All my growing years, I have lived amongst men in Uniform and their families – my family being one of them. Moving from one remote base to another – a nomadic life where no home was home for more than a few months and friends and neighbours changed oh so frequently. But in all that there was one constant – the deep abiding sense of commitment to serve that resonated in every man in Uniform and those who were fortunate like me to live with and imbibe values of service from them. The Indian Air Force has a long heritage of this sense of service. Our air force is one of the oldest outside the western democracies. Indian aviators have flown and fought in combat and other operations way back before even World War 1. Even our history as an Independent nation starts in its opening chapter with IAF Dakotas of 12 Sqn airlifting the gallant 1 Sikh to fightback Pakistani raiders in 1947 to save J&K. The Dakota an aircraft with which I have a deep connection all through my childhood today flies in the IAF Heritage flight with Tail no VP905 named Parashurama after the Warrior Saint. Mr Parashurama will certainly be the star of this Air Force Day – flying for first time at an Air Force Day – memorializing the many men and families who served in those early difficult and challenging years For those of you who do not know what Dakota is, here’s an explainer. It is an Indian military aircraft, which played a pivotal role in the 1947-48 India-Pakistan war. Dakotas were introduced in the 1930s as part of the 12th Squadron of the then Royal Indian Air Force and were the main workhorse in Ladakh and the Northeast region. They did not carry weapons, rather troops and supplies during World War II. The IAF has distinguished itself repeatedly in combat and peacetime. It is constantly stepping up in rescue operations all over the country – from Kerala to Jammu – from Gujarat to Northeast as recent floods and natural calamities showed.
Air Force Day is celebrated, each year, on October 8, to mark the anniversary of IAF’s official establishment of the IAF on October 8, 1932. The Indian Air Force Day is celebrated on the day of inception of this force in India to aid the Army that was fighting on the land. It is attended by the chiefs of all the three Defence services namely Indian Air Force, Army and Navy. I usually write about these men and women who serve and sacrifice but given recent events am penning today my thoughts about challenges being faced by our air warriors and their machines. So, as we celebrate the heritage and service of one of the worlds most distinguished Air Force’s let’s take a look at serious challenges it faces.Multiplicity of platforms and technologies in its inventory Currently, The IAF operates on 32 platforms sourced from 9 countries, although, it would be preferable to have lesser number of platforms for better management purposes. It would be desirable to rationalize and reduce the number of platforms within which IAF operates. There is a strong debate leaning towards indigenisation of the aircraft production, but for decades it has relied on only HAL to do that. Even communist era Russia (that so influenced early Indian governments) did not make the mistake of allowing only entity – They had multiple design bureaus like Sukhoi, Mikoyan, Mil ,Kamov etc but we persisted with HAL. The results are there for us to see – from being a company that designed earliest fighter jets (HF-24 Marut) outside the Superpowers and basic trainers as way back in the 1960s (HT-2) – 70 years on HAL today only has one indigenous product – the Dhruv helicopter -forcing this piecemeal acquisition strategy – sometimes from here and sometimes from there – resulting in multiple platforms and increased costs in spares, training and manpower. HAL current situation is a cumulative effect of failed political leadership of DPSUs that’s visible across the spectrum of PSUs in our country. National Security timelines unfortunately are not decided by HAL or some anonymous bureaucrat in MoD. And so it is that given decades of neglect and a non-urgent approach to modernization and an increased need to demonstrate our strength and reach to threats from neighbours (Pakistan, Chinese deployment of fighters in Tibet backed by Pakistan), it leaves India with no option than to emergency import until we become self-reliant and gain self-sufficiency in production of indigenous combat aircraft of this class and generation.
Re-strengthening the IAF
The IAF combat capability is at a historic low. It may sound like an indiscrete statement, but it needs to be said. The China Pakistan threat is a real one. The need for the IAF to be a credible deterrent is crucial for Economic and overall security of country. The IAF current depleted strength and capability is a real issue. The Emergency import of 2 squadrons is only the tip of the arrow. The IAF still needs the rest of the arrow to be built up. In some areas like airlift capability, the IAF has expanded in recent years but here too more needs to be done. IAF needs 42 Squadrons to completely handle Two Front War Scenario at any given time. The shrinking number of squadrons is a concern which we need to squarely deal with and not sweep under carpet as successive governments have done – to set us up for yet another 1962 type scenario.Imports cannot be long-term answer Importing Aircraft or any other product is an issue that will find less and less support in India. It creates economic activity in some other country than ours. Why should we do that? The Narendra Modi government has the right idea – address short term gaps with emergency imports (because of no other option) and lay out a robust medium and long term domestic manufacturing led procurement for the real medium-term requirements of the Indian Air Force. The 2-squadron emergency import of Rafales was much needed for the air force while the larger requirement of upgrading the IAF was to be indigenously manufactured. This medium-term Design and manufacturing plan includes both PSUs, Private Indian Companies and Private Multinationals. What is therefore needed is for this to be really given impetus under real leadership to creating a viable eco-system over the next 5-10 years. That would be the only real guarantor of IAFs preparedness. HAL must make it its mission to dramatically improving LCA Tejas capabilities in next 2-3 years including if possible with a new upgraded variant. Tejas after decades of development and thousands of crores of taxpayer spent must be made into a game changing platform and nothing less.
IAF must take the lead for futuristic, disruptive technologies
India is capable of delivering best in class technologies and platforms as we have seen in space and Nuclear sectors. Even Naval shipyards like Mazagon Docks are delivering world class platforms because of direct involvement of Navy in design and management. The constantly changing bureaucratic leadership cannot deliver this much needed and vital buildup of capability and eco-system. The IAF must take the lead in creating the necessary underpinnings to create a domestic Technology eco-system. Eighty years since it was born, the IAF is in the middle of a major transformation through induction of modern state-of-the-art equipment. There remain major challenges and as a nation that depends on our IAF to safeguard our skies – we need to handle these challenges head-on. This Air Force Day – let that be our mission to help our Air warriors get the air force they deserve.