The grim reality which a majority of Indians may not even be aware of is the Indian Air Force is desperate for fighter aircraft

by Abhijit Bhattacharyya

Happy is the nation without a history,” said Cesare Beccaria, the 18th century Italian criminologist, jurist and philosopher, also considered as father of modern criminal law and criminal justice. Why and in which context Beccaria made the statement, with what ramifications, cannot be guesstimated. Nevertheless, how about creating another set of soundalike sentences? Happy are the nations with a rival without craft. Or, unhappy is the air force in endless search for an aircraft.

Sounds cynical? May be. May be not, though, if dispassionately looked at from the ‘other side of the hill’ with reference to the plight, not flight, of ace fliers of the Indian Air Force and their senior commanders who are getting a mouthful from some eminent armchair experts whose knowledge of combat aircraft, technical features and their operational role emanates primarily from (over)hearing is believing rather than seeing and doing is believing, and who may not even be able to differentiate between aircraft and a rotor-craft. Virtually all of them operate from the cool comfort of their office cabin, club bar, centre's lounge, golf course or other old boys’ watering holes in Lutyens’ land, which has seen a steady growth of ‘healthy convention’ to allow the high and mighty to first loot and then scoot over the past few decades.

Understandably, owing to this highly favourable ambience of India’s internal situation, grew the adversarial activities of two of India’s neighbours, China and Pakistan. We can, therefore, only observe with concern their aggressive march to "fighter aircraft modernisation and upgradation" in comparison with India and express regret for the monumental failure and incompetence of our vaunted civilian rulers consisting of India’s politico-bureaucracy in defence preparedness.

The situation is so bad and disheartening that one is compelled to quote from internationally accepted credible sources to point out the grim reality which a majority of Indians may not even be aware of, because traditionally a section of the ruling class detested the idea of the people of the country being aware of what the nation is facing. Thus, according to Military Balance 2005-2006, published by International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), London, India had 38 squadrons of fighter aircraft out of which 852 aircraft were combat capable. Pakistan had 13 squadron fighters with 331 aircraft combat capable and China 119 regiments (a squadron is known as regiment in China) with 2,643 aircraft combat capable.

In 2009 the same Military Balance of IISS showed that the IAF fleet came down to 29 squadrons with 603 combat capable aircraft. Pakistani Air Force strength, on other hand, went up to 15 squadrons with 383 combat capable fighters and China initiated fleet modernisation, discarding the old and inducting new state-of-art fighters, reducing the number of regiments to 58 with 1,653 combat capable aircraft.

Six years later, Military Balance 2015 revealed that the IAF improved its number of squadrons to 37 with 881 combat capable fighters. Pakistani Air Force too increased combat capable aircraft to 450, though there was no change in number of 15 squadrons. The Chinese, however, once again made impressive progress in their capability as PLA Air Force regiments went up from 58 to 60 and the number of combat capable aircraft too jumped from 1,653 to 2,239.

The crisis year, therefore, had to arrive in 2018, with disaster waiting to happen, for the IAF. Military Balance 2018 clearly states that the squadron strength of IAF is 32 and the number of combat capable aircraft stands at 849 which is lower than the 852 of 2005-2006. In comparison, Pakistani Air Force has 15 squadrons, though the combat capable fighters have reduced to 425. Chinese PLA Air Force, on other hand, has enhanced both, number of regiments to 64 and combat capable fighters to 2,397. Does India see the reality? Can India make out what lies in the future?

Since a few congenital Indian critics do not know the reality of the overall security environment, one should try understand as to why the Deputy Chief, Vice-Chief (both three-star Air Marshals) and the four-star Chief of Air Staff nearly simultaneously made uncharacteristic public statements pertaining to fleet of the Indian Air Force. The ominous statement of the Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa that India is "facing a grave threat", however, is the ultimate forewarning to the nation.

Critics nevertheless will find fault with professional soldiers and lobby to stifle their voice, without realising that the IAF is in distress without even a minimum number of fighters. There are qualified pilots, with eligible age and fitness certificates, who are on ground owing to the decommissioned fighters they were trained, and certified, to fly. If this is not a “grave threat” then what is?

But then who will ask questions of successive governments for their monumental failure to take timely decision for selection of fighters to keep the IAF battle-ready? In the aftermath of the 1962 debacle in the border war with China, an Opposition politician had written a book ‘The guilty men of 1962’. But nothing happened to a single person out of those ‘guilty men’. They all went scotfree and continued to rule the roost.

India today needs to understand that if the three senior-most uniformed officers of the IAF have raised issues on a public platform, they need to be heard, and not abused and accused of ‘speaking out of turn’. These fighter commanders, with four decades operational experience, must surely be anticipating, or fearing, the worst possible scenario.

India’s last major fighter induction (Sukhoi-30) took place in the 1990s as India then had a steady supply of fighters to replenish the IAF fleet from time to time. Thus, came the MiG series of 21, 23, 25, 27, 29 and Sukhoi-7 and Sukhoi-30. However, in between, also came the Anglo-French Jaguar in 1979-1980 followed by the French Mirage-2000 in the early 1980s.

There nevertheless were ‘scandal’ allegations related to Jaguar deal wherein the Defence Secretary died in office. Defence deal scams followed later. But does it mean that the IAF, or for that matter other wings of the armed forces, should continue to suffer avoidable ‘peace-time’ casualties? Can the Sino-Pakistan axis get a better opportunity to crush India without firing a shot? Is India aware of the fighter programme and acquisition of the Beijing-Islamabad duo? Doubtful. Else, successive ruling classes of Delhi would have resolved the crisis situation in the IAF a long time ago.

The writer is an alumnus, National Defence College