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Indian Air Force: The pangs of modernisation

By Air Chief Marshal (Retd) PV Naik Published: October 2013

Pune: Douhet, Mitchell & Trenchard were the first proponents of Air Power, as it was known then. They were ahead of their times & consequently, were hounded out by one and all for their heretical thoughts. This paper attempts to flag some important aspects of and share some thoughts on The Future of Aerospace Power and modernisation, with special reference to India.



Today the South Asian Region ranks as one of the three flashpoints in the world along with the Middle East and North Korea. That the potential adversaries are nuclear powers with missile capability is a cause for even greater discomfort. It is, on the other hand, also a region with enormous possibilities, some of them unfolding right before our eyes. Within this region lies a group of nations in troubled transition to modernity, their external discourse damned by internal contradictions. In a world moving towards integration, many of these nations remain torn by ethnic & religious strife, economic disparities and political instability. Undoubtedly, it is a new world order that is emerging because of complex relationships, strategic interests and influences. Asia is the happening place and for a variety of factors. For obvious reasons, it is full of turmoil and instabilities. Internal dynamics and external influences have led to increase in the degree of instability and uncertainty. Last but not the least; it is the playground for terrorism.

As a member of this region, India remains vulnerable to the disturbances spilling over from her neighbours. India herself is at a crossroads. We witness this giant stirring into wakefulness – into an awareness of its power today. This rise in stature brings with it greater responsibilities and a larger role in regional as well as global affairs. This demands not only a change in policy, internal and external, but a fundamental change in our very thinking, ethos and value system.

Threat Spectrum

India’s strategic perspectives are shaped by her history, geography, geopolitical realities and the demands of realpolitik. Our native culture, our innate traditions of trust and tolerance, and our vision of world peace shape our national character, which, in turn, impacts on our international relations. These vital parameters are as relevant today as they have been earlier. India shares borders with 11 neighbours. Our relations with some are uneasy and with some, hostile. Any unrest within this somewhat hostile neighbourhood spills over into our borders in many forms; and with depressing regularity. Unless these geo-political cross currents affecting us are quietened, they would continue to thwart our desire to move forward.

India is faced with a full spectrum of threats, which emerge from all these issues. The spectrum itself is increasing in complexity and technological sophistication. So with the spectrum changing as well as being unpredictable, we have to look at full-spectrum dominance. This is equally applicable to all domains, land, sea air, space, as well as the Information domain. Since the focus of this article is on Aerospace Power, suffice it to say that Aerospace Power also will have to look in the same direction.

It is, therefore, prudent that we move away from a threat-based assessment to a capability-based approach. A capability can then be tailored or applied to meet the challenge. The capability will allow us to apply the right force in any form of conflict across the entire spectrum. This will ensure effectiveness as well as efficacy.

What is of concern to us is that the whole focus is on full-spectrum dominance. Yes, it will require new technology, modernisation and replacement of equipment. But just material-superiority and technology is not enough. Of equal importance is the development of doctrine, organisation, training and education of leaders and people who can effectively take advantage of the technology.


Defence modernisation comprises three disciplines. MAINTAIN – What you have — UPGRADE — where there is useful residual life left. ACQUIRE – where there is no residual life. It is a constant process and cannot be done in fits and starts. India needs quantum improvement in all three aspects.

Reasons are many. We missed out on the window 10 years ago because of poor economy. We suffer the consequences now. More so because the world economy has nosedived affecting FDI inflow. The consequent adverse Rupee/Dollar ratio is bound to affect our purchasing power. We depend on foreign vendors for most spares, upgrades and acquisitions because our indigenisation record is poor. We continue to lose out on pricing and contracts because of delayed decision making. The MMRCA deal for 126+ aircraft is languishing for more than four years. Utility choppers are just about coming in. The need for 40 more Su-30s, mooted four years ago, is being re-discussed now. Demand for additional Air-to-Air Refuelling (AAR) aircraft has been in limbo for four years now. The news is that it might fructify soon. The 2014 General Election will put paid to any new projects being approved till formation of the new government. Involvement, commitment and accountability of the bureaucracy are lacking. The Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) needs refining which is being done but needs expediting.

We are expected to spend approx $235 billion on defence systems over the next 10 years. At 30 to 50 per cent the ‘Offsets’ themselves come to a staggering figure. Are our public and private sectors capable of handling such astronomical deals?

I am confident that Aero India 2015 will showcase India’s primacy as a viable market. The rush of fighter aircraft vendors may be a bit diluted but helicopters and RPAs will be on flagrant display. In addition, the US push will ensure large participation. Such events must be addressed as opportunities to be taken advantage of in our calculus. Many deals are in the pipeline. The economy is likely to take a turn for better since such events are generally cyclic with their effects lasting a year and a half to two years. The geopolitical situation in our region would have changed after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and any new Government is bound to be supportive. Today we are at the cusp. The ramping up was expected to start around 2015. Now it may be delayed by a year or two.

If we want the defence modernisation to be successful, we must get our act together now. All stakeholders including the Public/Private Sectors, the DRDO and the Bureaucracy must be committed, involved and held accountable. They must share responsibility equally with the armed forces. Only then will we be able to take our rightful place in the comity of nations as a secure country with strong and modern armed forces.

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