Air power will be key to victory in any future conflict: India air force chief

Photo: Indian Air Force chief RKS Bhadauria meets the press today.

New Delhi: The air force’s role would the key to India‘s victory in any future conflict with its immediate adversaries, Indian Air Force‘s Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria today said. He was clearly referring to India’s nuclear-armed rivals in the region, China and Pakistan.

Here are the key take-away from Bhadauria’s press meet, held amid COVID-19 related restrictions:

On China and Pakistan

  • “We are very well-positioned. Of course, we are in a position to take on China. There is no question that in case of any conflict scenario, China can get the better of us.”
  • “We are fully geared and capable of handling a two-front war.” (On the possibility of a joint war effort by China and Pakistan against India.)
  • The adversary (China) cannot be underestimated, as it has made huge investment in military technology. “Their strength lies in surface-to-air systems and long distance air-launched weapons that they have put up in the area. They have long missile-range systems. We cater to those in our security matrix. We can take on that threat.”
  • In Ladakh, “we acted swiftly and it will not be correct to say we were surprised. We do hope the talks between the military commanders progress on expected lines. The current effort (by China) is to dig in for the winter. We too are taking actions to step up air assets.” Any further action will depend on ground realities.
  • IAF air strikes against Chinese forces in Ladakh were not imminent at any time. But IAF was certainly prepared for it.
  • No significant increase or change in Chinese air deployments seen since the last round of military talks.
  • Asked if China could use Pakistan air bases, the Indian air chief said it would mean a collusive threat and the force was ready to tackle it.
  • On the possibility of a two-front threat, he said, “we are aware China and Pakistan are cooperating closely. There is significant threat, but so far there is no such indication that they are colluding for a two-front war.”
  • “If China needs to take Pakistan’s help to confront us, I have nothing to say: India air force chief on Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force possibly using Skardu airbase in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
  • In Ladakh, “whatever was the army requirement for rapid mobilisation was fully met by the airlift capability. We were never short on moving them whenever they wanted. Rapid mobilisation of forces supported by the air force in Line of Actual Control surprised the adversary.”
  • Our airlift capabilities supported the Indian Army at a pace that the adversary did not expect. I think that is a big change from earlier times. We have the largest strategic airlift in our region.”
  • “Our fighters are capable of shoot-first and strike deep and hard.
  • “The ability of air power to dictate what will happen” in terms of any action in the North East of India is strong. Flexibility of air power allows assets to move into theatre as needed, but North East has fewer assets permanently stationed.
  • Directly addresses LAC face-off with China, mentions of deployments in the North of the country. “Our capability and intent will deter,” Bhadauria says.
  • On possible United States military support to India, he says, “no one will fight our wars for us. We have to do it ourselves. Cannot count on anyone else.”

On Fighter Jets

  • The Rafale aircraft has provided the IAF a technological edge. “Rafale and legacy upgraded aircraft give us the ability to strike first and strike deep and hard even in a contested air space.” Recent face-off are an indication of our capabilities today.”
  • Five Rafales in India now and five more are in France. Those five Rafales from France are expected to arrive in India early next month. The first Rafale squadron will be ready in 2021. Both the squadrons, comprising all 36 Rafales, will be inducted by 2023. More ferries of Rafale every two-three months.
  • On a specific question whether more Rafales will be ordered, Bhadauria says, “all options open.” The debate over more Rafales direct purchase versus 114 Multi Role Fighter Aircraft is still in progress. “Too early to say, various issues to be considered.”
  • Rafale offset details not final. Kaveri aeroengine Transfer of Technology is a complex issue. The plan is for a joint venture for the aeroengine. It may or may not be a Kaveri successor, but will leverage work done on Kaveri and gas turbines in general. This is all for Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and French firm Safran to finalise.
  • Plan is to sign up the deal for 83 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mk1A by the yearend, with deliveries in five years.
  • “At the moment we are concentrated on 83 LCA Mk1A. Then, we will focus on the 114 (combat jets) and then more versions of the LCA and AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft).”
  • Rafale and LCA Mk1 squadrons to come up to full strength, and additional MiG-29 and Su-30MKI squadrons are also being inducted.
  • The AMCA indigenous project is targeted to be complete by 2027. “We will get them over the next decade.”
  • The IAF envisaging two squadrons of AMCA Mk1 and five squadrons of AMCA Mk2.
  • “Will be impossible to achieve 40 squadrons of fighter aircraft by the end of this decade. We should be able to get to 36-38 squadrons.”
  • On weapon commonality: Rafale weapons not planned to go on Su-30MKI. But in general IAF always plans to cross-integrate, and there are some Rafale weapons that can go on other IAF aircraft. (Presumably Mirage-2000)
  • Meteor BVRAAM (from the European MBDA stable) integration across platforms was explored a while ago. Did not go anywhere. For widespread integration across IAF platforms, indigenous weapons will be pursued going forward.

On Transports and Helicopters

  • Mi-17V-5 getting Intelligence-Surveillance-Reconnaissance and modern Electronic Warfare capability.
  • Upgrade of Antonov AN-32 and Ilyushin IL-76 fleet is being planned.

On Drones

  • Drones are useful in a conflict. “Attack drones have been successful, some will succeed and some will fall to enemy action. We have worked to find the right mix of having armed drones within the overall firepower.”
  • “A war cannot be won through armed drones alone. We will take the final decision keeping in mind all aspects,” he said, when asked about the procurement proposal for General Atomics armed drones.
  • “Low cost options like drones” making threat scenario more complex, particularly in the sub-conventional domain.

On Future Technologies

  • “We are hopeful of getting directed energy weapons in the 15-year to 20-year time frame. We want them in roles like anti-missile systems.
  • “We hope to get sixth generation technology on fifth generation aircraft.”
  • “Processes for sixth generation technology, optionally manned and unmanned wing man, swarm drones, and hyper-sonic technology have been initiated.”

Other Matters

  • IAF to look at leasing options for aerial tankers, to start with, in addition to its tanker acquisition plans.
  • HTT-40 basic trainer aircraft and Light Combat Helicopter contracts will happen next year.
  • Budgetary constraints will have an impact in due course over the next couple of years. We have done a re-prioritization exercise. But no impact on current capability.
  • The newly created Chief of Defence Staff, Department of Military Affairs and joint structures are “need to maximize resources”. Contours of joint structures will come up in the near future.
  • Joint Air Defence Command “is at an advanced stage”.
  • All IAF flying platforms are on an electronic maintenance management system developed by an Indian private sector Information Technology firm. “Major opportunity for the private sector.”
  • Paperless work by end of this year.
  • “Strategic autonomy” finds explicit mention in the official IAF video for Air Force Day. A few seconds later, international exercises and cooperation too are mentioned.
  • “Innovate, integrate and intimidate” are the closing words of this year’s IAF presentation.
  • “IAF has always recognised merit over gender,” says IAF chief, and lists the various roles that have benefited from women officers serving.

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