4 It is so elementary that no serious student of air power can dispute it. Yet in India many serious strategists continue to question the need to gain air superiority before launching a major land campaign. The reason for this apparent lack of faith is perhaps historical and goes back to the post Second World War debate on the role of Strategic Bombing. Closer home the belief that air power mission is to support ground forces is rooted in the early experience and employment of the IAF during the Second World War, notably in Burma (Myanmar), and the IAFs overall composition. According to Benjamin Lambeth, "Throughout most of the Cold War period, 'strategic' air power was taken to mean long-range bombers and nuclear weapons, whose sole reason for being was to deter their own use. Everything else was written off as 'tactical' air power, whose sole rationale was to support US and allied ground troops in theatre land combat. Virtually no consideration was given to the potential ability of conventional air power to achieve effects independently that might, in and of themselves, determine the outcome of major wars".5

It is essential, therefore, that air power be seen as an instrument of national power and not merely as an adjunct to the army. What needs to be done is that the enemy's ability to wage war is carefully examined and each and every component of his military and economic might targeted depending on individual importance in terms of its effect on the outcome of the war. Air power is best employed when its shock effect is put to maximum use and hence a gradualist approach can and will most likely become counterproductive. Especially when faced with a strong opposing air force, air superiority becomes critical if more difficult to achieve. Control of the air or aerospace is achieved not by counter air operations alone. It means air dominance in every department including air defence, surveillance, reconnaissance and, intelligence gathering. Unless we can control the aerospace and more accurately deny its use to our enemies, Indian air power cannot play its rightful role in the nation's security. The ways of achieving it (air superiority) may be different but it is not a linear process. It is not as if all resources of the IAF will be used to first gain air superiority and only then would they be spared for other important tasks. But that is far from true. In any case attainment of air superiority implies that the enemy's air forces are prevented from effectively interfering with own operations. The major reason for this debate has been simply because the IAF has never had the necessary resources to undertake these tasks simultaneously. It has never really been allowed to grow to its rightful size. And although the IAF has been demanding more resources it has been seen as dragging its feet on providing direct support to the land forces. The IAF of the 2020s would need the means to perform its multifarious tasks effectively. Another problem has been due to the incorrect impression that use of air power is essentially escalatory. In fact future crises may demand surgical strikes against certain target systems simply to forestall a war. It is, therefore, the deterrent role of air power that will be highlighted.

Challenges Ahead

It will be evident from the foregoing that the security challenges to India will undoubtedly become even more formidable and that air power will play a key role in conflict prevention and resolution. India will thus have no option but to build up her conventional air power capability. Future wars will be characterised by restricted political goals that will further reduce the margin of error. Escalation control would become even more critical. Occupation of territory will become less important except as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table. Territorial gains may, however, constitute a significant factor in demonstrating the nation's will and for psychological effect. Lower levels of conventional preparedness will impose severe limits on war and may even further lower the nuclear threshold. Our adversaries may then indulge in "salami slicing' and force us to accept the changed status quo simply because we failed to respond to the challenge in time.6

The changing nature of war demands quick induction of massive firepower, not necessarily 'concentration of force' in Clauswitzian terms, as these forces would be vulnerable to nuclear and chemical attack. Massed armour battles would be extremely costly and difficult if not impossible.7 What then can air power do? It can by attacking runways and targets of strategic importance demonstrate the resolve of the nation, keep the enemy air forces down and shape the battlefield through interdiction for selective exploitation with combined all-arms groups. Air power will have to ensure command of the air before armour can be used even in limited numbers. Close Air Support (CAS) will of course be essential and critical when the plans go awry. Instead of entering into a futile debate on whether or not the IAF will provide CAS let us see the dynamics of it. The Americans see CAS as an integrated operation with the aim of furthering the design of the ground forces in a manner that their vulnerability is reduced. Do we see it that way? Some suggest that while CAS missions are used to support troops when they come under enemy fire, air strikes are used to attack opposition forces directly and (independently?) regardless of whether they are posing an immediate threat to own troops.8 In India however CAS is seen as a prerequisite to soften the opposition ground forces before an attack is launched. In other words air power is used as airborne artillery. It will be evident that 'Airspace Management' assumes critical importance in such scenarios. Pure CAS may even have to be left to armed helicopters once air superiority has been attained. These (the armed helicopters) would, however, have to be protected from the threat of shoulder fired SAMs of the Stinger variety. Fixed-wing fighters and attack aircraft can then fly above at higher altitudes with the AWACs giving them the necessary early warning and protection. This may, however, need a revamp of the existing air support organisation so that it can respond more correctly and meaningfully and of course more rapidly to emerging situations. Some feel that a two-star air force representative at the Corps HQ may prove helpful but only if we change our thinking.

The Shape and Size of the IAF

Before trying to make even a very rough estimate of the size of the IAF in the year 2020, let us briefly look at some global trends. According to the Teal Group (a US Consultancy firm) some 3000 fighters worth US $ 136.1 billion at today's prices will be procured globally over the next ten years. Incidentally some 4445 fighters were bought in the last ten years.9 Global Hawk, the latest long duration strategic reconnaissance UAV of the US has already completed its first Trans-Atlantic flight. It is said to have an endurance of forty-two hours at heights of over 60,000 feet. There is talk of miniaturising UAVs and building combat capable UAVs called the UCAVs. There is a heightened interest in employing robot-planes to strike deep into enemy territory. Airborne Lasers designed to neutralise enemy missiles in the boost phase are already being tested. The Europeans are planning to produce a strategic lift aircraft. China is reportedly acquiring some 300 Su-27/30 multi-role fighters in the next decade. A renewed interest in building significant air power capabilities based on new technologies is thus evident. UAE has just signed a deal for the purchase of 80 F-16 C/D Block 60 Desert Falcons.10 Other countries in the Gulf region are also buying modern combat aircraft and air defence systems. Many of these may be available to Pakistan in an emergency. Pakistani military personnel are known to be working in many of these countries as advisors, instructors and even operators. Sudden induction of high-tech weaponry can and has in the past resulted in critical asymmetries. We need to factor this into India's force structure plans.

The present assets of the IAF are woefully small for the task at hand. Historically, the IAF has always been short of resources. In 1947 it had some six and a half squadrons, which slowly rose to twenty-five by the end of the fifties although the planners had reckoned on a twenty-squadron force as early as in 1951.11 It was only in the aftermath of the Sino-Indian conflict that a forty-five squadron force was mooted. But even thirty-eight years later the IAF continues to possess some thirty-nine combat squadrons.12 What the IAF has been able to achieve in fits and starts is periodic replacements with available equipment that was usually of Soviet/Russian origin. This has had many serious adverse effects on the IAF's combat capability and more importantly its doctrine and thinking. Short-range aircraft meant that the IAF could play only a subordinate and supportive role. Most of its strike aircraft had limited range and, its interceptors little endurance as the same type of aircraft were used for both the tasks. The MiG-21 aircraft which was essentially a high level interceptor designed to stop the B-52 bombers during the Cold War, became the mainstay of the IAF. The Hunters, Mysteres, Gnats, S-22s, and later even the MiG-23/27 class of strike aircraft were essentially short on range and armament carriage. It was only with the induction of the Jaguar and later the Mirage-2000 multi-role fighters, that the IAF addressed these shortcomings. This inventory shows an enduring obsession with the Pakistani threat and an unplanned and unchecked multiplicity of types. The IAF has continued to emphasise air defence while hoping to get the best out of the existing rudimentary multi-role capability of these aircraft for strike missions. As a result both the strike and air superiority missions have suffered. Air Defence accounted for some forty-five percent of the air effort in the 1971 war. It would be easy to see the adverse effect of such massive defensive effort on IAF's throw-weight or offensive capability.

Limited range and armament carriage also entailed a larger effort to achieve the minimum necessary damage and hence greater exposure to enemy action and possibly attrition. The venerable Canberra, the only real bomber, played a key role in airfield and deep-strike missions in the 1965 and 1971 wars but it was too slow and defenceless to be used more aggressively. There is thus a need for a massive infusion of this capability into the IAF and multi-role/air superiority fighters are an unavoidable necessity if India means business.

Fighting in the mountainous terrain has been extremely costly. The costs of maintaining troops in Siachin and Kargil are well known. The IAF has been the virtual lifeline to our forces in the northern and eastern border areas for over four decades. The geography of the Northeast does not permit easy switching of ground forces even within the theatre. We will therefore be obliged to maintain a sizeable tactical lift capability and further build our modest strategic lift capability to transfer forces from one to the other theatre in the event of a two-front war. Armed and utility helicopters would also be essential for quick induction and withdrawal of special-forces teams. As brought out earlier it will, however, be necessary to give them self protection against shoulder fired missiles that are proliferating all over the world as an inexpensive answer to the firepower of the armed helicopter. The IAF would have to play particular attention to striking targets in the mountains. Even the use of the AJT type of relatively slow ground attack fighters in the mountains will require at least local air superiority as a prerequisite. Or else, the Sep 1, 65, scenario in which India lost four Vampires, might be repeated.

India's maritime air power assets also need to be examined. According to AVM Tony Mason, a respected air power analyst, "Maritime aviation roles, like others, have been affected by the changed environment of the 1990s. There is little prospect in the foreseeable future of large-scale blue water confrontation between the navies. There is potentially a much more significant factor influencing the future evolution of maritime aviation roles. It is the increasing involvement of carrier borne aviation in overland operations. There is thus a convergence of roles between the air forces and naval air arms".13 With India reportedly acquiring another aircraft carrier in the near future, the navy will be able to take care of its 'sea denial and control' mission more effectively. The carriers are, however, vulnerable when within reach of land based air power. Carriers are also dependent on shore based tanker support for fuel and logistics. It is axiomatic; therefore, to leave the task of engaging well defended land targets, which may also be too far inland, to LRPS aircraft of the IAF. Maritime patrol, ASW and surface surveillance will continue to be the tasks of the navy with the IAF providing the shipping strike element. The IAF will also have to develop its capability for amphibious operations in our vast island territories.

Having looked at the basic needs in terms of the teeth let us briefly look at some force multipliers. AWACs and Air Refuelling Tankers are absolutely essential since these will be an economical solution to our problems of air defence. While the AWACs will extend our air defence cover, they will also preclude nasty surprises, enlarge the operating envelope of our offensive elements, reduce attrition by timely warning, improve our ELINT capability and more importantly play a major role in conflict prevention as a CBM. The tankers will enhance the range and loiter time of our combatants, both defensive and offensive, and effectively increase the weapon load of the strike aircraft thus further enhancing the deterrent value of our air assets.

There is a major shift in the doctrine of the Chinese armed forces. They now advocate pre-emptive surprise attacks in a local border war to take the fight into enemy territory rather than the old philosophy of active defence. It is imperative, therefore, that India has a reliable surveillance, reconnaissance and intelligence gathering system. Of late the Uninhabited Air Vehicle (UAV) and the Combat capable version UCAV are increasingly seen the world over as an economical solution. India will have to pay greater attention to this technology. The Chinese are very seriously developing their cruise missile capabilities. The HN-1A is the ground-launched version of the HN-1B the air launched cruise missile with a range of some 600 Kms. These are reportedly capable of carrying a 90 kT nuclear or a 400-kg conventional warhead. These missiles have inertial guidance with terrain comparison and GPS updates for mid-course corrections, and use terrain comparison for terminal guidance with a TV camera that can operate in low light conditions at night. These missiles reportedly cruise at .9 Mach and at 10 to 20 metres above terrain. HN-2 and HN-3 with 1400 and 1800 Kms ranges are said to be under development.14 The threat is thus rapidly becoming more potent. Given their close collaboration with Russian design teams the Chinese have achieved significant improvements in the last ten years.15 Pakistan too will no doubt benefit from these technologies.

Having briefly examined the likely threats and tasks it can now be safely said that the IAF would have to grow to at least a sixty combat squadron force. Of these some twenty-five squadrons or 400 aircraft would be multi-role or Air Superiority Fighter (ASF) class. In any event the IAF will have to replace some 350 of its aged fighters in the next ten years. At least three dedicated squadrons for reconnaissance, three for Electronic Warfare (EW) would be the minimum inescapable requirement. In addition the IAF would need some fifteen squadrons for air defence and twenty strike squadrons. It would be prudent to go for a larger complement of upgraded MiG-29s which are currently being fitted with a new version of RD-133 thrust vectored engines.16 This would also help restrict the number of types. The IAF of 2020 could possess some 400 Su-30s, 150-200 Mirage-2000s, 150-200 MiG-29s, 80-100 Jaguars, some 150 LCAs and about 150 upgraded MiG-21 bis aircraft. At first glance a sixty-squadron force may appear too ambitious and unjustifiable. After all hasn't the country managed without such a massive complement of air power in the past, some may ask? Given the rising unit cost of fighter aircraft, some feel that it may not even be financially viable to aim for such a large air force. It is quite simple to see why India needs to create such a capability by 2020. The IAF today has some twenty-two air defence/strike squadrons. Of these the Mirage-2000, and some MiG-21 squadrons also perform Electronic Warfare (EW) and even operational training missions. At least some eight of these squadrons operate the MiG-21 FL and M series of the old generation aircraft. Some of these squadrons have also to perform Battlefield Air Interdiction (BAI) and Counter Surface Force Operations (CSFO) which includes Close Air Support tasks. Only some six MiG-27 and four Jaguar squadrons can really be classified as dedicated deep penetration strike squadrons. The three MiG-23 BN squadrons can perform only limited strike missions and are, in any case, too old. In addition there is the half Jaguar squadron for maritime strike and one of the MiG-27 squadrons is also expected to be tasked for the same role. It will thus be seen that the IAF today has only some ten dedicated strike squadrons albeit with limited range. None of these can engage any worthwhile targets in China and are barely adequate against Pakistan. How then can the IAF be expected to fight and deter aggression? It would be evident that the present force structure completely overlooks the needs of the eastern sector, peninsular air defence, shipping strike and most importantly the defence of India's far-flung island territories. Even when the contracted forty Su-30MKI LRPS arrive these would be woefully short of assuring adequate long-range strike potential. The existing strength of air defence assets leaves many gaps especially in the east and the south-west and would not deter a determined enemy from attacking high-value targets in the country's heartland. India is thus open to coercion through the medium of air. The addition of some twenty combat squadrons is, therefore, unavoidable if the tasks of EW, recce and air defence are to be fully met.

Some experts claim that the costs of modern fighter aircraft would become prohibitive. But the question is whether there is any alternative to building air power assets. AWACs, Flight Refuelling Aircraft, UAVs, will also have to be acquired and Heavy Lift, Tactical Lift, and helicopter assets enhanced. Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) such as the LGBs, ARMs would be needed in larger numbers.

The future requirements of SAMs and ground based radar, both early warning and GCI/high powered types, are not discussed due to space constraints but these would also need a hefty dose of modernisation considering that most of these assets are over twenty years old and belong to the earlier generation.

Measures Required

Unified Control. Let us now briefly examine the steps necessary to transform these totally justifiable but apparently ambitious projections into reality. Unity of command and control of air space is essential for effective air defence. Centralised control, not ownership of air defence assets is a truism but it often poses many difficulties. Without it there is a great chance of fratricide and wasteful employment of scarce and costly resources. George Tanham states, 'Surprisingly the Indian Army fields a larger number of SAMs than does the IAF, which may in some people's view, reflect the concerns of the ground forces about the IAF's inability to protect advancing elements in the field.' 17 This is an unfair comment. While in the author's opinion it is due to a lack of faith in the IAF's air superiority mission, such large holdings of SAMs can play havoc in the execution of air operations. Air Space Management would, therefore, have to be streamlined and made absolutely fool-proof.

Research & Development. Even a cursory glance at India's R&D and aerospace industry record of the past fifty years shows that the twin mantra of non alignment and mixed economy (with special emphasis on the public sector holding a monopoly of strategic or core industry assets), has taken its toll on the nation's capacity for rapid technological progress. While non alignment meant that sophisticated Western technologies were not available without strings, the public sector found it convenient to licence produce relatively old types of equipment for the major, at times the only customer, the IAF. The industry could never really win the confidence of the nation's air force and the IAF could not place more orders due to constraints of finances and urgent operational needs. The result was the development of a symbiotic relationship between them without either ever being allowed to upset this convenient arrangement. An indigenously produced aircraft was preferred even if it was expensive and unsuitable. The fact, however, was that the so-called indigenous effort was dependent on foreign suppliers to the tune of some 80 to 90 per cent. In the process India had no doubt developed a unique ability to absorb modern technology but could not become self-reliant in the aerospace sector. China, on the other hand, has reportedly produced 13,000 aircraft and a staggering 50,000 aircraft engines in the last forty or so years.18 Even allowing for some exaggeration these are impressive figures. China had also very successfully reverse engineered a number of Soviet aircraft when her relations with the erstwhile Soviet Union were almost openly hostile. This clearly shows that given the technology denial regimes, India would find it extremely difficult to make up the lost time. Joint ventures with Russia, France and other European aerospace giants appear to be the only option. India could, to begin with, concentrate on trainers, air defence radar and even commercial equipment. For example China has not only successfully modified the Rolls Royce Spey-202 aero-engine but has also fitted it in a derivative of MiG-23 airframe, the J-8-II.19 India's Cauvery engine project and the LCA show no sign of coming off the drawing board in the near future. The idea is not to simply denigrate Indian aerospace industry but to highlight the obstacles in the path of its progress. However well the Indian economy might do in the coming years it will be foolhardy to imagine that she can simply buy her needs from foreign sources. The falling Indian Rupee may not be a major concern to the exporter, or the macro-economist, but as the US Dollar becomes dearer, India's capacity to buy foreign defence equipment rapidly diminishes. India's policy to keep the private sector completely out of the defence sector will also need revision. The Chiefs of Indian Armed Forces are continuously exhorting the private sector through the CII to try to meet the needs of the defence services but for a variety of reasons these have met with only limited success. Absence of economies of scale, diverse and often short term demand, procedural delays and costs of developing a small total number of items, rigid military specifications and quality control, a need for testing facilities and lack of export opportunities, are said to be some of the major stumbling blocks to private industry participation. But where does India's equipment come from in the future? There are indications that the USA is fast making inroads into the European Aerospace Industry. Despite the recent successful visit by the Indian Prime Minister to that country, there is little chance of the USA loosening the tight controls on technology transfer. Consequently, India may find it difficult to buy advanced technology from the Europeans too. Diversifying the sources may become even more problematic. There is no alternative to joint ventures with the advanced countries if India has to slowly build its national aerospace industry. The emphasis would clearly have to be on design and development of dual use technologies, at least in the beginning. Once India builds her capacity to manufacture sophisticated equipment for the commercial and private sector it should be relatively easy to switch to the military sector. The difference between the purely military and civil/commercial range of high-tech equipment is fast disappearing, making it possible for India to buy her needs off the shelf, but obviously at high costs. It will be interesting to note that the Boeing's Phantom Works process innovation and prototyping organisation is pioneering a range of low-cost, high-speed construction techniques including practices borrowed from a US surfboard manufacturer to produce two UCAV's for the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The Phantom Works used wooden jigs and toolings borrowed from the leisure boat-building industry. The wing-skins of the UCAV demonstrator are fabricated out of a composite material with a foam-filled core developed by a leading US surfboard manufacturer.'20 This shows how spin-offs of commercial technology can be effectively used in military aviation industry. A possible option could be to capitalise on India's software prowess in collaboration with the less advanced countries like Russia and even France and Germany, in return for hardware technology transfer.

Training, Doctrine and Infrastructure. Yet another challenge would be in the area of training, doctrine and infrastructure. Despite its best efforts, recruitment and retention of pilots and technicians are fast acquiring alarming proportions even in the RAF and USAF. The RAF is reportedly reimbursing the cost of acquiring a civil licence to its pilots. IAF is in no better position to attract young talent. India has a peculiar penchant for decentralisation where it is not helpful. What with the Army, Navy RAW, BSF and the Home Ministry maintaining separate fleets of disparate aircraft, training and maintenance are far from cost-effective. In fact it is a sinful waste of money and human resources. Air power demands that all aviation resources of the nation are planned and developed in a manner that enhances inter operability. In India this aspect of air power management seems to take a back seat. Without innovative and revolutionary approaches to service conditions including lateral separation at the appropriate stage, enrolment and centralised and yet specialised training India cannot hope to surmount these difficulties.

Twenty additional squadrons with a host of heavy and unwieldy equipment would also require considerable improvements and additions to the existing infrastructure. These will also have to be created in areas that are somewhat remote from the developed and industrialised regions of the country, further exacerbating the problem. India is only too familiar with the performance of her government agencies entrusted with the construction and maintenance of runways, hangars and other such buildings. Meeting the stringent requirements of storage of modern armaments such as the AAMs would be a demanding task. Training and education of our personnel, especially the decision-makers, will perhaps be of utmost importance. Without a dynamic and cerebrally active community the IAF cannot hope to keep its doctrine regularly upgraded. The pace of technology change is so rapid that without a basic facility to anticipate change it would be impossible to blend doctrine and technology to one's advantage.

Logistics. Another challenge of air power employment would be the role of logistics. As the old adage goes, "amateurs discuss strategy but professionals talk about logistics". "During the Gulf War, a total of 122 million meals were served, 1.3 billion gallons of fuel pumped, 52 million miles driven, 32,000 tons of mail received and 730,000 people processed through aerial ports". These data show the importance of logistic planning. "From a twenty-man team the Gulf War Logistic Commander Lt Gen Pagonis's force grew to some 88,000 individuals including 39925 soldiers. The 22nd Support Command had more than 70 per cent reservists. Without Saudi Arabia, without its harbours, airfields, military bases, housing, transportation systems, money, fuel and friendly environment, the war would have been far more difficult to wage".21 Real-time computerised logistics management would be essential to maintain high readiness levels of the sixty-squadron air force.

Resources. The last but perhaps the biggest impediment to the suggested expansion of India's air power would most certainly be the so-called economic constraints. A very respected, experienced and articulate strategist who is a member of various official committees has said that according to his calculations some Rs.1,15,000 crore are lost every year in subsidies to the non-priority sector. These losses are outside the urgently needed development sectors such as food, health and education. This shows that given the political will and a national determination, resources can be found for the long overdue modernisation and expansion of the IAF in particular and Indian air power in general. In any event the suggested expansion of Indian air power is to be spread over the next two decades. No one would have thought in the late seventies that India's defence budget would gallop from a mere Rs 3867 crore in 1980-81 to an astronomical Rs 48,550 crore in 2000, just in twenty years. More significantly the increasing defence allocations have remained well under three per cent of the Indian GDP. It is evident that India's economy has grown at a faster rate than the defence budget. It should, therefore, be possible to forecast a reasonably robust economy capable of supporting these apparently ambitious expansion plans.


To conclude, one can safely surmise that the wars of the twenty-first century would see an increasingly decisive and innovative employment of air power. The uncertainties of a fast globalising world, the all-pervasive role of information technology and electronic media, and above all the impact of RMA technologies on the nature of warfare, demand that future air power must be flexible and ubiquitous. It is the coercive and deterrent capability of air power that we need to enhance through selective use of long range precision strike, strategic surveillance and other RMA technologies. Air Superiority or Command of the air will remain the main mission of air power, although UAVs, UCAVs, satellites, and Cruise Missiles may be increasingly employed to reinforce the manned aircraft and the missile. The IAF would therefore have to grow to a sixty-squadron force by 2020. But to transform this dream into a reality would require a superhuman effort in R&D and indigenous design and development and more importantly the capacity to produce modern aircraft and equipment in the country. Just as a modern state needs modern air power, so also modern air power needs modern aerospace industry and research & development establishment to sustain it.



1. Byman Daniel L, and Waxman Mathew C, "Kosovo and the Great Air Power Debate", in International Security, vol. 24 Spring 2000, p. 38.

2. Tanham George K and Agmon Marcy, The Indian Air Force, Trends and Prospects, (Santa Monica: RAND 1995), p-IX Summary.

3. See Byman no. 1, p. x.

4. Link, Maj Gen Charles D, USAF, "The Role of the US Air Force in the Employment of Air Power," in Richard H Shulz & Robert L Pfaltzgraff (Ed), The Future of Air Power, (Maxwell Alabama: Air University Press, 1998), p. 86.

5. Benjamin S Lambeth, "Air Power Transformed" Armed Forces Journal, June 2000, p. 42

6. See Jasjit Singh, "Dynamics of Limited War", paper presented at the National Seminar on "The Challenge of Limited War: Parameters and Options", New Delhi 5-6 January 2000, Quoted with author's permission.

7. Jaswant Singh, India's Foreign Minister, cited in IISS Strategic Comments, "India's Military Spending", vol. 6, July 2000, p. 1.

8. Thomas Quiggin, "Do Air Strikes Amount to an Effective Policy?", RUSI Journal, Apr/May 2000, p. 16.

9. Flight International, Feb 29-Mar 06, 2000.

10. Jane's Defence Weekly, Mar 15, 2000.

11. Chaturvedi MS Air Mshl, History of the Indian Air Force, (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House 1978), p. 99. (Due to financial and other considerations, however, the Defence Committee of the Cabinet accepted that the Air Force should be immediately expanded to a 10 squadron force and the training and other facilities should be built up to cater for force of 20 squadrons. On page 107 the author states that following the recommendations of a high-powered Armed Forces Reorganisation Committee in 1952 the IAF was to be expanded to a 15 squadron force comprising 8 fighter/bomber, 1 night fighter, 1 photo recce, 2 light bomber, 1 MR, 2 transport squadrons and other ancillary and supporting formations and training units.

12. Jane's World Air Forces, Issue 0 March 1996.

13. Mason AVM Tony, The Aerospace Revolution, (London: Brassey's, 1998), p. 176.

14. Jane's Defence Weekly, p. 19. Sep 06, 2000, "More Details on Chinese Cruise Missile Programme", by Duncan Lenox.

15. Jane's Defence Weekly, Sep 6, 2000 p. 19.

16. Flight International, May 9-15, 2000 as quoted in the Strategic Digest of the IDSA New Delhi, vol. xxx, no 7, July 2000, pp. 1043-44.

17. See Byman no. 1, p. xiii.

18. China Daily, June 24,1993 p. 2.

19. Kenneth W Allen, Glenn Krumel, Jonathan Pollack, "China's Air Force Enters The 21st Century", (Santa Monica: RAND: 1995), p. 226.

20. Jane's Defence Weekly, "The Revolutionary UCAV", July 12, 2000.p 28.

21. Harry G Summers Jr, Revisiting "The Gulf War: A Review Essay", in Joint Force Quarterly (JFQ) Summer 1993 issue. p. 121. The statistics quoted are from a book by Lt Gen William Pagonis and Jeffrey L Cruikshank, Moving Mountains: Lessons in Leadership and Logistics from the Gulf War (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1992).