It gives this writer no pleasure to repeatedly write on the same issue as Governments come and go every five years in accord with the Constitution of the “Sovereign Democratic Socialist Secular Republic of India”. Indeed, it is a distressing and scary call for the citizens of India. What’s wrong with those constitutionally responsible for the defence of the country of 1.26 billion heads? Are they suffering from some sort of undetected, and hence, incurable phobia? Are they not duty-bound? Do they have a conscience? Or are they not aware as to what the word “conscience” means?

It is disgusting and disgraceful, to say the least, after one more fighter aircraft crashed near Uttarlai air force station, Rajasthan, on Sunday, 31 March and after having gone through the Military Balance 2019, published by The International Institute for Strategic Studies London. It is an annual almanac, which provides a report card on the world’s defence and security scenario. The Sino-Pak alliance is becoming more menacing than ever before notwithstanding the one-way deep penetration of China into India’s economic, commerce, industry, finance and banking sectors.

What appears to be more dangerous is the brazen duplicity of the Chinese in their dealings with India. The strategy is to ratchet up the pressure on India through Pakistani state terror, and pretend it is extending a hand for “friendship and mutual benefit” for cash, commerce, communication, contract, and “common interests”.

In this backdrop one has to peruse the Military Balance 2019 ~ “Much of India’s tactical combat- aircraft fleet is ageing and needs replacement, although urgency on this matter is not always apparent in New Delhi’s procurement strategies”. Could anything be worse than this as an introductory remark?

“India first began to identify a multi-role fighter to fulfil its medium-combat-aircraft requirement some two decades ago. During the course of 2018, a limited interim acquisition of the French Dassault Rafale became mired in political allegations and counter-claims of corruption. A problem for the Air Force is that the strength of its tactical combat- aircraft squadrons remains well below target, at a time when both external acquisition projects and notional national development programmes are faltering. Furthermore, the rivals against which it baselines its needs ~ and in a worst-case scenario would face in a war on two fronts ~ are re-equipping their fleets. China and Pakistan are in the throes of re-capitalising their combat- aircraft fleets and associated weapons inventories. Of the two, China constitutes by far the more significant challenge, and remains the main source of Islamabad’s combat inventory.

“With the imminent service entry of China’s Chengdu J-20 fighters, India risks a situation where China has been able to develop and introduce into service its first low-observable combat aircraft in roughly the same time-frame as that absorbed by Delhi in its failed attempts to buy an ‘off-the-shelf’ aircraft for its medium-fighter requirement”.

Shame is the word for the Indian administration’s gross and unpardonable failure for neglecting the safety, security, unity, integrity and sovereignty of “we the 1.26 billion people of India”. Had William Shakespeare been alive, he might have reparaphrased the lines of Hamlet ~ “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” with “Something is rotten in the state of Lutyens land and the psyche of its landlords”.

The parting shot of Military Balance 2019 is that “New Delhi is increasingly conscious that it is outpaced by Beijing”.

Let’s now examine some hard facts, gleaned from the latest edition of “Jane’s World Air Forces”. It would be a revelation pertaining to real condition of Indian air warriors. How does the nation treat them during peace time? The Soviet-era origin single- engine attack fighter “MiG- 27ML (Flogger) was delivered 1985”, 34 years ago. The twin-engine SEPECAT Anglo- French “deep penetration strike aircraft” Jaguar first came in 1979, 40 years ago, followed by its “maritime” units in 1986, 33 years ago. The first delivery of “MiG-21 Mongol” was in 1966. It celebrated its golden jubilee three years ago. “MiG-21 Fishbed multi-role” fighter came in 1973, rendering it a 46-year-old fighter. Another twin-engine “multirole MiG-29” was inducted in 1986 (33 years ago). Single-engine French Mirage multi-role fighter, inducted in 1985, completes 34 years. The only multi-role fighter to be inducted in the 21st century to the Indian Air Force thus far has been the twin engine Sukhoi-30 MKI in 2002. Has India made its Air Force a department of “silver, golden and a possible diamond jubilee force” to fight the foe?

Now just compare the “nomatch” and much smaller Pakistani Air Force acquisition despite terror and terrorism. It has inducted 9 Mirage-IIIE multi-role combat aircraft in 2002 and ordered 70 Chinese origin FC-1 Xiaolong JF-17 multirole craft in 2007. It received 12 US Lockheed F-16C single engine multi-role fighter, followed by another 6 F-16D version in 2010.

About China, the less said the better. The entire West now has woken up owing to China’s ability to first pinch and then snatch military aviation technology for its indigenous combat industry and then challenge the originator thereof. They are experts in bribing their way to win the westerners themselves to build a variety of fighters. Thus, whereas India perpetually searches for imported fighters, China is in perpetual search of customers for its home-grown fighters.

It is one of the wonders of the world that those magnificent Indian men in their vintage flying machines are flying with great elan to take on the foe’s fighters which are more capable than those operated by India. How long can pilots and personnel of the Indian Air Force possibly sustain their victorious streak without being mauled in future?

Wing Commander Abhinandan’s MiG-21 Bison shot down a superior US-made F-16, and then himself got downed. It was the technology that did it in. Fortunately, the ace came back, to India’s relief. But, can future Indian air warriors be safe without proper equipment at the time of conflict? The matter has assumed dangerous proportions. Hence, whosoever is the next Prime Minister, or whichever the political party in power after May 2019, they ought to look into the issue with all seriousness and try to resolve the perpetual crisis of the Air Force with a time-barred programme, arguably in the next 24 months.

Else, Indians may not be able to adhere to those abiding words of Professor Laski: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty”. Lack thereof is the sure recipe for the loss of liberty.

(The writer is an alumnus of National Defence College and author of China in India. Views are personal)