Is The Indian Air Force On A Flight Path Of Extinction?

by Rakesh Krishnan Simha - Apr 16, 2016 01:27 PM +05:30 IST
Is The Indian Air Force On A Flight Path Of Extinction?The Sukhoi T-50 (PAK FA) at a Russian Air Show.
    • The IAF suffered a major setback in October 2012 when the government agreed to transfer most of its attack helicopters to the Indian Army.
    • There will now be growing pressure on the IAF to transfer air interception and ground support assets to army aviation.
    • The IAF must focus on reversing its declining importance in combat and war rather than demanding silver bullets like the Rafale.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is fighting a two-front war, and its opponents are not China and Pakistan. The IAF is fighting the twin enemies of disruptive technology and changing military doctrine. The result of this dogfight could well decide the future of it.

The IAF suffered a major setback in October 2012 when the government agreed to transfer most of its attack helicopters to the Indian Army. In all, the army got control of over 270 armed helicopters while the IAF was left with just a dozen or so helicopter gunships, which will soon be retired.

Air support being a key element of land warfare, it makes sense that attack helicopters, which are needed for providing cover to advancing infantry and armour, are under the army’s control. Battlefield commanders cannot afford the risk of IAF choppers arriving late into the combat zone.

Even timely arrival can be counterproductive without coordination. This happened at the outbreak of the 1965 War when inexperienced IAF pilots started strafing their own troops below. In a tragicomedy of sorts, the army’s plight ended when Pakistani fighter planes arrived on the scene and shot down the IAF aircraft. The Indian troops then blasted their way through Pakistani armour and reached the outskirts of Lahore.

Although in the 1971 War, all three services synced brilliantly to grind down the Pakistani military, there is no guarantee that perfect coordination will always happen when the army or navy need air support. In fact, with the Air Force going in for increasing numbers of air dominance aircraft at the expense of smaller, cheaper – and non-glamorous – ground attack jets, it is doubtful if the IAF can effectively destroy enemy armour like it did at the Battle of Longewala in the 1971 War.

In this backdrop, there will be growing pressure on the IAF to transfer air interception and ground support assets to army aviation. This isn’t as absurd as it sounds. The US Air Force, for instance, came into existence only in 1947 – two years after the end of WW II – and after aviation enthusiasts within the US Army recommended the creation of an independent air arm.

In Russia – the master of land warfare – the ground forces had their own separate air force comprising no less than 2400 jet fighters including the Su-27, MiG-31 and MiG-25 air dominance aircraft. The Russian doctrine was the army must have all the resources required to independently fight – and win – a full spectrum war in the most efficient way. However, due to Russia’s economic difficulties the army’s aviation wing was merged with the Russian Air Force in 1998.

SFC Commandeers Nuclear Sukhois

The Strategic Forces Command (SFC) controls India’s strategic nuclear rockets such as the Agni series ballistic missiles. Currently, the Indian nuclear forces are comparatively small, and the SFC doesn’t come under the limelight. But as the country’s missile count grows, its clout will increase.

In September 2010, the SFC submitted a proposal to the Defence Ministry for setting up two dedicated squadrons of aircraft comprising 40 Su-30MKI multirole fighters. Because the task of this mini air force is to deliver nuclear weapons, it is likely to be commanded directly by the political leadership through the SFC.

The logic behind having dedicated squadrons for nuclear bombing is to complicate the enemy’s defence planning. Plus, having them under different commands will further cloud his judgement.

So once again, the IAF remains a mere keeper of these assets but not the master.

Cruise Control

The IAF probably fears the cruise missile more than it fears depleting squadrons. When you factor in zero risk to pilots, pinpoint accuracy and lower costs, then the cruise missile offers war planners a tantalising war fighting option that is almost surgical. The Air Force will not admit it, but it is true that cruise missiles are beginning to crowd out traditional jet fighters away from the combat zone.

This was most spectacularly demonstrated during the ongoing war in Syria. On the night of 5 October 2015, the Russian Navy launched a withering missile attack on ISIS and US-backed terror groups. In three days of ceaseless cruise missile attacks, the Russians destroyed more terrorists – plus their communication and ammunition hubs – than a joint team of western and Arab air forces had done in 365 days.

The Russian Air Force was sent in much later for the following missions: one, to mop up the remnants of the terror groups; two, to fly the flag and keep American jets out of Syria’s skies; and thirdly, as a means for Russian pilots to get battle experience. Another well justified reason was to showcase Russian jets for the global marketplace.

In 1991, the Americans used Tomahawk cruise missiles to kick down the door in Iraq before sending in the air force and marines. Iraq’s command, control and communications infrastructure – built with considerable cost over decades – was reduced to rubble in just eight hours.

India was the first country in the world to grasp the game changing nature of this new weapon. BrahMos Corp’s A Sivathanu Pillai writes in his fascinating book ‘The Path Unexplored’ that it was after seeing the Tomahawk’s impact that India decided to acquire a precision attack cruise missile. “This was to be our magical first strike weapon,” he writes.

The supersonic missile has given India the ability to launch strikes deep into Pakistan as well as against China’s military concentrations in Tibet. The missile’s defining characteristic is its speed of nearly 1 km per second. Twice as heavy and four times faster than the Tomahawk, the BrahMos has more than 32 times the kinetic energy of a Tomahawk.

Heavily defended Pakistani sites such as the Kahuta nuclear weapons production plant, the strategic air base of Sargodha, and the army tank corps in Nowshera can be targeted with devastating accuracy by India’s six (planned) BrahMos regiments.

The BrahMos has also been tested in “steep dive” mode in which the missile dives straight down from its flat trajectory while cruising at supersonic speed. Steep mode is engaged for striking low-signature, protected bunkers, and will come in handy for taking out Pakistani command and communication centres.

All this will happen within minutes of war breaking out – without risking the life of a single Indian pilot. And looking at it from another point of view – without involving the IAF.

War is an expensive affair, and a developing country like India cannot let it become drawn out. A saturation attack of supersonic cruise missiles is a lot cheaper than sending in, say an Su-30. A made in India Sukhoi costs $75 million but a BrahMos missile costs a fraction of that.

Drone Warfare

In the area of real time theatre reconnaissance, modern armies are now almost completely independent of the air force. Military drones are the new eyes in the sky over the battlefield and provide reconnaissance that can’t be provided by manned aircraft. UAVs, such as the US Reaper9 can loiter for up to 42 hours on internal fuel and potentially indefinitely with aerial refuelling. The Indian Army has acquired Israeli drones, which now keep constant vigil on the borders.

There are now more hours flown by America’s military drones than by its manned strike aircraft and more pilots are being trained to fly them than their manned equivalents.

According to Strategy Page,micro UAVs can be deployed in large numbers, often by small infantry units or by artillery spotters, granting frontline ground units fast, easy, cheap and direct access to a part of surveillance capabilities that before had to be requested from and organised by higher level headquarters, which often prevented the vital intelligence from arriving to the ground troops in time.”

A US Air Force document “Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Plan 2009-2047” predicts drones of the future would be built around common airframes of differing size incorporating a modular, “open-architecture” approach so they could be as flexible as possible.

The largest of these drones would “operate as airborne warning and control aircraft (AWACs), aerial refuelling tankers, strategic lift transports and long-range bombers.” The next generation of drones will also have artificial intelligence giving them a high degree of operational autonomy including the ability to shoot to kill.

The only question that remains unanswered is who gets control of these new weapons. Will it be the air force, army or a purpose built force?

Implications For The Air Force

The most candid assessment of the future of air power comes from Russia, which is developing a sixth generation fighter aircraft in both manned and unmanned versions. Says Pyotr Deynekin, former Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Air Force: “In spite of the fact that future wars would be a testing ground for new kinds of air assault, the military goals of combatants won’t just be achieved by the Air Force.

The American side agrees. A US Air Force directed report ‘Paths to Extinction: The US Air Force in 2025’ says that as it continues to invest in helicopters, UAVs and long range attack missiles, the army will encroach on the tactical and even the strategic missions of the air force. “It may well win the roles and missions debate, thereby winning the right to shape the deep battle. In short, the army’s roles and missions will likely grow, not shrink.


Currently, the IAF’s biggest problem is self-promotion. It has kept up the near constant refrain that it cannot fight a two-front war. Even more surprising is that nobody in the government has – at least openly – called its bluff. For, qualitatively, the IAF is on an upward curve. In an interview to the media in 2012, former Air Force chief Norman Anil Kumar Browne gave the lie to the claim that the IAF was becoming weaker. According to Browne, the IAF is replacing older MiG-21s with Su-30s. He said once older aircraft are replaced with brand new Sukhois, the IAF will have “far greater capability than even what we have today.”

As it acquires a more lethal edge on the back of fifth generation fighter aircraft, information based warfare and space-based assets, the IAF must not lose sight of its wartime duty – joint operations with all military arms of the state in pursuit of India’s objectives. As Browne said, instead of being stuck in a “defused standalone model”, the IAF and other branches of the military as well as some of the civil agencies “need to combine all our energies together.”

It could learn from the failures of the US Air Force, for instance, which has landed itself in a hole because of its inability to shake off dogmatic approaches to combat and war strategy. The US Air Force is living a nightmare where it has invested heavily in silver bullets such as the F-35 and F-22 stealth fighters that have literally cost trillions but contributed zilch to national security.

If the IAF keeps demanding silver bullets like the (between $10 billion and $30 billion) Rafale jet rather than reversing its declining importance in combat, then it is in serious trouble. The air force brass might well remember the words of Italian air power theorist General Giulio Douhet, who wrote in his 1921 book, The Command of Air: “Victory will smile upon those who anticipate changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after changes occur.

Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based journalist and writes on defence and foreign affairs for Russia Beyond the Headlines, a global media project of Moscow-based Rossiyskaya Gazeta. He is on the advisory board of Europe-based Modern Diplomacy.

Rakesh’s articles on defence and foreign have been quoted extensively by a number of leading think tanks, universities and publications worldwide. He has been cited in books on counter terrorism and society in the global south.

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