The IAF’s squadron strength is projected to fall to 21 squadrons by 2037. Where will that leave India’s air defence and strike capability?

 

Overnight the vintage cigar shaped Soviet-origin MiG-21 Bis, ominously nicknamed the “flying coffin”, is being projected as the David who slayed Goliath after the Indian Air Force (IAF) claimed to have shot down a US-supplied F-16 of the Pakistan air force.

However, almost two weeks later there is still no independent confirmation of the shooting down of this well known multi-role fighter which the US has not only offered to sell to the IAF but even to shift their assembly line to India. In fact a prominent US newspaper has negated the Indian claim of downing an F-16.

Sections of the media and commentators have also been projecting the near invincibility of the IAF following the 26 February airstrikes on terror camps in Pakistan. But then even the suggestion of a question pertaining to the effectiveness of the airstrikes or the shooting down of the F-16 is being perceived by a section of the political class and commentators as being anti-national and unpatriotic.

Had politicians, policymakers, informed journalists and other sections of the intelligentsia asked relevant questions prior to the Sino-Indian War in 1962, India may not have suffered a humiliating defeat in which we lost 19% of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (the Aksai Chin region). Had India continued with the Pakistani initiated war in September 1965, it would not have been a case of “lost victory” for India. The same applies for the decision to engage the LTTE in Sri Lanka in 1987. Indeed such questions abound with regard to the many engagements the Indian armed forces have been engaged in during India’s relatively short post-Independence history.

The 1965 war, for example, could have resulted in a decisive victory since, then unknown to the Indian armed forces, the Pakistani army only had four days of ammunition left. If India pressed on, New Delhi may have wrested control of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir or at least a significant part of it. There would have been no returning of the strategically important Haji Pir Pass and we may have had a direct land route to the Central Asian Republics and West Asia through the upper stretch of Afghanistan that currently borders POK. There may have been no longer any land connectivity between China and Pakistan and hence no CPEC. All this, however, remains in the realm of a huge “if” which never happened.

Military mistakes and miscalculations have been made in India’s post-Independence history because the people who mattered and the informed members of the public either did not ask enough questions or did not ask the right questions and had little understanding of defence and military matters in the first place. As the early 20th century French Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau, famously remarked, “War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men.” In India, wars have been marked with many moments when either the military leadership or the politicians or both have been found wanting. There have been occasions, such as the 1962 Sino-Indian war, when the Army had a few politicised generals. Similarly, there have been occasions when politicians have oscillated between being doves and chicken hawks.

There is indeed a dire need for a spirit of inquiry in a country where year after year an ever increasing defence budget (Rs 418,000 crore for the FY 2019-2020) gets passed in Parliament with hardly any discussion or debate, even as India’s security challenges continue to mount. Yet, despite this huge allocation, the capital portion of the defence budget remains both inadequate and sometimes even under-spent due to a variety of factors.

Even after spending literally billions of dollars on equipment over the last decade-and-a-half, India’s embarrassingly import-dependent armed forces are dangerously deficient in capabilities and equipment.

The armed forces are in dire need of modernisation and upgrading. The largely state-owned and state-directed military industrial complex is a mess, while reform of the country’s higher defence management system is long pending. Perhaps even more central to these issues is the quality of both the civilian and military leadership along with their quality of thinking and decision making.

Here are a few reminders about the IAF which has recently been in the news. The Indian Air Force is down to just 32 fighter squadrons against a sanctioned strength of 42. Current projections indicate that unless serious remedial measures are taken, the IAF’s strength of fighter squadrons will further fall to 26 by 2021 (i.e. in the next two years) despite the induction of the Rafale fighters and the Tejas. The IAF’s squadron strength is projected to fall to 21 squadrons by 2037 and then to a mere 19 squadrons by 2042, which works out to less than half the sanctioned strength. Where will that leave India’s air defence and strike capability?

Senior IAF officers have gone on record to say the IAF is ill-equipped to fight a two-front collusive war with China and Pakistan. Just 24 days prior to the airstrikes, the Air Chief, while lamenting on the HAL’s (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) record, had exasperatedly asked, “Will the enemy make any concessions for us when we face them in battle?”

The IAF, the world’s fourth largest, is the only Air Force of its size and importance which continues to fly the outdated MiG-21. India shares this “distinction” with Angola, Cuba, Guinea, Libya, Mali, Mozambique and a few more. Between 1978 and 1987, India inducted 220 pieces of the MiG-21 Bis variant. Owing to delays in the development of the Tejas (India’s indigenous light combat aircraft), the IAF had no option but to upgrade 125 MiG-21 Bis aircraft. A contract was signed with Russia in 1996 to upgrade all these aircraft by September 2001. The much delayed upgrade was, however, completed only by 2007-08.

The upgrade, however, did not include the engines or the airframe. As a result there could be no significant life extension. Yet the fact, as recorded in a CAG report tabled in 2015, is that the upgrade programme “was neither completely successful nor comprehensive”.

India chose an unproven Multi-Mode Pulse Doppler Radar for the upgraded MiG-21 Bis, which turned out to have inadequate beyond visual range capability. The upgraded aircraft, employed against the far superior F-16s last month, has deficiencies in critical electronic warfare (EW) systems, making it vulnerable to EW threats due to non installation of self protection jammers in 57% of the 125 upgraded MiG-21s and also due to the high failure rate of the Radar Warning Receiver System meant to alert pilots to hostile aircraft. The aircraft has had a low serviceability record due to shortage of spares as well as operational and technical manpower, thereby resulting in a large percentage of aircraft being regularly grounded. Several upgraded MiG-21 Bis aircraft have since crashed, the last of which was in Bikaner on Friday.

Since its induction starting with the earlier variants of the aircraft in 1963, the IAF has lost about 500 of the reportedly total 874 MiG-21s it has inducted. About 200 MiG-21 pilots have been killed in these accidents. The IAF is currently left with about five squadrons of these aircraft including three upgraded MiG-21 Bis squadrons. All MiG-22 squadrons are due to be phased out by 2021, which will lead to a further reduction of the IAF’s fight fleet as already mentioned.

What is needed is a comprehensive appraisal of India’s defence requirements and deficiencies along with some serious introspection. We need substantiveness, effectiveness and efficiency in military capability and not tokenism. We certainly can do without jingoism and soap opera politics that seem to be bordering on the preserve, especially with elections due next month. Perhaps, in India’s case, Clemenceau’s adage needs to be reworded to “military is too serious a matter to be left to the politicians”. But then that’s not an option in a democracy where civilian control of the military is imperative. But for that the political leadership must have the will and make the effort to understand defence and military issues. The combination of ignorance and jingoism can be fatal.

Dinesh Kumar is a defence analyst.

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