Maintaining that the Indian Air Force remains capable of tackling the “two-front threat”, Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari said on 5 October that the China air force (PLAAF) is “still deployed at three airbases” facing eastern Ladakh. He said “discussions are going on for disengagement” between the two countries, but the Chinese “infrastructure development is going on at a very high rate”.
Ahead of the Air Force Day, the new IAF chief, addressing his first press conference, said China’s forward deployment can change because of the development “but it will not make much of a difference for the air force”.
Asked about Pakistan and China developing airfields close to India’s borders, Chaudhari, referring to airfields in PoK or near the border with Afghanistan, said: “We don’t need to get much alarmed about it. Right now, they are small strips capable of taking on a few helicopters.” The airstrips near the Afghanistan border, he said, cater to that region.
On the development of airfields by the PLAAF in the Tibet Autonomous Region, Chaudhari said although “hardened aircraft shelters are being built”, China’s “capability to launch regular missions from high altitude airfields will remain a weak area for them”.
Asked about the possibility of air strikes on Pakistan or “punitive action” against China, he said he wouldn’t comment on national policy and that it is “a matter of national policy to decide what kind of action to take”. He said the IAF “will be prepared as a military arm of the nation to achieve whatever task is allotted to us”.
On the “collusion” between China and Pakistan, Chaudhari said “the only issue which concerns us is the dissemination of information on western tactics and western technology, which passes hands from Pakistan to China”.
“With respect to our two-front threat, it always remains a focus for us, and our capability building is dependent on the threat… we are capable, we are prepared in terms of training, in terms of equipment,” he said.
Asked when the IAF will have its sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons, based on the threat of a two-front war, Chaudhari said: “That is very tough to say. All I can say is, it won’t be done in the next 10 to 15 years.” The IAF, he said, will have 35 squadrons “till the next decade”.
He said the IAF is modernising “to ensure that we retain our technological edge over our adversaries”.
“Our emphasis would be on cyber warfare, mitigating cyber attacks and carrying out parallel cyber-attacks with kinetic warfare,” he said.
He said the IAF is purchasing 83 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk-1A Tejas, and hopes to acquire six-seven squadrons of the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), which is under design, and six squadrons of the Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) for which a Request for Information (RFI) for 114 fighter jets has been issued.
At the same time, he said, four squadrons of MiG-21, and other squadrons of Jaguars and MiG-29 aircraft, will be phased out over the next decade.
Chaudhari said that for MRFA, “one of the key features that we are seeking is the ability to integrate 5th and 6th gen capability”. The contract will be for Make in India, he said, but a decision is yet to be taken on a strategic partnership model or another route.
He said Rafale is one of the contenders for MRFA, and has responded to the RFI. “All I can say is we are very happy with the performance of the aircraft. I would not like to comment further whether that would be the main contender or not,” he said.
“We are fully committed towards acquiring the homegrown AMCA. The 114 MRFA… will have a whole lot of 5th gen tech,” adding that this will make the IAF’s capability “quite matched” with regard to China.
Chaudhari said the S-400 air defence system bought from Russia will be inducted this year, as per the contract.
Asked about predecessor Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria’s concerns on the proposed model of theatre commands, Chaudhari said: “Points which were articulated by my predecessor basically focused on the fact that the structures and processes have to cater to future warfare. That is the key element in the restructuring into theatres. The strengths of each service need to be taken into account and needs to synchronise (to enhance) the net combat capability of the nation.”
He said the “doctrines of each service need to be kept in mind while redesigning our structure. All these concerns have been taken into account and deliberations and discussions are on. And we are hopeful that the ultimate structure that will emerge will cater for joint planning for operations.”
Asked about Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat’s reference last year to the Air Force being a support arm, Chaudhari said: “There are various roles for every air force, and it is true to the Indian Air Force. And our capability and our training and our equipment, caters for executing multiple roles simultaneously.” He said it is “not possible” for any service “to be able to go singularly into any battle”.