Friday, October 2, 2009

Pilots and planes: IAF badly needs both

IAF chief Air Chief Marshal P V Naik did not say it in so many words but his frustration was obvious in his statement that the present strength of the country’s air force is inadequate. It is so short in terms of both planes and pilots that leave alone matching up with China – whose air force is about thrice as big as ours – it will have to inch past even Pakistan on the courage and skill of its magnificent airmen rather than the material strength. There has been a steady decline over the years. The IAF’s number of squadrons had fallen to an alarming 31.5 in 2006. The fleet strength increased to about 33.5 squadrons after the induction of British advanced jet trainers “Hawk” in 2008. Even that is inadequate considering that the sanctioned squadron strength is 39.5. Its intended purchase of 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) is grossly delayed and the flight trials started in Bangalore only on August 17 this year. The Rs 42,000-crore induction will start in 2015 and is expected to increase the squadron strength to 42.5 by 2022.

Many of the planes it has today are aged and unsuitable for being in the service of the world’s fourth largest air force. For instance, MiG-21, which is the mainstay of the IAF, was first developed half a century ago, and barely exudes any confidence. Working on depleted strength not only compromises the country’s security but also tells on the morale of the force.

Even worse is the shortage of manpower. The IAF is short of as many as 1,400 officers. Things are no better in the Indian Army and the Navy, which are short of 11,387 and 1,512 officers, respectively. Obviously, the profession is no longer attractive for the youth. How can it be when there are no avenues of promotion even after 24 or 25 years of service? That is why over 100 pilots of the IAF have applied for voluntary retirement. There is need to take a hard look at their grievances. A country which aims to become a major power of the 21st century needs to have forces in reserve, rather than battling with shortages.

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