Exclusive: 'Space the ultimate high ground for all operations', says Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari

'At least five or six fighter squadrons need to be inducted in shorter time frames'


Exclusive Interview/ Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari, Chief of the Air Staff

From Ukraine to the Middle East, multiple conflict theatres continue to demonstrate the importance of air power in every aspect of contemporary warfare. While the Indian Air Force is unlikely to face the type of air wars being fought in the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts, its leadership is aware of the challenges that a two-front war could throw up in its backyard. It will have to work together with air assets of the Army and the Navy to transform, integrate and support each other better and rise up to the challenges of the 21st century. In the face of mounting challenges, the next frontier for the IAF could be the exploitation of space-based assets. In an exclusive interview, Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari, chief of the air staff, shared his views on several important issues related to aerospace power by responding to this set of questions curated by Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam (retd). He says that the IAF has revised its existing doctrine and has recognised space as the ultimate high ground for all operations. He also says the IAF is in constant touch with the Indian space ecosystem that would provide the force with accurate and timely intelligence, precise navigation, reliable communications and accurate delivery of weapons. Excerpts from the interview:

The IAF is cognisant of the undergoing expansion of the PLAAF.... At least five or six fighter squadrons need to be inducted in shorter time frames.

Q Though the profile of the air wars in the Russia-Ukraine and Israel-Hamas conflicts are different from what we can expect, what are the important takeaways from an Indian perspective?

A You rightly mentioned that the trajectory of the two ongoing air wars is different from what we are likely to encounter against either one of our adversaries. The main reason for this is the steep asymmetry between contending sides in these wars as compared with the Indian scenario where the aerial domain is likely to be evenly contested.

One of the main takeaways from the Russia-Ukraine war is the importance of a sustained campaign to suppress and destroy enemy air defences, and the need for a resilient and full-spectrum air defence capability with a wide range of weapons, from shoulder-launched missiles to long-range, surface-to-air-missiles. Even the Israel-Hamas conflict, with totally different dynamics, brings out the importance of air defence against the entire spectrum, ranging from rockets to ballistic missiles. It is imperative that all intelligence assets, including air and space assets, be harnessed and fused to prevent an adversary or a non-state actor from springing a surprise.

Another important takeaway from both conflicts is the difficulty to predict the duration of a conflict, be it between states or between a state and a non-state actor. India’s armed forces must be able to calibrate their response to a wide variety of conflicts, ranging from short, high-intensity conflicts to protracted ones of varying intensity. While short and swift conflicts would require a sharp and rapid offensive force, force preservation and sustenance would greatly influence the outcome of a protracted conflict. One thing both conflicts have substantiated is the need for flexibility and resilience of airpower.

Q For all these years, the IAF has strategised about airpower from a position of strength vis-à-vis the Pakistan air force. Now, you are faced with a principal adversary who enjoys a significant advantage in many segments of aerospace power. How is the IAF adapting to thinking asymmetrically, particularly in terms of changing existing mindsets?

A The IAF is cognisant of the undergoing expansion of the PLAAF (People’s Liberation Army Air Force). Today, the PLAAF is among the largest air forces in the world and the trend in equipment and technology development is similar. There is a requirement to invest in enhancing our capabilities to thwart the threats from a strong and aggressive adversary. Towards this, induction and procurement of fighter aircraft, force multipliers like AWACS/AEW&C (Airborne Warning and Control System/Airborne Early Warning and Control) and tankers, and unmanned platforms need to be expedited. At least five or six fighter squadrons need to be inducted in shorter time frames. Future inductions including MRFA (Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft), LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) Mk II, AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) and AEW&C will further add to our capability.

PTI10_22_2023_000033A Wings and a prayer: An IAF C-17 flight carrying medical aid and disaster relief material for the people of Palestine | PTI

Q In past conflicts, the IAF has generally commenced operations with ‘deterrence by denial’ as the cornerstone of its doctrinal philosophy. Will this still serve us well in case of short and high-intensity limited conflicts with our principal adversary?

A Aerospace power in general provides a unique and credible capability of pursuing deterrence by denial as well as deterrence by punishment. The IAF has the operational capability and intent to apply aerospace power towards either denial or punishment, in a calibrated manner, keeping the escalation matrix in mind. For that, we must embark on capability-based force planning and force structuring, develop both conventional and asymmetric capabilities, induct and adopt latest technology, prepare innovative plans and retain adequate flexibility in execution to ensure that we understand the type of war that we are embarking on and fight it accordingly. The words of [Prussian general Carl von] Clausewitz apply even today―“The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking, neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.”

Q The IAF is right up there among the best air forces in the world when it comes to leveraging its non-kinetic (not direct action) capabilities as an effective instrument of statecraft. What more would you like to see in this area in terms of capability accretion?

A The IAF, over the years, has proved itself as an effective instrument of statecraft. We have been at the forefront of HADR (Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief) operations both within and outside the country. In the recent past, meticulously planned and executed IAF operations have evacuated Indian citizens from conflict zones in Afghanistan, Ukraine and Sudan. Our transport and helicopter fleets have risen to the occasion on every instance and performed exceedingly well. Induction of fleets like C-17 and C-130 has given a boost to our capability to conduct these operations and [helped] leverage our non-kinetic capabilities as an effective instrument of statecraft. Induction of the C-295 aircraft will further add to our tactical airlift capabilities while improving connectivity to remote parts of our country. As far as capability accretion for the future is concerned, we are looking at replacing our AN-32 and IL-76 fleets in a timely manner.

Q How are you ensuring that policy and strategic decision makers do not get carried away by the visible successes of the IAF’s HADR and evacuation operations, and take their eyes off the inescapable reality that offensive operations and the capabilities associated with them are as critical even if they carry the baggage of risk?

A Airpower is inherently offensive and its criticality in the nation’s security cannot be over-emphasised. The vision of the IAF as specified in the doctrine is ‘To be an agile and adaptable Air Force that provides decisive aerospace power in furtherance of our national interests.’ Agility and adaptability refer to our capability to optimally use our resources based on the need of the hour to further national interests. The latest doctrine of the IAF clearly specifies the role of the IAF in the entire spectrum of conflict from ‘peace’, ‘no war, no peace’ and ‘war’. The inherent flexibility of airpower allows air assets to be utilised in multiple roles and situations, but their utilisation in one role does not compromise the capability to undertake other roles.

1246481969 Soar and roar: The IAF’s AWACS and four Rafale aircraft fly past during last year’s Republic Day parade | Getty Images

Q Notwithstanding the success of the LCA and its variants, and the potential and aspirations around the AMCA, how important is the Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft in the interim period? Is it on the horizon?

A To provide credible deterrence, it is imperative to have indigenous fighter aircraft development and production wherewithal. At the same time, we are aware that projects like AMCA take time and resources to fructify. In the interim, given our not-so-friendly neighbourhood, it is important that the strength of our combat assets is not depleted further. While the IAF fully supports the indigenous fighter development programme, the gestation period of this programme implies that there would be a void in numbers and technology of fighter aircraft, considering the impending drawdown of legacy fleets. To ensure that the IAF retains its edge, acquisition of MRFA is extremely important.

Q IAF fighter aircraft recently flew all the way to the Malacca Strait. Does the IAF plan to base more fighter aircraft in the south or in our island territories as a bulwark against possible adversarial forays into the southern Indian Ocean Region (IOR)?

A Given the geopolitical realities of the region, our focus in the IOR is a long-term strategic imperative. The IAF’s focus on operational training in the IOR is evident from recent missions. A long-range mission to Malacca was one such mission. The successful conduct of these missions demonstrates force projection and the strategic reach of the IAF and its preparedness to respond to any eventuality in this particular region. It is a well-known fact that airpower, along with the maritime forces, will play a crucial role in any future conflict that may take place in the Indo-Pacific region. The IAF has adequate reach and responsiveness to influence outcomes anywhere in our area of interest, even while operating from the mainland. The bases available in the southern part of the country provide us the required long arm to operate deep inside the southern IOR. We have also practised and demonstrated the capability to operate detachments from our island territories. The IAF has adequate capability to deter any adversarial forays into the IOR using shore-based aircraft.

Q Compared with the exploitation of space for civilian use that has grown in leaps and bounds, India’s military exploitation of space has been slow. What is the IAF doing to sensitise the strategic establishment of the need to step on the gas?

A Space is a niche field that requires sophisticated technology and enormous resources. This is the reason that despite its extensive utility, only a few nations in the world have been able to make successful forays in the field. The IAF is a primary user of space-based assets for imagery intelligence, navigation, targeting and communication. Its requirements of modern-day air operations mandate the availability of accurate and timely intelligence, precise navigation, reliable communications and accurate delivery of weapons. Each of these aspects entails the exploitation of space-based assets and the same is gathering pace. We have revised our doctrine and recognised space as the ultimate high ground for all operations. While we have the required capability in this regard, there is a need to be future-ready.

Accordingly, we have formulated our requirements and we are in constant touch with the space ecosystem in the country that would provide these capabilities to us. All other stakeholders are also aware of these requirements and I am sanguine that the requirements shall soon start fructifying, in keeping with our operational requirements for the future.

Q Is there confusion among stakeholders with regard to leadership and command and control of military space assets? What can we do to infuse greater synergy in this area?

A I do not think that there is any confusion. The military leadership is cognisant of its asset allocation and utility. They have been incorporated in our plans, both during peacetime and actual operations. There is a clearcut demarcation between allocations. However, I must add that these allocations are not watertight and we have a functioning mechanism with interoperability as a fundamental. Enhanced interaction and brainstorming among all stakeholders will definitely infuse greater synergy and develop a better understanding of the capability of space assets and help in exploring ways to optimally exploit them.