New Delhi: Starting out as a tactical force on Oct 8, 1932, with six aircraft, an equal number of officers and 19 airmen, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has today evolved into the world`s fourth largest and sees its area of operations extending far beyond the country`s boundaries - from the Strait of Hormuz in the west to the Strait of Malacca and beyond in the east.
As the IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal PV Naik, put it, "India`s area of responsibility extends from the Strait of Hormuz to the Malacca Straits and beyond. This will happen in the future. We see what capability is required to meet this aspiration and accordingly modernisation and procurements are planned."
Not surprisingly, as the IAF enters its 79th year, modernisation is uppermost on Naik`s mind, what with his admission that 50 percent of the force`s combat and transport aircraft is obsolete.
Towards this, the IAF chalked out ambitious plans to induct "cutting-edge technology" to give it "flexibility, adaptability and strategic reach".
As part of its transformational plan, the IAF is mulling the induction by 2017 of around 250 fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) being co-developed with Russia.
Speeding up its acquisition of modern aircraft systems, sensors, weapons, infrastructure, air defence systems and missiles, the IAF is looking to take a quantum jump in its force levels and capabilities.
On the fighter front, this will translate into the induction of mainly four types of aircraft - the FGFA, additional Sukhoi-30MKIs, the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) and the under-production indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA). The Tejas is expected to join the fleet from May 2011.
The lucrative $10-billion MMRCA project to acquire 126 fighters has now entered a decisive phase with field trials of the six foreign jets in contention having been completed and the results being evaluated before the aircraft is eventually selected.
On the transport front, the first of the six C-130J Super Hercules medium-lift aircraft is expected in February 2011, with deliveries being completed by the end of the year.
The IAF is also evaluating the 70-tonne capacity C-17 Globemaster III airlifter and a decision on acquiring it could well be taken during US President Barack Obama`s visit to India in November.
The modernisation process also includes the induction of modern attack-helicopters, heavy-lift and multi-role medium-lift helicopters, seamless communication and integration of sensors. This will enable capability-based operations and signal a shift from the current threat-based preparations, IAF spokesman Wing Commander Tarun Kumar Sangha told.
The induction of force multipliers like the airborne warning and control systems (AWACS) and air-to-air refuellers have already added to the IAF`s war fighting capabilities and increased its range and reach in recent times.
"With upgrades of Jaguar and Mirage-2000 (fighters) and the An-32 (transports) ongoing, planned acquisition to replace the ageing Avro aircraft, induction of Saras and Medium Transport Aircraft in the 11th and 12th Plan makes the way horizon ahead distinctly reassuring for our future air warriors," Sangha said.
Contributing to India`s defence diplomacy, he said, the IAF is increasingly holding joint, bilateral and multilateral air exercises with other air forces of the world.
The year gone by also had the IAF engage in one of its most significant roles in peace times, aiding the civil authorities in calamities like in Ladakh`s devastating cloudburst and the floods in northern India.
But the force is fighting another battle with itself - that of a crippling shortage of pilots and other personnel.
The IAF is short of around 600 pilots and over 5,000 personnel below officer rank, the Air Officer (Personnel), Air Marshal KJ Mathews, told reporters.
He, however, said that since 2009, the attrition rate has been positive and the number of pilots joining the force was more than those who were quitting.
Mathews said the IAF will also open its fighter pilots stream for short service commission officers and in the long run, aims to have around 30 percent of its pilots from this stream only.