The Indian Air Force was officially established on 8 October 1932, being the date of its formal constitution. The first aircraft flight, however, was not formed until 1 Apro; 1933, at which time it possessed a strength of six officers trained at RAF Cranwell and 19 havai sephais (literally, air soldiers); its aircraft inventory comprised four Westland Wapiti IIA army co-operation biplanes based at Drigh Road as the “A” Flight nucleus of the planned No.I (Army Co-operation) Squadron.
The year 1946 also saw the establishment of the first RIAF transport unit, No.12 Squadron which had first been raised on Spitfires at Kohat in December 19445 and received C-47 Dakotas in Panagarh in late 1946.
Thus, the principal components of the RIAF at partition were Nos. 3, 4, 7, 8 and 10 squadrons with Tempest IIs, No.2 Squadron with spitfires and No. 12 Squadron with C-47s, plus No. 1 Air observation flight, the establishment of which with AOP Auster 4s, 5s and 6s, coincided with independence. No.6 Squadron, which had been in process of converting from Spitfires to C-47s at Drigh Road, had been stood down and its transports transferred to Pakistan.
On 27 October 1947, No. 12 Sqn was to initiate the remarkable feat of air-lifting the 1st Sikhs from Palam onto the rough and dusty Srinagar airstrip without planning or reconnaissance as the initial Indian response to the sizeable insurgent forces that were pouring across the border into Jammu and Kashmir. On 30 October, the first Spitfires from the Advanced Flying School at Ambala reached Srinagar and were soon engaged in strafing the raiders beyond Pattan. Within a week, the Tempests of No.7 Squadron were playing a decisive role in the battle of Shelatang which halted the forward momentum of the tribal invaders.
In January 1950, India become a Republic within the British Commonwealth and the Indian Air Force dropped its “Royal” prefix. At this time, it possessed six fighter squadrons of Spitfires, Vampires and a Tempests, operating from Kanpur, Poona, Ambala and Palam, one B-24 bomber squadron, one C-47 Dakota transport squadron, one AOP flight, a communications squadron at Palam and a growing training Organisation.
Particularly significant in IAF annals was the year 1957, which witnessed true beginnings of the major re-equipment programme that was to raise the Service fully to world standards. Deliveries began of 110 Dassault Mystere IVAs, carrying the service into the realms of transonic flight for the first time, and both Hawker Hunters and Englligh Eletric Canberas began to enter the IAF inventory. A new No.1 Squadron was raised on the Mystere, the existing Vampire-equipped No.1 Squadron being redesignated as No. 27 Squadron; No. 5 Squadron re-equipped with the Canberra B (I) Mk. 58, and, at the year’s end, no. 7 Squadron began conversion to the Hunter FMk.56. It was perhaps appropriate that the year which saw commencement of an immense infusion of modern hardware should also witness the end of the IAF’s piston-engined fighter epoch: No.14 Squadron, the last firstline piston-engine fighter unit, flew in its Spitfire Mk. XVIIIs to Halwara in preparation for re-equipment with the Vampire.
Growth was not restricted to the combat elements for, in parallel, the IAF’s transport force was enlarged to six squadrons, three with C-47s (Nos.11, 43 and 49), two with C-119Gs (Nos. 12 and 19) and one with DHC-3 Otters (No.41)
The first An-12B arrived in India on 1 March 1961, No. 44 Squadron being formed on this type, the II-14s that followed equipping another newly-raised squadron, No. 42. A follow-on order for a further eight An-12Bs was placed early in 1962, the IAF finally beginning to build up a really credible heavy airlift capability which was to be immensely enhanced with the arrival of a further 25 An-12Bs under a loan agreement signed in July 1963, a second squadron, No.25, meanwhile being formed on this type.
The real test of IAF airlift capability came in October 1962, when open warfare erupted on the Sino-Indian border. During the period 20 October to 20 November, pressure on the Service’s transport and helicopter units was intense, troops and supplies heaving to be flown to the support of the border posts virtually around the clock and at extreme altitudes. The helicopters had to constantly run the gauntlet of Chinese small arms and anti-aircraft fire, while operating to the tricky helipads in the mountains. Many notable feats were performed by the IAF during this conflict, including the operation of C-119Gs from airstrips 17,000 ft (5180m) above sea level in the Karakoram Himalayas, and the air-lifting by An-12Bs of two troops of AMX-13 light tanks to Chushul, in Ladakh, where the small airstrip was 15,000 ft (4570m) above sea level.
The purchase of 12 MiG-21 fighters from the Soviet Union-the IAF’s first combat aircraft of non-western origin-and for Soviet technical assistance in setting up production facilities for the fighter in India was followed by the procurement of SA-2 (Dvina) surface-to-air missiles.
Tension between India and Pakistan had steadily escalated over the years, culminating on 1 September 1965 in a massive attack in the Chhamb sector by Pakistani forces. Possessing the initiative in having chosen the time and place to strike and enjoying overwhelming numerical superiority in the sector in both armour and troops, Pakistan posed a grave threat to Indian forces on the ground and so, in response to urgent requests for air strikes against Pakistani armour advancing in the Chhamb-Jaurian sector, Vampire FBMk.52s of No.45 Squadrom, at the time undergoing operational training at a forward base, mounted their first sorties at 1745 hours on the first day of the conflict, and on their heels came the Mysteres of Nos. 3 and 31 Squadrons operating from Pathankot. The Pakistani armoured thrust was staggered. IAF Gnats proved their mettle in shooting down PAF Sabres in this sector, the first of aerial victories being notched by Nos. 23 and 9 squadrons. Rapidly escalating, full-scale warfare broke out on 6 September all along the international border between West Pakistan and India.
When the September 1965 hostilities began, the MiG-21 had still to achieve operational status. No.28 Squadron had been formed on the MiG-21 clear-weather day intercept model but was still v ery much a trials unit then flying localized CAPs. Early acquisition of MiG-21s of later and more potent version was considered essential to accelerate re-equipment of squadrons still flying such patently obsolete types as the Vampire FBMk.52. Thus sufficient numbers of the improved MiG-21 FL (Type 77 in IAF parlance) were imported in flyaway condition to initiate the programme, and these, together with others imported in CKD form for HAL assembly, were to be sufficient for the re-equipment of nine squadrons during the period 1966-69.
Within three years of the Indo-Pakistan conflict, the IAF, which had achieved equal status with the Army on 15 January 1966, possessed in excess of 70,000 personnel and was nearing its 45-squadron goal. Its composition in the autumn of 1968 included 23 fighter category squadrons, three tactical bomber squadrons, a maritime patrol squadron (with ex-Air India L. 104G Super Constellations), 11 transport squadrons, four AOP squadrons, a number of helicopter units and a few SAM squadrons.
As the sixties moved to the seventies, the IAF consolidated its expansion plans, attaining its 45 squadron goal. Obsolescent equipment was steadily withdrawn to be succeeded by increasing numbers of HF-24s, MiG-21 FLs and SU-&BMs.
By the mid ‘70s, the IAF was clearly in need of urgent re-equipment devisions and various requirements, better known by their acronyms DPSA, TASA, METAC and HETAC, were pursued and decisions were forthcoming at last. Form the trough of the seventies, the IAF was to benefit from a crest in the eighties, the period 1978-88witnessing a major modernization programme which replaced most of the earlier generation and obsolescing equipment with spanking new aircraft types and weapon systems. No less than twenty new aircraft types and sub-types entered the IAF’s service over these years, including various strike fighters, third-generation supersonic interceptors, tri-sonic reconnaissance aircraft, strategic heavy lift transports, medium tactical transports, light transport aircraft, heavy lift and medium-assault helicopters, basic trainers, surface-to-air missiles and an array of sophisticated weaponry propelling the IAF, or Bharatiya Vayu Sena, into one of the world’s better equipped air arms.
By the mid-80s, the Jaguar was in service with Nos. 5.14, 16 and 27 Squadrons while a flight of No.6 Squadron was equipped with the Maritime Jaguar carrying the new generation Sea Eagle anti-ship sea-skimming missile.
Meanwhile, in 1976, the “third generation” MiG-21 bis, considered the definitive variant of the classic tailed-delta fighter design, was to follow-on the “M” sub-type, as a multi-role air superiority/ground attack version. The MiG-21bis assumed the prime air defence mantle and sufficient numbers were acquired in 1976-77 to equip three squadrons (Nos.15, 21 and 23) formerly operating the Gnat light fighter.
With some 580 MiG-21s delivered by HAL and nearly 250 MiG-21s (including the two-seat operational trainers) imported as “fly aways”, the type remained an immense asset for the Indian Air Force for over a quarter century. The quantity vs. quality dilemma inevitably faced by most of the world’s air forces as a consequence of spiraling costs was mitigated for the IAF by the large scale availability of the MiG-21, which type will surely go down as one of aviation history’s all-time classics.
In 1982, a contract was finalized with France for the Mirage 2000 delta-wing, fly-by-wire fighter, with high agility and a formidable radar/missile combination.
in early 1987, even as the first of some 50 MiG -29s had arrived by ship and were being assembled and tested by Soviet personnel at Nasik. The first IAF formations to be selected for conversion to the MiG-29 were Nos.47 and 28 Squadrons and, once more, induction of this advanced fighter was extremely rapid.
A small number of the enigmatic MiG-25Rs were received in September 1982, to form No. 102 Squadron, which literally propelled the IAF into the trisonic era.
After nearly ten years of evaluation and deliberation to replace the elderly Dakotas, Caribous, Packets and II-14s, the Government of India eventually selected the Antonov An-32 to meet the Medium Transport Aircraft (Metac) requirement, which was a powerfully engine and rugged STOL aircraft with rear loading facility. The first of over one hundred An-32s were received by the IAF in July 1984 and over the next four years, re-equipped Nos. 12, 19, 33, 43, 48 and 49 Squadrons plus the Paratroop Training School.
The far larger, jet engine, Ilyushin Il-76 was contracted for to supplant the An-12,the first of these being received in March 1985 to re-equip No.44 Squadron which was followed, in March 1989, by No. 25 Squadron. The massive Il-76 has endowed the Indian Air Force with true strategic airlift capability, which was dramatically demonstrated in a number of actions around south Asia in the late’80s.
Still the largest type in the IAF’s inventory remains the MiG-21 which has had a long (40 years) and chequered career in the Indian Air Force since the first squadron was equipped with this bisonic fighter in 1963. As earlier mentioned, the metamorphosis of the MiG-21 from the limited endurance, lightly armed day-interceptor-21F version to the basic-21 FL version (built under licence by HAL), through the –Mseries (also built by HAL) to the definitive-21 bis variant (220 built by HAL) has made this the most important combat aircraft type to serve with the IAF. At its peak, some 20 squadrons were equipped with MiG-21 variants, the total number received by the IAF (both direct supplies from the Soviet Union and built under licence at Nasik for airframes, Koraput for engines and Hyderabad for avionics)being nearly a thousand during the period 1963 to 1985.
The IAD has been engaged in identification of a replacement for the MiG-21s, not an easy task considering the quantity involved and costs thereof. The expanded aeronautics industrial base, increasingly capable R & D organizations and massive home market were the factors that gave birth to the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme. From the mid-1980s, the indigenous LCA was assumed to be the type which would eventually supplant the massive force of MiG-21s in IAF service. The original concept of the LCA had been a more modest one. An ‘improved’ version of theGnat (or ajeet) would have met the initial requirement for a cost-effective front-line fighter, essentially for close air support with adequate self defence capability.
The Indian Air Force Today
The five Operational commands though administrative Wings, control some 45 fixed-wings squadrons, 20 helicopter units and numerous surface-to-air missile squadrons, with unit establishments varying from 12 to 18 aircraft. This represents a total aircraft strength of nearly 1,700 including training and support types, manned by some 170,000 personnel.