New Delhi: Three years short of its 80th birthday, the Indian Air Force stands at the crossroads. It has had a glorious run so far but with an ageing fleet and increasing security challenges in the neighbourhood and within the country, the Air Force has major tasks ahead of it.
Here's the full transcript of an interview with Air Chief Marshal PV Naik, the man in-charge of the Indian Air Force.
NDTV: What is your vision for the Air Force over the next one decade?
Air Chief Marshal PV Naik: Over the next one decade, the country's aspirations in my opinion are going to increase. My main task is to be able to meet the country's aspirations. The country's zone of influence, zone of interest is going to increase. My mission is to protect the country from any attacks through the medium of air and space. I should have the capability to ensure this. In 10 years from now, the rate at which our programmes are going, I definitely expect that the Air Force will be modern. The percentage of obsolete equipment and aircraft is going to reduce drastically, we will have a modern fleet, we will have modern technology, we will have modern radars and modern communications. We definitely will be net centric by the end of this decade. All this aim is to increase the response time and reduce sensor to fuder time. The challenge before us is to be able to train ourselves and equip ourselves to adopt this technology and operationalise it at the earliest and I see a very bright future for the Indian Air Force.
NDTV: You had used a very interesting term, see first and strike first. Can you explain that?
Air Chief Marshal PV Naik: In my opinion there are four pillars on which this capability build up stands. The first one is see.... see as in seeing with our eyes and radars and things like that. We should be able to see farthest and first, that involves satellites, radars, aerostats etc involves long range equipments remain operational. The second pillar is once you see something you must be able to reach it. So reach first and reach farthest. For that we need long range aircraft, air to air refueling. Their safety comes under this. After reaching what is required is where you need to hit. Missiles programme and weaponisation comes under this. The fourth part is protect, in which air defence comes in. Protect them in peace as well as in war. So these are the four pillars on which my capability development should be based.
NDTV: You are in the midst of a mammoth acquisition process at the moment and it is a slow process we know but it has been extremely slow if I may say, excruciatingly slow. How are you coping with the challenges of the shortfalls or the capability not being there in the short term and in the medium term?
Air Chief Marshal PV Naik: The acquisition process has to be transparent. It has to be very methodical. It takes time. From the time I sign a contract, as you are aware, the earliest delivery I expect of any equipment on an aircraft is 3 years. Awaiting these acquisitions, there are two ways that we need to go about in order to meet the security challenges of the present. The first is to increase the life span of the equipment that is already available. There is a very scientific process by which it is done for aircraft, for missile, for other equipment, radar, etc. The next way is to upgrade the existing equipment and the existing capabilities. Now we already have programmes which are going on in which upgrades like say MiG is planned, upgrade of helicopters is planned, the upgrade of AN 32 aircraft is planned. Now, besides these two things what we need to do is... we need to carry out regular reviews, assess the present situation and thereafter see what your plans are going to be. We may be required to reorganise, we may need to change our mindset in order to cope with these things till such time as the planned acquisitions fortify.
NDTV: In terms of numbers, can you assure the nation that the numbers are not as alarming as it is made out to be?
Air Chief Marshal PV Naik: Ours is not a small Air Force. After all, we have 30 squadrons of fighter aircraft alone. Our acquisition will be coming in a year or two years from now. Every country goes through this process. It's a passing phase I would say. There is nothing to be alarmed about. This is one thing I would definitely want to assure our citizens. Now when the old equipment becomes old, it needs to be phased out in a phased manner again if I can repeat myself. As far as that is concerned, the date is fixed. As far as the new equipment is concerned, there may be slippages, there may be other issues involved where there are delays in the acquisition of new equipments. So you have this passing phase. But let me assure you and the rest of the country that we are at the bottom of the curve right now but after this, it is only upwards.
NDTV: I asked you this because of your statement that we are one-third of China's fleet strength. That raised some concerns or let's say raised issues. What context did you say that in?
Air Chief Marshal PV Naik: See the entire press conference.. there was only one line which was played up by you and your friends. The strength of each and every Air Force is in the public domain. The numbers are published on the net, so anybody can draw its own conclusions. What I feel is instead of going and planning as to what your adversaries and what your challenges are doing, it is better to go capability based. Numbers alone don't mean much.. it is the employment of air power. It is your airspace doctrine. It is the positioning of the assets, it is the concentration of force and the capabilities you are developing during the course of time. This is what matters, not only numbers.
NDTV: What are our specific plans against China? Because that's our major concern in the last few months, if I can say so.
Air Chief Marshal PV Naik: It has been a major concern and I have been trying to address this particular issue. Our capabilities are not adversary specific. We are capability based. Let us say after planning and consideration at a very expert level we have decided that in five years we need these capabilities, ten years we need these or twenty years we need these, in order to meet the country's aspirations. As far as capabilities are concerned, we have decided that we need to upgrade the existing airfield infrastructure in the east, long overdue. It is not adversary specific and is long overdue. We should have done it earlier, now we are going ahead with that. We are going to strengthen the existing runways wherever required, strengthen the existing infrastructure in terms of the accommodation, in terms of blasts pens, in terms of many other things which are required for modern aircraft. It also follows that we are going to base modern aircraft there like the Su 30's (along the China border), that is also long over due. The eastern air command C-in-C keeps crying to me, "Give me Su 30's", so we have based the modern aircraft over there. The advanced landing grounds which are there have to upgrade them so that they can operate heavier and better transport aircraft and helicopters. There are LLLWR's i.e. Low Level Light Weight Radars, which have been planned for the eastern sector, there are mountain radars which have been planned for eastern and western both sectors. So all these things are to build up certain set of capabilities and these are in motion and of course won't happen overnight. It will take its own time.
NDTV: You have opened three small runways in Ladakh, which attracted lot of notice, both here and internationally. What was the purpose of those three advance landing grounds in Fukche, Nyoma and DBO?
Air Chief Marshal PV Naik: The latest was Nyoma, which is in the Indus valley. Then Fukche and DBO was the earliest. DBO is at around 16000 feet and Nyoma a little lower at 13000 feet. These assets have already been existing. Because of lack of technology and lack of experience we have not been using them as extensively as we are suppose to. So it's just a gradual progression in our plan that we are using it. The strength of our army have increased there, requirements have increased there, so they need more and more help from the air because the terrain over there is quite hostile. That is the main reason why we have re-activated these advanced landing grounds bases which have been existing since the 1940s.
NDTV: I come back to the numbers. You said there are pilots who have been waiting to exit from the Air Force. Do you face major shortage of pilots in the Indian Air Force, specially for fighter stream?
Air Chief Marshal PV Naik: As things improve, as economy improves, they might go. At present, there is a shortage, but it's nothing alarming. In future when our induction is increased, when the twin sitter aircraft becomes more and more like the SU 30's, we definitely will need more and more pilots in the future. Plans have already been existing and have been reactivated and energised. We have increased the infrastructure at our training institutes. Earlier we used to train 190 or 200 pilots every year, now we have increased it to 260. We have increased the intake of the QFI courses. As far as short service commission is concerned, it was open only to the ladies now it is opened to the men also. Fast track recruiting for short service that is also on the cards. These are the ways of increasing the intake so that when the crunch comes we are not found lacking.
NDTV: That brings me to the Air Force Academy trainer aircraft problem. What is the problem with HPT-32 aircraft and how are you going to overcome that? I believe that the fleet has been grounded there?
Air Chief Marshal PV Naik: The HPT32 was inducted in 1984. It would be phasing out in 2014 or something. For a long time the HPT 32 has been having engine problems. It's not the engine per se that's what we feel and its not the airframe per se. It is the integration of the airframe and engine per se. The main cause we feel is bubbling of fuel while its entering the engine. We had a last very sad accident where we lost two of my very senior instructors because of an engine cut. These engine cuts had been happening earlier... there were lot of modifications which were made and which took care of these engine cuts obviously for some time but that was not the answer apparently. So at the present moment we stopped flying the HPT 32. The Court of enquiry into that accident is already on but I have ordered a special study to be carried out by AVM Pradeep who is a very experienced pilot and a test pilot to decide whether we want to dispose of this aircraft or we would like to with some modifications and continue flying the aircraft till the end of its life and this time we want to involve the engine Original Equipment Manufacturer representative also. So we want to involve him in this and take his suggestions and we would like to use that as it has residual life but at the same time safety of my crew cannot be compromised. So that is where we are at the present moment
NDTV: Will it affect training then?
Air Chief Marshal PV Naik: It definitely will because its a large chunk. Initial training is a large chunk. So we have now switched to all jet training. It was practiced some time earlier also and has been a successful experiment but the number of our Kiran's is also limited so one to one-and-a-half year from now, we will be able to cope with at least 2 to 3 courses and carry out jet training on the Kiran aircraft which are flown by the Suryakirans. We have already activated a case for acquisition of more trainers and is a 'buy global' proposition. About 75 odd trainers we are going to go buy global and the remainder will be designed and developed by Hindustan Aeronautics. That is the plan for the long term and we hope that the reduction or shortfall will be made up because of this.
NDTV: Now that brings me to internal security threats. Everyone has acknowledged that the Naxalism threat in the heartland will be a major problem apart from the J&K and the Northeast and you have been increasingly employed for internal security threats and for rescue and relief. How do you see Air Force's role in internal security first and then come to rescue and rehabilitation?
Air Chief Marshal PV Naik: Army, Navy and Air Force, in my opinion should not be used for internal security at all. Our training is different. We train in lethal action. We train in destruction of an adversary across the border who is trying to encroach into India's sovereignty. In all the dramatic instances like action against terrorist and action against rebellious people, you will find that they will always be done outside the country. Nobody has taken action inside the country except for probably Swat. In your country, the issues are black and white, friend and foe. You don't know. There is chance of collateral damage when ever airpower is used. Now this we cannot afford to use against our own citizens. Therefore air force employment in terms of using weapons against say Naxals or whatever in my opinion is totally out. I do not think it should be done. But if the paramilitary forces whose main job this is are doing something and they need help in casuality evacuation or transferring forces from here to there, then air force is the only agency which is empowered to do it. If you try and hire civil helicopters etc you will not achieve the same results. So that's the job that we are doing casualty evacuation, troop transport etc. While doing this job during one of the evacuation sortie, one of my air warriors got killed because of hostile fire from the ground. What I have requested the Defence Ministry is to permit us to open fire to silence the fire that is coming on my helicopter. If somebody is firing at my helicopter, I should be able to silence that fire and it is under consideration in the MoD and will go to CCS. The decision will be taken only at the highest level. Conditions under which my aircrew is going to fire are very very stringent. There are set of rules of engagement or ROEs as it is called and these rules of engagement are very very stern. No excessive force, no collateral damage, positive assurance, positive identification and only then...
NDTV: What kind of weapons are you going to use then.. Small arms or they will be fitted to the helicopters?
Air Chief Marshal PV Naik: We will have guns inside the helicopters fitted to the helicopter. It will be fired by human beings not by the helicopters like we do in war... rockets and antitank things nothing like that. The man will see, identify and at the command of the captain he will fire.
NDTV: And will the helicopter be bullet proofed?
Air Chief Marshal PV Naik: We are not using light helicopters like Chetak, Cheetah. We are using helicopters with armour, the aircrew are also using body armour. We are doing practical manouvering to see that the routing and all are safe. Most important thing, which the state government has to do with the police forces is to sanitise the area in which the helicopters are going to land. Now sanitisation doesn't only mean the little helipad or advanced landing ground. It means from where enemy fire is likely to interfere with the rescue crew i.e. one-and-a-half to 2 km from the landing area. Only then we will be able to operate safely.
NDTV: That brings me to the talk about aerospace command. China has started using the space for military applications quite extensively. At what level are we in India and what is your view about aerospace command? I believe Air Force wanted to take a lead in having the command under its own organization.
Air Chief Marshal PV Naik: Use of aerospace has been very common. We got into this at a late stage although the ISRO is doing a very very good job. Aero space is required for communication. Aerospace is required to sensor, to shoot at time, for net centricity, for recee, for surveillance. More use of space has come in now. The requirement is in all three services. Navy requires in a different area, army probably in the similar area but for different purpose and air force definitely requires it. As far as air force is concerned we have been the lead service in development of space capabilities. We have already had a space cell over here for the last 5 to 6 years As far as the command is concerned, you are right. The idea was floated. I think at some stage or the other we need some organisation where space capabilities will be canalized. It may be a joint organization...we have no hassels with that but we are sure that air force will be the lead service since we are already a couple of steps ahead.
NDTV: It would be like a tri-service command?
Air Chief Marshal PV Naik: Probably. The proposal hasn't fructified into that as yet, but probably.
NDTV: Air Force has expeditionary capabilities. How are you looking at that? You might have an out of area contingency requirement in coming years as we grow, how are you equipping yourself with that kind of capabilities?
Air Chief Marshal PV Naik: Our PM said some years ago that India's interest has grown from Hormuz to Malacca. I would not like to call it expeditionary capabilities but strategic reach to meet the country's aspiration. I would definitely want that for which we need long range aircraft, we need air-to-air refullers, we need to ensure that we can reach there. The UN missions are probably going to increase so we need to take our people there, bring them back, which we do by chartering aircraft at the present moment. If Air Force had that capability, we could do that too. So projection of power over large distances in keeping with the country's aspirations is something we are definitely looking at. We need very heavy transport aircraft the v hi-tech variety of the C-17 class. We need heavy transport of the 50-60 tonne class, we need long range communication. I still wouldn't call it expeditionary force. We may need to transfer troops from north to south for some reason, from east to west or west to east. So all these capabilities we need to develop and we are looking at the aircraft to increase there strength as far as air force inventory is concerned.