IAF Finds itself in Precarious Position at a Time when Achieving Air Superiority

by Tathagata Bhattacharya
The Indian Air Force (IAF) finds itself in a precarious position at a time when achieving air superiority is a necessity in deciding the outcome of a limited conflict or an all-out war. New Delhi’s late nod on Thursday to the purchase of five Russian S-400 Triumf anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems goes a long way in addressing those concerns.
For long, the IAF has relied on rigorous pilot training and force-multipliers such as Su-30 MKIs, MiG-29s and Mirage 2000s to offset the falling number of squadrons and the constant delay in the induction of the light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas to replace the obsolescent MiG-21s. But recent deals between Russia and China, and proposed deals between Russia and Pakistan, seem to have clouded the skies.
For long, the IAF has prided itself on being the operator of the most advanced Flanker series aircraft in this part of the world. The N-011 Bars PESA (Passive Electronically Scanned Array) on the Su-30 MKI is the most powerful radar in the South Asian skies. It has held up well in its training mode against a barrage of sophisticated jamming exercises.
But with Moscow and Beijing signing a deal last month over the supply of 24 SU-35 Flanker-Es, that radar advantage now seems negated. The Irbis-E on the SU-35 eclipses the N-011 Bars in power and detection range. The airframe of the Flanker-E also uses a lot more composites, making it more durable and its manufacturer pegs its radar cross-section — the measure of a target’s ability to reflect radar signals in the direction of the radar receiver — at a fraction of that of the Su-30 MKI. Also worrying are the fast-paced developments of the Chinese fifthgeneration combat platforms. Both the Chengdu J-20 and the Shenyang J-11 are slated to enter the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s service in 2018. A 2012 report by the USChina Economic and Security Review Commission suggested that the US underestimated the pace of development of the J-20 and several other Chinese projects.
Pakistan’s talks with China about the supposed procurement of the Shenyang J-11s are reportedly in an advanced stage. In September, a senior Pakistani official confirmed to IHS Jane’s that Islamabad was also talking to Moscow about the procurement of Flanker-Es. This, coupled with the Chinese acquisition of the S-400 Triumf system, puts the IAF in a difficult position if hostilities break out. After the downing of the Russian bomber jet by Turkey near the Syria-Turkey border last month, asingle S-400 system deployment at Khmeimim Air Base has effectively turned Syria into a no-fly zone for the Turkish Air Force.
While India’s indigenous missile interception abilities are a secret, the Indo-Israeli Medium Range Surface-to-Air Missile (MRSAM) project is more than three years behind schedule. The IAF was quick to notice these fast-paced developments in the neighbourhood and has long been knocking at the ministry of defence’s door for purchase of the S-400 system. The ministry has finally agreed, and sources say that the announcement of the purchase of the five S-400s will be made during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Moscow trip next week.
But there are also reports coming out from the Russian camp that Moscow may link this deal to New Delhi clarifying its position on the joint fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) development programme.
The final agreement on the development is still pending, although an initial agreement was inked in 2010. The IAF has not decided on the number of aircraft it wants. Work-share issues between India and Russia are also not settled. So, India risks further delay in acquiring a state-ofthe-art area surface-to-air missile (SAM) system that can plug crucial holes in the country’s anti-aircraft and anti-missile capability. The vaunted FGFA is also not expected to enter service any time before 2022.
In that connection, one can’t comprehend the government’s decision to cut down the number of Rafale platforms to just two squadrons (36 aircraft) from the targeted seven. It puts more pressure on the Flankers and the upgraded MiG-29s and Mirage 2000s. What’s worse, the Super Sukhoi upgrade that the IAF had hoped to be completed by 2015 has not even started. There are more than 200 SU-30MKIs to upgrade.
The IAF and the ministry are alive to the rapid changes in the air combat scenario in the neighbourhood. But the response has not been the ‘scrambling’ best. Also, in the case of indigenous projects, the military bureaucracy tussle sees goalposts shifting every now and then.
These problems need to be sorted out fast, as they compromise the country’s bid to emerge as a significant global player.

Source: Defense News