Indian Power Projection – Element Air

anil chopra, air power asia, Power Projectin, India

With expansionist China and a powerful India having a serious Face-off in Ladakh. It is a great time to talk about Indian defence capability and ability for power projection.

A few general points first

India’s traditional foreign-policy orientation was not for military power projection. Things have changed. In 2014, PM Modi told the military commanders at the Combined Commanders Conference, that “India is one of the major poles of global security”. All three branches of the Indian armed forces have in recent times articulated the need to operate beyond the country’s immediate borders. While the Indian military may take some time to achieve its ambitious power projection objectives in the medium term, clearly the ball has been set in motion, for India to be a regional power.

Image Source:

Power Projection

Power projection is the capacity of a state to deploy and sustain forces outside its territory. Two crucial elements for this are state’s power in international relations, and ability to direct military forces outside its territory. Just having a large standing army may not be enough to exert limited regional influence. It requires political will and military logistics wherewithal, and force projection ability. There are two sides of power, hard and soft.

Hard power includes, showing the flag deployments, or taking active military action; deterrence, by threat of use of military force; punishment or punitive use of force; armed intervention by physically moving military forces into another nation’s territory; finally conquest and forcibly occupy another countries territory. The traditional hard power assets are like aircraft, naval vessels, tanks and soldiers.

Soft power is no less important and includes securing sea lanes of communication, non-combatant evacuation operations, humanitarian response, and peacekeeping military operations.

Definition and Primacy of Aerospace Power

The generally accepted definition Air power is “the ability to use platforms operating in or passing through the air for military purpose.” With the introduction of space as an added dimension, the term is now aerospace power. While the Air Forces are the primary custodians of air power, there is significant air power assets with the armies and navies and with civil airlines. The aircraft carrier is like an airbase out at sea and is a potent means of power projection. Air power played dominant role in WW II, Korea, Vietnam, Falklands, Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan and many other conflicts. Aerospace power today is the dominant means of prosecuting war.

A Su-30 MKI and LCA. Image Source:

Global Reach USA & Russia

Till now the real power with global ambitions and global presence was USA. It has 320 combat squadrons and 12 aircraft Carriers and heavy deployments in other countries. Russia too had some measure of global presence though to a lesser extent. Now China is popping up. While USA would like to have a uni-polar world, and bi-polar Asia, China wants to have a Bi-polar world and Uni-polar Asia. India would soon be the third most powerful world power, and would prefer a multi-polar world.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt en route to the Western Pacific in January 2020. Image Source: Wikipedia

China’s Global Aspirations

Since the communist revolution, China has global aspirations. Very early they decided that the power flows from the barrel of the gun. Taking a leaf from the American approach and thinking, China realised very early that the one who controls the aerospace domain, controls the planet. Rapid economic growth in the last two decades allowed China to spend large sums on military technologies and modernisation. It has thus invested heavily in air and space systems. Its military is thus well on its way to bridging the aviation technology gap with the USA. China took the shortcut to achieve this unsurpassed achievement by initially building through license production and later reverse engineering (Beg Borrow or Steal) Soviet and later Russian aircraft and engine designs. In more recent years, it allowed high technology U.S. companies to set up shop in China and in turn acquired some high-end technologies.

Today they are building two stealth fifth generation fighters, medium to large transport aircraft and variety of helicopters, including attack helicopters. They are concentrating on developing long-range ballistic and Cruise missiles to cease advantage in the long-distance, and well Beyond Visual Range (BVR) battle. China relies heavily on its large mobile, surface-based missile strike capability. It has been displaying its hypersonic missiles and the ‘carrier killer’, 1,500 kilometre range DF-21D. The Chinese already claim to be ahead of the USA on this count. China transforming it from a defensive force to one that can project Chinese power throughout Asia and its eastern Pacific sea board.

China’s “carrier killer” anti-ship ballistic missile DF 21D. Image Source:

They are very active on cyber warfare. They have a potent electromagnetic warfare capabilities. They are top investors in artificial intelligence (AI) for intelligent data processing from reconnaissance, surveillance, or intelligence systems and better situational awareness. They are heavily into informatised warfare. China is already called the ‘Walmart’ of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and the largest producer of hand-held systems.

China has around 260 ICBMs. They put a human in space in 2003, and sent an un-crewed moon explorer in 2007. China also conducted a successful Anti-Satellite (ASAT) test in 2007. All elements of the 100-tonne Chinese permanent space station are in place and it should become operational by 2021. The 33 satellite BeiDou Satellite Navigation System is providing global services. A human expedition to Moon is on the cards around 2025. Missions to Mars and beyond are also planned. China wants to create energy from space through an orbital solar power plant. China is also conceptualizing a crewed lunar base and studying a possible space based ASAT capability.

Shandong, China’s Second Aircraft Carrier. Image Source:

The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has a significant air arm with nearly 500 aircraft. It plans to have six aircraft carriers by 2035. Currently, it has only two, with one still under induction. China’s desire is to dominate at least the eastern Pacific Ocean and parts of the Indian Ocean. Both these are critical to the Chinese sphere of influence.

China’s authoritarian central control helps quicker decision making. China’s military muscle flexing in the South China Sea found the world helplessly watching as it usurped millions of kilometres of resource rich and strategically important sea.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is actually way of power projection, by building dependencies through debt and other concessions, and creating a network for out of area contingencies.

China’s aerospace does have its weak areas. Stealth, Aero-engine, AESA technologies are still work in progress. 

China has a growing arms export market in Asia and Africa, and in some segments have over taken Russia.

China and Pakistan have been working closely on defence production and joint military exercises, increasing prospects of two-front war for India.

India has been a little behind in opening economy and also therefore could allocate lesser amounts to defence. China is 3 times India in size and its defence budget is around 3.5 times India’s.

Sino-Pak Air Exercise Shaheen. Image Source:

India’s Power Projection

Aggression or hegemony, are two concepts that “are not in the Indian psyche.” India has been a traditionally a status quo power. This has to change to develop the capacity to project military force far beyond its borders. India needs power projection to secure sea-lanes for trade and energy supplies.

India did liberate Bangladesh through coordinated offensive action. India also responded to and demonstrated power projection capabilities for in the region to keep the peace, to safeguard its national, economic, and energy interests and to respond to requests for military and humanitarian assistance from Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Nepal, Maldives, Afghanistan, Male, among others.

Operation Cactus – Maldives 1988. IL-76 dropping para-commands. Image Source:

India’s immediate interest is South Asia and Indian Ocean Region, and desires unhindered influence in the area. India’s expanded areas of vital national interests are outlined in the “extended neighbourhood doctrine” which includes “from the Suez Canal to the South China Sea covering West Asia, the Gulf, Central Asia, South East Asia, East Asia, the Asia Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region”.

Power projection is a component of Indian military modernization strategy. Regional domination is a prerequisite for the projection of India’s self-image as a great power in the international system. While Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka were traditionally in India’s fold, but Indian domination and credibility of power in the region has been hostage to Chinese aggression, and a lesser extent Pakistan. Pakistan is more of a pin-prick to great power status of India. With two nuclear neighbours with 2nd and 7th largest armed forces, India continues to be preoccupied with localised security concerns.

Military modernization and effective military power are crucial. Unfortunately despite many attempts and policy changes, both modernisation and indigenisation have been slow. India remains one of the largest importers of arms.

To reach flashpoints and extend influence, two important areas other than overall military strength is the reach of Indian Air Force and Indian Navy. 

The Indian military needs to move from reactive defensive orientation of ‘dissuasion and deterrence’ to a proactive ‘offensive defence’ strategy. This requires effective, mobile and flexible power projection capabilities with airborne and amphibious components for ‘Out of Area Coordinated Operations’ beyond its boundaries and shores.

New Delhi should notionally have the ability to mount an operation on the size of the 1983 US intervention in Grenada, or respond to a major humanitarian crisis, and be able to play a law enforcement role in the Indian Ocean littoral region.

India must work towards weakening China’s ability to drive its narrative.

Operation Rahat. Evacuation of Indians from Yemen by C-17 aircraft. Image Source:

India’s Air Power Projection Capabilities

Air is a great means of quick power projection.

India demonstrated great capability in quickly moving out its nationals by air from war-torn areas such as Kuwait and Yemen, and from China and other countries during Covid-19.

India has been a significant first mover for Humanitarian assistance in all the neighbouring countries and beyond, including covering most of south East Asia during Tsunami in 2004.  India has been one of the most significant contributors to UN peacekeeping missions.

IAF Roles

IAF being the main custodian of air power, requires long range strike and high air-lift capability. It also requires ‘forward-basing arrangements.’

IAF’s war doctrine is structured around “both pre-emptive action and swift retaliation, across a region stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Strait of Malacca.

For air power projection, India would require to achieve favourable air situation in areas of interest and also to support naval operations.

Air power can influence the battle-space through deep strike missions. The air force aims to achieve this objective by operating advanced, long-range platforms with air-to-air refuelling capability.

INS Baaz, Greater Nicobar, near Campbell Bay, a Indian Naval Air Station under the joint-services Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) . Runway being extended from 6,000 to 10,000 feet.

IAF Platforms

IAF has 272 Su-30 MKI, and they have displayed long range capability through very long range strikes by repeatedly flying 10 hour long missions and hitting targets nearly 4,000 km away. The last three Rafale came from France flying non-stop for 8 hours with two enroute refuelling. French have used Rafale and Mirage 2000 for strikes in Mali flying 3,300 km away. India has nearly 50 Mirage 2000 which have been platform of choice for Kargil and Balakot.

IAF needs to first build back to the authorised 42 combat squadrons from the current all-time low of 30. For a two-front war against the 2nd and 7th largest air forces of the world, some analysts feel that around 50 combat squadrons would be desirable.

IAF currently has only 7 FRA. IAF’s hope to acquire an additional six new Airbus Military A330 multi-role tanker transports has been repeatedly delayed. To support an expeditionary strike package of just 60 aircraft, which would only provide a modest land-bombardment capability, at least 15 IL-78/A330 tankers would be required, notwithstanding the need for reserves or simultaneous capability in other areas.

Indian AWACS with Phalcon Radar. Imgae Source:

India currently has only 3 IL-76 Phalcon AWACS, and two DRDO smaller Netra class AWACS. For significant regional power projection India must have at least 10 of both.

Major Powers, USA, Russia, and China continue to have large fleets of long range strategic bombers and are all developing stealth bombers. In the long run India needs to look at this important power projection option. India is not even looking at it currently.

Like the Americans and proposed doctrine of China, India needs to make greater use of, and acquire air-launched cruise missiles. BrahMos is a great addition. Subsequently Nirbhay will also join. Numbers need to go up. It must increasingly use surface-to-surface missiles for “deep strike against heavily defended targets in depth, such as airfields.”

Air-Launched BrahMos Cleared For Combat. Firing here from Su-30 MKI. Image Source:

The employment of expeditionary land power requires significant air lift. Move of a single battalion group 2,000 km in one day to respond to a crisis in the immediate neighbourhood would necessitate a lift capacity of around 19 C-17 equivalents, while the ability to do so with an entire brigade would require 55 C-17 equivalent trips. For shorter distances, it would require 32 x An-32 and 7 x IL-76 aircraft on full scale, and 24 x An-32 and 5 x IL-76 aircraft on hard scale.

The current fleet includes 11 C-17s, 17 Il-76, 12 C-130 J, and nearly 100 An-32. 56 Avro replacement is overdue. For the moment the transport capability seems adequate but in the long run, around 20 C-17 class of aircraft will be required. India may also one day need to increase airborne forces capability and require more C-130 class aircraft.

India has a significant heli-lift capability in Mi-26 and Chinook, and a large fleet of Medium lift helicopters. They are supported well with Apache attack helicopters. LCH should join in due course.   

IAF Chinook Helicopters. Image Source:

India has begun investing in longer range and endurance UAVs and UCAVs. Much more needs to be done on this score.  

India will need a much greater inventory of SSMs and SAMs to counter missile threat.

Quick Reaction small satellites and launch capability is another area.

Hypersonic weapons and long range BVRs are critical for force projection.

There is a need for two major airbases in A&N Islands, and may be later extend an Island and have an airbase in Lashdweep.

India needs to tie-up for more airbases abroad for operations, especially in South East Asia, West Asia and Africa.

Indo-US enabling agreements, such GSOMIA, LEMOA, BECA, COMCASA, will allow better logistics support and increased inter-operability with many friendly nations in the region, including USA, Australia and Japan, among some others. 

For India to become a significant world power, India needs to put in more human and financial resources in Defence Research and Development (R&D), and critical technologies.

Agatti Runway Lashdweep Islands. Image Source: Pinterest

IAF Modernisation and Budget

Any modern air force must have at least 40 percent of combat fleet comprising high tech all weather multirole platforms, another 40 percent under upgrade and remaining 20 percent under changeover but still giving strength through numbers. 

China spends $261 Billion and India $71 billion including defence pensions ($19.0 billion, 28%). China and Pakistan have significant code heads outside defence budget. Only around Rs 113734 ($15 billion, 24%) is for Capital purchases. 36 Rafale have cost us Rs 59,000 crore ($9 billion). India is deficient by 12 squadrons and another 9 would be due for phase out by 2035. This would mean 21 new squadrons, costing $100 billion, at today’s rate. Show me the money.   

Unfortunately, bulk of IAF’s Capital allocation will be used for committed liabilities of earlier purchases such as Rafale, LCA and S-400

India currently spends 2.4% of GDP. Clearly this needs to go up to 3.0% for another decade. Capital outlay must go up to close to 50%.

Success in indigenous defence production is most important.  

S 400 Triumf. Image Source:


India’s power projection remains at a nascent stage, and while border threats dominate, the country’s power, interests and capabilities are growing, and India is getting set for force projection far and beyond.

India may not yet have the global reach or global interests of a superpower, yet as it rises, India will need sufficient expeditionary military capability to retain foreign policy autonomy, control disorder in its immediate neighbourhood, and prevent the emergence of a power vacuum in key points of its extended neighbourhood.

India must have the capability to prevent China from expanding influence in its Area of Interest and influence.

While IAF has an independent strategic role for power projection, it also has a significant role to support power projection by other arms. It already has a significant long-range strike and mobility capability, but strengthening them further is crucial for power projection.

These were the authors opening remarks at a Seminar organised by Jaipur Dailogues on 19 Naovember 2020. A link to the on-line discussions is:

Header Picture Credit:

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

4 thoughts on “Indian Power Projection – Element Air

  1. Enjoyed reading this very comprehensive analysis of the Indian power projection situation, and the critical areas that impact it.

    Agree with your observation that “India currently spends 2.4% of GDP. Clearly this needs to go up to 3.0% for another decade. Capital outlay must go up to close to 50%. Success in indigenous defence production is most important.”

    Atma nirbhar Bharat is a positive govt initiative, which needs to be backed by all stake holders in the country’s security, in letter and spirit. Great power status can only be achieved/ guaranteed with self reliance in military platforms, systems and weapons.

    Liked by 2 people

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