Indian Air Force in crisis: US expert

The IAF’s fighter force, as of early 2016, is weaker than the numbers suggest, says expert Ashley Tellis.

Indian Air Force in crisis: US expert

New Delhi: The Indian Air Force is in crisis as it is handicapped both by diminishing numerical strength and a troubled force structure, says a report by a US expert.

Ashley Tellis, the senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace specialising in international security, defence, and Asian strategic issues, said in the report that 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.”

Tellis' report, 'Troubles, they come in Battalions: The Manifold Travails of the Indian Air Force', notes the following troubles being faced by the IAF:

• The IAF’s fighter force, as of early 2016, is weaker than the numbers suggest. 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 defence/multirole fighters against the IAF’s 450-odd equivalents. 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.

• 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.

• The IAF’s likelihood of reaching its 2027 goal with a high proportion of advanced fighters is poor. It is stymied by serious constraints on India’s defence budget, the impediments imposed by the acquisition process, the meagre achievements of the country’s domestic development organisations, the weaknesses of the higher defence management system, and India’s inability to reconcile the need for self-sufficiency in defence production with the necessity of maintaining technological superiority over rivals.

• 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’ shortcomings are unclear; and the IAF’s reluctance to proceed fully with the PAK-FA program could undermine its fifth generation fighter ambitions.

Recommendations for India

• 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 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 program.

• 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. 

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