In the backdrop of multiple Chinese intrusions in Eastern Ladakh, Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria conveyed a reassuring message of a force that has the situation in control and is equipped and trained to match any adversary.
Addressing the media on Monday in the run-up to the 88th Air Force Day on October 8, the Indian Air Force (IAF) chief said: “We are firmly in place to handle any contingency”. He said there is no scenario, in any conflict situation, in which China can get the better of India.
“We conduct bilateral and multilateral exercises with leading air forces of the world and let me share with you with confidence that operationally we are amongst the best,” said the air chief, referring to the IAF’s strong performance in demanding international exercises, such as Red Flag, which the US conducts.
Bhadauria denied the IAF had come close to air strikes on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) after the killing of 20 Indian soldiers in the Galwan valley in June. However, the IAF had been ready for strikes if ordered, he said.
On whether India’s border infrastructure development was worrying the PLA, Bhadauria said the capability provided by the airfield at Daulat Beg Oldi was “a big threat” to the Chinese. He admitted the Chinese air force’s long-range strike capability was an “area of strength,” but their vaunted fifth-generation J-20 fighter was still a work in progress, with advanced weapons and sensors, but no indigenous engine.
Glossing over the IAF’s dwindling fighter squadrons, Bhadauria said, “Our offensive strike capability has been honed with upgradations and new inductions of weapons and platforms, ably supported by combat enablers and a networked decision-making environment.”
Yet, he candidly admitted that “even if we move at the fastest possible pace”, the IAF would not reach its authorised 42 squadrons in the coming decade — “36-38 squadrons would be an achievement.”
Listing on-going inductions, Bhadauria said, “In the next three years, we will see the Rafale and LCA (light combat aircraft) Mark 1 squadrons operating with full strength, along with additional Sukhoi-30MKI and MiG-29 aircraft that are being ordered, besides the current fleets. The mid-life operational upgrade of Mirage-2000, MiG-29 and Jaguar fleet would add to our capability in this period.”
The air chief was on surer ground when he lauded the IAF’s airlift capability. “We have the largest strategic airlift capability in our region comprising IL-76, C-17 Globemaster and C-130 Super Hercules platforms,” he said.
Referring to the induction of a large number of Russian Mi-17V5 and American Chinook CH-47F transport helicopters, Bhadauria pointed out: “We have significantly enhanced our heli-lift capabilities with our helicopter inductions.
In fact, the IAF’s tactical airlifters enabled the army to quickly block Chinese troops from trespassing even deeper across the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
“Our airlift capability was also brought into focus as we supported the Indian Army in rapid mobilisation of troops and equipment to [the] operational area at a pace which our adversary didn’t expect,” said the IAF chief.
Suggesting the tactical airlift fleet would remain a priority, Bhadauria said, “The AN-32 [medium transport] fleet is halfway through its upgradation. Similar plans are in place for the [heavy lift] IL-76 fleet as well.”
Bhadauria did not mince words in outlining the challenges posed by China and Pakistan acting in collusion. “The matrix of threat is complex, ranging from aspirational adversaries with huge investments in military arsenal to those collusively fronted by non-state actors,” he said.
Asked about reports of Chinese combat aircraft operating from Skardu Air Base in Pakistan-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan, the air chief said if China struck India from Skardu, this would be dealt with as a collusive (two-front) threat. He appeared to suggest that India would not hesitate to strike Pakistan-controlled territory.
The IAF’s future combat aircraft acquisitions reflect the government’s new “Atmanirbhar Bharat” (self-reliant India) push. “We have placed our trust in the Tejas LCA. In the next five years we will commence induction of 83 LCA Mark 1A. We are supportive of DRDO and HAL’s effort at indigenous production and you will soon see the contract of HTT 40 (basic trainer aircraft) and LCH (Light Combat Helicopter),” Bhadauria said.
The induction of futuristic fighter aircraft in the second half of the coming decade would also be characterised by self-reliance. “We are committed to the indigenous development of fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), which will be the mainstay of the IAF fighter fleet after a decade or so,” he said.
To bridge the shortfall of combat aircraft until AMCA joins the fleet, Bhadauria revealed that IAF would continue with the long-delayed acquisition of 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA), “which should fructify in the coming decade.”
Asked if the acquisition of two more Rafale squadrons was a possibility, he termed it “too early to say” and suggested that expanding the Rafale order would result in buying fewer MRFAs.
On preparing for futuristic warfare, Bhadauria said the IAF was “developing indigenous combat systems with sixth generation technologies including Directed Energy Weapons, Smart Wingman concept, optionally manned combat platforms, swarm drones, hypersonic weapons” and so on.
Terming the creation of the post of a tri-service chief “a landmark step”, Bhadauria revealed that the formation of a tri-service Air Defence Command was at “an advanced stage.”