IAF must focus on acquiring offensive capability as fast as possible

India faces prospect of war from across its nearly entire land borders and the sea

PTI02_21_2022_000040B Fire power: The IAF’s Tejas | PTI

An Indian Air Force MiG-25, then billed as the world’s fastest and highest-flying fighter-reconnaissance aircraft, and a spy plane of the Aviation Research Centre (ARC), picked up several high-value targets during the Kargil conflict of June 1999. The aerial photos guided IAF fighter pilots and the Army’s Bofors gunners onto targets and contributed significantly to the success of the subsequent infantry assaults against features such as Tiger Hill.

Two months later, as a Pakistan Navy Atlantique reconnaissance plane snooped into the airspace over India’s Rann of Kutch in Gujarat, an IAF MiG-21 Bis shot it down in what could be considered the first instance of active coercion by the IAF in a no-war-no-peace situation. Three years later, at the height of Operation Parakram―launched following the attack on the Parliament by Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorists―IAF Mirages attacked two heights in Neelum-Gurez, about 800m inside Indian territory that had been stealthily occupied by Pakistan’s SSG commandos. No ground action was required to evict the intruders.

PTI05_12_2022_000130B An extended-range version of the BrahMos being launched from a Su-30 MKI fighter aircraft | PTI

The last sensational attack on India’s security forces by jihadis was the Pulwama attack in 2019. The hit-back by India was sharp with a punitive air strike on the jihadi nursery at Balakot in February 2019, followed by a short and fiercely contested dogfight between the IAF and PAF fighter planes over the Jammu and Kashmir skies. The Army’s Special Forces had earlier carried out shallow strikes on terrorist camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir in 2016 after the Uri terrorist attacks. The coercive impact of air power and special forces capability has since deterred Pakistan’s deep state from launching any major jihadi strikes on Indian territory.

All the above instances can be termed as the calibrated and kinetic use of air power in conflicts, which are short of what is known as conventional conflict.


The induction of heavy-lift and medium-lift aeroplanes such as the new C-17 and C-130 J and the Chinook helicopters, along with the older trusted and tested Soviet-era Il-76 and An-32 aircraft, has steadily built up the IAF’s non-kinetic capability. Air power has come to be recognised as the first responders to crises that warrant disaster relief or evacuation operations. Speedy aerial relief provided to India’s tsunami-affected oceanic neighbours in 2004, earthquake-stricken Nepal in 2015, the landing of IAF aircraft in Male with drinking water for the Maldives in 2014, and the despatch of relief planes to quake-hit Turkey last year has proved India’s ability to respond with speed and alacrity to threats and disasters across Asia and even beyond.

30-The-Chinook-tandem-rotor-multi-role-helicopter For flights and fights: The Chinook tandem-rotor multi-role helicopter | Courtesy IAF

It is only in the past decade that Indian air power has emerged as a stakeholder in the security of the growing Indian diaspora across the world, numbering nearly three crores. Much of it has been possible thanks to the growing synergy between the diplomatic instrument on the one hand and the military instrument―the IAF or the Navy―on the other. Military air power, complemented at places by civil airliners, has been employed to evacuate Indians from Kuwait (1990), Libya (2011), Yemen (2015), Wuhan (2020), Kabul (2021), Ukraine (2022) and Gaza/Israel (2023). Away from the publicity lights, customised C-130 J planes have carried out night landings in desolate and unmanned airstrips in Sudan and Afghanistan and airlifted Indians in distress.


All the same, the IAF’s primary job remains the defence of India’s airspace and the conduct of offensive operations on its own, or jointly with the Army and the Navy. Here, all three are faced with the task of coping with a spectrum of conflict that is as varied as it is complex. Unlike most other countries, India still faces the prospect of a conventional war from across its nearly entire land borders and from the sea, alongside a plethora of hybrid and sub-conventional threats that transcend geographical frontiers.

30-IAF-Mirage-2000 An IAF Mirage-2000 | Courtesy IAF

What does this mean for the IAF in terms of threat assessment, existing and aspirational capabilities, technology assimilation and the ongoing turbulent transformational process? With China emerging as India’s principal military adversary over the past two decades, the IAF should be worried about the gradual reduction in the advantage it had in several areas vis-à-vis China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

The asymmetry is already too wide for comfort. Be it in the PLAAF’s ability to deploy large numbers of fourth- and fifth-generation fighters, the rapidly progressing operationalisation of all-weather airfields and heliports in Tibet, or the building of multi-layered air defence networks to counter the superior tactics of IAF’s fighter pilots, the signs are disconcerting. Even in areas such as pilot training, doctrinal sophistication and the ability to adapt and improvise, which have been long the IAF’s strengths, the PLAAF is quickly catching up. The Chinese are refining their tactical doctrines by hiring mercenaries to train their pilots, and partnering with Turkey and Pakistan, who fly western aircraft such as the F-16.

PTI10_03_2022_000143A LCH Prachand | PTI

In the remote possibility of a two-front limited war with China and Pakistan, the IAF, with barely 30 fighter squadrons, will find it difficult to sustain operations for more than a few weeks. The accretion of squadron strength over the next decade is likely to be too slow for comfort, unless India buys or quickly adds on a few squadrons of fourth-generation-plus Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) and inducts the fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).

Given the professionalism, adaptability and flexibility of its air warriors, the IAF need not feel intimidated, but only worried. The Chinese have deep pockets, and it would be foolhardy if the IAF attempts to match the PLAAF across air power capabilities. Over the years, India has largely responded to aggression, rather than initiated or preempted it. Taking this into account, the IAF must identify a combination of conventional and asymmetric strategies that would ensure that its assets will survive a first strike by the PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) and unmanned platforms.

Next, it may be assumed that in any ground battle that may open up subsequently, neither side would have an advantage given the huge troop concentration on both sides. The outcome of the conflict, therefore, will be based on how air power performs, and this is where offensive action holds the key.

What about the seas, one may ask. Even if China acquires air bases on the periphery of the Indian Ocean Region, much of its adventurism north-west of the Malacca Strait can be deterred by Indian air power, if it effectively leverages the combined air power that the Navy possesses with its aircraft carrier-based aircraft and the IAF’s own land-based offensive strike aircraft such as the Rafale and Su-30MKI, and enabling capabilities such as aerial refuellers and Airborne Warning And Control Systems (AWACS).


The IAF and policy planners ought to recognise that long wars are seldom sustainable against powerful adversaries, notwithstanding what is unfolding in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Therefore, one of the areas among several that the IAF must concentrate on is in the realm of acquiring offensive capability as speedily as possible. In material terms, that would mean (a) quickly acquiring a modest number of fourth-generation and fifth-generation fighters, armed with a wide range of weapons and electronic suites, (b) increasing the number of AWACS to improve early warning and air-battle coordination, and aerial refuellers that would enhance the reach of our aircraft, and (c) increasing our space capabilities that would help pilots to target better, and in teaming manned platforms, unmanned platforms and special forces in strike, combat and rescue operations.

All this will take at least 10 to 15 years, and will only be impactful with a mix of indigenous and imported platforms, weapons and technologies. Indeed, the share of the indigenous will have to be hiked progressively as India’s defence manufacturing and innovation ecosystem matures.

India’s military air power capability comprises the Indian Air Force, as well as the Army’s and the Navy’s flying assets. All three will have to transform, integrate and support each other better, gravitate towards common systems and logistics, and yet retain their specialised competencies that have matured over nearly a century. Air power will influence and impact every facet of contemporary warfare across the spectrum of conflict. The IAF has built a huge reservoir of institutional knowledge, expertise and capability that must be leveraged carefully. With dwindling numbers and scarce resources, the biggest challenge for the IAF during the ongoing transformation process is the command and control of these assets. One can only hope that an ‘Indian’ model of integration emerges that does not dilute the fighting potential of a well-respected and the fourth-largest air force in the world.