By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 22nd Sept 16
The Indo-Pakistan war of 1965 should have taught us never to neglect our air defence. On September 6 that year, with fighting spreading across the western border, F-86 Sabre fighters from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) pre-emptively swooped down on the Indian Air Force (IAF) base at Pathankot, destroying 10 fighters on the ground and damaging another three. Separately, Sabres struck Halwara air base and shot down two IAF Hunters. Next day, in the eastern theatre, the PAF destroying 12 Indian fighters on the ground in Kalaikunda. For the rest of the 1965 war, the IAF remained on the back foot. Since then, India has spent tens of billions of dollars on military modernization, but the absence of a strong air defence network means that a similar debacle could unfold again.
Former army chief, General VK Singh, now a government minister, had gone on record to say that India’s air defence is non-existent. The national air defence network, which the IAF oversees and commands, has four major components: Air defence fighter aircraft; anti-aircraft guns and missiles belonging to various units of the army, navy and IAF; a network of radars and observers that monitors the nation’s air space and detects enemy aircraft; and a command and control network that tracks intruding fighters, and assigns them as targets to be intercepted by IAF fighters or by ground gun and missile units. However, there remain serious deficiencies in three of these four functions --- the radar network, the fighter squadrons, and ground air defence units.
The most worrying shortfall remains in fighter aircraft, with a decade having been wasted in an ill-conceived global tender for procuring 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft aircraft. Dassault’s Rafale fighter was announced the winner, but the process stalled due to inconsistencies in the French vendor’s bid. Now, inexplicably, the government is buying just 36 Rafales. With about 200 MiG-21s and MiG-27 having retired or nearing retirement, the government plans to acquire F-16 or Gripen NG light fighters, even as Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd scales up production of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft. This will leave the IAF with a multitude of different fighter types, and major logistics problems in operating and maintaining them across various fighter bases.
Meanwhile air defence gun units field antiquated Soviet-era guns and missiles that should have retired long ago. The mechanised forces too rely on Soviet-era air defence systems from the 1980s, which are ineffective, given the advanced electronic warfare equipment in modern fighters. The DRDO has worked for years with Israel on co-developing state-of-the-art air defence missile systems but those are only now reaching fruition. The government is buying the sophisticated Russian S-400 Triumf long range missile system, but that is unlikely to be delivered before 2018, since Moscow wants to equip its military first. Meanwhile, China is also buying the S-400, although, like India, China too would have to wait for delivery.
Lastly, obsolescent radars with inadequate coverage ranges leave gaps along the border that enemy aircraft can exploit to penetrate Indian airspace without being detected. The DRDO has developed modern radars, but the supply lags far behind the demand. India urgently needs to implement a comprehensive strategy that takes into account all four aspects of our national air defence network. A deteriorating environment in Kashmir and plummeting relations with Pakistan brook no delay.