As part of the recently concluded Gagan Shakti combat exercise, the Indian Air Force (IAF) flexed its muscles on both the Western and Eastern theatres, in an effort to check its combat effectiveness in case of hostilities. With the deployment of 1,100+ air assets, the Air Force flew 11,000+ combat sorties in a span of just 13 days. Through the course of the exercise, the focus particularly was  on the fighter fleet of the Air Force that operated in surge operations to validate the strike capabilities of the Air Force. While Su-30MKI and Jaguar aircraft undertook inter-theatre and maritime strike missions along the Western Sea Board, the Tejas, Mirage and MiGs participated in simulated strike missions along the hostile borders.

Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa following the conclusion of the exercise claimed that the Air Force through Gagan Shakti had successfully established that it was capable of dealing with a short yet intense two front conflict. The Air Chief’s remarks comes at a time when alarms are being raised about the increasing nexus between the country’s hostile neighbours. While the Chief maintained that the IAF remains combat ready, several retired Air Warriors remain skeptically about the Air Force’s capabilities in dealing with sustained and intense conflict situations with its current assets. They quipped that the Air Force armed with a mere 31 squadrons, as against the mandated 42 squadrons, remains largely remains insufficient to maintain the much sought aerial dominance. In fact, a recent report tabled by the country’s Standing Committee on Defence had lambasted the MoD for failing to arrest the dipping squadrons numbers.

Successive dismal budgetary allocations, repeated failures with procurement and modernisation programs and inordinate delays with indigenous programs have today effectively left the Air Force largely toothless. It is imperative that the Government quarter works in close unison with the MoD and the Air Force to counter these bottlenecks, which have for years hampered several of Air Force’s modernisation programs.

For years, the primary concern for the Air Force has been the dipping annual outlay to handle its modernization schemes. While the Air Force had projected a need for around INR 58,000 crores for FY 2017-18, the ministry had allotted only INR 33,555 crores. Though the Air Force expected some respite from the situation in this year’s budget, the situation remains almost unchanged. While the Air Force had requested for INR 66,000 crores, the Government has allocated only 35,755.62 crore. Over the years, there has been an average annual deficit of around INR 7,000 crores and this has largely limited IAF’s procurement programs.

A Jaguar DARIN - III Aircraft; Courtesy - HAL.

A Jaguar DARIN – III Aircraft; Courtesy – HAL.

Against the backdrop of truncated outlays, it is evident that any large-scale procurement programs through global routes would have very limited success. Thus to re-up the capabilities of the Air Force, it is critical that the existing strike capabilities of the Air Force are reenergized to satisfactory levels. This can be achieved by primarily working towards enhancing the capabilities of the Air Force’s current fleet through mid-life upgradations.

Even though the Air Force has a well laid out mid-life modernisation program for each of its aircraft, progress with them have not been forthcoming. For instance the mid-life upgradation program of both the Jaguar and Mirage – 2000 fleet are moving at a snail’s pace. While the Jaguars are being upgraded under the DARIN – III program, the Mirages are receiving upgrades to their capabilities in collaboration with their OEM – Dassault Aviation. Even though the DARIN – III upgradation program has began at HAL, the pace with which it is progressing is unsatisfactory. Further, the Government, even after years of deliberations has failed to conclude a contract for replacement engines to the Jaguars. As the MiG-27s retire, the Jaguars will remain to be the lone dedicated CAS aircraft in the country’s military force.

Another, major blunder that is now threatening to bleed the Air Force off aerial supremacy is the limited success with the LCA program. Tejas, an indigenously designed, developed and manufactured aircraft, is no doubt a potent platform in its class. But the repeated stand-offs that lasted for decades between the user and developer had led the program into an abyss. It is no doubt that Tejas has its share of drawbacks, but, these indigenous platforms are extremely cost effective and when inducted in large number they promise to serve as force multipliers, at least until the frontline assets take over the battle.

With Air Force now formally closing in on a deal for at least 83 Tejas Mk-1A aircraft, the Government should work towards increasing accountability in the program. Another major concern for the Air Force with the LCA Program has been dismal production rate that currently stands at a mere 8 aircraft per year.

Given that the orders are for several hundred aircraft, the manufacturing agency would require more than a decade to fulfill the Air Force’s requirements. Thus the Government should consider pumping in additional financial resources to boost the capabilities of these production agencies. Further, tapping the expertise of the private sector promises major respite.

Dassault Rafale - The Future of Indian Air Force; Courtesy - Dassault Aviation.

Dassault Rafale – The Future of Indian Air Force; Courtesy – Dassault Aviation.

While the induction of Tejas is expected to enhance capabilities in the light fighter category, the situation with the medium and heavy categories will continue to haunt the Air Force. The recent RFI introduced for procuring 110 medium multi-role fighters from a global manufacturer is still in a primitive stage and will take at least a couple of years to mature. With the first of the aircraft under the program expected to fly-in only after 2020, it is critical that the Air Force relooks into its decision of parting with the Sukhoi aircraft.

The Air Force, last year, decided to not place order with HAL for additional Su-30s as a follow-on to the 232 Sukhoi Su-30 MKIs. This development came even as the Air Force’s plans for acquiring 5th generation fighter aircraft from Russia yielding no results. It would thus be an optimal solution to induct a limited number of Sukhoi Su-30 MKIs at least as an interim measure, the aircraft has after all proved its mettle with the Air Force.

As the Air Force continues its quest to attain satisfactory capabilities, it is imperative that the Force receives substantial backing from both the Government and the developmental agencies. Further, given the limited financial resources, enhancing the capabilities of the current fleet and resorting to induction of indigenous platforms and stop-gap measures promise to pull the Air Force out of the abyss.