`We are a totally offensive force'

Print edition : August 01, 2003

Interview with Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy.

The cutting edge of any modern-day fighting force is its air force. A powerful air force is the force multiplier that can obliterate the enemy's air defence and make it easier for ground troops to advance. This is true of the Indian Air Force, especially in the changing geo-political situation. The 170,000-personnel-strong IAF hopes to equip its frontline aircraft with fly-by-wire controls, stealth qualities and third-generation fire-and-forget missiles. Against this background, the crash of MiG fighters at regular intervals has given rise to serious concerns.

However, Air Chief Marshal Srinivaspuram Krishnaswamy, the 19th Chief of the Air Staff, dismisses the impression that the MiG will soon have to be grounded. He says: "They will fly to their full technical lives". Excerpts from an interview he gave Ravi Sharma at the Air Force Base at Tambaram near Chennai.

You have been talking of openness. What prompted this?

Over the years the colonial style of management has led to a stereotyping of the Air Force's image. The public wants to know about the military. Everything does not have to be qualified as classified. We are also tired of the stereotype description of MiG-21 as a flying coffin and the criticism that the IAF lacks this or that.

The IAF may have solved the pay problems that plagued it a few years ago, but non-flyers, especially engineers, are far from happy.

I don't think so. While there is standard flying pay for flyers, we have special allowances for qualified engineers, and diploma/technical allowances for the men (non-officer cadres). The government has been very positive and we have made changes.

Even among flyers, fighter pilots head almost all the key commands. Is this not inequitable?

This is not true. The training command is headed by a transport pilot. There are other commands which can be managed by transport pilots. The equations are clearly spelled out. For example, the Central and Eastern Air Commands could be headed by a transport pilot and the Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO) could then be a fighter pilot, depending on the situation. The SASO of Eastern Air Command is a transport pilot. If flyers are executives, then they have a job content that is related to taking decisions for the conduct of military operations.

A fighter pilot climbs into the cockpit of a MiG-21 fighter at a strategic airfield near the China border on May 26.-AFP

The Air Force is very different from the Army. The Army is very large and the respective commanders-in-chief head independent bodies. They have an area that is well zoned and they fight as a composite element. The Air Force is homogeneous. The Mirage aircraft are based in the Central Air Command, but you may see them flying in the skies of the South Western Air Command. We move thousands of kilometres in less than an hour. We need that flexibility and adaptability and switching of forces as we did recently (during Operation Parakram). Yet operations are centrally planned, and I, as the administrative head, am also the operational head. Every plan, every methodology in all commands, requires my operational approval. When a war breaks out, the Chief of the Air Staff delegates work but controls the macro plan.

You have spoken of the IAF progressing from air to aerospace.

Military operations are happening, so decision-making and information must travel in real time. The IAF is thinking in terms of uplinking from ground to air and onto a platform that is travelling, making use of real-time applications using aerospace technologies. During the recent conflict in Iraq, the picture of an air strike was relayed to the commander in real time, so that he could take decisions. Unlike the United States we don't have global projections, but we still have to transit thousands of kilometres. We have air-to-air refuelling (facilities) now and my aircraft are getting operational (currently Jaguars and Su-30s; and Mirage 2000s will follow). This will give the IAF the flexibility of long distance and long duration operations. Pilots transit long distances and may suddenly enter a heavily defended zone; they must be informed in real time of the changing situation. Therefore the Air Force must necessarily take advantage of aerospace technology.

Is the Phalcon Airborne Early Warning Command and Control System being acquired from Israel to fulfil this need?

The Phalcon is to control operations in real time. It may or may not have a space link, though ideally it should. An Airborne Early Warning and Control System must eventually become (part of) aerospace technology; otherwise you are wasting its potential.

Is not the IAF's operational ethos more defence-oriented?

That's not true. The IAF is more strike-oriented. Look at our inventory: MiG-23s, MiG-27s, Jaguars, all strike aircraft. Mirage 2000 is a multi-role aircraft. So is the Su-30MKI, which can carry 8 tonnes of weapons load. MiG-21 (Bison) is again multi-role; it can drop PGM (precision-guided munition) and has precision attack capabilities. MiG-21(Bis), although we are using it for air defence, is a short-role, multi-role aircraft. Even during the Kargil operations we performed a role that was more strike than air defence. The IAF has pure air defence aircraft like MiG-29s, pure strike aircraft and ones with multi-role.

But is the orientation towards air defence and close air support and not offensive warfare?

Besides our inventory, our posture should make it obvious that our orientation is definitely to strike. We believe that defence does not win the war. We are a totally offensive air force. If the IAF is built around defence, it is a total waste of tax-payers' money.

It is because of the emphasis on multi-role aircraft that the IAF is pushing for upgradation of its MiG-29 fleet?

No. The upgradation is planned for obsolescent sub-systems and necessarily for enhancing the MiG-29's role. But we are examining the idea of enhancing its role. My priority is to upgrade the MiG-29's air defence capabilities.

Is it true that the power plant (R-29) of MiG-23s and MiG-27s (the mainstay of India's ground attack fleet) has been having problems?

We had some difficulties but it is now behind us. After the Soviet Union collapsed, some Russian industries restarted, others went off. We then worked out a licence production arrangement. In the meanwhile, we started making several parts of the engine in India itself. And some parts we have even changed relative to what was being produced 30 years ago using more modern machines.

But is it not a fact that the former Soviet Union constituents like Russia and Belarus are no longer using the R-29 engine?

Yes, they have practically grounded their inventory of MiG-23 and MiG-27. But this was because of international agreements on the limitation of conventional forces in Europe.

China is reportedly acquiring over 300 fighter aircraft of Su-30 variants. Does it make you nervous?

Our Su-30 MKI is equally good, if not better than the Chinese Su-30 MKK. It does not make us nervous. We are not in any race. We have our own national needs and we will restrict it to that. The 140 Su-30 MKIs that we are going to produce is for our own requirement.

So, in effect, the perception of threat from China has disappeared?

It is not that. I don't think we are being threatened by anybody. The way we project it is from the point of view of our national security. We consider all the possibilities of what could happen in, say, five, ten years. It is not necessary that there should be a war or a threat. The military (projection) is one part of our foreign policy. It gives us the credibility and strength to exercise our national policy and national will. It is not necessary to be aggressive. What we are saying is, `Look we have a posture and the capability, but we will limit it to that. But please don't disturb our peace, if you do, you have to face the consequences'.

Most of our fighter squadrons are located in the Western or Northern Air Commands, closer to Pakistan. Is it from that side that you see a threat?

North, east, south, it all depends on today's situation. We (IAF) are moving all the time.

We had deployed the fighters during Operation Parakram. We can switch in hours - that is the uniqueness of the Air Force. The Air Force has integrated all commands and resources, which move very fast and that is how it should be. We can't afford to lock up forces, and neither is it necessary.

Has not the want of spares for our Russian manufactured inventory, especially MiGs, posed a problem?

After the Soviet Union broke up we had some problems, but we have by and large gotten over it. We are now systematically planning (acquisitions of spares) and it is relatively okay. We have to keep contracting vendors.

But vendors may not have obsolescent spares. Would the IAF cannibalise spares?

Not cannibalising. We ask for spares and vendors keep producing them. But the order has to be viable for the vendor to produce. A majority of MiG spares have been indigenised and produced by HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) at Nashik or Koraput.

The Type 77 variant or the MiG-21 (FL) is being phased out?

Yes, we will start phasing out sometime this year the ones that have completed 35 to 37 years of airframe life.

Crashes, especially of MiG fighters have in recent years hogged the headlines. There has been a problem with the rotary slide valve of the R-11, R-13 and R-25 engines that power the various versions of MiG-21s.

After a MiG-21(Bis) aircraft suffered an engine flameout at Jalandhar in May 2002 a joint analysis by the Russians, the IAF and HAL was done. The question was why did the engine flame out. There could have been some sort of fuel starvation. We analysised all the different possibilities. Assuming that the fuel was contaminated, we started conducting sample checks from the fuel suppliers, the bulk storage areas, the trucks that transport the fuel, right up to the bowzer and the aircraft. By and large they are all under control, but we can take extra precaution like the type of filters that we use. We now believe that the IAF is capable of managing the quality of fuel up to one micron, 10 to 15 times cleaner than what is accepted for civil aircraft.

We believe that we have minimised the cause of technical failures. Not all technical defects are a flameout and not every technical defect leads to a crash and threatens the pilot's life. It could be an ejection but not death. We have had technical failures like a pipeline rupturing or hydraulic failure, but the pilot just comes in and lands. An accident could also be caused by wrong emergency action of the pilot during a technical failure.

The upgradation programme for MiG-21(Bis) mainly involves new avionics suites, but the aircraft will still be flying with the old R-25 engine. Was it a wise decision to upgrade?

The world over MiG-21(Bis) flies with the R-25. New engines are being produced in India. The R-25 engine has a life of 1,200 hours. But the MiG-21 airframe has a 3,500-hour life, so in its life-cycle it will use three engines. It does not matter what vintage the engine is as long as it is technically sound. However, the engines have a lot of rotorables, with each part having its own life-cycle. So I have to down the engine and change the part. In effect, you are injecting maintainability criteria that do not affect me in terms of reliability but they change my down time cycles.

It is felt that public sector undertakings like HAL are not conscious about maintaining high standards.

I'll be wrong in saying that the PSUs are not quality conscious. It will be short-sighted to blame only them for technical errors. In aviation we have to work as a team. I've got my pilots flying every day so I better get on to that net and sort it out. All I want is for the airplane to fly straight.

You have been quoted as saying that the IAF's accident rate is better than that of the US Air Force's (USAF).

I gave an absolute number term. A pilot taking off in a MiG-21 has a 99.983 per cent chance of landing back safely. In the numbers game a person flying in a Boeing aircraft is just as safe as a MiG-21 pilot. But the MiG-21 pilot flies twice a day, 20 times a month, so obviously he is at greater risk. In 2001-02 the USAF had 35 crashes and lost 22 pilots and crew, during the same period we had 21 crashes with eight fatalities. Their number of accidents are far higher and they lose more pilots in accidents than us.

Is it not because they fly much more than us? And our Category-I (when the aircraft is a total write-off) is probably ten times theirs?

They fly far more, so their rate is lower. If I compare in absolute number terms how many guys of ours (versus) how many American pilots and crew are killed, ours is far less. In order not to cause alarm the Americans say that out of 100,000 flying hours they lost 0.1 guy. If that yardstick is used, the IAF is worse off. The efficiency of an air operation is measured by the number of hours that you fly. From that point of view we are not as efficient as the USAF.

Why?

You have to look at aviation in totality. Look at the human resource, skill, air traffic management and equipment that the Americans have. Everything on board the aircraft, except for the pilot's pulse, is monitored on the ground. If the operating environment factor for avionics in the U.S. is at one micron, we are at 100 microns. Our air-mindedness is far poorer than in the West. We lost an aircraft in Bagdogra. The pilot took off in the morning, within half an hour he was engulfed in clouds - thanks to the cyclone in Bangladesh - he tried to come down but crashed. It was a MiG-21 but it crashed in bad weather. We have lost four MiG-21s in environment-related crashes. Such accidents on the U.S. mainland are practically impossible. I'm not running aviation as efficiently as the Americans or the Europeans, but I must not hide my human-related or management-related deficiencies.

You spoke of scope for improvement in maintenance. What about training?

We are making some major changes in our training; the syllabi have been changed. Within available resources we are trying to train and operate better. Our basic training at the Academy is reasonably good. What matters is the middle level and it is here that we are planning significant changes. The strength of a squadron is the middle-level pilots - flight lieutenants. We need to strengthen and empower them, control their movements, courses and postings. We need to freeze people so that there is better continuity. Because of Operation Parakram we had to switch a lot of pilots, we are now gradually getting back to optimising from this point.

How does the Air Force maintain operational readiness?

Basically there are squadrons, machines, weapons, sensors, pilots, engineers, skills - all put together in readiness.

And what is the time that is specified to scramble?

I can't speak of the time. We have short-term, medium-term readiness. Some units are dedicated to that readiness. The challenge is not so much how safely we can fly or train. The challenge is that I must maintain a set of readiness, operational standards and credibility, while at the same time I meet all my training requirements within the resources that we have to operate in.

The IAF has not been spending its entire budgetary allocation. For example, the Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) deal has been pending for over 15 years.

Yes, on the AJT itself, some `X' number of crores has not been spent. As a philosophy what you are saying is right, but that does not mean that we can go around throwing money if certain procedures are not ready. You have to spend the money but sensibly and within the proper procedures. The AJT deal has gone through so many complexities because of the procurement processing. The yardstick is the processing element. We are using laws and regulations to jack up the system, not allowing the system to progress.

Some of your predecessors have spoken of the AJT being a panacea for MiG crashes.

That is overcooking it. It does not mean that if an AJT comes we won't have crashes.

What are the new acquisitions being planned? Is the Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) only a utility vehicle?

We have already got mid-air tankers. We are also getting some Mirage 2000s. The ALH will go through its own evolution. We had placed orders for 50 to 60 ALHs. Half of them have been delivered, but we are yet to decide whether they will be stationed in Leh or Srinagar.

What about a combat version of the ALH?

I hope it will come. I have asked the Ministry of Defence to consider its production.

Will the new Mirages be part of the Strategic Forces Command?

They will be part of my standard Mirage squadrons.

The indigenously produced Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), which is to replace MiG-21s, is currently just a platform. Induction into the IAF's inventory will not be before 2008. What aircraft do you see India acquiring in the interim?

All that I can say is that we need an aircraft.

Is it true that the IAF has insisted that the planned Nuclear Command should be under its command?

Nothing like that. Anybody can have it. The structure is such that all the three services have a role.

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