Indian Air Force: The shackled aviators

Last Updated: Fri, Mar 01, 2019 11:31 hrs
Rafale Fighter Jet (AP photo)

26th Feb 2019: Indians woke up to the news of Indian Air Force having attacked the training camps of Jaish-e-Mohammed in Balakot, Muzaffarabad and Chakoti. Based on intelligence inputs received and plans prepared, Indian Air Force (IAF) Mirage 2000 fighter jets crossed the LoC and dropped six bombs at the JeM camps. It is estimated that at least 300 terrorists including Jaish chief Masood Azhar’s brother in law Yousuf Azhar have been killed in this strike. There was no casualty among the Indian forces.

In line with India’s ethos of being a peaceful nation, one that does not attack unprovoked, intelligence and technology were deployed to ensure that only terrorist camps were attacked. There was no damage to any military installation or civilian areas. This was also reiterated by Ms. Sushma Swaraj, Minister of External Affairs, at the 16th Russia-India-China meet when she said that, "In the light of continuing refusal of Pakistan to acknowledge and act against terror groups on its territory, and based on credible information that JeM was planning other attacks in parts of India, the Government of India decided to take pre-emptive action and the target was selected in order to avoid civilian casualties…India does not wish to see further escalation of the situation. India will continue to act with responsibility and restraint." 

Responsibility and restraint – two words that were a core part of Ms. Swaraj’s statement and indeed, sum up the current dispensation’s approach to its foreign policy. This is a very pragmatic approach given the hostile neighbourhood that India has. This hostility is not new and is not likely to go away any time soon. After all, how does one make peace with a neighbour whose raison d étre is being anti-you?

Given the spontaneous celebrations that erupted across the country on 26th Feb 2019, it was obvious that most of us took pride in the fact that our IAF have been able to decimate the JeM camps. We cannot bring the Pulwama martyrs back, but IAF did ensure that their sacrifice was not in vain. In a nation that is often divided by religion, caste, sub-caste, language…here was a rare display of solidarity. The entire nation erupted in cheers of victory, lauding the bravery of the nameless, faceless fighter pilots who risked their lives in this daring mission. People also appreciated the strategic planning by the senior Defence personnel, the work done by the intelligence agencies, the flawless coordination and execution, and the decisive leadership of Narendra Modi.

But the heroes of the moment are clearly the pilots of the Indian Air Force. This includes the fighter pilots of the Mirage 2000, the ones at the helm of Sukhoi 30 jets, IL76 and AWACS – all of whom were part of the Surgical Strike 2.0. The IAF heroes include test pilots like Squadron Leader Abrol and Squadron Leader Negi who died while testing a Mirage 2000 at HAL. The heroes include the pilots who intercepted the Pakistan F16 fighter planes when they intruded into the Indian air space on Feb 27th.

While all the facts of the Feb 27th dogfight are not known, what is obvious is that our neighbouring state – a far smaller state – has far superior machines. We expect our young, our best and our brave to fight a war or a proxy war in poorly maintained obsolete machines that have been certified to be ‘’fly worthy” by an inefficient public sector undertaking – without any sense of responsibility and accountability.

As per Maj. Gen. Mrinal Suman, India’s foremost defence procurement expert, “All militaries in the world seek the best equipment they can afford. But even the richest countries cannot afford to have an inventory full of the latest and best. Rather, militaries always seek to maintain a well-balanced equipment profile. Perhaps, a mix of 30 per cent modern, 40 per cent matured and 30 per cent obsolescent equipment. Disconcertingly, in our case, as much as 85 per cent of the equipment with the Indian military today is decades-old and need to be replaced/upgraded. Yet, due to several impediments — including corruption in military procurement and attempts to curb it by blacklisting arms manufacturers — the pace of modernisation has been lagging by more than 10 years.”

Despite all Defence experts, including veterans crying out loudly about the need for modernization, nothing much was done till a few years back. The tenders for the fighter jets were floated in 2007, and yet in 2019 – a brave young pilot was taken in Pakistan custody because he was engaged in an unequal dogfight – him in his MiG 21 Bison, vs. the enemy in F16. The F-16 is universally acknowledged as being a more agile fighter than the MiG 21. It has an edge in engine power, situation awareness and range – making it far more suited to a close dog fight. It is a testimony to the training that the IAF imparts, the discipline and the determination of the pilot that despite flying a MiG 21, he could take on a significantly superior flying machine (F16).

Who is to blame for the fact that we send out our pilots to fight a war in these ‘flying coffins’? Let us also be cognizant of the fact that when it is announced that the MiGs have been upgraded, often it is with parts and fitments from other ageing planes. A MiG 21 (outfitted/ upgraded/ certified by HAL…all of this is semantics) is simply no match for a F-16.

The blame must lie with our politico-bureaucracy nexus which refused or derailed any Defence modernization proposal – either because they did not get their share of the spoils, or because inaction is often easier than action. Ask any senior Defence personnel and they will have horror stories to share of how they and their men operate in the valley, along the LoC, in counter insurgency (CI) operations…with the brave spirits, high ‘josh’, strong patriotism and outdated equipment. The IAF needs modern fighter planes – and it needs them NOW!

The Rafale deal was a much needed one for India. Unlike the previous Governments, the Modi Government took bold steps to finalise a deal and induct the fleet into the IAF. But Rahul Gandhi made the Rafale deal into a political matter. Ideally Defence matters should be kept outside of politics – that is a hallmark of a mature nation-loving leader. But possibly Rahul Gandhi is neither mature nor nation loving. General elections will be happening soon, and Modi government has been marked by the absence of scams. So, obviously Rahul Gandhi needs to create an issue and a Defence deal is a good one – given the complexity of the deal, it is easy to obfuscate facts and figures and insinuate wrong doing. Sections of the media have also done damage by choosing to selectively highlight facts about Rafale – either through ignorance or through wilfulness (in which case, it could be a case of being anti-national). However, the CAG report has clearly indicated that the deal is above board and in fact the deal negotiated is far more favourable than what UPA was discussing. The matter should have rested here.

But, the matter doesn’t rest here. Despite all rules and processes being followed, disgruntled people have filed a PIL in the Supreme Court against it. I would like to question Mr. Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie, Prashant Bhushan (all eminent people, well read and well respected)- that what did they get by filing the PIL?

Does it make them feel good to know that one of our pilots is in Pakistani custody now, because we expected him to fight our war in an outdated machine? As politicians, one expects them to score brownie points and exploit issues to settle a perceived slight (not getting a cabinet ministry, maybe?) But political games should not and must not be played at the cost of national security and lives of the people responsible for keeping us safe.

‘Responsibility and restrain’- the words Ms. Swaraj spoke today at the RIC never rang truer. If only our politicians had some responsibility and exercised some restraint on where they will play their petty games…our #lost pilots would have been alive today, one of ours would not have been in enemy custody today. Is it too much to expect that when we send our people to fight our wars, we also send them equipped with the best? Are we not to blame that we sent out pilots- men who are sons, husbands, brothers, fathers, friends – in outdated machines and expect them to fight with the latest equipment?

Rahul Gandhi, Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie, Prashant Bhushan – do you feel responsible now for derailing a much-needed purchase? Does the fact of an officer being taken PoW rest on your conscience or is it of no consequence to you?

Aditi Kumaria Hingu is a marketing graduate from IIM Calcutta. Currently she works in the corporate sector. She comes from an army background.

Note: The views expressed in the article are of the author's and not of Sify.com.

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