Articles and Commentaries |
September 10, 2018

Defence Modernisation – Air Aspects


Some years ago, the erstw Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh very expansively declared that India’s area of interest stretches from the Gulf of Hormuz to the Straits of Malacca and from south of the Siberian plains to the Indian Ocean. For some it may have sounded a rather bold statement but the growing economy and industrialisation as also India’s thrust towards attaining a seat in the United Nations Security Council were symbolic of the emergence of India as a regional power and the Prime Minister’s statement was amply justified in its geopolitical aspirations. However, the increased effects of fundamentalism and radicalism have kept India’s neighbours in a perpetual state of political instability. The tense environment due to the requirements of guarding the borders and the internal security arrangements against anti-national elements and terrorists has kept the Government of India on edge for the past decade and more. In this tentative and uncertain scenario, where the vulnerabilities of the country are certainly exposed, there is a crying need to ensure that the Armed Forces, or the ‘Final Bastion’ as one would say, remain fortified and do not suffer from lack of adequate weaponry in the face of such adversity.

The Third Dimension    

Usage of the third dimension changed war-fighting forever, necessitating re-drawing doctrines and tenets ingrained in militaries across the world. The rapidity of the growth of air power and its latest avatar, ‘Aerospace Power’ and the multiple choices it offered made it the most preferred instrument of warfare. The speed of the aeroplane enlarged the battle space and increased the theatre of operations.

However, the multiple utilisation aeroplanes are also subjected to increase the complexity of operations and, along with Naval forces, escalate global influence and power projection. The sophistication, speed, lethality and precision of attack from the air has forced the ground environment to cope with the growing onslaught of technology and provide a counter. There is little doubt about the necessity of boots on the ground or the need for sea denial and security of SLOCs. But the sheer dominance of air power in modern warfare has ensured that whether Special Operations or Manoeuvre Warfare, Amphibious Operations or Counter- Terror Missions, they are dependent on the Air Force to provide a sanitised airspace for their success.


The Backbone – A Credible National Security Strategy  

The power of a nation can only be perceived if it is projected appropriately. It is like the posture of a predator which predicates its intention. A national security strategy of a nation serves exactly this purpose. It is a projection, or a posture, of its intentions and ability to fulfill given goals. Every nation lays down a set of values or doctrinal policy which act as guidelines for the executive. It is an umbrella document which governs the way a country is viewed, in international geopolitical dynamics as well as by its own people. Is the document necessary? Well, if you don’t lay down doctrinal policy, then the country can be likened to a rudder-less ship in a vast ocean – no control of direction but averting disaster through ad-hoc measures undertaken by those on board.

Alas, we in India cannot boast of a national security strategy to guide us. Under the nuclear overhang the subject of national security takes on an ominous portent. The fact that warnings may be too short, demanding quick reaction, it becomes mandatory that the military (and especially the Air Force) needs to possess a high degree of agility and flexibility to make itself effective over vast distances in the shortest possible time. Today, we are faced with both a  conventional threat (under a nuclear backdrop), as well as a nuclear threat from our neighbours and we need to display a posture which not only exhibits national power, but consequently serves as a deterrent against any devious intentions. We need to shed our policy of “Dissuasive Deterrence” in the light of the prevalent hostile environment and adopt a more ‘active’ posture.

Need for Force Modernisation  

Given the rapidly expanding economic base and the role we are likely to play in the world and (in greater measure) in regional geopolitics, time bound empowerment of the armed forces becomes mandatory and a national task. The whole purpose of maintaining the armed forces as a well-oiled fighting machine entails a progressive modernisation process to keep the force viable in a rapidly changing technology environment. But weapons acquisition by itself will not modernise a service. It follows an overarching pattern of re-orientating doctrines, strategy and operational philosophy. The whole planning process is complex and dynamic, needing acute perception and foresight. Some of the factors that make up the planning process are :-

(a)  Government’s foreign policy and its related geopolitical posturing and aspirations.

(b)  Economy of the state and its security.

(c)  Government’s defence policy derived from the above two.

(d)  An overarching doctrine that flows from government policy.

(e)  Grand strategy that the government may contemplate.

(f)  Intelligence analysis of enemy capabilities in the long term.

(g)  Threat perception in the long term.

(h)  Likely types of conflict (All out war / Short & swift / Nuclear overhang).

(i)   Gestation period for acquisition vis-à-vis threat perception.

(j)   Streamlined acquisition policy which facilitates defence business.

(k)  Multiple sources of supply (avoid all eggs in one basket).

(l)   Balance / mix of technologies to have a cost effective force.

(m) Life cycle costs of equipment.

(n)  Capability of assets – preference for inherent flexibility / multi-role.

(o)  Need for geographical distribution.

(p)  Support from indigenous defence industry.

Essentially these factors contribute to the conduct of a short and swift war wherein mobilisation time frames are kept to the minimum and the enemy is engaged in the full spectrum of warfare in all weather conditions. We should be able to create the pressure with asymmetry in technology and numbers, destroy his potential to wage war and his will to fight by reaching into his depth and targeting his centres of gravity. Modern warfare hinges heavily on technology, with sensors playing a major role. The use of cyberspace with networked data links contribute to shortening the sensor to shooter loop providing more effective targeting and minimising collateral damage.

Air Power and the Changing Battle Space

There is no doubt that progress in air and space has far outstripped not only that of the surface forces but is constantly pushing its own boundaries. Air power came to the fore in its early years of employment and has remained a game changer like no other element in the military arsenal. As the sword-arm of the armed forces, the IAF has to defend the airspace, react rapidly to natural disasters and provide humanitarian aid, in times of war achieve control of the air to allow surface forces to carry on their operations, while trying to reach deep inside the enemy’s territory to target his centres of gravity. In recent times, a new dimension has reared its head – that of internal security threat through anti-national elements and cross-border terrorism. It is evident that the canvas is not only vast, but the complexities involved in meeting the varied roles and execute them with professional competence is no mean task. Silhouetted against such a backdrop, the Indian Air Force’s decision to have a mix of high technology / medium technology / low technology weapon systems and platforms, is not misplaced.

Historically, most weapon systems straddle a cycle of 25-30 years, at which stage they either need to undergo an upgrade, if viable, or become obsolete and have to be replaced. Falling economies and rising costs of technology development and production do not allow countries (even the USA) the luxury of replacing military hardware at will. Every country around the world is looking at upgrading existing systems to give a fresh lease of life and then go for further acquisition in a graduated manner. A factor which has come to the forefront is the need for developing systems with good growth architecture, to allow for upgrades as the system evolves in the service. That means it must fulfill what is termed a “generation life cycle”, if possible.

The Indian Air Force Today    

India is juxtaposed in a delicate position where its threat perspective from hostile neighbours not only takes into account the steady increase in sophistication and lethality of conventional arms in their inventory but also the factor of proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) in the immediate area, not to mention the growing influence of non-state actors. The canvas stretches to the corners of the frame and each service has to identify its role and missions to fulfill the country’s needs. The IAF would typically have to :-

(a)  Deter and counter aggression across the expected spectrum of conflict

(b)  Possess the capability to take punitive measures when required

(c)  Provide adequate air defence protection to the nation

(d)  Provide unhindered operations to surface forces through top cover

(e)  Undertake special operations

(f)  Possess adequate leverage in space and cyberspace domains

(g)  Have incisive capability to counter terrorism and irregular warfare

(h)  Execute a nuclear mission, if so ordered

(i)   Conduct humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations in aid of civil society.

Whatever the attitude and profile of the nation, the armed forces need to maintain a state of readiness all the time and the cutting-edge Air Force becomes most accountable in these circumstances. It also becomes evident that the means to execute the tasks must be adequate, honed and in ‘fighting’ condition. The IAF has a lot of existing baggage in the form of legacy equipment which still has some residual life. Because service lives are long (typically 30-40 years), the IAF is essentially dealing with three sets of equipment or platforms. Firstly, legacy equipment which has no further upgrade possibility but has available residual life. In other words, equipment facing obsolescence. Secondly, a set of equipment which have upgrade potential and residual life.

Finally, new equipment / platforms which have recently been inducted or are in the acquisition process. In fact, a closer look indicates the ratio as 50% (in state of obsolescence), 35% (mature state with potential) and 15% (state-of-the-art). With two belligerent neighbours, these ratios do not offer a level of comfort.

Perspective Planning 

While everything hinges on the budget, the government must understand that the defence outlay has to allow the Air Force to reach a contemporary balance of modernisation and maintenance which will offer the most cost effective and potent mix to reinforce defence capabilities. The best mix of available resources with an optimal mix of capabilities will be the requirement of the day. Given the trend of the government and the budget allocations for defence, it is unlikely that the 1.6% of GDP figure, even in times of crisis, will exceed 2.0%, although 2.5% would be desirable.

Because the strategic environment is in a constant state of flux with shifting stances and changing power equations and alignments, there is always a case to do timely, judicious planning. Because technology affects doctrine and philosophy of military employment, changes / improvements in technology directly impinges on the threat perceptions and capabilities. Thus to plan ahead to overcome the gnawing obsolescence of equipment, provide the lead time to induct, train and operationalise new acquisitions, the services have, what is called, the “Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan” (LTIPP). Spanning a period of 15 years it projects the services’ requirements to the government to allow for budget orientation. Sub-sets of 5 years Services Capital Acquisition Plan (SCAP), which coincides with the government 5 year plans and an Annual Acquisition Plan (AAP) are modeled into the system to ensure the gestation periods do not exceed and provide the follow-on so necessary in the process.

Since the LTIPP is a classified document, a declassified version called the “Technology Perspective & Capability Roadmap” (TPCR) is put up in the public domain to provide a guideline and direction and the basis on which the industry will focus its wares and the government will decide on imports, within the framework of the stated budget. It allows the industry to initiate technology development and plan partnerships & production arrangements.

Needs of the Indian Air Force 

Perhaps the biggest need of the IAF is an indigenous defence industry. In the TPCR 2018 the IAF has indicated its aspirations for the future :-

(a)  Geo-spatial information systems – which provide aeronautical charting facilities.

(b)  Anti-RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft) Defence System to neutralise enemy RPAs / UAVs.

(c)  Tactical High Energy Laser System

(d)  High Power Electromagnetic Weapon Systems – to disable cellular / microwave towers / communication networks and affect C2 centers.

(e)  Electronic Fuses for bombs.

(f)  Long Range Glide Bombs (LRGBs).

(g)  Aerostat Systems.

(h)  High Power Ground Radars – Active Aperture Phased Array Radars.

(i)   Next gen Night Vision Devices (NVDs).

(j)   Electronic Warfare suites for Medium Lift Helicopters (MLH).

(k)  Sensor Fusion Systems.

(l)   Development of Stealth Systems.

(m) UAVs / RPAs.

These are some of the many representative items that the IAF would like to acquire in the foreseeable future.

The IAF had very realistically predicted the draw-down of fighter squadrons in the past two decades. So as the numbers dropped to alarming levels, the IAF was least surprised. HALs optimistic program to provide the MiG-21 replacement with the LCA Tejas has taken 35 years and still not established itself. The performance of HAL in this regard has taken a lot of beating and needs no further flogging. Suffice to say that after all these years the first squadron has only 6 aircraft. A production rate of 8 aircraft a year promised by HAL with a ‘ramp-up’ capability to 16 aircraft per year utilising the now defunct Hawk assembly line seems a pipe dream, given their reputation.

Notwithstanding the criticism, there is an urgent need for the LCA to succeed for the growth of the aviation industry in India and for the country to get on the path of self reliance. The IAF perforce has to support the program and carry HAL piggy-back for the numbers to be generated. Two squadrons of LCA  Mk 1 will be ready by 2024-25 at best. The IAF has ordered another 83 Tejas Mk 1A which is expected to have enhanced features such as an Advanced AESA radar, reduction in weight and increased maneuvera-bility, easier maintainability and a more effective target engagement system.

India’s Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) has been at the centre of controversy and criticism from the time of its first edition. Periodic iterations and tweaking, efforts to ‘short-circuit’, ‘fast-track’ procedures have not paid dividends towards creating a favourable model for business nor has it provided confidence and satisfaction to the buyer or the seller. Time delays in the Indian defence procurement system are legendary with processes taking three / four or even five times their stated periods. There is a continued lack of transparency and a constant fear of graft and corruption dogs the process.

Indigenisation and Make in India 

“India is the world’s foremost importer of defence equipment”. We seem to wear this tag like a medal, with great pride! But what a shame for a country such as ours. We seem to revel in our inability to manufacture defence equipment and our defence industry has no worthwhile credibility. It was probably because of our misplaced sense of security that national interests may be compromised which prompted the government to make DRDO and the PSUs the sole sources of military business. Not allowing private industry to enter the defence sector has stunted our growth in self reliance and indigenisation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s thrust to “Make in India” is a huge developmental step which, strangely, has not had the anticipated response. Here is an opportunity to use our abundance of technical talent and industrial space to set up infrastructure. Participation by Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) will be the natural fallout, alleviating their financial status and enhancing the technological base. To move the program, the government has taken steps to enhance ‘ease of doing business’ by streamlining government clearances, taxes and access. We need to improve on the quality of our products to inspire confidence in the major players for them to invest in the program, to ‘Make in India’. There is a serious need to reconsider the structure and functioning of DRDO and bring it in line with private sector functioning. Accountability must be enforced. User interface must be increased to facilitate satisfaction and trust. The ‘Strategic Partnership’ model is the way to go. This will give rich dividends and enrich our flagging defence industry.


Force modernisation is a time tested process, well charted and systematic. The need to follow it to the ‘T’ is the issue. Professionals at the service headquarters are acutely aware of the requirements of each service vis-à-vis the threat perception. While defence budgets will remain low, given the government’s prioritisation, we have to work around it to ensure a suitable mix of technologies in weapons systems / platforms are always available to cater to any unforeseen contingency. As the prime and swiftest means to react to an impending threat, the Air Force cannot stand denuded and look impotent to the enemy. As the chosen instrument to deter any enemy and display a show of force, the IAF needs to have the means to execute its multifarious tasks. Multi-Mission / Multi-Capable platforms are the need of the day. While unit costs may be high, the force multiplication factor vastly swings in its favour. The draw-down of fighter squadrons is bottoming out. A transformation is on the horizon. The transformation would be complete once the Indian defence industry attains some sort of credibility and Make in India becomes a success story. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of enhancing India’s area of interest from ‘Africa to the Americas’ must be justified.

(An alumnus of NDA and DSSC, Air Mshl Sumit Mukerji has served the IAF as a fighter pilot with distinction. He has commanded three units, a MiG-29 Sqn, a MiG-25 SR Sqn and TACDE (considered the Top Gun school of the IAF) and also served as the Air Attaché in Washington DC. Awarded ‘Shaurya Chakra’ for gallantry, he retired in 2011 as the AOC-in-C of Southern Air Command.)

(This article is carried in the print edition of September-October 2018 issue of India Foundation Journal.)

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