India's Air Power Crisis

11 Apr, 2016    ·   5017

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra reviews a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report authored by Dr Ashley J Tellis on the problems facing the IAF

Troubles, They come in Battalions is the latest report by the Carnegie Endowment for Peace on the Indian Air Force (IAF). The substance of the report is divided into five sections, dealing with the supposedly aggravating threat environment, a worsening internal situation of the air force with falling numbers, and finally looks at the three categories of fighters the IAF wants to induct – heavy, medium and light.

Assessing the threat environment Dr Tellis points out that the Indian Air Force has traditionally always had an edge over the Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) in the high-end spectrum. This however is changing with the PLAAF’s high-end component alone, set to exceed the total strength of the IAF. This imbalance is exacerbated by the presence of a large fleet of UAVs for persistent surveillance and cruise missiles for saturation attacks on Indian targets capable of overwhelming Indian air defences. He also points to the strength of China’s aircraft design and production and the Indian leaderships lack of attention to air warfare. He does however point out some weaknesses in PLAAF infrastructure as well as the need to keep large reserve forces given the several adversaries China faces across its periphery – meaning the full force of the PLAAF probably cannot be brought to bear against one adversary. He then goes on to survey the Pakistan air force and assess what India will be up against in a 1.5 and 2-front war, settling on a 60-squadron air force to comprehensively combat both adversaries or a 42-45 squadron air force in an environment with more limited aims.

The second part of the report goes into the usual rants about the acute numbers shortage the Air Force is facing, putting this down rather crudely to the mismatch of defence needs and the defence budget. The usual arguments are regurgitated - how current force numbers are much lower than it appears on paper, money is not being sanctioned for new projects and how unforeseen expenditures like One Rank, One Pension (OROP) have taken a further toll. It does however acknowledge how much of the problems stems from India’s own internal problems and the inability of the higher defence management system to plan systematically into the future. This leads into the IAF’s own logistic problems of an excessively diversified Air Force of far too many fighter and support aircraft varieties.

The author then in tabular form analyses the current light, medium and heavy fighters serving with or under active consideration by the IAF, looking at empty weight and maximum take-off weight (MTOW). He analyses the current light aircraft scenario, pointing out accurately that the expensive upgrades to the Mirage 2000 and MiG-29 could have been avoided if the IAF had committed to immediate retirement of the MiG-21 fleet. The monies saved he opines could have then been diverted to the procurement of a brand new 4.5 generation aircraft in the light end of the spectrum, which was scuttled by domestic opposition in favour of the HAL Tejas. Savaging the Tejas – he points out accurately the notion of cost savings the Tejas brings is illusory and how competing aircraft on the market bring much more to the table at comparable prices.

The analysis of the medium weight category starts with some considerable incredulity (not misplaced) on the authors part, pouring scorn on the choice of the Rafale and the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft  (MMRCA) process. Sadly this comes across as a case of sour grapes - given that his previous report Dogfight basically said the MMRCA process was well thought out – a report that the Air Force used to validate the process politically in India. Irrespective, he then engages in some highly suspect financial comparisons to the costs of US aircraft that cannot be supported by facts – at least with regards to foreign purchases. He goes on to analyse various medium fighters on their capabilities (though less intensively than the light category). His analysis of the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) rests on much more solid ground, pointing out some critical flaws in the thinking behind the programme.

Finally, the author analyses the heavy segment. He cogently analyses problems with the Sukhoi fleet in terms of costs (both procurement and maintenance and in terms of their operational effectiveness given that China operates the same type, albeit inferior version, with Russia willing to transfer increasingly more sophisticated technology to China). This dovetails neatly into his accurate and balanced criticism of the Indo-Russian PAK-FA programme as well as some analysis of the electronic support fleet – specifically the Airborne Warning And Control System (AWACS) aircraft.

On balance the reports several strengths are overshadowed by its weaknesses. For starters', the author falls into the IAF trap of numerical comparisons shorn of intended effects, failing to account for the fact that Western quality with its attendant costs was meant to overcome eastern quantity.   In effect he makes the very worst case – of “great quality in great quantity.” Essentially he scores an own goal – because he cannot demonstrate how Western quality will allow a reduction in total numbers procured. He fails to reconcile his numerical recommendations with the fiscal reality of what India is willing to spend on defence and tellingly avoids a ball park figure on what his recommendations will cost. Perhaps the greatest flaw of the report is that he tends to place far to much blame of the DRDO, the government, and the “higher defence management” while absolving the IAF of grave culpability in its own travails. While his recommendations at the beginning of the report are exceptionally far-sighted, the substance of the report does not do full justice to the last and most salient of his recommendations – that of internal reform and focussing on the secondary aspects of the fleet such as training and infrastructure – instead of mere procurement.