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DON'T GET CARRIED AWAY
- What the F-16 debate helps the IAF to focus on

The US decision to allow Pakistan to have F-16 aircraft and the accompanying sweetener of the sale of F-16s or F-18s along with their licensed production in India have generated widespread debate. While on a larger canvas of national strategic vision, there is merit in seriously pursuing the path of a steadily growing strategic partnership with the United States of America, it would be a mockery if this partnership appears to hinge on the F-16 and its accompanying sweeteners.

Opinion within this country appears fragmented over this issue. There are optimists who see the brighter side of this offer, egged on, no doubt, by the US carrot of helping India become a great power. There are pragmatists whose response is tempered by America's past record of nuclear fuel denial for Tarapur or the more recent denial of US-sourced spare parts for the Indian navy's British Sea King helicopters and Sea Harriers. There are those who believe that the primary motive of the Bush administration is really to soften India's reaction to resumption of sale of F-16s to Pakistan, because even laymen do not buy the argument that this strengthens Pakistan's hands in its pro-US anti-terror operations. There are realists who believe that somewhere there is the invisible all-pervasive hand of the American military-industrial complex.

Absent from this lively debate is the principle issue of what is good for the Indian air force. Understandably, there is deafening silence from the IAF, the one entity which will ultimately have to bear the cross, whichever way the tide turns. Its planners must be ruing at the irony of our security planning system and its proverbial short memory. Quite apart from many early examples recently, the long-awaited advanced jet trainer programme was further delayed in the final stages because of our insistence that all US-sourced equipment fitted on the proposed AJTs be replaced. The already delayed light combat aircraft programme suffered a further setback when the US imposed sanctions in 1998.

Knowing the tendency of the US congress to slap sanctions at the slightest pretext, one is surprised that there has not been a louder voice of caution and moderation to link the latest US sweetener to a deeper and more equitable strategic partnership, of which so far there are only intents.

Perhaps the biggest lesson should have come from the experience of none other than our neighbour, Pakistan, which was not only denied the F-16s that it had paid for, but its advance payments withheld and the aircraft cocooned. That it has gratefully accepted the latest largesse speaks of the magic spell of the much over-rated Fighting Falcon as the F-16 is named.

It is within this backdrop and caution not to fall prey to the hypnotic spell of the F-16, that one must appreciate the IAF's dilemma. One of the IAF's many strengths has been its sound and broad-based long-term re-equipment planning of which the essential pillars have been defining clear staff requirements, aiming for a balanced air force, reduction in multiplicity of aircraft and systems, cost of ownership over the system's life cycle as an input to decision-making and achieving all this within realistic budgetary forecasts. While technology and the battlefield environment continue to change dramatically, these planning parameters so assiduously followed by the IAF remain perennial and must not be sacrificed under extraneous pressures. To avoid being derailed, the IAF needs to introspect.

Within a balanced air force, there is certainly a need to revisit the optimum combat force level in keeping with the superior throw-weight and precision-attack capability of present-day aircraft, precision-guided weapons, force multipliers like flight refuellers, airborne early-warning aircraft and remotely piloted vehicles and the need for greater emphasis on automated missile air defence systems in view of the nuclear environment. Essential to this review is also the changing nature of warfare in general and the specific threat that the country now faces. The defence minister recently emphasized that the most potent challenges faced by the country were not from conventional wars, but from unconventional threats.

Yet one learns that no change is contemplated in the forty-strong combat squadron level that has existed for three decades. Indeed two years ago, this was quoted as fifty-four squadrons. Professional air forces need to graduate from subjective planning to a more hard-nosed and business-like application of known scientific tools and methods of operational research and analysis for their operational and acquisition planning to arrive at sound solutions. The IAF is best equipped to lead the way and if results indicate that more combat aircraft are needed, so be it.

The spectacle of a multi-million dollar Mirage 2000 using sophisticated laser-guided bombs against a lowly Pakistani bunker during the Kargil operations is akin to using a proverbial sledgehammer to swat a fly and this exposed a glaring shortcoming in the air forces' arsenal. The balanced air force had aimed at an optimum mix of high performance/high technology/high cost aircraft as well as medium performance/optimum technology/relatively lighter and lower cost aircraft. To be fair to the air force, the LCA staff requirement was born out of this concept, and the LCA was to form the backbone of the air force, but stands delayed. The IAF appears still committed to this philosophy as plans to order an initial batch of 20 LCAs with another 20 to follow show. Some of the aircraft that the IAF is reportedly now looking at, however, do not fit this category. If there is a change in philosophy, one is not clear.

Today we boast of British, French, Russian and Indian combat aircraft in our air force with a range of weapons and systems from these countries, Israel and many others. If yet more types and sources were to be added, it would be a great advertisement for internationalism, but would be at further cost to an air force and aeronautical industry already facing monumental operational, inter-operability, training and logistic complexities, apart from poor economies of scale and hence, cost burdens.

One hopes that with the scientific techniques available today to determine cost of ownership of a weapons system, a realistic analysis can be made of the various options that the IAF is considering. The ownership cost of a combat aircraft over its life-cycle can be 15-20 times the initial cost. If new aircraft have indeed to be bought, it is important to know what the realistic costs are of ownership trade-offs between opting for a new type or choosing one which shares commonality with the current IAF fleet. The IAF already has the Jaguar, Mirage 2000, Mig-29, Su-30 and upgraded Mig-21s in its inventory. It will have a modern AJT, which can stand in for a light fighter in emergencies.

By world air force standards, this is an extremely potent line-up. The air force is not about combat aircraft alone as in a nuclear environment, it must maintain an impenetrable and modern air defence system involving radars, missiles and command and control systems. There is need for anti-missile systems and for the IAF extending its natural domain into space. Capital outlays are needed for transport aircraft, trainers, helicopters and other systems that all need upgrading. A balanced air force includes all these plus welltrained human resources and environment for their optimum utilization. The IAF is already committed to production programmes of Su-30, LCA, AJT, AWACS and IJT, all of which will need to be funded for the next 10-15 years. It would be interesting to see the grocery bill added up annually for the next 10-15 years for all these requirements.

The bogey of cost-effectiveness and a sense of self-reliance generated by offers of licensed production also needs to be laid to rest. With modern production techniques, unless economies of scale are possible, setting up production is not viable. Cheap labour in the context of the aeronautical industry is a misnomer. Also, the heart of modern weapons systems is the software and its source code. This will rarely be forthcoming. So before we begin to celebrate the generous offer of the US, beware of jumping to wrong conclusions. Mere licence manufacturing will not shield us from future arm-twisting. Remember that the IAF's Mig-21 fleet was virtually grounded when the Soviet Union collapsed, in spite of the aircraft being manufactured in India for three decades. Those who had hailed this as a great feat of self-reliance had passed on into history.

Before we get carried away to a point of no return, our security planners need to ask themselves some fundamental questions. What roles and mission do we expect the IAF to perform in the context of the emerging threats and revolution in military affairs' How best can these be accomplished' Are we using the best minds and scientific techniques to arrive at optimum operational and equipment solutions' Are these solutions then tempered and prioritized to meet the threat of an integrated battlefield' Without a CDS, do we even have the institutional structures to address these issues' Are plans being formulated within reasonable forecast budgetary allocations' If the F-16 debate helps us focus on these issues, we can thank the US without parting with billions of dollars.

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