Objective military assessments would indicate that India’s reluctance or hesitation to adopt decisive ripostes to Pakistan’s and China’s military provocations impinging India’s sovereignty arise from major deficiencies of combat aircraft in the Indian Air Force arising from political inattentiveness most noticeable in the last decade and the traditional lethargy of the civil bureaucrats of the Defence Ministry who finalize all defence acquisitions. How is it that when Pakistan and China have enlarged their Air Forces in the last decade the Indian Air Force was allowed to culpably downslide by perpetuating a glaring deficiency of 126 or more Fighter Combat Aircraft for more than a decade. How is it that the then National Security Advisers were oblivious to this chink in India’s armour? How is it that the National Security Advisory Boards of this time comprising retired senior Indian Air Force officers did not publicly sound the alarm when Air Forces all over the world have become decisive arms to cater for all threats to national security?
A Times of India dated October 5, 2014 had a screaming headline on Page 16 crying aloud: “With fleet on last legs, IAF Chief sounds red alert”: All 3 Key Fighter Deals Missing Deadline, Says Worried Raha. ”In what can be construed as a severe indictment of the Ministry of Defence, the Indian Air Force Chief, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha stated at a press conference on October 4, 2014 that “Every project, be it acquisition, design and development, is taking longer than it should. We have lost timelines. We have quite a few fleets which are on their last legs. It’s definitely a concern.” At the same conference one media report indicates that painfully the Indian Air Force Chief had to point out that the Indian Air Force was ‘India’s Air Force and not my own’. In other words it was a reflection of the step-motherly and callous attitudes of the Defence Ministry bureaucrats who process and finalise all defence acquisitions.
The Indian Air Force Chief was obviously pointing out to the inordinate delays in the acquisition of the 126 MMRCA combat fighter aircraft, the induction of the indigenous LCA fighter aircraft and the joint development of the futuristic Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft with Russia. Besides, the Indian Air Force is deficient of 197 helicopters, air refuelling aircraft and an ageing transport fleet over 30 years old.
The most worrisome and alarming concern is the glaring void of 126 Fighter Aircraft which provide the cutting edge of the combat effectiveness of any Air Force both for defensive operations and offensive operations. The figure of 126 Fighter Aircraft deficiency projected by the Indian Air Force years back, I suspect maybe much higher if flying accident losses are added. Can India afford a “toothless Air Force” against the combined threats emanating from Pakistan and China? Can India’s current political leaders not vigorously shake out the Ministry of Defence bureaucrats from their languorous slumber? Are Indian political leaders so helpless in not inculcating a sense of urgency in Defence Ministry bureaucrats’ when it comes to defence acquisitions having a critical bearing on India’s security?
The Indian Air Force today is down to 34 squadrons against 42 squadrons authorised and as per media quotes out of these 34 squadrons the picture becomes more alarming as 14 squadrons comprise of virtually obsolete fighter aircraft. This effectively implies that the Indian Air Force stands reduced to a miserable and pathetic figure of 20 squadrons. For a country claiming to be a regional power and a global player is this figure that would sustain India’s growing strategic aspirations and enlarged operational responsibly extending all over the Indo Pacific region. Is this pathetic figure acceptable to India’s current political leadership? With enlarged operational responsibilities India would need at least 60 squadrons by 2020. It will be a miracle if India could even reach a figure of 42 squadrons by that year.
This aspect stands highlighted in a number of my SAAG Papers over the last decade resting with SAAG Paper No.5644 dated 7 February 2014 “China’s Increased Defence Budget and Implications for India’s Security”. Expressly pointed out were two major observations and those were that India’s strategic image stands severely dented with such glaring gaps in its combat preparedness and the policy paralysis in the Ministry of Defence of sitting for over a decade on the 126 Fighter Aircraft deal needs serious intervention.
To indicate the policy paralysis in the Ministry of Defence, published sources indicate that the Indian Air Force had initiated the process for Request for Proposals (RFP) in 2001 but it was not until August 2007 that the Ministry of Defence floated the RFPs inviting international bids. Six years were wasted thus and another eight years have stood wasted thereafter. And the Rafale deal has yet to be signed.
The Indian Air Force long ago after intensive trials indicated its preference for the French Rafale Fighter Aircraft as its MRCA mainstay reinforcing its preference with that fact that the Rafale Fighter Aircraft was a twin-engine fighter aircraft capable of long-range air strikes and endurance. Additionally, France had indicated that it would provide fixtures on the Rafale for delivery of nuclear weapons. More importantly the Rafale as opposed to the American contenders had a futuristic life of at least 40 years, The American contenders, namely the F-16S and the F-18S have been around from early 1980s.
Major delays have also taken place due to intense pressures from the United States on the Congress Government to award the contract to US defence suppliers, namely the F-16 or F-18. Even with a new Government coming into power the American and European pressures did not cease. Inspired news in Indian newspapers suggested unsubstantiated flaws in the Rafale Fighter oblivious to the fact that the Indian Air Force had found it suitable after extensive and intensive tests. At times one gets the feeling that the Rafale deal was inordinately delayed by interested quarters so that American and European pressures could fructify. Even now reports are appearing that the Rafale order may be cut down for want of finances. Can India afford an emasculated Air Force? If anything has to be cut down it are the wasteful politically populist schemes like NREGA and the like gobbling up thousands of crores of rupees which should necessarily be spent on enhancing India’s combat effectiveness.
The current political leadership is not responsible for this mess but with its dynamism can restructure the fundamentals of India’s Ministry of Defence including a drastic reduction of an over-bloated civil bureaucrats and civilian subordinate staff replicating and duplicating each of the three Services. I have earlier questioned as to if the Prime Minister can run India with a modest Prime Minister’s Office why can’t the Defence Minister run India’s military machine with a modest Defence Minister’s Office when India’s military hierarchy comprise a dynamic and intelligent resource to substitute a meddlesome and obstructive civil bureaucracy?
The Air Force Chief did allude to the fact that that the Modi Government is urgently seized of the matter and that the Prime Minister meets the three Services Chiefs individually at least once every month to review India’s combat preparedness. This is a welcome departure from the last fifteen years as India’s apex political leadership does not need bureaucrats to parrot what the Service Chiefs should directly be communicating with the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister.
However Prime Minister Modi and Defence Minister Jaitley should fix accountability within the Ministry of Defence for the culpable delay leading to the emasculation of the Indian Air Force combat effectiveness. It is strange that the Defence Secretaries who lorded over the Ministry of Defence and let the combat effectiveness of the Indian Army, the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force downslide most damagingly to India’s national security during their tenures should have been kicked upstairs to high constitutional posts by the previous Government. Does that suggest something?
Concluding, to restore the combat effectiveness of the Indian Air Force as a first and immediate step the Modi Government should fearlessly finalise the Rafale deal for 126 aircraft immediately and place the orders so that the first squadron in the ‘fly away’ condition arrives in India by early next year. France should then be prevailed upon to speed-track the remainder 100 aircraft in segments of one squadron per year.
The LCA Tejas indigenous fighter aircraft project should also be ordered to speed-up deliveries on a crash footing by Hindustan Aircraft Limited. There is no reason why this public sector undertaking should not be expanded and even with the incorporation of the private sector.
As another stop-gap measure Russia can be explored if it is ready to supply or lease at least two squadrons of its MIG 35s which was a also a contender for the MRCA deal.
Concluding, one may ask what is the moral of this pathetic story of the emasculation of the combat effectiveness of a fine fighting Indian Air Force? The first is that India’s apex political leadership of any dispensation should take upon themselves the sacred duty of reviewing the combat effectiveness of all the three Services of the Indian Armed Forces once in every six months. Secondly, Defence Acquisitions and Defence Production should be under the personal charge of the Prime Minister like the Atomic Energy Commission. Thirdly, the Ministry of Defence needs to be drastically restructured and reformed and reduced in size in terms of its civilian staff and civilian bureaucrats. The Defence Minister can function with a modest Defence Minister’s Office and the Defence Minister should deal directly with the military hierarchy who have spent their lifetimes in excelling in professional competence to rise up the military leader and who alone are the best equipped to deal and advise the Defence Minister on matters of national security and maintaining the combat effectiveness of the Indian Armed Forces
The above are pressing imperatives if India needs to add substance to her aspirations in to emerge as a strong regional power and an influential global power. It cannot emerge thus only by rhetoric or diplomacy. Rhetoric and diplomacy without strong muscular military back-up well-honed and with all military inventories complete at all times amounts to boxing with shadows. Hopefully, the Modi Sarkar would reverse the paralysis that prevails in the Ministry of Defence in terms of timely defence acquisitions.