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Home Government and Policy The evolution of India's air power in global times

The evolution of India’s air power in global times

The end of the Second World War with the dropping of ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Man’ on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively changed the nature of wars from the way it was fought before. The nuclear arms race between the mighty USSR and USA had resulted in making the existing security doctrines of the rest obsolete and security experts across the world were going overdrive to protect their homeland from another nuclear holocaust. The superpowers, USSR and USA were doing everything they can, to consolidate and expand their ideological hegemony by devising new security strategies to outmanoeuvre each other.

Around the 1950s, the military blocks led by the superpowers roughly had the similar defence strategy and it was to build an extensive ‘airpower’, comprising of military aircraft, missiles, helicopters as the centrepiece of their National Security architecture. The other small powers, the third world countries simply responded to the change and mostly obeyed to what the powerful did. The fundamental strategy of both USSR and the US was around two similar ideas- First, to have a credible nuclear deterrence with the development of extremely powerful bombers with deep striking capabilities inside the enemy territories and second by protecting their areas of influence through superior air defence by building a large number of swift attack and interceptor aircraft. Most of the newly independent third world countries with neither the technological capability nor financial resources to pursue independent defence program had to fall back on either of the blocks to protect its national interests from another European onslaught.

India was no exception. Immediately after throwing out the Britishers, the Indian policymakers reacting to the global change decided to build a strong defence system which already had a British touch on it. The partition of the sub-continent had turned the newly formed Pakistan into a hostile neighbour. India like many other nations had to rely on others to boost its defence preparedness and bought defence equipment from the United Kingdom, France, the US and most importantly from the Soviet Union. In early years, Indian policymakers despite with various constraints visualised a lethal and professional armed force and designed its national security architecture based on its immediate near threats rather than getting engulfed in Cold-war politics. In this following piece, I have tried to interpret the evolution of Indian Air Force with respect to the global changes and its impact on India’s fighter force and subsequent modifications in the security architecture of the country.

Established in 1932, as an auxiliary air force for the British Royal Air Force, with having four Wapiti aircraft to possessing thousands of technologically superior and deadly flying machines, Indian Air Force has come a long way. From playing a small but effective role in the Second World War to be one of the most powerful Airforce of the world, the Indian Air Force has seen tremendous changes and adapted to it successfully since its inception.

The RAF soon after the World War wanted to limit Indian Air Force to a limited tactical regional player rather than letting IAF be an important Airpower. Instead of handing over it to India, the Britishers destroyed most of the ‘B-24 Liberator’ bombers. However, India after the independence had inherited few fighter aircraft like British built Vampires and French Mysteres. The Indian government in the 1950s decided to diversify its aircraft supply base and decided to induct French Ouragans, aka Toofani and later bought British Hunter FMK 56s and Canberra Bombers Mk58s. The Indian Airforce later acquired the powerful Folland Gnat in 1958 to strengthen their fleet, by then, IAF had a fleet of 33 squadrons, built in just 10 years.

In 1962, India Armed forces had its first challenge when it was defeated by the superior Chinese in the Indo-Sino war. The Indian Airforce had a limited role to play in the war, apart from providing support for the ground base. Then came the 1965 India-Pakistan war. For the first time, IAF actively engaged in the warfare and fought against lethal F-86s of the Pakistani Air Force. However, although Indian Air Force destroyed airfields and stuck deep inside Pakistani territory but lost most of its vintage aircraft to a superior Pakistani Air Force in the 1965 war.

The Indian government after the 1962 war decided to modernise and consolidate its Air Force. The IAF by late 60s had acquired HAL built HF-24 Maruts. The Indian Airforce went to become one of the most powerful airforces with the procurement the most lethal Russian MiG-21 and Sukhoi Su-7BM during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Russian MiG-21, a ‘Delta-wing’ aircraft was one of the mighty aircraft of that time against the PAF’s Lockheed Martin F-104. The capability, standards and the power of the Indian Airforce were soon put to the test in December 1971 when India and Pakistan went to war over the liberation of Bangladesh. IAF with its superior and lethal aircraft easily hunted down the Pakistani Aircraft, achieved a complete air-dominance over the skies of the subcontinent.

At the height of the cold war in the 1970s, both the USSR and the US had a similar Airforce strategy of having a dominant Heavy Attack aircraft comprising of fighters and bombers to have a dominant air superiority, while developing a fleet of light fighter aircrafts to intercept and destroy enemy aircrafts from entering one’s airspace. The Americans decided to build two fourth-generation aircraft, the F-15, a heavy twin-engine aircraft to achieve air dominance and F-16, a first multi-role supersonic aircraft which was designed to operate in multiple missions. The Soviets designed MiG-29 and the powerful Sukhoi Su-27 much later as a response to the US.

India followed the superpowers and decided to buy a large number of MiG-21 and Sukhoi Su-7, as the HAL produced HF-24 Maruts did not yield sufficient results. The Indian security experts believed that the country’s principal security threat would come from its two hostile neighbours- Pakistan and China, decided to deploy a large number of MiGs and Sukhois across its air-bases facing the borders. In 1979, Indian government procured British-French jet SEPECAT Jaguar, a supersonic ground attack bomber to augment the strength of the IAF.

By 1980s, American strategic policymakers had found a breakthrough in designing a new attack aircraft which could be used for multiple missions of Air Superiority, Interceptions, Ground Attack, Reconnaissance and also to be used as a naval variant that could be launched from aircraft carriers. The US Airforce re-developed F-16 as a new multirole aircraft while the French designed Mirage-2000. Indian Airforce decided to induct Mirage-2000 as its first Multirole fighter to its fleet in 1985, making it one of the strongest and versatile aircraft even to the present day.

The ageing fleet of MiG-21 necessitated Indian Airforce to scout for a new light fighter aircraft to replace the MiGs, which was a mainstay since the 1960s and also provide the Indian Airforce with an indigenous ‘tactical air support aircraft’. The government of India, since the late 60s was planning to develop a single engine aircraft similar to Marut. The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was given the responsibility to develop the Light Combat Aircraft, which took more than two decades to develop its first test flight. Since the development of LCA-Tejas was still in progress, the Indian Airforce acquired Russian MiG-23, MiG-25 and announced its decision to buy MiG-27, a ground attack aircraft and MiG-29, a multi-role aircraft to be used for India’s aircraft carrier along with British Aerospace Sea Harriers. With the addition of these new aircraft, India Airforce became a formidable power in the sky.

The Kargil War of 1999 was a critical juncture concerning India’s defence preparedness, as the new Indian air fleet was yet to prove its capability in those tough conditions despite having a fearsome attack force. At first, the IAF was called to provide support for the ground forces but its responsibility was scaled up to target enemy positions on the peaks of Kargil sector. Initially, The IAF had deployed its ageing MiG 21 and MiG 27 fleet into the operation but soon found out its inability to perform the IAF’s specified roles. The Indian Airforce soon re-strategised to operate the multi-role French manufactured Dassault Mirage 2000, which was considered to best capable of optimum performance under the conditions of high-altitude seen in the zone of conflict. The Mirage-2000 not only had better equipment but also provided an option to fly at nights. The small fleet of Mirage-2000 has played a substantial role in India’s Armed Forces operations during the Kargil war to defeat Pakistan.

The Kargil war taught too many valuable lessons to both policymakers and the Indian defence establishment. The government at the centre reacted to the shortcomings of India’s defence preparedness and decided to bring in changes to the existing security architecture of the country. The Indian Air Force’s ageing fleet and the inability to procure modern aircraft and weapons were taken as a strong note by the leadership. In 2003, the government decided to invest in its indigenous LCA program with additional resources and renamed the aircraft as ‘Tejas’. In 2004, along with the indigenous LCA program, the Indian government had already finalised a deal to manufacture heavy twin-engine fighter aircraft Sukhoi Su-30 MKI as the lead air-superiority fighter aircraft of the IAF under license to HAL.

Addition to this, the Indian government was also looking to replace its ageing fleet MiG-27, SEPECAT Jaguar and Mirage-2000, decided to initiate Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender. The deal was to buy 126 aircraft, with a condition to buying 74 more in the future. The government wanted to buy the 18 aircraft in a straightaway condition and the remaining to be built by the HAL under the licence with the Transfer of Technology (ToT). Two fighter aircraft-Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon made it to the final list and the Indian government selected Dassault Rafale for exclusive negotiations, but the deal was cancelled owing to fiscal pressures and other impracticalities. But soon, the governments of India and France entered into a deal to purchase 36 Rafale aircraft in flyaway condition from France.

With the future procurement of Dassault Rafale, one of the most lethal fourth generation aircraft and the addition of Super Sukhois-the updated version of the Sukhoi-30 MKI, LCA Tejas  and with India’s decision to develop a fifth-generation medium multirole combat aircraft (AMCA), Indian Airforce will be one of the destructive airforces in the world, arguably after the United States and Russia.

Way Ahead: 

The technological advancement across the world and with the advent of new powers like China and India in the global power structure has lead to the breaking of status-quo. The nations are investing in enhancing its defence capabilities and re-thinking its approaches to maintain its hegemony and balance of power. The United States has achieved the technological mastery of building fifth generation machines of having high manoeuvrability, supercruise, low Radar Cross section (RCS) to achieve stealth. The Russians, aware of their technological limitations have been investing in building machines like S-400 systems and powerful radars to boost its defence preparedness. The Chinese have been heavily funding its Fifth-generation fighter development program and also the indigenous production of technologically superior armaments. India should take an inspiration from these countries, build partnerships through active engagement which could benefit to revive India’s own defence industry which is plagued by mediocrity, inefficiency and delay.

Reviving Indian defence industry is the need of the hour for two reasons. First, indigenisation of defence systems will provide a much-needed impetus to Indian Armed Forces to procure the critical equipment hassle-free. The technological control in Indian hands would ensure the timely supply of armaments at emergency circumstances. Second, India defence budget is the fifth largest in the world, amounting to $62 billion or Rs 4,04,365 crore and procures 60% of its weapon systems from the foreign market. The indigenous development will not only save vital forex reserves but also induce economic growth as it will bring in huge investments into the domestic economy.

The Indian government should provide an impetus to the defence manufacturing, especially in areas involving high-technology systems like fighter aircraft, Cruise Missile systems, Anti-Ballistic Defence systems, radars, nuclear submarines, Aircraft carriers by creating an enabling environment and incentivising the country’s private sector to take up the critical task. India has to move away from the archaic bureaucratic setup and develop institutional capacity to achieve self-sufficiency in its defence needs.

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