Wednesday, 1 June 2011

New Challenges For The New Indian Air Force Chief

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has long had big ambitions, and the pending arrival of a new service chief with a broad agenda indicates there will be no easing up in efforts to improve the breadth of the service’s capabilities.

The first major restructuring of the IAF’s order of battle, a revival of border air bases to counter Chinese air force deployments and quick acquisitions of weapons and systems to plug capability gaps will be the operational priorities of the IAF’s next chief, Air Marshal Norman Browne, who takes office at the end of July.

The flow of foreign hardware into India will be substantial during the new chief’s time in office. Browne’s tenure as IAF chief also stands to see the signing of tens of billions of dollars in contracts.

The key program Browne will have to shepherd through is the $12 billion Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) fighter jet contest. It is fitting since, as deputy IAF chief from 2007-2009, Browne played a central role in navigating the MMRCA teams through the process.

Moreover, his time at the helm also will see the government sign deals for 10 or more Boeing C-17 heavy transports, six new-generation tanker transports (the Airbus Military A330 and Ilyushin Il-78 are in the running), 22 attack helicopters, 12 heavy-lift helicopters and nearly 200 basic trainer aircraft. He also will be under pressure to ensure the smooth induction of several large, network-centric systems into the core of how the IAF operates.

The IAF also is likely to mark several milestones under Browne, including the entry of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) into full operational service, and the certification of India’s indigenous Airborne Early Warning & Control platform.

An IAF officer who has worked closely with Browne says: “His other key commitments will include giving shape to how the Indian [Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft] and AMCA [unmanned combat aircraft] will turn out, and getting the LCA Tejas to full operational status in the shortest possible time.” The officer warns local industry that “HAL is going to find it has an unusually tough customer” in Browne.

With 3,100 hr. on aircraft that include the MiG-21, Su-30 and Jaguar, the officer strongly believes it is imperative for the IAF to diversify its equipment sources and ramp up its self-reliance.

Israel, which has emerged as one of India’s biggest suppliers of weapons and equipment in the last seven years, is a country that Browne knows well — he established India’s defense wing in Tel Aviv in April 1997, serving as defense attache there until July 2000.

Browne also will oversee substantial changes in asset deployments to give the IAF greater reach and faster response to perceived external threats.

Last October, Browne said the IAF would consider basing detachments of new-generation fighters at its high-altitude border bases, including Su-30MKIs.

Under Browne, the IAF also will raise its first fighter squadrons in India’s southern peninsula, including some of the aircraft acquired in the MMRCA competition, to provide security to India’s island territories and sea lanes.

Parity with the Pakistan Air Force, and to a much larger extent China’s air force, will be a major preoccupation for the new chief in the face of dwindling aircraft numbers. While a recent report by India’s tri-service Integrated Defense Staff warned that IAF-PAF force parities were at an all-time low, Browne is more sanguine about the trend. He has previously noted that “the asymmetry between the capabilities of both air forces was a certain amount in the past. That has somewhat [been] reduced now. The PAF is going in for a fast-track induction of beyond visual range air-to-air missiles and precision-guided munitions. These are things that actually tend to reduce the gap. But they won’t catch us up.”