After a two-month long standoff, Chinese PLA has retreated but has awakened India and Indian policy makers about who is going to be a real threat for them in near future. As India is planning a big leap on modernization of her defense forces, a subsequent debate has started as why India is still lagging behind in her aerial capabilities? From political unwillingness to bureaucratic anomalies, a series of reasons are being cited. Previous governments right from the era of Indira Gandhi are being blamed for delays and unwillingness to procure critical aerial machines.
Old school boys in IAF
Around 40% of IAF’s fighters are way too old to handle modern warfare. We are the only nation using Jaguar bombers, though an upgraded version, while it has been retired by France & UK in 2005 & 2007 respectively. Oman was the last to retire them from service in 2014. There also happens to be an old homie “MIG 21”, which is often termed as “flying coffin” due to a huge number of crashes in last two decades. Currently IAF is using an upgraded version called “MIG 21 Bison”, whose retirement has been postponed various times between 1995 to 2019. Now it has been further postponed to retire in 2025.
On par with enemy?
Struggling with older machines has become a compulsion for IAF since it needs at least 42 squadrons to handle a “Two-front war” but presently it maintains only 33 Squadrons. If India retires Mig 21 Bison, then it will reduce to 26 Squadrons, whereas our western neighbor has 24 Squadrons with much advance technologies like “F-16” and “JF-17 Thunder”. A bigger threat comes from eastern front. China’s PLAF (Peoples Liberation Air Force) is far superior than IAF in terms of squadrons. Presently it has 40 squadrons and they’re aiming to raise it to 50 squadrons of fourth generation aircrafts by 2025.
Path of Modernization
Modern warfare requires sharpening the edge of the spear rather than throwing a heavy spear with rusty edge. Militaries around the globe are making a cut in their manpower and investing in advance technologies. With the limited budget in hand, India has decided to reduce her manpower and purchase critical “war machines” from that money but the road to modernization doesn’t seem soft. Presently a huge chunk of the defense budget (Around 52%) goes in salaries and pensions, with very little amount left to be spent on modernization. While CDS Bipin Rawat had earlier indicated to reduce army by 1.5 lakh soldiers, the defense ministry is yet to propose a blueprint of the same. At a moment when Chinese PLA had started its modernization drive in 2015 and reduced its strength almost by half and doubling the strength of its air force by 2020, we need to look back at our modernization plans and start it on a faster pace.
Plans & hindrances ahead
While Modi government looks serious for modernization of our forces after the Galwan episode, the question remains the same as “How efficiently” and “How effectively”. The government is planning to spend 130 Billion USD on defense modernization in next 6-7 years. Indian Navy has announced to procure a number of patrol vessels, submarines, destroyers etc. but the modernization plan of Indian Air force is not finalized yet. Looking at the present plans of IAF, it has purchased high-end machines like Rafale, AH-64 Apache, Chinook etc. which can be considered first step on the path of modernization. Further it has shown interest in USA’s “Lockheed Martin F-35” which is presently the only 5th generation stealth fighter in the world, but it’s heavy price & maintenance cost remains a critical issue. Our own HAL is developing a prototype of AMCA (Advance Multirole Combat Aircraft) and is expected to be developed by 2029. Moreover, with the decision of Modi government to let the private players enter in defense manufacturing will definitely bear fruits but not anytime soon. Thus, looking at the present scenario, IAF has no option but to purchase machines from foreign arm suppliers at a higher cost, which will leave a significant dent on domestic aircraft development programs due to budgetary constraints.
Again, we must leave the tendency to delay the critical purchases for our armed forces via bureaucratic tantrums. We must develop a mechanism which is in sync with the arising needs of armed forces and keeps the government well informed about it and certainly help in fast track procurement. Interestingly, Indigenous technologies like LCA Tejas have been a success, keeping in mind the program cost which is quite low comparing to foreign manufacturers. The only thing that pulls our legs back is the time taken to complete the program. It was started in 1980’s and became a reality only in 2015. In technology, time is the key. If we can’t produce advance technologies at a given pace, then it will be outdated and won’t be of any use. Thus, producing indigenous technologies shall be our priority. Funds and clearances should be available on time, then only we’ll be able to compete with global players at a low cost. It’s high time that we should promote and focus on developing high-end defense technologies that will be fruitful in coming 20 years. It will definitely give us “Hawk wings” in the sky.