Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa has said there are not enough fighter squadrons in the Indian Air Force (IAF) which could be a challenge when it comes to "dominat[ing] a two-front conflict". He said the lack of fighter jets in the IAF "is akin to a cricket team playing with seven players instead of 11."

In an exclusive interview to the Indian Express, the air chief said it was for the government to decide whether they wanted to use air power against Pakistan in the event of a terrorist attack while asserting that the IAF was ready to do the same. Dhanoa said the IAF is capable enough and is in a position to attack the Maoists if cleared by the Centre. However, he also said he does not expect any air attacks in India's own territory.

Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa told the paper that the IAF's authorised strength of 42 fighter squadrons "is the minimum strength necessary to dominate a two-front conflict." The air force presently has 32 fighter squadrons and has been given the responsibility of dealing with a two-front collusive threat from China and Pakistan.

The "reduced numbers place a severe handicap akin to a cricket team playing with 7 players instead of 11. Though we are operating under challenging conditions, we have devised mitigating strategies... IAF's plans of prosecuting a two-front scenario with available resources are based on a judicious force employment philosophy. Once the strengths and capabilities are augmented, we would be in a better position to overcome our combat differential and be in a position to dominate the air space," Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa said.

In response to a question about whether the IAF had given options to the Centre about an "aerial surgical strike" inside Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), the air chief told the IE: "The use of air power in response to heinous acts or terrorist attacks is an option that is to be taken by the government. IAF is prepared for any eventuality."

Uri Attack
Indian army soldiers carry a coffin containing the body of Ravi Paul, who was killed in Sunday's attack at an Indian army base in Kashmir's Uri, during his funeral in Sarwa village in Samba district, south of Jammu, September 19, 2016.Reuters

The situation along the Line of Control (LoC) has been strained over the past few weeks following the mutilation of two Indian soldiers by Pakistan's Border Action Team last month. In September 2016, the Indian Army had carried out surgical strikes on terror launch pads across the LoC after a terror attack in Jammu and Kashmir's Uri sector left 19 soldiers dead.

When asked about a possible use of air power against Maoists, Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa told the daily: "Our roles are restricted to providing intelligence and surveillance to the forces on ground. We use the RPAs [remotely piloted aircraft] extensively in these operations for intelligence collection, as well as helicopters, mainly for speedy movement of forces between area of operations, and casualty evacuation. As far as terrorist threats are concerned, we do not envisage carrying out air attacks on our territory, to prevent any sliver of possibility for collateral damage. But we have the capability, and are in a position to strike as and when we are cleared to do so by the government."

Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa
Air Chief Marshal BS DhanoaIANS

Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa also said he had his reasons to object to the proposal to set up an Integrated Theatre Commands of the Army, Navy and the IAF. He said: "You could argue that this concept is worth attempting if we had older types of air assets whose reach was limited, for which they would have to be placed in specific locations and concentrate their efforts to achieve the military objectives in a sector.

"But with our modern acquisitions, it is possible now to exploit the agility and reach of our platforms to near simultaneously affect the battles on the two fronts, and meet the objects of war. Air power needs space for manoeuvre to exploit its varied characteristics of surprise, shock and speed. If restricted to one sector, the potential of this arm of the military will not be optimally exploited and thus, the Air Force desires to have independence for execution so that the purpose of conflict is best served."

Dhanoa, meanwhile, was in favour of a Permanent Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee, who "would thus be the fourth four-star officer who would also be responsible for the various Tri-Service Commands. The Service Chiefs however, will continue to exercise operational control and training over their respective Services and have direct access to RM [Raksha Mantri, or Defence Minister]."

He said the matter was still under the consideration of the Central government.