Air Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari, presently serving as Vice Chief of the Air Staff, will take over as the Chief of the Indian Air Force next week. And the new Air Chief would hardly have time to breathe easy because his ‘to do’ list is a lengthy one.
The Narendra Modi government’s move to appoint him as the Vice Chief in July was critical — he got the time to understand the crucial juncture at which the IAF currently stands. Before this, he had a ringside view.
Ideally, rather than announcing appointments of Chief of Services just days before the incumbent retires, the government should give the name at least a month in advance. This helps the successor gather their thoughts, prioritise and be part of the decision-making even if it is on an informal basis.
Air Marshal Chaudhari is lucky to have served in crucial positions in the Air Headquarters, including as the Deputy Chief in charge of planning and procurement. He was also the Western Air Commander and Senior Air Staff Officer in the Eastern Air Command.
But being in the hot seat means he would no longer be an observer and will have to take decisions crucial to the IAF, which is facing huge modernisation challenges.
Thankfully for him, the incumbent ACM R.K.S. Bhadauria has initiated a lot of work and closed several emergency procurement contracts that will help the force in both short and long term, especially in the area of missiles and communication.
For Air Marshal Chaudhari, the IAF is standing at the brink of the biggest defence reform that the Indian military will see – theaterisation. There is no doubt that a unified command, unified procurement, joint planning and operations will bear rich fruits. But it is also a fact that the IAF has its own views on theaterisation and how it should come about. The last few months have been acrimonious to say the least with reservations over the structure of theatre commands coming out sharply in public.
All eyes would be on Air Marshal Chaudhari to see how he handles this vexed issue and the public perception around it.
Depleting fighter strength
The biggest challenge for the new IAF chief would be to tackle the depleting fighter aircraft squadron strength. Presently, the IAF is down to a squadron strength of 30 as against the sanctioned strength of 42.
Getting more fighters will be the main focus of Air Marshal Chaudhry. Having been the Deputy Chief in charge of procurement, he is well aware of the mess that the IAF is in right now. In actual terms, 30 Squadrons don’t mean 30 squadrons because the availability ratio of some of the aircraft types is just abysmal to say the least. Which means that on a given day, the actual availability of aircraft is less because most are in for servicing or down due to unavailability of spare parts.
The new IAF chief will have to push the government to decide on either setting off another round of competition with an open tender for 114 fighters or getting more Rafales. Either way, any delay will affect the capability of the Air Force in both short-and long term.
There have been reports stating that the IAF has been asked to rationalise its squadron strength due to the enhanced capability of Rafale aircraft and the upcoming induction of S-400 air defence system.
But there is yet no clarity on how S-400 can replace the need for a fighter aircraft. It is like saying there is no need to buy bullets because we now have a bullet-proof jacket.
Neither does induction of two squadrons of Rafale mean that the IAF can knock down their planned requirement of 42 squadrons, which also included 126 Medium Multi Role Aircraft for which the French fighters were selected in 2012.
I had reported in 2019 that the situation is so bleak that, according to IAF projections, even if all existing orders for 36 Rafales, six squadrons of Tejas (including Tejas Mark 1A) and two more squadrons of Su30 MKI are taken into account, the squadron strength will reduce to 27 by 2032 and a mere 19 by 2042. This is because existing squadrons of MiG 21 Bisons and Jaguars, and even Mirage 2000s and MiG 29 will be phased out over the next two decades.
But what happens when we take into account the induction of Tejas Mk 2 (still in design phase), 114 new fighters (a decision on this project is yet to be taken), and the indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (still in design phase)?
Even in the best case scenario, the IAF will not reach its sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons by 2042.
And if one assumes that all the three futuristic aircraft are inducted as planned, the squadron strength will still only be 37 by 2042. The last time the IAF had 42 squadrons was way back in 2002.
Induction of advanced drones, refuellers, space tech
Contrary to popular perception, India has been an early starter when it came to drones. Way back in the 1980s, the IAF started using the Chukar drones manufactured by the US. It then went in for the Searcher drones from Israel and followed them up with the more capable Herons. India has been using loitering munitions for nearly two decades. But the country seems to have lost its way in between.
The need of the hour is to imbibe more of loitering munitions and various kinds of drones – armed, long-range surveillance and even swarm drones.
Also on the agenda of the new IAF Chief will be to scale up India’s capability in mid-air refuelling and its space capabilities that fall under IAF’s ambit.
The IAF Chief has his plate full to transform the Air Force into a modern fighting force, capable of not just defending its borders but for force projection outside.
Views are personal.