Tuesday, October 14, 2014

IAF Operational Failures in Retrospect

Article from the latest issue of Geopolitics
The following is the text of an article written by me in the latest Air Force Day issue of Geopolitics. I felt compelled to share it with my blog readers, because of the (somewhat controversial?) subject matter. I have written one more article in the issue. 

I write regularly for the magazine; perhaps this article will motivate you to occasionally pick a copy from the news stand!

Indian Air Warriors, serving and veterans, are fiercely proud of the Indian Air Force (IAF), and the nation is proud and indebted to the IAF for the selfless service of its personnel.

Operationally, the IAF has an unblemished record, having successfully defended Indian airspace through five post independence wars. Hundreds of IAF personnel have laid down their lives over the years, during operations and while training for operations.

Yet, as many senior IAF officers would readily admit in private, the IAF's operational record hasn't been outstanding. The record has been profusely criticized and questioned in internet debates, though its rare to see a critical discourse in the mainline press. Institutions like the IAF - much like our parents, teachers, and leaders - rise in our esteem even as they fumble and falter in their endeavors - because their cause is noble!

Was the IAF well equipped and trained for the wars in 1965, 1971 and 1999? Was the IAF's performance exemplary during these conflicts? An honest answer to both the questions would have to be - No.

Based on 20 years service in the IAF as a fighter pilot, close tracking of IAF affairs since then and discussions with IAF veterans, I am inclined to believe that the IAF's operational record was non stellar on account of

  • A defensive tactical mindset that led to force imbalance.
  • Lack of Long Term Vision
  • Aversion to steering its projects with HAL and DRDO

Past government and IAF leaders collectively share the blame for what went wrong.

Past Force Imbalance

Like any other air force, the IAF is equipped for both offense and defense. Ideally, the IAF should be able to prevent enemy aircraft from intruding into our airspace, while being able to strike targets within enemy territory at will. Currently, the IAF's MiG-21 variants, MiG-29, Mirage 2000 and Su-30MKI fighters protect our skies, while MiG-27, Jaguar, Su-30MKI and Mirage strike fighters give us the ability to strike the enemy. (Note that aircraft such as Su-30MKI and Mirage-2000 are capable of both AD as well as strike.)

The right mix of AD and strike aircraft (force balance) is dictated by threat perception and war aims.

Post independence, the IAF did very well in acquiring a balanced force with a mix of bombers, fighter bombers and fighters. The IAF acquired B-24 Liberator heavy bombers by refurbishing US WW-2 aircraft abandoned in India. It bought Vampire fighters and fighter bombers from England, becoming the first Asian country to operate jet fighters.

The IAF shaped into a small but effective strike and air defense.

A decade later, in 1957, the IAF started inducting Dassault Mystere IVA, Hawker Hunter and English Electric Canberra, maintaining balance in its strike and defense capability.

The Canberra, which could carry 10,000-lb bomb load in internal bay, providing the IAF the ability to hit the enemy hard.

IAF acquisitions started to become disorientated and aircraft centric, instead of mission centric, in the early 60s. Pure interceptors, like the Folland Gnat and MiG-21 were acquired in large numbers, adding greatly to the inventory but not to the IAF's punch.

The 1965 war caught the IAF in the midst of rapid expansion triggered by the mauling of the Indian Army at the hands of the PLA in 1962. New aircraft were in the process of being inducted and pilot training was being rushed. The IAF was ill prepared for the war and suffered very heavy aircraft losses in the east and didn't do too well in the west.

The late sixties saw the IAF's strike capability diminish as Mystere squadrons started to be phased out. The Marut HF-24 fighter bomber project made fitful progress. An attempt to fill the gap with the Su-7 fighter bombers acquired from Russia proved misguided because the aircraft had a limited bomb load, and and even more limited range!

In the autumn of 1968, the IAF comprised 23 fighter squadrons and three tactical bomber squadrons. Eleven of the 23 fighter squadrons were equipped with MiG-21s and Gnats, both pure interceptors with very limited ranges that made them incapable of performing escort role. The remaining fighter squadrons were equipped with Hunter, Mystere and Marut strike aircraft with limited weapon loads and ranges.

Lacking long range escort fighters and aerial refueling capability, the IAF could not use its Canberra fleet effectively. Their role was confined to sneak night attacks and photo reconnaissance.

Bottom line: Despite possessing an impressive number of combat fighter and bomber squadrons, the IAF failed to deter the PAF's pre-emptive strike on Indian air bases on December 3, 1971. And when the war did break out, the IAF couldn't go out and hit the enemy hard. It confined its operations largely to supporting the Indian Army.

True, the focus of the 1971 war was on liberating Bangladesh, but the IAF's defensive posture following the PAF's pre-emptive strike stemmed more from limitations of its force balance than policy dictated restrain. The Navy, for example, went out and boldly struck Karachi harbor with missile boats in a fine display of purpose and innovation.

From the late sixties to the late eighties, the IAF's force structure got increasingly skewed with more and more MiG-21 variants being inducted. Four Jaguar squadrons acquired in the early eighties were inadequate replacement for the Canberras and Hunters that were bowing out of service.

In the early eighties, the number of MiG-21 variant squadrons in the IAF exceeded 20. Some MiG-21 squadrons were assigned strike role despite the very limited punch of the aircraft.

The IAF's enfeeblement was dramatic, yet no one in the MoD or IAF leadership seemed to notice.

There emerged a complete disconnect between the threat faced by the nation and the IAF's force structure.

The IAF equipped and trained itself to fight in the west even though it was clear that any hostilities would take place in the North along the LOC or LAC.

IAF Jaguars were too underpowered to operate effectively in the mountain valleys along the LAC and LOC. MiG-21 variants lacked the range, weapon load and precision attack capability to effectively engage targets in the harsh mountainous terrain.

The dangerous drift in the IAF's force structure was checked with the induction Mirage-2000s, and to a lesser extent MiG-29s. The inductions proved fortuitous when Kargil happened in 1999. The IAF was shockingly unprepared for the war, much more so than in the earlier wars! There was no reason why that should have been the case!

The Mirage-2000 was the only IAF aircraft that gave a good account of itself during Kargil, and that too after hurried and very expensive acquisition of Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) from abroad.

What if Kargil hadn't happened? Instead the PLA had made a deep incursion into Arunachal Pradesh? The incursion would have caught the IAF as helpless as it was in 1962, and it's conceivable that by now China would have been inaugurating a rail link between Lhasa and Tawang!

Making Amends

Post Kargil, with the steady accretion of the Su-30MKI fleet,  the IAF started to acquire  a more offensive posture that could deter determined adversaries like Pakistan and China. It will take another decade for the transformation to be complete; in terms of equipment and in terms of mindset.

Why did the IAF not stick with the balanced posture that it started with? Why did it assume such a defensive posture?

There was never a sourcing issue.The country was under no political compulsion to procure its weapons from the Soviet Union, now Russia. Despite periodic strains in Indo-US relations, India always had access to French and British weapons. The IAF could have sourced Mirage-III and Mirage-V fighters from France; Tornados from the UK.

It could even have procured Su-24 Fencer or Tu-22 Blinder from Russia. Both aircraft have impressive weapon loads and the ability to carry stand-off missiles.

I think the answer lies in limited budgets and a quest for numbers over quality.

Ironically, one of the lessons that the IAF had drawn from an analysis of its subpar performance in the 1965 war was the need for quality over quantity. It totally forgot the lesson.
Lack of Long Term Vision

Post independence, the IAF fought four wars in quick success - Kashmir 1947, China 1962, Pakistan 1965, Pakistan 1971 - with no breather to formulate a long term vision.

In the years that followed, successive governments tightly embraced a defensive posture, focused on head butting defense of India's territorial integrity in Kashmir, Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. The posture defied the lessons of military history - that there is no perfect defense. Bar Lev line, Maginot line and Chittorgarh fort were all breached by enemy grit and determination.

 A defensive posture doesn't deter an enemy as much as it tempts him. An adversary is better dissuaded by a military posture laden with unpredictable consequences for any breach of peace!

In terms of air power, such a posture would have to be based on a formidable strike force combined with long range and endurance AD fighters. Fighters that can defend our skies by remaining airborne for hours, not minutes; and escort our hard hitting strike aircraft deep into enemy territory!

As a result of its defensive posture, IAF aircraft procurements in the decades that followed the 1971 war led to an enfeeblement of its strike capability. The IAF regressed into a tactical air force equipped for just homeland defense and Close Air Support (CAS) of Army operations. Inevitably, the Army and the Navy started to encroach on IAF turf using the logic that the Army would be better able to support ground operations if it controlled CAS assets.

The Indian Navy eased the IAF out of the maritime reconnaissance (MR) role (In the 1960s the IAF operated a squadron of ex-Air India L. 1049G Super Constellations for maritime reconnaissance.) and even suggested that it was better equipped than the IAF for AD of its ports!

Most glaringly, the IAF equipped and trained in total disregard of its responsibility to support Army operations along the LOC and LAC. As a result, Kargil happened.

Aircraft Centric

Since its inception, the IAF has remained an aircraft centric force, while the west has moved on to a weapon and sensor centric planning. The US Navy isn't worried that its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet aircraft would get clobbered by a Su-30M in WVR combat. It looks upon the Super Hornet as a system, not just an aircraft. A system with the range, sensors and weapons to

  1. Penetrate heavily defended airspace by jamming and spoofing enemy radars using its powerful AESA radar.
  2. Identify and attack a Su-30M well before the Su-30M can see it.
  3. Perform a precision attacks against ground target, even moving, from stand-off ranges.

(The Super Hornet is optimized for transonic operations, not WVR combat. It can hit a Su-30M and make a safe getaway staying well out of harm's way throughout the engagement.)

The US Navy considers the Super Hornet the finest long range precision attack platform that is capable of defending itself against any ground or aerial threat. It's a simple, clear and effective vision!

The IAF, which is largely trained for WVR combat and equipped with unguided bombs and unguided rocket, is horrified by the Super Hornet's high wing loading and limited reserve of power. The aircraft's sensors and AESA are of little use without BVR missiles and stand-off PGM.

The limitations of IAF's aircraft centric approach were evident during the Kargil war in 1999. IAF Mirages were capable of operating at high altitudes and delivering laser guided bombs, but the service had not invested in the bombs or the supporting equipment!

Taking Ownership of IAF Projects

A serious shortcoming of the IAF in the past has been the failure to take ownership of its projects with HAL and DRDO.

The IAF did involve itself with both the organizations during their early years. It deputed senior officers to head projects and sit on management boards. Four IAF Chiefs - Aspy Merwan Engineer (1960-1964), Pratap Chandra Lal (1969-1973), Om Prakash Mehra (1973-1976) and Lakshman Mohan Katre (1984-1985) - served with the HAL on deputation before reaching the top. Many senior IAF officers took up senior management assignment in these organization post retirement.

However, the IAF's involvement failed to yield results. HAL and DRDO performance remained as good or bad under IAF leadership as under civil leadership; IAF officers' attempts to push Air Force projects were frustrated by the laid back work culture in these organizations, unionism, and proclivity to inflate claims and fudge figures.

Air warriors across the spectrum were dismayed by HAL/DRDO product shortcomings and poor quality Shoddy HAL workmanship resulted in many accidents and heart wrenching loss of lives.

The IAF's involvement steadily waned to an extent where the service was only deputing junior level pilots and engineers, to test fly aircraft and provide operational inputs for systems under development. The feedback provided by the junior level officer at the end of their deputations to HAL and DRDO was ignored by the IAF as being inconsequential.

The indifference didn't come from any policy change, it was just something that happened.

MoD's apathy allowed the estrangement to grow to an extent where IAF leadership started to look upon HAL as an evil that it had to live with.

It's moot whether the IAF could have handled its relationship with HAL and DROD differently. The bottom line is: The estrangement hurt the IAF and so the IAF shouldn't have let it happen.

One wonders what a vigorous HAL-IAF and DRDO-IAF partnerships could have yielded? Perhaps

  • Laser guided kits for bombs well before the Kargil war?
  • A landing assist system for MiG-21 variants that could have saved hundreds of aircraft and scores of lives lost during landing accidents? (Remember the autothrottle on the SAAB Viggen, an aircraft of similar vintage.)
  • A super-stall prevention system for MiG-21 variant that could have further reduced accidents?
  • A terrain avoidance radar for Jaguar?
  • Modifications of Canberra as tanker?

Looking Ahead

An institution like the Indian Air Force is akin to a citadel that can remain strong despite decades of neglect. However, despite standing strong, a neglected citadel does lose its sheen and glory over the years; a loss that can be very difficult to reverse.

What is encouraging is that the IAF has left its past behind with recent changes in its operational posture, credit for which must go to IAF leaders post the 1999 Kargil war.

Recent acquisitions - Su-30MKIs, Aerial Refuelers, AWACS - and planned procurements  - MMRCA, Tejas LCA, LCA Mk-1, FGFA - will correct the force imbalance. And the IAF is acquiring a long term vision and starting to take ownership of its projects with HAL and DRDO.

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