Hitting an air pocket

The Indian Air Force must wait for about a decade before it's ready to place orders. By then, the fifth generation fighters would be entering the air forces of the world

Mohan Guruswamy Delhi

As the world commemorates the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II, it's probably an apt time to ponder over the nature of future war and its impact on India.

High cost
By its very nature, modern limited war will be airpower intensive. Airpower is the most capital intensive means of war. A modern fighter jet now could cost several hundred crores of rupees and the prices seem to be rising exponentially. A budget of Rs 42,000 crore has been provisioned for 126 Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) proposed to be acquired. This suggests a price of about Rs 330 crore each. Given an operational life of about 40-50 years these would easily require at least a three-fold expenditure, for periodic maintenance and modernisation. The first lot of MIG-21s cost us less than Rs 20 lakh each. A brand new and latest MIG-21 variant will cost at least one hundred times that.

Aircraft delivered ordnance also is very expensive. A run of the mill radar-guided cum heat-seeking missile today can cost upto Rs 50 lakh each while an advanced long range air-to-air missile could cost five times that. Then we have a wide array of laser-guided, and TV-guided precision munitions that can be just as expensive. For instance, the prices of runway-busting Durandal bombs start at about Rs 15 lakh a piece. The accuracy of these weapons makes them devastating, but nevertheless airpower alone does not win wars.

If it were so, the USA would have won in Vietnam or even be winning in Afghanistan. The Israeli war in Lebanon in 2006, which mostly relied on its vastly superior airpower, did not give it the results it expected. The Hezbollah was seen a victor for showing itself willing to stand up to the Israeli onslaught, which in just a few days killed 1,200 fighters and civilians for just a handful of Israeli casualties. But even this war cost Israel $4 billion and shaved off a little over one per cent from its annual economic growth. Meanwhile, the Hezbollah and Hamas continue to flourish and are now even bigger players in the politics of the region. So who won?

Credibility factor
Given the nature of our geography, the Indian Army will still have to bear the primary burden of defending the borders. But Kargil has shown that the combination of air and land power delivers results, especially, in the mountains. Similarly, the Indian Navy has an equally vital function since it can impose huge economic costs on an imported oil dependent adversary. Nevertheless, when it comes to power projection it is the conventional air power available over land and water that provides a credible deterrent. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent, but the conditions under which they become credible will seldom arise in the modern world. Our military credibility depends upon the options we have available at every step of the escalatory ladder.

Consider a situation where the Chinese in a quick and surprise offensive seize Tawang, which it has been vociferously claiming? Or, they break out of the Chumbi valley and make a southward dash? This done, and as they seem poised for a drive lower down towards the plains, will our next response be to threaten the use of nuclear weapons or do we seek answers with other forms of escalation? Suppose the air force of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) attacks Hindon or Palam airports on the outskirts of New Delhi. Will an attack on Lhasa's Gongkar airport or Kashgar airport be an adequate retaliation? Or, will deterrence be obtained by an ability to strike back deep into the adversary's homeland rather than in its recently acquired periphery?

In another scenario, suppose Pakistan bombs and sets fire to our major oil refining plants at Jamnagar. What will be an adequate retribution? Will this take the form of a nuclear attack or conventional means to extract more disproportionate retribution?

The threat to use nuclear weapons will be akin to retaliating for a stone thrown with a grenade, something that would be vastly disproportionate and therefore not credible. Credible deterrence can only be had by ensuring the ability to strike deep and powerfully at will with conventional weapons should a situation arise. This can only be obtained by airpower. That is why the acquisitions being sought by the Indian Air Force, particularly the 126 MRCAs, become extremely important. Unfortunately, the Indian Air Force (IAF) also seems the least cerebral and most discussion averse of our services.

Freedom from embargoes
The cost intensiveness of modern fighter aircraft requires they stay in service for decades and also be capable of maintaining air superiority and lethality in an environment where technological advancements are rapid. This means that the aircraft we buy today must be capable of taking two or more upgrades. So, the later the design and development, the greater are the upgrade options. The latest upgraded MIG-21-93 has all the latest avionics and the powerful Tumanskiy R-25 300 engine. In simulations the MIG-21-93 has even outperformed the latest F-16 block 52 fighter the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is acquiring. But like the F-16, the MIG-21, the mainstay of the IAF, has had one upgrade too many and not much more can possibly be done on the outdated airframes. Thus, both will be finally phased out around 2025 or just 16 years hence.

The next major consideration is cost. In fact, a sound equation correlating cost, age, lethality, performance, state-of-the-art, replacement and maintenance costs, political risk and other factors is well nigh impossible. It seems amply clear that the final decision will be made depending on circumstances and old fashioned judgment, and some other considerations that need not be discussed here. Yet the IAF has opted for a grand competition to choose India's biggest single item defence purchase?

Since modern fighter aircrafts are not only extremely expensive but also technologically very advanced, it goes without saying that full indigenisation will never be possible. A good percentage of the parts will always be imported, either from the original aircraft manufacturer or from original equipment manufacturers (OE) in other countries. In times of conflict, the wear and tear is greater and munitions stores run down rapidly. The new generation missiles and bombs, most of which at all times will be imported, do not have very long shelf lives. This means that supply lines must be always open.

Thus the first requirement that suppliers must meet would be to promise an embargo free regime. Many countries such as the USA, UK, Sweden and Germany have embargo policies for countries in conflict written into their laws. So, it is our leadership's duty to have exemptions guaranteed. Likewise, we also cannot have intrusive and subjective End Use Monitoring Agreements (EUMA) in place.

The recent fuss about the modification by Pakistan of the US supplied Harpoon missiles is a case in point. Suppose India were to put bomb racks in its US supplied C-130 transport aircraft, as the IAF did in 1971 with its Soviet made AN-12 transport aircraft. Would we then have to take the US Air Force's permission? These are issues for our diplomats to work on and seek cast iron exemptions. Otherwise, this is the time to exclude such suppliers.

Shootout in the skies
The great shootout for the selection of 126 fighters for the IAF has now begun. Six aircrafts are in the fray for this huge order, variously reported to be worth Rs 42,000 crore which at current exchange rates is far more than that. This will put the price of each plane somewhere between Rs 330-400 crore.

One can choose from the Russian made MIG-35, the Rafale from Dassault Aviation of France, the Eurofighter Typhoon made by a consortium of Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, the JAS-39 Gripen produced by Saab of Sweden, and two US produced aircraft, Lockheed Martin's F-16 Super Viper and McDonnell Douglas's F-18 Super Hornet. Whoever gets the order is going to be laughing all the way to the bank for a long time.

These 126 MRCAs are essentially supposed to be replacements for the older MIG-21s and the indigenous Tejas LCA which still is to enter service and is now about 15 years overdue. In recent years, the IAF has also phased out all its MIG-23 fighters. All these are best described as light weight frontal aviation aircraft.

The IAF's upgraded MIG-21 bis is a single engine light fighter weighing 5,340 kg empty and a gross weight of 8,725 kg. While the performance characteristics of the MIG-21 bis are very different from the earlier variants, it is still essentially an interceptor. It also has a limited range. The Tejas which has still not arrived is also meant to be a light fighter (6,500 kg empty and 13,400 kg maximum take-off weight) with a somewhat limited endurance and is essentially meant to replace the MIG-21. The upgraded MIG-21 bis is expected to have a service life till about 2025 when the F-16 series is also expected to be rendered totally obsolete.

How do we stack up?
The IAF is slated to have 270 Su-30 MKIs, in addition to the soon-to-be upgraded 69 MIG-29s and 51 Mirage 2000s. Added to this are the 120 upgraded MIG-27s and 108 Jaguars for ground attack duties. The IAF has 852 combat aircraft in all and is one of the more formidable air forces in the world.

Pakistan's air force has by contrast only 470 combat aircraft of which only 42 F-16s can be considered to be fourth generation aircraft comparable to the Su-30s and the upgraded MIG 29s and Mirage 2000s. The PAF also has on order 36 Chinese J-10B fighters. The backbone of the PAF consists of ageing Mirage III and V fighters and the Chinese F-7 Skybolt, a takeoff on the MIG-21. The PAF soon expects to replace its Nanchang A-5 strike aircraft with Chinese JF-17 MRCAs. The JF-17 is a result of a joint project between China and Pakistan and quite interestingly is powered by a single Klimov RD-93 engine and has an empty weight of 6,411 kg.
The air wing of China's PLA deploys 2,300 fighter aircraft of which 290 are J-11s and J-10s or 4 and 4.5 generation aircraft comparable to the Su-30s. In addition, it has 100 SU-30MKK and 76 SU-27SK MRCAs. The J-11 is an air superiority fighter developed from the SU-27 airframe. The J-10 is supposedly based on the Israeli Lavi, the development of which was abandoned under US pressure many years ago.

Israel is closely associated with several Chinese military projects and is their primary source of the latest western technology. Whether this causes any alarm in our higher echelons is not known as Israel has now become integral to many of our major defence projects? While they may have the technology they, as can well be expected, also know how to extract a price and are quite comfortable doing business in India.

The Chinese PLA air force has another ace up its sleeve. It deploys over 100 JH-7 fighter bombers that bear an uncanny resemblance to the US F-111. The JH-7 has two licence built Rolls Royce Spey MK202 engines and with a weapons load of about 9,000 kg and a combat radius of 1,800 km has the capability of striking deep into India from bases in Xinjiang, Tibet and Yunnan. The Chinese also have 120 Xian H-6 bombers derived from the well proven Russian TU-16 bomber. The H-6 can carry much more ordnance than the JH-7 and also has a combat radius of 1,800 km. The Chinese have modernised these bombers in the late 1990s with new avionics and mid-air refueling capability vastly enhancing their range. The IAF has nothing in comparison. This ability to strike deep into India without inviting a similar response gives the Chinese a clear strategic advantage.

While the PLA air force is certainly formidable, the IAF is no slouch either and clearly outguns it with superior 4-4.5 generation aircraft. When these are coupled with the newly inducted airborne warning and control systems (AWAC) and air-to-air refueling capability, they confer on the IAF a huge force multiplier. While the IAF may be able to adequately defend Indian air space and lend close support to the army, it quite clearly lacks the capability to strike deep into the Han homeland.

Nature of future war
One thing we can be certain about is that US will impose sanctions. No assurances will ever be forthcoming from the US on this. They already have in place the EUMA which is required by the US law. Thus, the US gives itself the right to determine how, where and when we use weapons purchased by us. We can also make no modifications to them without their approval.

In this connection, it would be worthwhile to refer to a newspaper article written by Air Chief Marshal (retd) S Krishnaswamy on the inadvisability of the EUMA. To paraphrase the late VK Krishna Menon, we unfortunately do not have a gun that can shoot only in one direction. Besides, we must not forget that Pakistan is still a US ally and China is its main economic partner. For US interests to transcend all this and favour India will be to expect too much from the pragmatic Americans.

This gives us a relatively very small window of time in which a decisive and perceived military victory by inflicting spectacular and painful damage must be achieved. The period this window will be open, in all probability, will be in days and at in any case not more than a few weeks.

All the major Indian military, commercial and logistical centres are within easy access of PLA aircraft operating from Tibet, Xinjiang, Sichuan and Yunnan, while comparable Chinese counter-value targets are mostly deep inland. Tibet and Xinjiang which border India are considered as peripheral regions in the Chinese scheme of things and serve no more than buffers. That is, punishment inflicted here does not serve the same psychological purpose as in the Han dominated heartland. That means an Indian counterstrike by air will require aircraft that can carry a considerable payload deep into China. Unfortunately, the MRCAs we have or are ordering do not have this capability.

Even with mid-air refueling, a highly trained pilot strapped firmly to his seat cannot fly for more than 5-6 hours, particularly in a high-stress situation. The human body has its limitations. While on paper the IAF can fly to Beijing and back, it is not a practical option. This can be made up by having accurate air-launched long range cruise missiles such as the Brahmos, but these must be available in large numbers. The payload of a missile is also very small in comparison. It might be pertinent to note here that despite all the tall talk the IAF has only recently acquired the ability to strike across the Himalayas.

The PLA air force, while still largely obsolete, can still put a huge number of aircraft into the air from its forward bases in Xinjiang, Tibet and Yunnan. To meet them, the IAF, too, will need a large number of interceptors. That's why we still have the concept of a light fighter aircraft, like the Tejas. But the aircraft the IAF has requisitioned now is an MRCA, which would be a heavy, twin engined and long range aircraft.

The IAF has on order 220 Su-30 MKI aircraft with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Sukhoi Aviation, and is expected to soon order another 70-90 direct from Sukhoi Aviation to plug gaps in its inventory. The Su-30 MKI is considered the most advanced and versatile of the 4.5 generation fighters. In exercises, it has consistently outperformed comparable aircrafts like the USAF's F-15 Eagle. The Su-30 is a monster of a plane and weighs 17,700 kg empty and 38,800 kg fully loaded. It has a combat radius of over 2,000 km. Despite its size, it is extremely agile and manoeuvrable.

Long way to go
The great shootout has just begun. It is expected to end late in 2010. Then the process of evaluating the results will begin. That, too, will take a few years given the turnover of senior officers. Then we will need long and tortuous price negotiations and will have to factor in regime changes, not only in the supplier nations but also in India. So, we are looking at about a decade before we are ready to place orders. By then, the fifth generation fighters would be entering the air forces of the world.

The question is whether our national security planners in the prime minister's office, ministry of defence and IAF have thought their way through on issues that will inevitably confront us when we are making choices?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2009