IAF is the air arm of the Indian armed forces. Its primary responsibility is to secure Indian airspace and to conduct aerial warfare during a conflict. It was officially established on 8 October 1932 as an auxiliary air force of the Indian Empire and the prefix Royal was added in 1945 in recognition of its services during World War II. After India achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1947, the Royal Indian Air Force served the Union of India, with the prefix being dropped when India became a republic in 1950.
Since independence, the IAF has been involved in four wars with neighboring Pakistan and one with the People's Republic of China. Other major operations undertaken by the IAF include Operation Vijay - the invasion of Goa, Operation Meghdoot, Operation Cactus and Operation Poomalai. Apart from conflicts, the IAF has been an active participant in United Nations peacekeeping missions.
The President of India serves as the Commander-in-Chief of the IAF. The Chief of Air Staff, an Air Chief Marshal (ACM), is a four star commander and commands the Air Force. There is never more than one serving ACM at any given time in the IAF. One officer Arjan Singh, DFC has been conferred the rank of Marshal of the Air Force, a 5-star rank and the officer serves as the ceremonial chief.
With strength of approximately 170,000 personnel and 1,500+ aircraft, the Indian Air Force is the world's fourth largest air force after the United States Air Force, Russian Air Force and China's People's Liberation Army Air Force. In recent years, the IAF has undertaken an ambitious expansion and modernization program to replace its aging Soviet-era fighter jets.
The IAF has the primary objective of safeguarding Indian territory and national interests from all threats in conjunction with the other branches of the armed forces by defending Indian airspace. The IAF provides close air support to the Indian Army troops in the battlefield and also provides strategic and tactical airlift capabilities. The IAF also operates the Integrated Space Cell together with the other two branches of the Indian Armed Forces, the civilian Department of Space and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) to utilize more effectively the country's space-based assets for military purposes and to look into threats to these assets.
The Indian Air Force along with the other branches of the Indian Armed Forces provide assistance in disaster relief such as during natural calamities by undertaking evacuation or search-and-rescue (SAR) operations and air dropping relief supplies in affected areas. The IAF provided extensive assistance to relief operations during natural calamities such as the Gujarat cyclone in 1998 and the Tsunami in 2004. The IAF also provides assistance to other countries during relief activities such as Operation Rainbow in Sri Lanka.
The Indian Air Force was established in British India as an auxiliary air force of the Royal Air Force with the enactment of the Indian Air Force Act 1932 on 8 October that year and adopted the Royal Air Force uniforms , badges, brevets and insignia. On 1 April 1933, the IAF commissioned its first squadron, No.1 Squadron, with four Westland Wapiti biplanes and five Indian pilots. The Indian pilots were led by Flight Lieutenant (later Air Vice Marshal) Cecil Bouchier. Until 1938, No. 1 Squadron remained the only squadron of the IAF, though two more flights were added.
During World War II, the red blob was removed from the IAF roundel to eliminate confusion with the Japanese Red Sun Emblem. The Air Force grew to seven squadrons in 1943 and to nine squadrons in 1945. The IAF helped in blocking the advance of the Japanese army in Burma, where its first air strike was on the Japanese military base in Arakan. It also carried out strike missions against the Japanese airbases at Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in northern Thailand. In recognition of the crucial role played by the IAF, King George VI conferred it the prefix "Royal" in 1945. During the war, many youth joined the Indian National Army. Forty five of them (known as the Tokyo Boys) were sent to train as fighter pilots at the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force Academy in 1944 by Subhas Chandra Bose. After the war, they were interned by the Allies and were court-martialled. After Indian independence, some of them rejoined the IAF for service.
First years of independence (1947-1950)
After gaining independence from the British Empire in 1947, British India was partitioned into the new states of the Union of India and the Dominion of Pakistan. Along the lines of the geographical partition, the assets of the air force were divided between the new countries. India's air force retained the name of the Royal Indian Air Force, but three of the ten operational squadrons and facilities, located within the borders of Pakistan, were transferred to the Royal Pakistan Air Force. The RIAF Roundel was changed to an interim 'Chakra' roundel derived from the Ashoka Chakra.
Around the same time, conflict broke out between them over the control of the princely state of Jammu & Kashmir. With Pakistani forces moving into the state, its Maharaja decided to accede to India in order to receive military help. The day after instrument of accession was signed, the RIAF was called upon to transport troops into the war-zone. This led to the eruption of full scale war between India and Pakistan, though there was no formal declaration of war. During the war, the RIAF did not engage the Pakistan Air Force in air-to-air combat; however, it did provide effective transport and close air support to the Indian troops.
When India became a republic in 1950, the prefix 'Royal' was dropped from the Indian Air Force. At the same time, the current IAF roundel was adapted.
Congo crisis and liberation of Goa (1960-1961)
The IAF saw significant conflict in 1960, when Belgium's 75-year rule over Congo ended abruptly, engulfing the nation in widespread violence and rebellion. IAF sent No. 5 Squadron, equipped with English Electric Canberra, to support United Nations Operation in the Congo. The squadron started undertaking operational missions in November. The unit remained there until 1966, when the UN mission ended. Operating from Leopoldville and Kamina, the Canberras soon destroyed the rebel Air Force and provided the UN ground forces with its only long-range air support force.
In late 1961, the Indian government decided to deploy the armed forces in an effort to evict the Portuguese out of Goa and other Enclaves after years of negotiation. The Indian Air Force was requested to provide support elements to the ground force in what was called Operation Vijay. Probing flights by some fighters and bombers were carried out from 8-18 December to draw out the Portuguese Air Force, but to no avail. On December 18, two waves of Canberra bombers bombed the runway of Dabolim airfield taking care not to bomb the Terminals and the ATC tower. Two Portuguese transport air craft (a Super Constellation and a DC-6) found on the airfield were left alone so that they can be captured intact. However the Portuguese pilots managed to take off the aircraft from the still damaged airfield and made their getaway to Portugal. Hunters attacked the wireless station at Bambolim. Vampires were used to provide air support to the ground forces. In Daman, Mystères were used to strike Portuguese gun positions. Ouragans (called Toofanis in the IAF) bombed the runways at Diu and destroyed the control tower, wireless station and the meteorological station.
Border disputes and changes in the IAF (1962-1971)
In 1962, border disagreements between China and India escalated to a war when China mobilized its troops across the Indian border. During the Sino-Indian War, India's military planners failed to deploy and effectively use the IAF against the invading Chinese forces. This resulted in India losing a significant amount of advantage to the Chinese; especially in Jammu and Kashmir.
Three years after the Sino-Indian conflict, in 1965, India went to war with Pakistan again over Kashmir in what came to be known as the Second Kashmir War. Learning from the experiences of the Sino-Indian war, India used its air force extensively during the war. This was the first time the IAF actively engaged an enemy air force. However, instead of providing close air support to the Indian Army, the IAF carried out independent raids against PAF bases. These bases were situated deep inside Pakistani territory, making IAF fighters vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire. During the course of the conflict, the PAF enjoyed qualitative superiority over the IAF as most of the jets in IAF's fleet were of post World War II vintage. Despite this, the IAF was able to prevent the PAF from gaining air superiority over conflict zones. By the time the conflict had ended, Pakistan claimed to have shot down 113 IAF aircraft while the Indians claimed 73 PAF aircraft were downed. More than 60% of IAF's air combat losses took place during the battles over Kalaikunda and Pathankot; where most of the aircraft were destroyed while parked on the ground.
After the 1965 war, the IAF underwent a series of changes to improve its capabilities. In 1966, the Para Commandos regiment was created. To increase its logistics supply and rescue operations ability, the IAF inducted 72 HS 748s which were built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) under license from Avro. India started to put more stress on indigenous manufacture of fighter aircraft. As a result, HAL HF-24 Marut, designed by the famed German aerospace engineer Kurt Tank, was inducted into the air force. HAL also started developing an improved version of the Folland Gnat, known as HAL Ajeet. At the same time, the IAF also started inducting Mach 2 capable Soviet MiG-21 and Sukhoi Su-7 fighters.
Bangladesh Liberation War (1971)
By late 1971, the intensification of the independence movement in erstwhile East Pakistan leads to the Bangladesh Liberation War between India and Pakistan. On 22 November 1971, 10 days before the start of a full-scale war, four PAF F-86 Sabre jets attacked Indian and Mukti Bahini positions at Garibpur, near the international border. Three of the four PAF Sabres were shot down by the IAF's Folland Gnats. On 3 December, India formally declared war against Pakistan following massive preemptive strikes by the PAF against Indian Air Force installations in Srinagar, Ambala, Sirsa, Halwara and Jodhpur. However, the IAF did not suffer significantly because the leadership had anticipated such a move and precautions were taken. The Indian Air Force was quick to respond to Pakistani air strikes, following which the PAF carried out mostly defensive sorties.
Within the first two weeks, the IAF had carried out almost 2,000 sorties over East Pakistan and also provided close air support to the advancing Indian Army. IAF also assisted the Indian Navy in its operations against the Pakistani Navy and Maritime Security Agency in the Bay of Bengal and Arabian Sea. On the western front, the IAF destroyed more than 29 Pakistani tanks, 40 APCs and a railway train during the Battle of Longewala. The IAF undertook strategic bombing of West Pakistan by carrying out raids on oil installations in Karachi, the Mangla Dam and a gas plant in Sindh. Similar strategy was also deployed in East Pakistan and as the IAF achieved complete air superiority on the eastern front, the ordnance factories, runways, and other vital areas of East Pakistan were severely damaged. By the time Pakistani forces surrendered, the IAF claimed that 94 PAF aircraft, including 54 F-86 Sabres had been shot down. The IAF had flown over 6,000 sorties on both East and West fronts; including sorties by transport aircraft and helicopters. Towards the end of the war, IAF's transport planes dropped leaflets over Dhaka urging the Pakistani forces to surrender, demoralizing Pakistani troops in East Pakistan.
Incidents before Kargil (1984-1988)
In 1984, India launched Operation Meghdoot to capture the Siachen Glacier in the contested Kashmir region. IAF's Mi-8, Chetak and Cheetah helicopters airlifted hundreds of Indian troops to Siachen. Launched on 13 April 1984, this military operation was unique because of Siachen's inhospitable terrain and climate. The military action was successful, given the fact that under a previous agreement, neither Pakistan nor India had stationed any personnel in the area. The Indian forces, facing no opposition, took control over most of the heights on the glacier.
Following the failure to negotiate an end to the Sri Lankan Civil War, and to provide humanitarian aid through an unarmed convoy of ships, the Indian Government decided to carry out an airdrop of the humanitarian supplies on the evening of 4 June 1987 designated Operation Poomalai (Tamil: Garland) or Eagle Mission 4. Five An-32s escorted by five Mirage 2000s carried out the supply drop which faced no opposition from the Sri Lankan Armed Forces. Sri Lanka accused India of "blatant violation of sovereignty". India insisted that it was acting only on humanitarian grounds.
In 1987, the IAF supported the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in northern and eastern Sri Lanka in Operation Pawan. About 70,000 sorties were flown by the IAF's transport and helicopter force in support of nearly 100,000 troops and paramilitary forces without a single aircraft lost or mission aborted. IAF An-32s maintained a continuous air link between air bases in South India and Northern Sri Lanka transporting men, equipment, rations and evacuating casualties. Mi-8s supported the ground forces and also provided air transportation to the Sri Lankan civil administration during the elections. Mi-25s of No. 125 Helicopter Unit were utilized to provide suppressive fire against militant strong points and to interdict coastal and clandestine riverine traffic.
On the night of November 3, 1988, the Indian Air Force mounted special operations to airlift a parachute battalion group from Agra, non-stop over 2000 kilometers to the remote Indian Ocean archipelago of the Maldives in response to Maldivian president Gayoom's request for military help against a mercenary invasion in Operation Cactus. The IL-76s of No. 44 Squadron landed at Hulhule at 0030 hours and the Indian paratroopers secured the airfield and restored Government rule at Male within hours.
Kargil War (1999)
On 11 May 1999, the Indian Air Force was called in to provide close air support to the Indian Army at the height of the ongoing Kargil conflict with the use of helicopters. The IAF strike was code named Operation Safed Sagar. The first strikes were launched on the 26 May, when the Indian Air Force struck infiltrator positions with fighter aircraft and helicopter gunships. The initial strikes saw MiG-27s carrying out offensive sorties, with MiG-21s and later MiG-29s providing fighter cover. The IAF also deployed its radars and the MiG-29 fighters in vast numbers to keep check on Pakistani military movements across the border. Srinagar Airport was at this time closed to civilian air-traffic and dedicated to the Indian Air Force.
On 27 May, the first fatalities were suffered when a MiG-21 and MiG-27 jets were lost over Batalik Sector to enemy action and mechanical failure, respectively. The following day, a Mi-17 was lost- with the loss of all four of the crew- when it was hit by three stingers while on an offensive sortie. These losses forced the Indian Air Force to reassess its strategy. The helicopters were immediately withdrawn from offensive roles as a measure against the man-portable missiles in possession of the infiltrators. On 30 May, the Indian Air Force called into operation the Mirage 2000 which was deemed the best aircraft capable of optimum performance under the conditions of high-altitude seen in the zone of conflict. Mirage 2000s not only had better defense equipment compared to the MiGs, but also gave IAF the ability to carry out aerial raids at night. The MiG-29s were used extensively to provide fighter escort to the Mirage 2000. The Mirages successfully targeted enemy camps and logistic bases in Kargil and within days, their supply lines were severely disrupted. Mirage 2000s were used for strikes on Muntho Dhalo and the heavily defended Tiger Hill and paved the way for their early recapture. At the height of the conflict, the IAF was conducting over forty sorties daily over the Kargil region. By 26 July, the Indian forces had successfully liberated Kargil from Pakistani forces.
Post Kargil incidents (1999-present)
On 10 August 1999, IAF MiG-21s intercepted a Pakistan Navy Breguet Atlantic which was flying over the disputed region of Sir Creek. The aircraft was shot down killing all 16 Pakistani Navy personnel on board. India claimed that the Atlantic was on a mission to gather information on IAF air defense, a charge emphatically rejected by Pakistan which argued that the unarmed aircraft was on a training mission.
Since the late 1990s, the Indian Air Force has been modernizing its fleet to counter challenges in the new century. The fleet size of the IAF has decreased during this period because of the retirement of older aircraft. Still, India maintains the fourth largest air force.