Indian Air Force ramps up combat capability

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is the fourth largest in the world with 150,000 personnel and some 1500 aircraft. With India emerging economically as a great power, the IAF is now engaged in a large-scale modernisation program.  As part of this, the IAF has recently published its latest air power doctrine, a document that reflects both the Air Force’s current capabilities and its future aspirations.

The publication holds that Indian air power is the product of both its doctrine and its capability; equipment does not in itself produce air power rather it is how it is used that is important.   In looking at the IAF’s current and future capabilities, this article examines the Air Force’s threat environment that drives its doctrine, two key elements of the new doctrine: strategic reach and deep operations, and lastly some real problems that the IAF is grappling with.

India has a novel threat environment.  It has borders with two nuclear powers and has fought wars against both over territorial boundaries.  China is the more important as its ongoing economic growth is allowing rapid military modernisation relative to India in both qualitative and quantitative terms.  Just keeping up with China is getting progressively more difficult.

Pakistan is the more pressing problem in being racked by internal political and social turbulence, having a military that acts seemingly autonomously and which exploits terrorist groups as a means of deniable attack, and possesses a sizeable nuclear weapon stockpile that it has threatened to use first.  Pakistan’s red-lines for using these nuclear weapons includes loss of territory, significant Army or Air Force attrition in a conventional conflict, economic strangulation or another nation creating internal instability in Pakistan.

This demanding strategic environment has driven India’s armed forces to prepare for the possibility of a ‘two front’ war.  The strategy is to develop and sustain forces sufficient to deter China and Pakistan from launching an attack either jointly or individually but, if deterrence fails, to quickly defeat Pakistan in the west first while holding China in the east.  With Pakistan’s defeat, the forces in the west can then swing east.  The aim in such a war would be to restore the status quo ante as quickly as possible and with the least long-term economic damage to India.  The likelihood of a major conventional war with China though is fortunately low due to nuclear deterrence, steadily improving relations and successful military confidence building measures.

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