Indian Air Force is in crisis, says US think tank

Washington: India’s traditional air superiority is now under ‘threat’ as China and Pakistan are rapidly modernising their air force, a top US think-tank warned today, underlining that resolving the ‘crisis’ should be a priority for the government.

“Despite being a world-class combat arm, the IAF’s falling end strength and problematic force structure, combined with its troubled acquisition and development programs, threaten India’s air superiority over its rapidly modernising rivals, China and Pakistan,” said the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Authored by Ashley Tellis, the top American expert on India and South Asia, whose counsel is sought by governments in both the countries, the report “The Manifold Travails of the Indian Air Force” argues that Indian air dominance is vital for deterrence stability in southern Asia and for preserving the strategic balance in the Indo-Pacific region.

“Resolving India’s airpower crisis, therefore, should be a priority for New Delhi,” Tellis says in his report running in more than 60 pages.

The IAF’s fighter force, as of early 2016, is weaker than the numbers suggest, the report said, adding that at nominally 36.5 squadrons, it is well short of its sanctioned strength, and many of its frontline aircraft are obsolete.

China and Pakistan field about 750 advanced air defense/ multirole fighters against the IAF’s 450-odd equivalents, the report said.

Though, the airfield infrastructure limitations in Tibet prevent China from bringing all of its air capabilities to bear against India, yet after 2025, China could be able to deploy anywhere between 300 and 400 sophisticated aircraft against India, in addition to the 100 to 200 advanced fighters likely to exist in Pakistan by then, it said.

“The IAF’s desire for 42–45 squadrons by 2027 — some 750–800 aircraft — is compelling, if India is to preserve the airpower superiority it has enjoyed in southern Asia since 1971,” it said, recommending that India needs to safeguard its regional air superiority over both Pakistan and China by mustering the requisite end strength and enhancing its extant operational advantages.

The IAF’s likelihood of reaching its 2027 goal with a high proportion of advanced fighters is poor, Tellis concluded in his report.

“It is stymied by serious constraints on India’s defense budget, the impediments imposed by the acquisition process, the meager achievements of the country’s domestic development organisations, the weaknesses of the higher defense management system, and India’s inability to reconcile the need for self-sufficiency in defense production with the necessity of maintaining technological superiority over rivals,” it said.

The IAF is attempting to reach its desired end strength by acquiring the Tejas Mark 1 to beef up its lightweight segment, filling out the remainder of its Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) purchase in its medium-weight segment, and continuing with the Su-30MKI acquisition and the PAK-FA (Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation) co-development programs to sustain its heavyweight segment, the report noted.

Tellis said that all three tiers of the IAF are currently in trouble.

The Tejas Mark 1 is handicapped by significant technological deficiencies; the prospects for expanding the MMRCA component to compensate for the Tejas’s shortcomings are unclear; and the IAF’s reluctance to proceed fully with the PAK-FA programme could undermine its fifth generation fighter ambitions.

The Carnegie report recommends that the IAF should revisit some aspects of its current approach and should be cautious about expanding the Tejas acquisition beyond six squadrons and consider enlarging the MMRCA component with the cheapest fourth-generation-plus Western fighter available.

India should also reassess the decision to develop the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft indigenously and avoid weakening the collaboration with Russia on the PAK-FA programme, the report recommends.

It recommends that India should expand its investments in advanced munitions, combat support aircraft, electronic warfare, physical infrastructure, and pilot proficiency—all current strengths— while being realistic about its domestic capacity to produce sophisticated combat aircraft.