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2 years ago

Defence Primer

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Defence

Defence Primer: India at 75 enter frontline service before 2020. A second fifth-generation fighter, the J-31 is also under development, and will probably become operational two to five years after its larger sibling. Clearly facing combined hostile force of nearly 100 squadrons, the Air Force cannot rely on quantity but has to shift decisively to quality solutions. However the current air force plan seems to be great quality in great quantities. The quality comes at a very heavy price. The Air Force, as the most technology centric wing of the armed forces, is disproportionately affected by the skyrocketing costs of weapons systems in the information age. At the same time, India can hardly afford to downsize its air force beyond a certain point. Indeed, being forced to play ‘catch up’ and rapidly replace or modernise large portions of its inventory have only served to amplify these effects. This financial tension has led to several clashes with the Finance ministry over procurement decisions. The clearest example of this was the Finance Ministry’s recent rejection of the procurement of Airbus A330 MRTT aerial refuelling aircraft, which procurement is now on hold. It would seem the Rafale multirole fighter procurement is also heading in the same direction, given the cost blowouts. While the need for maintaining current combat numbers is debateable - there are several ways in the which the air force can shed excess flab. The more specialised roles of helicopters such as last line close air support, troop movement, logistics and supply are entirely aimed at augmenting the army while adding absolutely nothing to the core mission of undisputed air dominance or power projection. The first of these would be to focus entirely on an air combat role and get rid of the rotary wing (helicopter) fleet. Today’s fixed wing aircraft both manned and unmanned with precision strike and sophisticated surveillance capabilities are able to carry out much of the helicopters attack role with significantly less vulnerability. Munitions like the CBU-105 enable aircraft to decimate concentrated armour on the ground – one bomb being capable of destroying 40 tanks – from greater standoff ranges, and hence greater impunity, than a helicopter. Similarly Israel’s attack drones were designed for persistent surveillance and for strike on armoured formations. It is a tribute to their capabilities and versatility that they were diverted for low intensity warfare during the 2006 invasion of Lebanon and the 2008 ‘Operation Cast Lead’ in Gaza. The more specialised roles of helicopters such as last line close air support, troop movement, logistics and supply are entirely aimed at augmenting the army while adding absolutely nothing to the core mission of undisputed air dominance or power projection. What they do add however is an unnecessary financial and bureaucratic burden – of additional procurements, additional fleets and training, bureaucracies to manage them etc. Unfortunately, in an army-centric system such as India, where sheer numbers add up to a greater say on policy issues, the only function of the IAF’s helicopter fleet is a bureaucratic and structural powerplay. In fact one could equally argue that the extensive air transport fleet comprising the An- 32, C-130, Il-76 and C-17 are overwhelmingly used to support ground forces rather than the Air Force itself and are hence superfluous. Unlike the helicopter and transport fleets, pilot training and refuelling are critical to the air forces role of air dominance and power projection. Here too innovative new public-private-partnership (PPP) arrangements being 40

Indian Air Power implemented by the Royal Air Force hold much promise for India. The first of these is ‘outsourcing’ pilot training. Instead of the Air Force getting involved in a huge complex acquisition procedure, with a large capital outlay and then training up the maintenance crews for these fleets and maintaining a logistics train for them, the air force simply outsources the training to private companies. This means the training costs incurred come under the operational (revenue) portion of the budget, while saving capital for other priorities, with the Air force simply specifying the extent and specific capabilities required of the training. This has the added benefit of utilisation of idle aviation capacity in the country, the expansion of the almost non-existent pilot training infrastructure (which results in a significant expenditure of foreign exchange abroad annually) and creates a larger pool of commonly trained pilots to draw from. Another interesting template on similar lines is the United Kingdom’s aerial tanker fleet. This involves the leasing of Airbus A330-based tankers for core missions, while the AirTanker Consortium, which owns the aircraft, is required to maintain another set of aircraft that may be operated commercially but remain available to be used by the RAF at short notice during emergency surges. The RAF is responsible for all military missions, while the AirTanker Consortium manages and maintains the aircraft, provides training facilities and provides the non-military personnel required to operate the fleet. The AirTanker Consortium earns extra revenue by using aircraft for commercial operations – mostly providing transport and tanker services to other European countries, but this capacity is diverted to the UK on a priority basis during wartime. Obviously these are not cut-and-paste templates for the Indian Air Force, but they do hold significant promise. Cumulatively, they would do much to convince the rest of the government that the IAF is a fiscally responsible force that understands operating within budgets and justifies the large capital outlay it requires. However any Air Force is only as good as the men and women in the loop and this will be the major challenge of the next decade. Human Resources Perhaps the single most problematic issue in the way of air-centrism in India is the Human Factor. Routine analyses of the annual defence budgets in national dailies tend to see the salary headings as a drain on the budget rather than as an investment. In a sense this is true. If India’s force-on-force approach that prioritises ground forces and requires huge badly trained armies continues, then expenditures on salaries cannot translate into genuine value additions, such as improved training. Worryingly, the caps imposed on human investment impose salaries which are divorced from reality and tend to significantly disadvantage arms of the military that are heavily technology dependent, such as the Air Force. A simple comparison in this regard would be the difference in salaries between a Bajaj auto rickshaw mechanic, a Suzuki car mechanic, an Audi car mechanic and a Boeing aircraft mechanic. The auto mechanic due to the rudimentary nature of the machine at his disposal does not require much training due 41

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