The Indian Air Force (IAF)’s sustained multiple roles in 2021 given the operational challenges faced by the Indian Armed Forces with activation of the two fronts – Pakistan and China. Response to a sub-conventional threat was also on the horizon, thus the Air Chiefs – two during the year – Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria and Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari focused on maintaining high level of readiness of the combat as well as logistics flying assets of the IAF through the year.

Operating on a deficiency of one third in terms of combat fighter resources, flexibility and resource optimization was the focus even as the permanent task of supporting the Indian Army in forward posts and picquets across the Northern Borders of the country continued. Integration – physical, digital and cognitive exploitation of the high level of motivation of human resources facilitated management of diverse challenges faced by the IAF in 2021.

Induction and integration of new platforms such as the Rafale with two squadrons now almost on the operational horizon, absorption of new technologies and maintaining high serviceability of assets required continued emphasis. The S 400 air and missile defence system has been deployed in the Western sector in 2021, full operationalization of the system is envisaged in 2022 and the years ahead with a five battery shield mainly on the Northern frontiers.

In one of the most decapacitating accidents during the year, Indian armed forces lost the Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat in a MiG 17 V 5 helicopter crash on December 8, which was attributed to controlled flight into terrain phenomenon. Safety record of the IAF MiG 21 fleet also came up for deliberation.

In the coming year(s), the IAF will be focusing on ensuring full-spectrum combat readiness through a high level of integration and serviceability of assets with a view to carryout the given role with the Two Front threat continuing to loom large.

In the organizational domain, adjusting to the theatre commands that have been proposed to be implemented may create a challenge, at the same time, how the strategic role will be conducted in an environment where control of assets are distributed will have to be worked out.

The IAF is preparing to induct apart from the last few Rafale a number of Tejas LCA Mark 1 while supporting the DRDO and manufacturing agency the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd projects such as LCA Mark 1A, Advance Medium Combat Aircraft – the stealth version which is due for preliminary design confirmation, transport assets such as C 295 Airbus which has been approved for joint production with Tata Aerospace.

A decision on the MMRCA 2.0 or 114 fighters with a number of foreign companies in the fray will also have to be made the Request for Information (RFI) having been submitted in 2021. In the Airborne Early Warning (AEW) taking forward integration of the DRDO developed Netra with six Air India Boeing will be in the offing in the preliminary stages. The HTT 40 trainer trials and formalization will also be in the offing The IAF will also be looking a integration of a number of weapon systems such as the BrahMos cruise missile with Su 30 MKI.

Indigenization may impact some of the acquisition programmes such as the light utility helicopters with preference for the HAL manufactured light utility helicopter. In the larger perspective obtaining an ideal mix between manned and unmanned systems, use of artificial intelligence, machine learning and 5 G technologies will need consideration downstreaming these in processes and practices from conceptual application.

Will these technologies redefine the principles of air war, will the infusion of a large number of unmanned systems fundamentally alter the ratio with manned flights are some of the questions that the IAF will have to ponder over in 2022 and beyond even as the force will remain deployed operationally and for logistics support. Modernisation and transformation under operational conditions will remain a foremost challenge.