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Air Power and the IAF’s Strategic Transformation

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  • Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, PVSM,AVSM, VM, ADC Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee and the Chief of Air Staff
    September 23, 2013

    1. Ladies and Gentlemen, It is a privilege and an honour for me to be here this morning as I stand in front of such a distinguished audience to speak about a subject that is so close to my heart.

    2. Coming to IDSA this morning, I was filled with a deep sense of admiration and gratitude for Late Air Cmde Jasjit Singh. In his 14 long year’s stint as Director IDSA and later as founder Director of CAPS, he groomed a generation of researchers and analysts many of whom are today renowned names in Indian strategic community. His untimely and sudden departure from the Indian strategic scene has indeed left a deep intellectual void, particularly in the realm of air power. On behalf of all the men and women of the IAF, I take this opportunity to salute a great air warrior, scholar and a brilliant strategic mind whose contribution to the Indian Defence Services will forever be remembered.

    3. Ladies and Gentlemen, It is my firm view that the future will witness the continued pre-eminence of air power as the primary instrument of choice for all operational contingencies. It is with this underlying theme that I intend to share my thoughts with this august gathering today on “AIR POWER AND IAF’s STRATEGIC TRANSFORMATION”.

    4. Before I talk about the future growth plan for the IAF and the specific challenges that I see ahead for us, let me take some time to first talk about why do nations need to invest in strengthening their military capabilities. And more specifically, how is airpower in general and the Indian Air Force in particular best suited to offer prompt multiple response options to the political leadership in times of national security crises.

    The Need for Strengthening our Military Capabilities

    5. Along with the other indices, Military Power of a nation is a very important constituent of the Nation’s Comprehensive National Power. During a talk here in Delhi, a few years ago, Ashley Tellis spoke on the importance of military power and I quote,

    “States cannot become great powers, unless at some level, they demonstrate mastery over the creation, deployment and the use of military force in the service of national objectives” Unquote.

    6. As vital pillars of our national defence, the Armed Forces need to constantly examine the type of war fighting capabilities they will field as sovereign options, for employment of military force that no other country possesses. And as the Air chief, I always ask myself as to “What can the IAF offer in terms of Sovereign options?” My talk today will hinge on examination of these sovereign options and their role in steering the ongoing transformation of IAF.

    Air Power – Cutting Edge of National Power

    7. Air Power is only 110 years old but has provided immense freedom from friction that is inherent in surface operations. Before the advent of air power, sea faring nations capitalized the inherent advantages of maritime power and built empires with greater freedom in far away continents.

    Air Power’s Defining Moment

    8. With the resounding success of Air Power in the Gulf War, it replaced maritime power because of its ability to simultaneously interfere as well as influence land/sea operations. With its unique characteristics of versatility, flexibility, speed of response and tailorability, it provides us the much needed options at a time when constraining fiscal pressures leave us with fewer material resources to address a wide spectrum of challenges. Thus, air power has the qualities of achieving strategic advantages/effects, something which is somewhat lacking in land/sea power. This is the reason why nations have treated their Air Forces as their best form of defence and have invested heavily in this process.

    Air Power: Instrument of Choice

    9. The key is to have a national instrument which not only provides the best defence but also provides the best deterrence with a range of sovereign options. Air power, with its unique attributes, presents a host of opportunities for the senior leadership when faced with a national security challenge. Let me highlight a few of these attributes to highlight my point.

    1. Strategic Flexibility. As an attribute of Air Power, flexibility flows from the ability to reconfigure for different kinds of missions within a short span of time.
    2. Projecting Power without Projecting Vulnerability. The overarching dimension of air operations lends it the capability to project power without projecting the vulnerability. Air power offers the political leadership strategic choices and genuine alternatives to exert influence in a sustainable and easily scalable manner.
    3. Parallel Operations at all Levels of War. Air Campaigns can be executed against different target systems at different levels of war simultaneously. The parallel effects of these operations present the enemy with multiple crises to deal with thereby influencing his decision cycle. Air Power’s inherent capability to provide both kinetic and non kinetic options which can be used to either prevent, deter and contain conflicts – and/or provide unrivalled ‘hard power’ capabilities to coerce, deny or disrupt with pin point accuracy.
    4. Direct Effect on the Movement/Action of the Surface Forces. Air Power can directly influence or even control the movement and action of the surface forces and thus can control the tempo of operations.
    5. Ability to Influence the Time Factor. Formulation of an effective air strategy is based primarily on the ability of air power to simultaneously produce physical as well as psychological shock by dominating the fourth dimension.

    IAF at 81 Years

    10. For democracies like India, Air power is uniquely suited to provide credible deterrence and play a major role in case of deterrence failure. There are numerous examples in IAF’s history when application of air power for lethal or non-lethal effect has contributed immensely in altering the balance and ensuring speedy victory in condition, which would have otherwise precipitated into long drawn battles and even loss of territory. As IAF nears the completion of 81 years of its existence, it prepares to transform itself into a strategic air force with cutting edge technology and precise firepower. These capabilities will enable IAF to secure our nation’s aspirations and a pre-ordained rise to its eminent place in the world order.

    Strategic Scan

    11. As a responsible and peaceful democracy, India has pursued cordial relations with its neighbours and likeminded nations across the world. Our restraint and maturity in the face of extreme provocation has won widespread admiration. India is committed to inclusive growth and peaceful co-existence. However, a broad scan of the evolving geopolitical environment clearly presents many security challenges. The emergence of China and India as major economic powers signal, a pre-eminent shift of focus to the Asian region. We are actively engaged with China with an aim to foster closer economic and cultural ties, while we work on issues of unresolved borders. However, China’s sustained focus on military modernization and development of infrastructure in TAR is a matter of concern. As a strategic objective, we continue to strengthen our capacity along the LAC while we seek to build bridges of co-operation with China.

    12. The uncertainties that will accompany drawdown of US Forces from Afghanistan and its influence on regional security dynamics is likely to have a negative impact on the regional security environment. While India looks forward to long lasting friendly relations on our Western borders, the recent spurt of violence along the LoC and tacit use of terrorism as an instrument against India does not inspire confidence. Terror groups inimical to India’s interests receive material and institutional support for purporting terror attacks on our soil, while creating strategic depth in Afghanistan remains an eternal obsession. A rapidly deteriorating internal security environment and emergence of multiple power centres presents a bleak prognosis of the situation, both in the short as well as long term.

    Strategic Frontiers

    13. India’s sphere of interest has expanded from the traditional frontiers of Hindu Kush to Irrawaddy and is growing to include the Suez on the West to Shanghai on the East. The boundaries of this sphere make it imperative for the nation to build capabilities that provide reach and the desired effect at these ranges.

    Policy Challenge

    14. In my opinion, the coming two to three years are crucial watershed years warranting a pro-active approach towards national security and IAF’s modernisation programme. The key challenge in formulation of our strategy is to ensure conducive international and external environment for the unhindered economic progress and socio-political development of India, enabling it to assume its rightful role in the emerging world order.

    Spectrum of Conflict

    15. IAF needs to be prepared to act at two levels. It should be persuasive in peace while staying poised to be equally effective in war. IAF is keeping our nation’s skies secure with a 24x7 air defence cover during peacetime. We are also fully committed to Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) within our borders and beyond. While we maintain an eternal vigil during peace time and wholeheartedly support the national HADR effort, our combat crews constantly hone their skills for undertaking combat and combat support operations spanning the entire gamut from sub conventional, conventional, out of area to Nuclear Operations.

    Op Triveni

    16. Six of our MI-17V5 helicopters are actively supporting the security forces involved in anti-Naxal operations. Augmentation of the existing capacity as well as capability to undertake night operations will be provided by MI-17V5 helicopters from Nagpur by end of this year. Op Triveni highlights the tremendous benefits of using the third dimension in a hostile and impenetrable terrain.

    Op Rahat

    17. IAF responded to the unprecedented devastation in Uttarakhand by mounting ‘Op Rahat’. It went on to become the biggest heli-borne relief effort in military aviation history and employed 45 helicopters for rescuing over 24000 civilians in around 3500 sorties. The treacherous terrain, marginal weather conditions and the urgency of rescue effort all combined together posed an unprecedented challenge for our air warriors. This remarkable feat once again highlights the professional calibre of our helicopter fleet and the benefits of our maintaining core competence in employment of these versatile assets.

    Operational Paradigm Shift

    18. In the process of transforming itself, IAF is witnessing a paradigm shift in operational planning and force level considerations. The approach has shifted from being ‘platform-based’ to being entirely ‘capability based’. Effects based operational planning has replaced the strike packaging based on Over Target Requirements (OTR). Our operations are rapidly migrating to a network centric construct while the upcoming combat platforms will possess swing role capabilities. Our transformational plan thus has three key components

    • Preserve and maintain
    • Upgrade and Improve
    • Replace and Acquire

    19. At the end of this process, IAF force structure will be modern and potent with new and upgraded fleets only. This action plan is firmly underway and I wish to highlight certain important elements of this plan.

    Combat Capability

    20. Besides the induction of high technology assets, we have also started projects aimed at enhancing the operational effectiveness of some of our existing assets through mid life upgrades. In addition to the aircraft and weapon systems, a systematic approach is also being followed towards upgrading our operational infrastructure. Our aim is to have a balanced force structure – a structure where the focus is not just on the number of platforms but rather the balance of capabilities.

    21. We plan to have at least 40% of our combat fleet comprising high tech all weather multirole platforms by end of 12th Plan period. We aim to increase this further to 55% by end of 13th Plan. By the end of 14th Plan – when we expect to have fully executed our transformation plan – we plan to have 65% of our combat fleet comprising of high tech aircraft as the FGFA, MMRCA and upgraded Su-30MKI. Of course our entire transformational plan hinges on meeting the predetermined induction timelines of design and development, project deadlines and most importantly presupposes assured budgetary support.
    Upgrading Transport Capability.

    22. In the 12th Plan, our airlift capability is also expected to increase significantly. The C-17 Globemaster have started operating from Hindan from Sep this year and this platform would take our strategic airlift capability to the next level. Similarly, additional 6 X C-130J Special Ops aircraft would add a force multiplier effect in our Op capability. IL-76 fleet will continue to last for the next 15 years along with AN-32 & Dornier.

    Upgrading Helicopter Capability

    23. Our helicopter fleet is planned for a major upgradation both in terms of numbers as well as capabilities. We have worked out a detailed plan by which helicopter assets, both medium lift as well as attack heptr assets, have been earmarked for supporting each Army command and the individual Strike Corps respectively during any operational contingency.


    24. Resource constraints notwithstanding, our objective is to provide our men and women the best aircraft, equipment as well as the best training exposure that we can afford. The induction of Pilatus PC-7 as the basic trainer in May this year is an important step in this direction. To my mind, such advanced training systems are absolutely essential for preparing the future generations of air warriors of a transforming Air Force like ours.

    Tri Service Issues

    25. I will now briefly touch some tri-service issues. Due to the multi dimensional nature of present day conflict, increasing the levels of synergy amongst the Armed Forces as well as with the other civil agencies has become an important operational imperative. Organisational changes would be necessary to facilitate increased efficacy of the joint response by both the armed forces and the civilian agencies. HQ IDS has initiated a process to raising three new Tri Service Commands namely Special Ops, Cyber and Space. Responsive and adaptive, these new joint commands would provide us the required degree of operational flexibility to deal with the unconventional challenges of the future.

    Maintenance Challenges

    26. The major challenge we face on a daily basis is the maintenance of varied inventories both of aircraft as well as other weapon systems spread across the extremities of the technology spectrum.

    27. To manage such a diverse inventory, we have also worked out a tailored maintenance support system which would enable us to meet our long term requirements. These initiatives include procurements using life cycle cost model, entering into long term support agreements for supply of spares, upgradation of IMMOLS, provisioning of OEM established and maintained support facilities at major airbases and migration to a single database concept. With the planned induction of high technology assets such changes in our operating philosophy will help us exploiting the full potential of our costly resources.


    28. Ladies and Gentlemen, we live in an era of persistent fiscal tightening marked by widespread budgetary constraints. As an element of national power, air power in certain circumstances offers multiple options to the national leadership to influence behaviours and events without the commitment of major land forces. So it needs to be clearly understood that notwithstanding the capital intensive nature of maintaining an Air Force, nations cannot afford neglecting its continuous growth.

    29. IAF’s ongoing transformation plan has brought us face to face with many budgetary challenges. It is obvious that the future calls for a increased focus on ‘smart budgeting’. In the absence of a well-established indigenous aerospace production base, we are forced to source a major share of our inventory from foreign vendors. It mandates us as well as the other important stakeholders in the aerospace sector to tighten our belts further. For the Defence PSUs, it would mean meeting all the contractual obligations to the last word, both in terms of quality and timelines, since any slippages would automatically translate into cost overruns.

    30. For the IAF, it means that we maintain a healthy capital to revenue expenditure ratio. I would say that we need to control revenue expenditure and maximize the capital to revenue ratio. While the upfront acquisition cost for any new capital project may appear to be high, we need to view it against the value bought throughout its life (LCC Model). With the induction of more multirole platforms and by limiting the total number of variants, we can slowly work towards having better ‘buy to fly’ ratios and thereby maximize on the aerospace employment potential available with the IAF.


    31. Development of indigenous aerospace production capability will not only boost the operational potential of IAF but will also have a positive growth effect on other spheres in the civilian domain as well.

    32. There is a need to formalise policies for integration of the private sector and DPSU assets towards this greater national effort. New policies promoting joint ventures and public private partnerships must be put in place. I am sure that if we merge the enterprising spirit of private sector with the excellent infrastructure of public sector, we can have a win-win situation resulting in exponential growth of indigenous aerospace sector. Our private and public sector companies should optimize the offsets from contracts entered under the current provisions of DPP.

    Future Road Map

    33. Ladies and Gentlemen, before I conclude today, let me also share my views on the future contours of Air Power as I see them – both with regards to doctrine and strategy as well as its application. In my view, there is unlikely to be an operational contingency in the future, which will not only demand control of the air, situational awareness, intelligence and precision strike ability – but also the essential mobility and sustainment required through tactical and strategic air transport support. When we plan our future manning matrix, we need to ensure that we have the right capability mix. Therefore, our aim must be to build as much adaptability and multirole capability into our force structure as possible. For this, we must shift our focus from an emphasis on individual platforms for executing particular roles and instead look at the delivery of capability.


    34. In conclusion, let me reiterate that IAF is conscious of onerous responsibility of being the prime instrument of our Military power. We need to be always ready and prepared to deliver appropriate response options as assigned by our political leadership. Such capabilities cannot be developed overnight or quickly acquired when things start heating up across our frontiers. It requires visionary planning, a commitment of national resources and a synergetic approach by all stake holders – the civil authority, military establishments, defence production agencies, R&D organisations and the academicia.

    35. Today, the IAF is respected the world over as a professional force which is confidently striding into the strategic realm. Our air warriors are proud of their responsibilities and remain steadfast in their commitment to the nation and to their mission – with honour and pride.