From RIAF to IAF: A Remarkable Transformation of India’s Air Power

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has evolved from its beginnings as the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) under British rule to become a formidable force, showcasing its commitment to national security.

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Lt Col Manoj K Channan
Lt Col Manoj K Channan
Lt Col Manoj K Channan (Retd) served in the Indian Army, Armoured Corps, 65 Armoured Regiment, 27 August 83- 07 April 2007. Operational experience in the Indian Army includes Sri Lanka – OP PAWAN, Nagaland and Manipur – OP HIFAZAT, and Bhalra - Bhaderwah, District Doda Jammu and Kashmir, including setting up of a counter-insurgency school – OP RAKSHAK. He regularly contributes to Defence and Security issues in the Financial Express online, Defence and Strategy, Fauji India Magazine and Salute Magazine. *Views are personal.

Rising above the clouds, defending the skies, the Indian Air Force stands as a testament to valour, commitment, and national pride

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is a testament to a country’s ability to grow, adapt, and modernise in response to an evolving geopolitical landscape. From its humble beginnings as the Royal Indian Air Force (RIAF) under British rule to emerging as a formidable force, matching strides with global powers like the US in combined exercises, the journey of the IAF is awe-inspiring.

The Birth and Initial Days of the RIAF

Established on October 8, 1932, the Royal Indian Air Force began as a small, tactical air force under British dominion, with its pilots and technicians predominantly trained by the Royal Air Force (RAF). This foundational period was instrumental in establishing the initial traditions, ethos, and operational procedures. However, their capabilities were primarily limited to supporting ground forces.

World War II became the defining crucible for the RIAF, testing its mettle in various operational theatres, from the brutal Burmese front to defending the North-West Frontier. This wartime experience paved the way for expanding its roles and responsibilities.

Post-Independence Era: Finding its Wings

With India gaining independence in 1947, the ‘Royal’ prefix was dropped in 1950, and the modern Indian Air Force (IAF) was born. The subsequent period saw the IAF being tested during the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 and 1971 and the Indo-China war in 1962. These experiences allowed the IAF to introspect and modernise its approach, technology, and tactics.

A Historical Overview of Primary Operations

The Indian Air Force (IAF) has played an instrumental role in India’s defence and humanitarian missions since its inception. After gaining independence from British rule, the IAF’s involvement in military operations and relief work became more pronounced. Here is an exploration of the primary operations undertaken by the IAF post-independence.

Srinagar Landings (1947-48)

Shortly after independence, as tribal raiders, backed by Pakistan, sought to capture Jammu Kashmir, the IAF conducted swift airlifts, transporting Indian troops to Srinagar. This strategic move prevented the valley’s fall to the raiders and set the stage for subsequent battles.

1962 India-China War

During the border conflict with China, the IAF was primarily used for transport, reconnaissance, and supply missions, given the government’s strategic choice not to deploy combat aircraft.

1965 Indo-Pak War

The IAF played a pivotal role in blunting the offensive launched by the Pakistani Air Force. Notable battles included the defence of Kalaikunda air base and the raids on the Peshawar air base.

Support in Mizoram and Logistics in North East Operations

The IAF was crucial in supporting army operations against insurgencies in the Northeast, particularly in Mizoram and Nagaland. Helicopters and transport aircraft provided essential logistical support, ensuring ground forces’ mobility.

1971 Indo-Pak War

The IAF achieved air superiority early in the conflict, successfully striking Pakistani ground forces, air bases, and infrastructure. It also provided critical support for the naval blockade of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and the swift advances of the Indian Army.

 OP PAWAN (1987-1990)

In the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the IAF executed Operation Poomalai, which involved air-dropping humanitarian aid over the besieged town of Jaffna in Sri Lanka. As part of India’s peacekeeping efforts in Sri Lanka, the IAF provided air support to the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) during its operations against the LTTE.

OP VIJAY (1999)

During the Kargil conflict, the IAF launched air strikes against infiltrators in the rugged terrains of Kargil and Dras, playing a decisive role in India’s victory.

Syria and Yemen Crisis

Amidst the escalating conflict, the IAF undertook evacuation operations to rescue Indian citizens stranded in Yemen (Operation Raahat) and Syria, showcasing its capabilities in non-combat evacuation operations.

Tsunami Relief (2004)

Post the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, the IAF was at the forefront of relief efforts, providing aid, evacuating affected individuals, and helping in rehabilitation efforts across affected countries.

COVID-19 Evacuations

The global pandemic saw the IAF undertake multiple missions to evacuate Indian citizens from affected regions, including Wuhan, China, at the outbreak’s start.

Evacuations during the Ukraine Conflict

The IAF played a crucial role in Operation Devi Shakti, evacuating thousands of Indians stranded due to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.


The Indian Air Force played a significant role by creating an aerobridge between Delhi/Chandigarh and Leh. The challenging task of ferrying troops, arms and ammunition was unprecedented in its history in record time. While the Transport command carried out its operations with clockwork precision, the other assets closely watched the PLA Air Force to ensure they remained contained in their air space. 

Modernisation and Keeping Pace with Global Powerhouses

The post-1971 period witnessed the IAF focusing on modernisation, inducting cutting-edge platforms, and evolving its operational doctrines. Aircraft like the Mirage-2000, Mig 29, Sukhoi Su-30MKI, and the indigenous Tejas changed the face of the IAF, making it one of the most potent air forces globally.

US-India Air Exercises: A Collaboration of Equals

The IAF also realised the value of joint exercises and training with international counterparts. Exercises like ‘Cope India’ with the US Air Force (USAF) have been instrumental. Despite the odds and using older platforms, the IAF pilots showcased their skills in these exercises, often surprising their US counterparts with innovative tactics and dogfighting prowess.

The joint exercises between the IAF and the USAF were a testament to their growing strategic partnership and an indicator of the IAF’s evolving capabilities. Exercises like Red Flag, held in Alaska, saw the IAF sending its frontline fighters and matching tactics, skills, and technology with the best of the USAF. These collaborations provided valuable lessons and insights to both forces.

 Indian Women Pilots in the Fighter Stream 

The induction of women into the fighter stream of the Indian Air Force (IAF) marked a progressive shift in the traditionally male-dominated defence forces of the region. This significant move made India one of the few countries globally to allow women in frontline combat roles. The Indian Government, in October 2015, approved the induction of women into the fighter stream of the IAF, paving the way for women pilots to participate in active combat roles.

In 2016, the IAF commissioned its first batch of women fighter pilots, namely Flight Cadets Bhawana Kanth, Avani Chaturvedi, and Mohana Singh. They underwent strenuous training on various aircraft before being inducted into the fighter stream.

Solo Flights

Avani Chaturvedi made history in 2018 by becoming the first Indian woman fighter pilot to fly solo in a MiG-21 Bison aircraft with one of the world’s highest landing and take-off speeds.

Operational Roles

Upon completing their training, these pilots were deployed in operational roles, entrusted with flying fighter planes and participating in active combat roles if required.

Expansion of Roles

The success and professionalism displayed by the first batch paved the way for more women to join the fighter stream. The IAF plans to induct more women into the fighter stream, indicating a broader acceptance and realisation of their capabilities.

Addressing Challenges

The IAF has worked to address potential challenges and concerns related to the induction of women in combat roles. From modifying aircraft and facilities to accommodating women pilots to adjusting training modules to be gender-inclusive, steps have been taken to ensure a level playing field.

Precedent for other Services

The positive response and outcomes from the IAF’s decision have set a precedent for other wings of the Indian Armed Forces. It has ignited debates and discussions on further expanding women’s roles in other frontline combat positions in the Navy and the Army.

Regional Significance

While many global air forces, including the USA, Israel, and the UK, have had women in combat roles for years, the IAF’s decision was groundbreaking for the South Asian region. It challenges the traditional gender roles and stereotypes prevalent in the region. It serves as an inspiration for neighbouring countries to re-evaluate the roles of women in their armed forces.

Control And Reporting System: Air Defence

Air Defense has evolved remarkably with the advent of modern technology. A real-time control and reporting system is at the heart of any advanced Air Defense mechanism. Such a system aims to detect, identify, track, and possibly engage any airborne threat, including aircraft, helicopters, drones, or missiles. 

Advanced Radar Systems

  • Phased Array Radars. Instead of rotating to scan the skies, these radars use a fixed array with the beam electronically steered, allowing rapid scanning.
  • Multifunction Radars. Capable of performing search, track, and fire control simultaneously.
  • Data Fusion Centres Collect information from multiple sensors, including radars, satellites, and ground-based observation posts, to create a unified air picture. This comprehensive view ensures that commanders can make well-informed decisions.
  • Network-Centric Warfare (NCW). Links sensors, commanders, and weapon systems in a vast network, ensuring faster response times. Ensures that data from a sensor reaches every necessary node in real time.
  • Automated Identification Systems. IFF (Identification Friend or Foe): Systems that identify and validate an aircraft as friendly, reducing the chance of fratricide.
  • Non-Cooperative Target Recognition. Advanced algorithms determine an aircraft’s potential threat based on its flight pattern, size, and radar cross-section.
  • Satellite Integration. Satellites can provide persistent surveillance over areas, providing early warning of potential threats, especially ballistic missiles.
  • AI and Machine Learning. For threat assessment, predicting the potential trajectory of airborne objects and eliminating false alarms. AI can sift through enormous amounts of data to identify patterns and potential threats a human might overlook.
  • Real-Time Communication Systems. Secure and rapid communication systems, often satellite-aided, that ensure data integrity and speed.
  • Drone Integration. Drones can act as airborne sensors, extending the reach of ground-based systems. They can be deployed in potential threat areas to relay real-time data to command centres.
  • Cybersecurity. With increased networking comes the threat of cyberattacks. Advanced encryption and cybersecurity protocols are essential to protect the integrity of the air defence system.
  • Direct Energy Weapons (DEW). Laser and microwave-based systems that can engage threats at the speed of light, especially effective against drones and incoming munitions.
  • Mobile Command and Control Centres. Ensuring that command capabilities are not fixed to a particular location and can be relocated rapidly.
  • Implementation. Implementing these technologies requires a structured approach:
  • Research & Development. Investing in R&D ensures that the technology is tailored for specific defence needs.
  • Integration with Legacy Systems. Many air defence systems are upgrades of older systems. Ensuring compatibility is crucial.
  • Training. Personnel need to be trained to handle the latest technologies, understand their capabilities, and potential pitfalls.
  • Simulations & War Games. Before actual deployment, the system’s Efficiency and responsiveness should Be tested in real-world simulated environments.

A robust real-time control and reporting system is the backbone of modern air defence. By integrating cutting-edge technologies, nations can ensure their skies remain secure against evolving threats. However, Wit must realise that as defence technologies advance, so do offensive capabilities. Thus, continuous investment in research, development, and training is vital to maintaining an edge in air defence.

Fire and Forget Systems

“fire-and-forget” system is a missile guidance system that does not require further guidance after launch. Once the weapon is released, it can autonomously track and engage the target without the shooter’s intervention. This kind of system offers various advantages, especially in combat scenarios, as it allows the operator to move or take cover after firing the missile, reducing the risk of being targeted in return. 

  • Advanced Guidance System. Infrared (IR.) Seekers. Detects heat signatures from jet engines or vehicle exhausts.
  • Millimetre Wave (MMW) Radars. Can form images of targets; effective in adverse weather conditions.
  • Laser Seekers. It uses reflected laser energy from a designated target.
  • GPS/INS (Global /Inertial Navigation System). For navigation towards a designated area or target.
  • Target Recognition. Advanced algorithms allow the missile to differentiate between intended targets and other objects, reducing the risk of collateral damage.
  • Onboard Sensors. They enable the missile to adjust its flight and trajectory according to the target’s movement.
  • Stealth Capabilities. The system might require reduced noise, visual, and radar signatures to avoid early detection and countermeasures.
  • Resistance to Countermeasures. The system must be robust against enemy attempts to disrupt or decoy it, including:
  1. Electronic jamming.
  2. Flares or other infrared countermeasures.
  3. Chaff or radar decoys.

Reliable propulsion provides the missile with the required speed and range. The technologies include solid rocket motors for shorter-range missiles and turbojet or ramjet engines for longer-range or cruise missiles.

Versatility. The ability to engage different targets, like aircraft, armoured vehicles, or naval vessels, depends on the missile’s design.

Compact and Lightweight Design. Especially for man-portable systems or those meant to be launched from smaller platforms.

Safety Mechanisms. Ensuring the missile does not detonate prematurely or in case of a malfunction.

Operational Simplicity. The launch platform, whether a soldier with a shoulder-launched missile or an aircraft, should be able to easily select, aim, and fire the missile with minimal steps.

Affordability. While advanced technologies are often expensive, there is always a need to balance capability with cost, especially if the weapon system is to be procured in large numbers.

Interoperability. The ability to integrate the system with various platforms, such as ground vehicles, aircraft, and naval vessels.

Environmental Robustness. The system should perform reliably under various environmental conditions – from desert heat to Arctic cold and in rain, snow, or fog.

Maintenance. Low maintenance requirements and the capability for quick repairs or replacements are critical, especially in combat scenarios.

While providing substantial advantages on the battlefield, a fire-and-forget system requires a delicate balance of advanced technologies, user-friendliness, and reliability. When successfully implemented, such systems significantly enhance a military’s capability by reducing the vulnerability of the shooter and increasing the chances of mission success.

Importance of Integration: Theatre Battle Field

The Theatre Battle Area (TBA) represents the combined operational space where land, sea, and air battles occur. In modern warfare, where speed, precision, and real-time data sharing are vital, integrating assets from the Indian Air Force (IAF), Army, and Navy becomes crucial. 

Unified Command and Control

Efficiency. Integrated command structures facilitate faster decision-making. A unified command can eliminate bureaucratic delays and optimally allocate resources.

Clarity. A single chain of command reduces the potential for misunderstandings and miscommunication, ensuring that all components operate harmoniously.

Real-time Data Sharing. Common Operating Picture: Integration allows assets from the three services to share real-time intelligence and surveillance data. This provides commanders with a comprehensive understanding of the battle space.

Targeting Efficiency. Real-time data exchange ensures that multiple platforms can engage or track a single high-value target, minimising the chance of escape.

Efficient Resource Utilisation 

Redundancy. Integration can reduce the duplication of effort. For instance, if naval and air assets detect a hostile ship, an integrated system would ensure that only the most suitable asset engages the target.

Conservation of Munitions. Efficient target assignment ensures that weapons are judiciously used, conserving valuable munitions for high-priority targets.

Force Projection. Combined Operations. Joint operations, like amphibious assaults, require close coordination between naval, air, and ground forces. Interservice integration ensures operations are executed smoothly.

Interdiction Operations. The IAF’s long-range assets can work with naval and ground intelligence to interdict enemy supply lines, disrupting their operations.

Situational Awareness. Early Warning: Naval or air assets might detect threats (like incoming missiles or hostile aircraft) sooner than ground assets. Integration ensures early warning dissemination across the theatre.

Layered Defense. Integrated air defence systems can create multiple layers of protection against airborne threats, increasing the chances of interception.

Flexibility and AdaptabilityDynamic Retasking. Assets can be dynamically reassigned based on the evolving situation. For example, an IAF reconnaissance aircraft, after completing its primary mission, might be re-tasked to assist naval assets.

Enhanced Training

Joint Exercises. Training together improves interoperability. Forces that train together understand each other’s capabilities, limitations, and operational procedures.

Scenario Simulation. Integrated training allows for more realistic war-gaming, preparing forces for real-world scenarios.

Economic Efficiency

Shared Infrastructure. Integrated bases or facilities reduce the overhead costs of maintaining separate installations.

Joint Procurement. The three services can pool resources for procuring standard systems or platforms, resulting in economies of scale.

Posture for Future Warfare

Technological Evolution. Modern warfare technologies, like drones, cyber warfare tools, and space assets, must fit neatly into the traditional domain divisions. Integration prepares the armed forces for such multi-domain operations.

Asymmetric Warfare. Modern threats, like terrorism and cyber-attacks, require a coordinated response from all military branches.

Loitering Munitions 

Loitering munitions, also called “kamikaze drones,” have emerged as a unique class of weapon systems that combine the capabilities of drones and traditional munitions. These munitions can “loiter” in the sky over the Theatre Battle Area (TBA) for an extended period before being directed to a target, making them versatile and posing new challenges to static and mobile land and naval systems. 

Challenges for Static Land Systems

Warning Time. Traditional early-warning systems are optimised for high-speed projectiles. Loitering munitions, which can fly slowly and at low altitudes, may take longer than expected by such systems.

Sensor Saturation. Multiple loitering munitions, confusing and overwhelming defensive systems, can be deployed simultaneously.

Adaptability. Some loitering munitions have AI capabilities to dynamically change their approach strategies, making it hard to predict and counteract their actions.

Hardened and Underground Targets. The ability of some loitering munitions to loiter until a bunker or hardened facility’s entrance is exposed makes them a formidable challenge for static defences.

Resource Drain. Constantly defending against loitering munitions can drain ammunition and power resources of static defence systems.

Challenges for Mobile Land Systems

Operational Disruption. Loitering munitions can disrupt frontline and logistical operations, targeting supply convoys, field hospitals, and other critical mobile land assets.

Tactical Imbalance. Loitering munitions can force mobile land systems to operate more conservatively, sticking close to areas with better anti-air cover, thus reducing their tactical flexibility.

Swarm Attacks. Multiple loitering munitions can coordinate to perform swarm attacks on mobile units, presenting a threat that is hard to defend against using traditional methods.

Challenges for Naval Systems

Asymmetric Warfare. Smaller nations or non-state actors armed with loitering munitions can significantly threaten even the most advanced naval fleets.

Close-In Defense. Naval vessels have various layers of air defences, but loitering munitions that manage to penetrate these would force the ships into close-in defence scenarios, which can be resource-intensive.

Multi-Domain Threat. Loitering munitions can be launched from multiple platforms: surface vessels, aircraft, or onshore assets. Multi-domain threat poses a multi-domain threat that complicates defence.

Ammunition Constraints. Naval vessels carry limited ammunition for their close-in weapon systems (CIWS). Frequent engagements with loitering munitions can deplete these resources quickly.

General Challenges

Rules of Engagement. Loitering munitions pose a dilemma in identifying them as hostile entities, mainly when they are in the “loitering” phase and have not yet engaged a target.

Cost-Efficiency. Defence against loitering munitions involves expensive anti-aircraft missiles, leading to an unfavourable cost-exchange ratio.

Collateral Damage. Depending on the area of operations, the detonation of loitering munitions by defensive systems might cause unintended collateral damage.

Electronic Warfare. Loitering munitions often rely on data links for command and control, making them potential vectors for electronic attack, jamming, or spoofing. Nevertheless, defending against these electronic warfare capabilities is itself a challenge.

Technological Advancements. As loitering munitions become more advanced, incorporating stealth features and electronic countermeasures, countering them will become increasingly complex.

While loitering munitions provide a range of new options for offence, they simultaneously pose numerous and layered challenges for defence systems across land and naval domains in the TBA. Adapting to this evolving threat landscape will require comprehensive multi-domain solutions, robust early-warning capabilities, and agile, adaptive defensive strategies.

ASAT Systems 

India’s foray into Anti-Satellite (ASAT) weapons, designed to incapacitate or destroy satellites for strategic military purposes, is a direct response to growing threats in the space domain, especially with countries like China having demonstrated their ASAT capabilities. 

China’s ASAT Demonstrations

China tested its ASAT missile for the first time in 2007 when it destroyed one of its defunct weather satellites, Fengyun-1C. This event created thousands of pieces of space debris, condemned internationally. The test was a clear demonstration of China’s capabilities in kinetic kill vehicle technology, and it highlighted the vulnerability of satellites that nations are heavily reliant upon for communications, surveillance, GPS, and various other functions. Since then, China has continued to develop its ASAT capabilities, though with less overt demonstrations.

India’s ASAT Development

Mission Shakti. India conducted its first ASAT test, “Mission Shakti”, on March 27, 2019. , the test successfully targeted and destroyed a live satellite in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). This mission was significant.

 It demonstrated India’s capability to prevent and interrupt satellite functions if necessary. India became the fourth country in the world after the US, Russia, and China to possess such capability. The test was conducted at a lower altitude to ensure that debris decayed quickly, addressing concerns related to space debris.

Strategic Implications

Deterrence. India’s demonstration of its ASAT capabilities serves as a deterrence against potential adversaries who might consider targeting India’s space assets.

Equal Footing. With China’s established presence in space, India’s ASAT test showcased its commitment to maintaining strategic parity in the region.

Protection of Assets. Given the increasing importance of space-based assets in military and civilian domains, an ASAT capability signals India’s intent to protect its interests in space.

Doctrine and Policy

While India has demonstrated its ASAT capabilities, it has also consistently advocated for the peaceful use of outer space. The country emphasises the need for responsible space behaviour, ensuring space remains free from conflict.

Challenges and Concerns

Space Debris. A concern arising from using kinetic ASAT weapons is the creation of space debris. India ensured that its test minimised long-lasting debris. Widespread use of such weapons in space can have catastrophic consequences for satellite operations.

Escalation. The deployment and potential use of ASAT weapons can lead to escalatory dynamics, especially when two nuclear-armed neighbours possess these capabilities.

Arms Race. One country’s demonstration of ASAT capabilities might motivate others to pursue similar capabilities, potentially leading to an arms race in space.

Global Collaboration. Ensuring space remains safe and accessible for all requires global collaboration. There is a need for international agreements and norms governing the use of ASAT weapons.

India’s demonstration of ASAT capabilities is a strategic response to the growing militarisation of space, particularly in light of China’s advances. The evolving dynamics necessitate responsible international behaviour and the formation of norms to ensure space remains a domain of peace. The Indian Air Force (IAF), since its inception as the Royal Indian Air Force, has transformed into a formidable modern force. Its history post-independence showcases a commitment to national security and service beyond duty. 

The IAF’s motto, “नभः स्पृशं दीप्तम्” (Touch the Sky with Glory), encapsulates its aspirations and achievements. As modern warfare continues to evolve, the integration of IAF, Army, and Naval assets in the Theatre Battle Area (TBA) underlines the importance of a unified and adaptive approach to address the multifaceted challenges of the evolving future battlefield.


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