The Indian Air Force turned eighty-six on October 8. While professionals at Air Headquarters do a regular assessment of IAF’s capabilities it is essential that certain aspects of its prowess, that they cannot comment on, be discussed for strengthening India’s security apparatus, in which air power is a vital cog. When we talk about the modernisation of the IAF, a key question is—have we seriously analysed the effects on the nation’s deterrence posture of the systemic debilitation in the accretion of defence capability?
Most big ticket purchases of the government, irrespective of the political party in power, have got mired in controversy. The author has no expertise on commenting on the veracity of the alleged malfeasance but the controversies have had a worrying level of impact on the IAF’s ability to project power and be a deterrent force. Make no mistake—for the next decade or so the IAF is well placed to take on the air power of its adversaries and help the Indian Army and Navy in their tasks. This is for three reasons. First, its equipment is better—offensive assets like the Sukhoi, Mirage and Rafale (arriving soon); combat enablers like AWACS (Airborne warning and control system) and flight refuellers; and vital transport and helicopter fleets. Second, the training of its personnel is superior, and third, the air forces of the adversaries are still in the build-up phase. However, it is the trajectory of their build-up, coupled with the debilitation of our force accretion process, which is the worrying factor.
The history of capability accretion by nations is an example. The Greek and the Roman Empires expanded their boundaries due to their military power, but when their rulers strayed from the path of what Chanakya would call rajdharma and neglected their duty of maintaining a fighting edge over their adversaries, their influence waned. In the twentieth century the world witnessed the industrialisation and re-armament of Japan and Nazi Germany and their subsequent defeat by the Soviet Union and US; the latter had the full force of the national and political will to industrialise and militarise.
After World War II, the industrialisation and re-armament of China has been driven by a grand national strategy. This may not necessarily portend conflict, due to changed geo-political dynamics, to include economic globalisation, but as historian Paul Kennedy argues in his magnum opus The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, as a nation’s economic power grows, it has to go offshore for raw materials, resulting in conflicts—that’s what drove Hitler’s lebensraum and Japan’s annexations in Asia. China’s growing influence in the world and the aggressiveness of its Belt and Road Initiative must, therefore, be analysed keeping in mind their security implications. The proverbial powder must be kept dry—but for this, it first needs to be available in the right measure and at the right time. The plans to shore up IAF’s dwindling assets, therefore, need our attention.
In a recent seminar on IAF’s structure held in Delhi by the Centre for Air Power Studies, the Deputy Chief of Air Staff, the officer looking after procurements, was clear about the requirements—the Rafales must come by 2022, and 123 Tejas within the next decade. There must not be any hitch in the import of 114 multi-role fighters, and the DRDO must push for the Tejas Mk2 (still on the drawing board), of which the IAF will acquire twelve squadrons. More combat enablers (AWACS and flight refuellers) are needed and the fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft, hopefully, will fly in 2032. The IAF sure has a plate full of hopes, going by the snail mail speed of past procurements. But this had better change.
The change has to come on two fronts. First, the R&D and defence manufacturing sector, where there is no alternative but the government’s hands-on, result-driven, private-sector-inclusive, carrot-and-stick approach. Second, and this is more revolutionary, with a bigger imperative: Both sides of the political aisle must devise a strategy to cooperate in the face of this crisis of serious proportions that is staring us in the face—if the capability build-up is delayed any further, the deterrent posture of the armed forces could get affected. Politics, they say, is the art of the possible—if ever it has to be proved right, it is now. It’s been done before, as written about by veteran journalist Shekhar Gupta, when the opposition sided in national interest with the government’s decision to pay an advance to the Russians before the Sukhoi contract was signed. If ‘both sides’, together, now select the CBI chief, the CVC and Lokpal why can’t ‘both sides’ be part of the defence acquisition structure, say at the Defence Acquisition Council level, for high value purchases? Well, the level and scope can be a matter of discussion but first let there be a consensus to do this in national interest.
Maybe a cost-benefit analysis could help drive home the gravity of the looming crisis. While making recommendations for the US defence budget 2018-22, the Senate Armed Services Committee was critical of the defence outlay and quoted their Army Chief of Staff as saying, “The only thing more expensive than deterrence is actually fighting a war, and the only thing more expensive than fighting a war is fighting one and losing one.” India has to aim for the cheapest option and ensure that there is no slouching in its deterrence posture. Sagacity and rationality in the political discourse are needed to allow
capability build-up to proceed unhindered. The converse—the expensive option—is unthinkable.
Post script: The euphoric media coverage of the Indo-Russian S-400 deal must be seen in the correct perspective: it would be an acquisition of a potent, and necessary, defensive asset. Though it is not one that carries war to the adversary—the other requirements are still vital.
(Views are personal)
Manmohan Bahadur V M
Retired Air Vice Marshal and Additional Director General,Centre for Air Power Studies, New Delhi