Despite Rafale Jets & Fancy Choppers, Why Indian Air Force Is Still The Weakest Link In India’s Armed Forces?

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is facing a shortage of 405 pilots, the federal government recently informed the country’s Parliament. Junior defense minister Shripad Naik said in the lower house of Parliament that the number of pilots in IAF at present is 3,834 against the sanctioned strength of 4,239.

The IAF is facing a double whammy because it is not only facing an acute shortage of aircraft, but most of the existing aircraft will soon have to be retired as well since they have exhausted their lifetimes.

The force has been struggling to arrest the rapidly declining squadron strength, which currently stands at just 30 against the required strength of 42.

The latest statement from the Defence Ministry indicates the persistent and critical shortage of fighter pilots that IAF continues to face, with the trend of pilots leaving the force on a rise in the past five years.

According to the ministry’s reply to an application filed by a news outlet under the Right to Information Act last year, as many as 798 IAF pilots had resigned, of whom 289 had received No-objection Certificates (NOC) to fly private airlines.

The response from the ministry showed that the years 2016 and 2017 had been the worst, with 100 and 114 pilots quitting the Air Force, respectively.

With around 80 pilots quitting the service every year, the IAF is faced with the monumental challenge of keeping its operational capability seamless.

The data from the government shows the fighter aircraft-to-pilot ratio has been continuously declining. In contrast, two of India’s adversaries, Pakistan and China, have a far better pilot-aircraft ratio.

The trend of the IAF pilots choosing to work with private airlines is explained by a number of reasons, including less workload and more remuneration. According to reports, more than one-third of the pilots who quit the force received the NOC to fly private airlines. The pilots receive four times the amount for flying with a private airline.

Last year, Indian daily Hindustan Times had reported that the IAF is working on measures to prevent its pilots from leaving the service and joining private airlines that offer better salaries and perquisites. Even though the report didn’t mention any specific measure, it said that they will be made shortly, and could involve cooling-off periods and changes in pension plans.

Experts say that the high attrition rate is a huge setback for the IAF which spends huge money on imparting years of training to the fighter pilots, and this could negatively impact the operational efficiency of the force.

Indian Air Force – Other Issues

IAF has been one of the best-equipped air forces in Asia, but its operational capabilities have witnessed a constant decline over the last two decades. From the full squadron strength of 42 in the year 2002, IAF is reduced to only 30 in 2021, and the addition of two Rafale squadrons will not do much to address the shortfall.

This creates a capability imbalance between India and its two neighbors, and a two-front war could prove disastrous in such conditions, experts opine.

India’s troubled economy, which creates further financial constraints for the air force, will further stymie any efforts to modernize the force.

By 2024, the country is expected to retire the last of its MiG-21 squadrons and the replacement will consist of just a few squadrons, which will further reduce the strength of the force.

The addition of 36 Rafale jets, which is currently underway, is being celebrated as a significant achievement that could tilt the balance of power in the region. But experts say such assertion is outlandish.

China’s Western Theater Command, which is supposed to confront India in a possible war, consists of more than 200 fighter aircraft, both modern and legacy models. China could muster more squadrons from its other theater commands in the situation of a war with India.

On the other hand, Pakistan’s 350 fighters also pose a significant challenge and the combined threat from both could present an overwhelming situation for India.

Moreover, China and Pakistan operate a greater number of airborne tankers and early-warning surveillance aircraft (AWACS) than the Indian Air Force. The AWACS aircraft boost the combat capabilities of fighter jets significantly in any air battle, while the tankers enhance their range.

The Indian government has paid little attention to the importance of these aircraft in the last two decades, and with its army-centric approach to national defense, the capabilities of the air force were sidelined.

Experts believe the IAF, too, needs to set its priorities right. “The air force is basically a victim of its own hubris. If you keep changing a single-engine light fighter requirement since 2005 into constantly double-engine fighters that are too expensive for you, what else are you going to get? If you keep prioritizing platforms and that too hyper-expensive platforms over human beings this is what you are going to get,” says strategic affairs analyst Abhijit Iyer Mitra.

“In any modern air force, the first investment is in the human being, not in the platform. And the platform investment keeps pace with the human investment. Here it’s the absolute reverse,” he adds.

Other experts blame the excessive focus on the army as the frontline force in the defense of the country as a reason for the IAF getting little attention for the critical capabilities it requires. Although there have been other reasons, like budgetary considerations, the bureaucratic red tape involved in procurements, indecisiveness, and other things.

The world’s battlefields have transformed. Modern wars will be fought less by ground forces and more by space and air-based assets, according to military analysts. Therefore, the focus will have to be accordingly shifted to modernization and strengthening of the assets of the air force.

India has successfully tested its space-based capabilities with the ASAT test conducted a few years ago, and it is among a handful of nations capable of space launches. It’s now time to optimize both space and air assets, integrate and bring them to bear on the modern battlefield.

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