Indian Air Force IAF – A NEW AGE VIEW 2021 . As India’s leaders have expressed the ambition for the country to become a “leading power,” the IAF’s vision of itself has also evolved along three dimensions. First, the service no longer thinks of itself as a supporting force intended simply to realize success in land and naval operations; rather, the IAF regards itself as an independent warfighting arm that can produce strategic effects through the autonomous application of concentrated yet discriminate airpower. In this sense, the IAF reflects the expectations of most of its peer air forces in the first world.
Second, the IAF views the ability to exploit space, cyberspace, and the electronic spectrum as critical to operational success in the aviation sphere. Accordingly, the service has articulated the ambition of becoming an aerospace force as it has deepened its dependence on space for meteorology; navigation; communications; and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations.
As the IAF integrates these capabilities and evolves toward becoming a networked force, it has come to realize the value of jointness with the other services. Nevertheless, the IAF’s desire to remain a combat arm capable of producing strategic effects independently has often brought it into opposition against plans for developing joint, higher command institutions out of fear the autonomous contribution of air warfare might be shortchanged. Third, for most of the IAF’s history, the service focused predominantly on the Indian subcontinent.
Today, the IAF has expanded its field of view vastly beyond: from the Persian Gulf and the east coast of Africa in the west to much of China in the north and northeast, the Southeast Asian straits in the southeast, and the Indian Ocean in the south. The IAF’s ambition is to become the nation’s preferred instrument whenever power must be applied rapidly at long distances.
The IAF has made considerable progress in absorbing the airpower transformations that have become visible in the West since Operation Desert Storm. In the air-to-air arena, the IAF is now completely sold on counterair operations beyond visual range. Ever since new Russian, Israeli, and French active air-to-air missiles entered its inventory, the IAF has switched its focus from close-in tactics to long-range
air intercepts. Despite this switch in focus, the IAF is still handicapped by the fact that its best active air-to-air missiles are inferior in different respects to those possessed by Pakistan and the best in the Chinese inventory—weaknesses that will persist until the European Meteor enters the Indian inventory. Although the service has long fielded many of the best Russian combat aircraft, the IAF never divested itself of its British heritage of emphasizing pilot initiative; the air force uses its ground control intercept systems to vector its interceptors, but it leaves actual air combat operations to the skill of its pilots. Today, the IAF has demonstrated a high degree of proficiency in basic fighter maneuvering; the best Indian squadrons compare favorably with their Western peers. Pilots in the IAF consistently execute long-range shots beyond visual range, making up for their current weapon deficiencies through the heavy use of electronic warfare systems and by increasingly using their best aircrafts’ infrared search and tracking capabilities for passive intercepts. As the IAF integrates its airborne
early warning systems, its ability to prosecute long-range, air-to-air engagements will only increase.
In the surface warfare arena, the IAF has focused on acquiring the capacity to undertake conventionally precision attacks on a large scale. At present, the IAF does not have enough precision munitions if the threat of even a sequential two-front war is to be taken seriously. The IAF’s doctrine traditionally emphasized low-altitude strikes by relatively large formations. But as the quality of its combat aircraft and precision munitions improved, the service began to employ variable strike packages for medium- and high-altitude operations as well. Long-range surface strikes employing standoff munitions are now increasingly the norm, as evidenced by the punitive airstrikes conducted at Balakot in Pakistan in February 2019. Although this mission was unsuccessful in interdicting its intended targets, the large strike package involved—12 interdiction aircraft, covered by four aircraft on combat air patrol and supported by airborne warning and control systems, aerial refuellers, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)—represents a good template for how the IAF plans to conduct future strategic air operations.24 No doubt the lack of success has also reinforced the value to the IAF of both real-time ISR and the importance of tight sensor-to-shooter integration.
Success in these operations is difficult even for advanced air forces because seamlessly integrating sensors and shooters is a complex institutional and operational enterprise, something the IAF has not yet completed. The service has done better where maritime strike operations are concerned. Given the Pakistani and, increasingly, the Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean, the IAF has allocated a dedicated squadron of Jaguar attack aircraft for the role, with more Brahmos-equipped Su-30MKI aircraft also available for strikes at longer ranges at sea. All told, the IAF’s near-term ambition is to be able to: (1) prosecute a swift and decisive offensive campaign against India’s traditional adversaries, Pakistan and China, at minimal notice; (2) execute discrete, conventional strategic air operations, such as punitive strikes, if required along with India’s extended neighborhood; and (3) conduct peace support operations, including humanitarian and disaster relief, at great distances from the subcontinent in largely permissive environments.25 To achieve these aims, the IAF currently fields a dedicated strike contingent of close to 200 Jaguar and MiG-27ML aircraft, almost 300 multirole Su-30MKI and Mirage 2000 strike fighters, and over 200 modernized MiG-21 Bison and MiG-29 Fulcrum air defense fighters—all of which will be supplemented in the near future by 36 Rafales and some 120 indigenously developed Tejas light fighter aircraft. The service also possesses almost 250 transports, 27 of which are capable of extra subcontinental missions; six aerial refueling aircraft (with more to come); and four airborne early warning and control platforms, besides numerous utility helicopters and a small contingent of UAVs for ISR. These assets are controlled by five regional air commands: the Western Air Command headquartered in New Delhi, the Southwestern Air Command headquartered in Gandhinagar, the Eastern Air Command headquartered in Shillong, the Central Air Command headquartered in Allahabad, and the Southern Air Command headquartered in Trivandrum. Currently, about 35 fighter squadrons, along with combat support aircraft, are spread across some 60 air bases, airfields, and forward base support units throughout the country. In recent years, the airbase infrastructure has been extensively modernized to allow for the flexible deployment of different aircraft squadrons across the country.26 The aviation component of the IAF is supported by an extensive, integrated, ground-based air defense system.
This system (now supplemented by the airborne warning and control platforms) is integrated with civilian radars, signals intelligence systems, and other sensors to provide a unified air situation picture. In time, India will likely deploy a limited ballistic missile defense system to protect the national capital and a few other major cities. The IAF is a unique force. Few air forces routinely conduct missions in such diverse terrains that characterize the Indian subcontinent: from the high Himalayas in the north to the deserts and plains in the west to the jungles and intensely wet tropics in the northeast to the arid plateau of the southern peninsula and the ocean spaces and islands in them. The IAF operates facilities and conducts operations in all of these milieus, operating a bewildering diversity of aircraft, including seven different types of fighters alone. The air force’s pilots are well educated, and the service’s human capital base has enabled it to absorb sophisticated systems rapidly while modifying them indigenously as required. The IAF is thus capable of making a distinctive contribution in support of
India’s growing international ambitions, but the service is constrained by the two formidable local competitors it faces. The Pakistan Air Force is smaller, but with close to 400 combat aircraft, the service is by no means a pushover. The pressures on the Indian defense budget,
the vagaries of New Delhi’s procurement process, and the IAF’s fixation with acquiring the best—and often the most expensive—tactical fighters have resulted in a diminishing number of fighter aircraft in recent years, thus leading to a dilution of India’s traditional numerical superiority over Pakistan. The transformation of China’s PLA Air Force in recent decades has only imposed further burdens on the IAF. China’s current air threat to India is manageable because the basing infrastructure in the Tibetan region cannot sustain a huge Chinese airpower presence, but this advantage will diminish as China improves its airbase infrastructure, builds more dual-use airfields, and rotates ever more sophisticated capabilities into the region. By 2025 or shortly thereafter, the four major airbases currently used by China along the Sino-Indian border could expand to as many as 12 facilities of different kinds, which—depending on the number of air regiments deployed—could confront the IAF with anywhere from 200 to 400 Chinese combat aircraft in the event of a major conflict. Adding to the threat are potential Chinese conventional ballistic and cruise missile attacks, as well as major space, cyber, and electronic warfare challenges India has not faced before.