A Modern Military
First published in The Statesman Editorial Page Special Article April 16 2006. www.thestatesman.net
THE first line of defence in a major modern war is the air force, and any air force is only as good as its pilots. A small number of determined pilots once beat Goering’s Nazi armada in the skies over the English Channel. The good, indeed excellent, news for Indians is that our air force’s fighter pilots and frontline military aircraft now have been internationally benchmarked and are being recognised as first-class. Objective assessments are becoming available of the joint exercises the IAF held with the United States Air Force in 2004 and 2005 in Alaska, Gwalior and Kalaikunda. Though there were mixed Indo-US teams during several exercises, on balance the Americans admitted being surprised and even defeated by the IAF’s aircraft, technical skills and tactics. The IAF literally “defeated” the USAF in the sense Indian “gun cameras” shot pictures of their opponents far more often than vice-versa thus indicating “hits”; and the IAF certainly destroyed for all time all the expectations the Americans may have had about exercising with an inferior fighting force. To be sure, American apologists have made several political and technical points since then. One of the cheapest is that the American squadrons sent were not top frontline squadrons whereas the IAF had sent its best. Another has been that the USAF literally wished to “throw” a fight because they have wanted American legislators to fund the super-advanced F-22, and one way to help do that was by getting the IAF’s Russian aircraft to “beat” American F-16s. Of more substance is the point that the IAF imposed a requirement of “old-fashioned dogfights”, which in this missile age means aircraft being within “visual range” of one another. Current USAF strategy relies more on “Beyond Visual Range” (BVR) capabilities where aircraft never get to see the enemy but launch their air-to-air weapons based on instructions, for example from advanced on-board instrumentation or from airborne controllers in Airborne Warning and Control (AWAC) aircraft. The Americans also use “fire-and-forget” missiles in this BVR warfare which they did not bring to the joint exercises with India. Lastly, American AWACs did operate in the Indo-US exercises but as a neutral party assigning targets to pilots from both air forces; this was the first experience Indian pilots had of working with AWACs and by American accounts they outperformed their counterparts despite lack of familiarity with the technology. However, in an actual war, the AWACs and other devices would have been used to jam or destroy an adversary’s communications, and India has no capability in that.
Even so, in most encounters between the USAF’s F-16s and F-15 C/D Eagles, and the IAF’s Sukhoi-30 MKIs, MiG-27s, MiG-29s, and even the refurbished MiG-21 Bisons, Indian pilots apparently came out winners. One American commander said: “We try to replicate how these aircraft perform in the air, and I think we’re good at doing that in our Air Force, but what we can’t replicate is what’s going on in their minds. They’ve challenged our traditional way of thinking on how an adversary, from whichever country, would fight.” And the USAF’s Chief of Air Combat Command, General Hal M. Hornburg told USA Today that as a result of defeats in the mock combat exercises with the Indians he felt: “We may not be as far ahead of the rest of the world as we thought we were”. As in case of the Bofors gun, despite the corruption scams surrounding the deal-making, the Sukhoi-30 has apparently been a sound military purchase.
If the competence of our pilots and their aircraft is the good news, the bad news has been their failure of morale. The IAF’s pilots in droves have wished to quit because of “poor working and living conditions”, family-separation, and a “culture of sycophancy” promoted by the top brass which has made it difficult for them to work or even to stay motivated. In 2002-2004, 263 pilots were allowed to seek premature retirement; in 2005, only 8 out of some 200 have been allowed (one of whom got an MP to support him). The High Court has ruled in favour of the Air Force that when the nation spends untold millions in each pilot’s training, he/she is required to fulfil his/her obligations in turn. Premature retirement cannot be given by the Air Force on “compassionate grounds” to everyone who might ask for it. The new commercial airlines also seem very alluring to both young pilots and older commanders Perhaps an exit strategy needs to be devised whereby Air Force pilots wanting to quit and join the private sector may be allowed to do so ~ once they have agreed to repay the Air Force a reasonable fraction of the millions that have been invested by the country in their training. If we extrapolate these kinds of facts in different directions, a modern picture of desirable Indian weaponry, armed forces and doctrine can begin to be sketched. The first step must be an objective assessment of military threats faced by the country. We have only one declared adversary with aggressive intent against us, and that is the military and political elite that has ruled over Pakistan for almost 60 years. For sake of argument, let us ask if we have any other identifiable external enemies. We might imagine China to be an enemy because of the border war decades ago but there is in fact no plausible war scenario with China today. There may be conceivable threats but hardly any large ones from Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma, the Tamil Tigers, Indonesia, or Iran. As for Afghanistan, we have our Pakistani cousins to thank for having unwittingly buffered us from the turmoil there over three decades, although of course the Pakistani establishment tried to use that chaos to its advantage against India. There are some traditional threats of a special nature from insurgencies in the North-east but these too are amenable to political and diplomatic resolution. If we are vulnerable anywhere from an unknown quarter it is to a modern air-sea attack of the kind launched against Iraq twice recently and being threatened upon Iran now. Indeed our new American friends had themselves “gamed” a scenario as early as 1990-1991 of such an air-sea assault taking place upon India. Assuming we come to resolve our difficulties with Pakistan over Jammu & Kashmir reasonably (cf. Solving Kashmir, The Statesman 1-3 Dec. 2005 republished here), what India comes to need from a military standpoint is a compact, first-rate airforce, a defensive naval capacity based on nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed submarines (the era of grandiose vulnerable aircraft carrier battle groups is over), and some short and intermediate-range missile capacity of the kind we have in fact been developing. Jungle warfare, counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism may be the new specialised areas required from ground troops, though of course traditional artillery and armoured corps will likely have to be developed and retained indefinitely until such a time as Pakistan becomes a peaceful and healthy nation-state, which may be a long time yet.
Most important of all though, we need a supply of young fighter pilots of the kind who defeated the Americans in the war-games, young submariners willing to go to sea for ever, young soldiers like Batra, Hanifuddin, Kalia and the other heroes of Kargil who are prepared to dedicate their minds, bodies and souls for their compatriots if the need ever arises. For that to happen, the Army, Navy and Air Force must not merely cut all the corruption, sycophancy, fat, waste and moral turpitude in the senior ranks of their organisational structures, but political statesmen must arise to lead and motivate the whole polity itself with an inspiring yet realistic vision of India’s future, and one which remains consistent with our national ethos of ahimsa. A paradox has come to be revealed in our young warriors being excellent and yet their morale and motivation being low. The fault lies not with them but with those who purport to lead them.