Never mind Balakot, IAF is worse off than Pakistan Air Force on pilot strength

Compared to Pakistan Air Force’s 2.5 pilots per aircraft, the IAF is at a ratio of 1.5. The IAF also has issues with squadron strength and target practice

By Snehesh Alex Philip

The Indian Air Force (IAF) may have successfully conducted a daring air raid against terrorist camps in Pakistan’s Balakot in February, but when it comes to a key metric, the IAF doesn’t compare well with the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). Whether it is pilot to aircraft ratio, or target practice and an ever-depleting squadron strength, the situation is a matter of serious concern.

The IAF currently has a ratio of 1.5 pilots per aircraft as against 2.5 pilots per aircraft for the PAF, top sources in the defence establishment told The Print. Effectively, this implies that the PAF can carry out day and night operations more efficiently than the IAF in case of a full-scale war. The reason behind this is that aircraft can be made to carry out even six sorties a day, but the pilots have to deal with the limits of human endurance.

The IAF also depends a lot on simulation instead of preferred actual bombing practice. The all-important Western Air Command, which looks after the entire air space with Pakistan and parts of China, does not have a single firing range to drop larger calibre bombs. Not only this, the IAF does not have a single range to carry out high altitude bombing  a shocking fact given that India shares its borders with China at high altitudes, both in the north and the east.

Sanctioned strength

The IAF has a sanctioned fighter squadron strength of 42 and officer’s strength of about 12,500. Each squadron consists of 16-20 fighter aircraft. While the shortfall in terms of sanctioned officer’s strength is only at about 2 per cent every year on an average, it’s important to note that the sanction was given in the 1970s. “The sanctioned strength, which includes fighter pilots, has increased marginally all these years. The pilot strength cleared when India was flying the MiGs. Now we have about 270-odd Su30 MKI, which are twin seats, meaning more pilots are consumed,” said a source.

“Also, as against the sanctioned squadron strength of 42, the IAF currently has only 30, and hence the force has a pilot to aircraft ratio of 1.5. If the squadron strength increases, the ratio will come down,” said the source. The IAF is looking at increasing the pilot to aircraft ratio to about 2.2, said sources.

Gagan Shakti

Last year, the IAF carried out a massive all-air exercise, Gagan Shakti, spanning the entire length and breadth of the country, which saw months of planning. The aim behind the exercise was to put to test the IAF’s war strategy. In a bid to stretch and ensure maximum number of sorties, especially keeping day and night operations in mind along with a two-front war scenario, the IAF enlisted all serving and medically fit officers below the age of 48 for Gagan Shakti.

Usually, pilots after the rank of a Wing Commander don’t really fly their aircraft as they get tied down to more desk-oriented jobs. Despite enlisting such pilots, the pilot to aircraft ratio rose only to 2. “But this increase of 0.5 in ratio was a huge boost to flying operations as we were able to do record number of sorties and were also able to stretch the endurance level of aircraft to the maximum,” said a source said.

The exercise, held from 8-22 April 2018, saw over 11,000 sorties, including approximately 9,000 sorties by fighter aircraft. Over 1,400 officers and 14,000 men were pulled out of training establishments and deployed for the exercise, to augment existing resources.

Firing ranges

At present, the IAF fighter pilots practice their bomb-dropping skills on simulators because of the non-availability of firing ranges. “No matter how much simulation one might do, there is a huge difference between actual dropping of bombs from the aircraft to hit a target and the one fired from the joystick in front of a large computer,” a source said.

The main issue is with high altitude ranges. The IAF does not have high altitude ranges and the only one available  the Tosa Maidan range in Jammu and Kashmir  was taken over by the state government. “The IAF has asked the government for two high altitude ranges  one each in Ladakh area and in Arunachal Pradesh. The force is waiting for the decision since 2015,” a second source said.

The Western Air Command currently practices firing at the SK Range near Halwara in Punjab. However, heavy calibre bombs cannot be dropped there because of the size of the range. “The IAF had identified a place in Thukrana in Rajasthan for creating a range for heavy calibre. But the new Land Acquisition Bill increased the prices phenomenally and it became out of budget for the IAF,” said the second source.

The IAF has to depend on Pokhran range for heavy calibre practice. However, sources said it’s done on a bare need basis because it’s a logistics nightmare to bring in aircraft from across the country.

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