Indian Air Force vice-chief Air Marshal BS Dhanoa admitted on Thursday that the IAF did not have sufficient number of warplanes to fight a two-front war, setting off alarm bells about the country’s ability to tackle a combined threat from China and Pakistan.
“Our numbers are not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front scenario,” Dhanoa said, drawing attention to the sharp drawdown of India’s fighter fleet. The count of IAF’s fighter squadrons has shrunk to 33 compared to a desirable strength of 42, a capability gap the air force is struggling to fill.
It is rare for top military commanders to make such a startling public admission, even though parliamentary panels have raised questions about India’s ability to fight the two adversaries at the same time – a worrying scenario that the IAF describes as ‘Contingency-III.’
“Probability of a two front scenario is an appreciation which you need to do. But are the numbers adequate? No. The squadrons are winding down,” said Dhanoa, who is in line to become IAF chief on December 31, 2016.
The admission comes days before the IAF carries out a firepower demonstration in Pokhran - the site for India’s underground nuclear detonation - on March 18. The spectacle will involve 181 planes including 103 fighter jets. President Pranab Mukherjee and PM Narendra Modi are expected to witness exercise Iron Fist-2016, held every three years.
The only defence attaches not invited to witness the exercise, whose tagline is ‘Demonstrating the Capability to Punish,’ are from China and Pakistan. The IAF said it was a collective decision of the ministry of external affairs and the defence ministry to leave them out.
The IAF’s plans to scale up its capabilities have hit several hurdles, including delay in the light combat aircraft (LCA) project, scrapping of a deal to buy 126 modern fighter jets and stalemate in the Rafale purchase.
The existing fleet consists of 14 squadrons of ageing MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters that will be retired in phases by 2024. Each fighter squadron consists of about 18 planes.
Russian-origin Su-30 fighters account for about 10 squadrons but the fleet is plagued by engine troubles and is also battling poor serviceability. The remaining nine squadrons consist of Mirage 2000 fighters, Jaguars and MiG-29s. The IAF hopes to add more muscle with the induction of the LCA, more Su-30s, Indo-Russian fifth-generation fighter aircraft and possibly a medium-weight fighter that could be built in India in collaboration with a foreign player.
The IAF had told a Parliamentary panel in February 2014 that Pakistan would certainly fish in troubled waters if China were to launch offensive operations against India. It, however, stressed that China may not pose “a collusive threat” if hostilities were to break out between India and Pakistan.
On the sale of eight F-16s to Pakistan, Dhanoa said it would not drastically alter the air power balance in the region but “it makes my life more difficult” as the IAF has to field a more hi-tech platform against it.
“War, conflict or adventure takes place when he (the enemy) has a doubt about your deterrence. If you demonstrate your deterrence, then he knows that he will be hit very badly.” He added that Iron Fist was designed to send a message to the “other side” that “they do not have a military option.”