Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar, AVSM, VM and Bar, is the Deputy Chief of Air Staff (DCAS) of the Indian Air Force (IAF). He is a veteran of Operation Safed Sagar, the air operations campaign conducted by the IAF to support the Indian Army during the Kargil Conflict, and was decorated with the Vayu Sena Medal for gallantry. An ace test pilot, Air Marshal (AM) Nambiar has quite literally been integral to the LCA-Tejas programme from development to induction. With the 87th Indian Air Force Day round the corner, AM Nambiar spoke to Delhi Defence Review’s Chandrashekhar Bhattacharyya (CB) on a range of issues, from the experience of Safed Sagar to the progress made on indigenization.
CB: The 1999 Kargil Conflict was a unique opportunity for the Indian Air Force (IAF), where it was deployed for over two months in an offensive air campaign. Could you share with us the manner in which Operation Safed Sagar unfolded?
AM Nambiar: Op Safed Sagar was indeed a unique and potent demonstration of air projection by the IAF. Initially, the IAF was just asked to fly a few helicopter missions in the area of operations, but as the scale of the intrusion became clear, offensive action through fighter aircraft became a necessity. By 25 May 1999, full scale mobilisation through our transport fleet was initiated and additional fighters were deployed in theatre for the conduct of air operations. Offensive action was initiated in 26 May 1999 and air operations of 47 days culminated in 11 July 1999.
CB: The IAF suffered a few loses during the beginning of the Air Operations. It lost one MiG 27, one MiG 21, and a Mi 17 helicopter modified for an attack role. What were the measures taken to avoid such incidents during the remainder of Operation Safed Sagar?
AM Nambiar: The high ridges provided the enemy vantage points not only for ground operations but also with respect to our air operations. After the initial losses, we reviewed and immediately implemented many innovative measures to deal with the situation. All aircraft, be it fighters or helicopters, were equipped with Infra-Red Counter Measures. We also raised the attack heights for the fighter aircraft to keep them out of the envelope of shoulder-fired weapons (MANPADS). Helicopter missions were also dovetailed with fighter missions to provide them added safety.
CB: Please do tell us about the many firsts of the IAF during Safed Sagar.
AM Nambiar: Each and every war or conflict is unique and brings out many lessons. The primary distinguishing feature of Op Safed Sagar was the Altitude of the operations area. Many ridges were higher than 15000 feet and the enemy could easily conceal their location due to natural camouflage offered by snow and rocks. The attack patterns were constrained due to SAM threat and high altitude. The Line of Control was not to be crossed and the IAF had to constantly innovate to deliver weapons onto the target. Once the attack heights were raised, the IAF resorted to ‘GPS’ aided bombing which was conceived and executed during the conflict itself. Another major ‘first’ was the precision attacks through laser guided bombs (LGB) utilizing Litening pods. All of the above resulted in our successful engagement of targets in Muntho Dhalo, Tololing and Tiger Hill.Our night attacks succeed in putting high psychological pressure on the enemy thereby leading to a loss of morale in their camps.
CB: It has been 19 years since Kargil and Operation Safed Sagar. The IAF has gone through many changes down the years, in terms of capability and capacity. Kindly highlight some of key achievements in terms of capability augmentation made by the IAF during this period of transition?
AM Nambiar: Air Power is technology intensive and the IAF has therefore continued on its path of modernisation, especially in the last decade. A major highlight has been the support and growth which the IAF has provided for indigenisation and ‘Make in India’. Fighter aircraft like the Mirage-2000, MiG-29, and the Jaguar are being upgraded with contemporary technologies and advanced precision weapons. The indigenous Light Combat Aircraft ‘Tejas’ has been inducted into the IAF and deliveries of the ‘hi-tech’ Rafale will take place next year. Our transport fleet has witnessed enhanced reach and capabilities with the induction of the C-17 Globemaster and C-130 Hercules.
The helicopter fleet too has been strengthened with the latest Mi-17 V5 and the indigenous ALH Weapons System Integrated (WSI) variant. The induction of Chinook Heavy Lift Helicopters and Apache Attack Helicopters in 2019 will further augment the fleet’s capability and capacity. The IAF has also significantly enhanced operations by inducting combat support elements like the Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) and Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA).
We have inducted the DRDO Netra Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C ) aircarft and will provide full support to DRDO’s AWACS (India) project. Several potent Surface to Air Guided Weapon (SAGW) systems like the indigenous Akash and Spyder have been inducted and operationalized. In the near future, the Indo-Israeli Medium Range Surface to Air Missile (MRSAM) system will also be operationalized. The S-400 procurement too is in an advanced stage of negotiations. Our radar network has grown over the years, supplemented by the indigenous ‘Arudhra’ and ‘Ashwini’ Radars. The IAF has also achieved a high degree of success in the field of Network Enabled Operations, which will remain a focus area for the future as well.
CB: Flight Safety is of utmost importance to any Air Force, yet there have been many unfortunate incidents in the past few years. What are some of the important measures being put in place to avoid such accidents?
AM Nambiar: The world over, fighter flying is a dangerous profession. Contrary to common perception, the ‘accident rate’ in the IAF has decreased considerably in the last two decades. This has been made possible due to a concerted effort by all stakeholders to enhance the Aerospace Safety culture and structures within the organisation. A pool of officers with specialist training on accident investigation is being maintained at Air Headquarters and ‘Cat-I’ (Category 1) accidents are being investigated by them.
A database of all accidents and incidents in IAF has been created. An Accident Prevention Strategy for each base is being worked out by studying the trend of accidents/incidents specific to the fleet and place.
Today, simulators are an integral part of aircrew training and are a mandatory procurement to accompany all new aircraft inductions. Every aircraft accident in the IAF is followed by an investigation by a Court of Inquiry and the subsequent institution of remedial measures based on the recommendations of the same.
CB: The IAF recently conducted Exercise Gagan Shakti, a pan-India air exercise, where the entire force was activated for multi-theatre, multi spectrum operations. What are some of the key takeaways from Ex Gagan Shakti?
AM Nambiar: The aim of Ex Gagan Shakti 2018 was real time coordination, deployment and employment of air power in a short and intense battle scenario. The exercise provided the IAF with an excellent opportunity to practice its war time drills and undertake operations in a near real scenario. The exercise also enabled the IAF to validate the operational efficacy of new platforms and refine existing standard operating procedures (SOPs).
A major highlight was the sortie generation rate along with sustenance of high serviceability though the operations. Quick redeployment of forces across theatres was also validated. Joint operations with the Army and the Navy conducted during the exercise, will help in achieving better op synergy between the three Services in the application of combat power.
CB: The IAF is in the middle of inducting a plethora of new air assets, and you have personally been a key stakeholder in the Light Combat Aircraft Tejas programme. Please share your thoughts and experiences about this centerpiece indigenous project.
AM Nambiar: The commissioning of the first Squadron of LCA Tejas in July 2016 marks a major leap towards indigenous capability building. We expect the squadron to be fully equipped by March 2019, followed by delivery of the Tejas in the Final operational Clearance configuration and subsequently the Tejas Mk 1A. The Mk 1A, apart from addressing obsolescence issues and maintainability improvements, will have additional capabilities such as an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, better beyond visual range (BVR) interception performance, air to air refuelling (AAR) capability, a pod mounted electronic warfare (EW) suite and superior avionics. Future inductions will include the Tejas Mk II, which is expected to form the bulk of the Air Force in the years to come, as the IAF proposes to replace its Mirage-2000, MiG- 29 and Jaguar (fleet) with this aircraft.
CB: The IAF has been plagued by delays in the induction of newer aircraft and equipment for a while now. What is being done to ensure the IAF is adequately prepared to meet the future challenges?
AM Nambiar: The IAF is following a ‘capability based’ modernisation plan. Several key procurements which have materialised in the recent past have significantly enhanced the IAF’s combat potential. Draw down of fighter squadrons is one area which is being given utmost priority. The IAF, as the guardian of the Indian skie, is the first responder in all contingencies, We are therefore 24 x 7 ready to face any situation with our available resources.
CB: Along with the induction of the Rafale, the IAF has also begun a fresh tendering process for procuring over a hundred new fighters with the same contestants as the erstwhile MMRCA programme being in the fray. Indeed, this tender is being dubbed as ‘MMRCA version 2.0’ by some. Could you share some of the highlights of the new process, and explain as to how it is going to be different from the earlier MMRCA contest?
AM Nambiar: The IAF had hosted a Request For Information (RFI) in April 2018 for approximately 110 fighter aircraft. The proposal intends to procure fighter aircraft for six squadrons with one squadron in flyaway state, and the remaining five squadrons are to be made in India by the Strategic Partner as per the provisions of Chapter VII of the Defence Procurement Procedure-2016. Advancements in technology have taken place since the last RFP was issued in 2007. The IAF will examine the responses and go through the process of defining Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (ASQR) for the current proposal to ensure maximum competition. Increased competition is expected to bring in better offers of technology , lower procurement costs and better terms for acquisition.
CB: The IAF is getting 36 Dassault Rafale aircraft from France. When can the nation expect the good news of its induction into the IAF?
AM Nambiar: All milestones activities related to Rafale induction are on schedule. Rafale deliveries will commence from September 2019 onward as per the Inter Governmental Agreement (IGA) between India and France.
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