It doesn’t speak well of any birthday celebration when you are forced to reduce the number of candles on the cake. Which unfortunately seems to have happened to the Indian Air Force (IAF) on Monday when the highlight of its 75th birthday — a flypast of 75 aircraft at the Hindon airbase — had to be toned down because of weather and fear of bird hits. Nevertheless, the fact that the air force managed to put up an impressive display of the entire range of its capabilities, from rocketry to helicopter airlift and fighter operations, bears out its vaunted resilience.
The IAF has certainly come a long way since 1932 when it began with half a dozen officers and a couple of Wapiti aircraft. Today, the men and women in blue of the world’s fourth largest air force can proudly look back on those 75 years, having bravely faced challenges of enemy military, the weather and hostile terrain. It must be one of the worst chapters in IAF history that despite the appalling series of crashes of its frontline fighters in recent years — which almost sent it into a tailspin — successive governments continued to drag their feet on the IAF fleet’s modernisation plans. Even the induction of the frontline Sukhoi Su-30MKI combat jets and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) took an unduly long while for an air force desperately longing to augment its war-fighting capabilities. Fortunately, things are looking up now with the government finally waking up to the urgency of the situation, and floating a global tender for acquiring 126 medium multi-role aircraft. Care, however, must be taken that this doesn’t affect the acquisition of force multipliers like the Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control System (Awacs), mid-air refuelling aircraft and advanced radars that are crucial elements in the IAF’s force potency. For the importance of long-range precision strike, strategic surveillance, and other revolution in military affairs (RMA) technologies in maintaining air superiority cannot be overstated.
The government should also actively consider setting up a modern aerospace industry and research and development establishment to sustain the IAF, which should ideally aim for a 60-squadron force by 2032. That will perhaps be the best way to ensure 100 candles on that birthday cake.