The IAF has enough air assets to support the operationally very important Battlefield Air Support (BAS) mission. In addition to targeting enemy airfields, movement of enemy ground forces, especially their strike corps and reserves would have to be thwarted. In the mountainous region, India would have to interdict and close supply routes by air-action. The Indo-Russian FGFA, which is a derivative of the in-development single-seat Russian Sukhoi PAK-FA, will join the IAF by the end of this decade.
Air Forces today have to prepare for war involving Force-against-Force conventional war, sub-conventional low-intensity conflict and possible tactical nuclear exchange…
For centuries, foot soldiers fought with organic weapons. Maritime operations allowed wars to be prosecuted at much farther distances across seas. But it was the advent of air power in the 20th century that revolutionised war fighting ability both in speed of prosecution and the level of destruction. Since WW II, the war effort has been driven primarily by air power. For initial decades, the air elements were part of the Army and used more like extended artillery. Thus, of the many aerial missions that evolved, Close Air Support (CAS) was among the first.
CAS is defined as air-action by fixed or rotary wing aircraft against hostile targets that are in close proximity to friendly forces. These required detailed planning and integration of air-elements, ground fire, troop positions and movements of friendly forces. Often, the risk to own ground forces and attacking aircraft, vis-à-vis the dividend, was high. It was then considered that a more effective mission could be to interdict military enforcements and logistics reaching the battlefield. Thus evolved the concept of Battlefield Air Support (BAS) Mission.
BAS involves air-attacks against targets that tend to affect ground combat a few hours or days later compared to the immediate effect of CAS. It is also referred to as a subset of air interdiction wherein battlefield air interdiction is carried out against the enemy with near-term effect on friendly units. Increasingly critical significance of technology and lethal employment of heavy force at short notice, have become the most important determinant of success in war.
Modern aircraft are power houses of technology and can undertake multiple missions with high accuracies from stand-off ranges. A single SU-30 MKI can accurately deliver more lethal power than a squadron of older MiG-21s. Unmanned aircraft have brought in a new dimension all together. The stealth fifth generation aircraft could cost around $120 million. There is thus a debate in the military aviation circles on assignment of missions to different airborne platforms. One among these is cost effectiveness of use of fifth generation aircraft for BAS.
Modern aircraft are power houses of technology and can undertake multiple missions with high accuracies from stand-off ranges…
Changing Ground Battlefield
Unlike in WW II, where military-industrial complexes, ground forces, bridgeheads and weapon placements were clearly defined military targets, in Vietnam for the first time, US air power faced ill-defined, on-the-move guerrillas. In spite of the CAS being relevant, there were high air casualties. Again, when the juggernaut of the coalition forces initially rolled into Iraq, they faced an unconventional air war against well-armed insurgents. Urban warfare in built-up populated cities has risk of high collateral civilian damage and casualties. Accurate intelligence and Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) thus became premium.
In Afghanistan and West Pakistan, attacking the Taliban and Al-Qaeda supply lines had its dividends but targeting civilian looking operatives/terrorists in caves and hutments required a new approach. Often, technology doesn’t work in the cellars of buildings or in caves. Highly motivated adversaries may not get intimidated by overwhelming air power.
Battlefield Air Support
Air interdiction or deep air support is a mission to make preventive air attacks against enemy targets. Such attacks delay and disrupt enemy response. This is an ability that all air forces possess. Typical objectives in tactical interdiction are meant to affect events rapidly and locally, for example, through direct destruction of forces or supplies en route to the active battle area. This forms part of BAS.
The best examples of BAS have been the Allied air attacks against the Axis forces in North Africa and Normandy during WW II. The enemy’s supply and transportation infrastructure was targeted. Coalition air interdiction efforts in the 1991 Gulf War were extremely successful in isolating frontline Iraqi units from their bases in the rear. Intelligence, much of it derived from space and airborne sensors, gave an unusually clear picture of enemy locations, and the open desert terrain similarly facilitated air interdiction operations.
In the Indian context, there are large rival conventional forces, which make it necessary to have large ground force including Strike Corps.
Developments in Aerial Platforms
The attack aircraft were designed to carry out low-level strikes delivering weapons accurately in ground attack missions. US attack aircraft had a prefix ‘A’. However, with the advent of technology, accuracy of weapon delivery from height, multi-role fighter-bombers and the line of so-called specialisation blurred. In WW II, Americans and British had A-36 and P-51 as dedicated CAS aircraft but they were more open to use various other fighter bombers for the role. The Soviets too, had designed dedicated ground attack aircraft such as the Ilyushin 2. Rotary wing gunships were introduced in Vietnam.
Cargo aircraft fitted with guns such as Lockheed C-130 are still in use. The American A-10 Thunderbolt II (Warthog) and Su-25 (Frog-foot) are very successful ground attack aircraft in CAS role. The US Bomber B-1B was extensively used to deliver JDAMs and GPS Guided Bombs in Iraq in CAS missions. The F-16, Mirage-2000, Tornado GR4, AV-8B Harrier and the F/A 18 Hornet have all been used in CAS role in Afghanistan.
Increasingly, targeting is being aided by electronics and optical technology to identify and direct fire. Air platforms are also used for convoy escort as well as command and control enhancement in low intensity conflict. Higher speeds and heights of aerial/space platforms, stealthy aircraft, advances in all-weather surveillance equipment, higher endurance through aerial refuelling, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), stand-off PGMs, all added to lethality of air power. Advanced technology gave the ability to see and attack the enemy from greater heights and even in total darkness. As platforms and weapons became more advanced and in turn expensive, the targets became ill-defined and relatively inexpensive. Cost-to-kill vs return-for-kill became unfavourably prohibitive. Imagine using a $120-million aircraft dropping a $200,000 weapon to eliminate three ‘suspected’ Taliban operatives.
Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) are the latest jet fighters encompassing the most advanced features…
Newer Air Missions
The world is currently going through the ‘Fourth Generation’ wars which are characterised by blurring of the lines between war and politics, combatants and civilians, conflicts and peace, battlefields and safety. While this term is similar to terrorism and asymmetric warfare, it is much narrower. Fourth generation warfare usually has the insurgency group or non-state side trying to implement their own government or re-establish an old government over the one currently running the territory. The blurring of lines between state and non-state is further complicated in a democracy by the power of the media.
Air Forces today, therefore, have to prepare for war involving Force-against-Force conventional war, sub-conventional low-intensity conflict and possible tactical nuclear exchange. At the conventional level, the shifting strategic-tactical differential and compression of time and expansion of space in the arena of conflict, has circumscribed the range of options available. Technology remains a double-edged sword and there is still no straight-forward substitute for boots-on-the-ground. In the recent past, the world has seen asymmetric wars. Even after 18 months of air-assault against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, there is great temptation and pressure to send boots on the ground.
In the Indian context, there are large rival conventional forces, which make it necessary to have large ground force including Strike Corps. Experience in Kargil established that BAS was crucial but the hilltops had to be conquered by foot soldiers. Any assessment and force structure change requires projections on sub-conventional and other threats such as counter-insurgency to arrive at key recommendations for the armed forces. Some argue that a CAS mission be handled more directly by the ground forces with integral air power. This would require duplicity of expensive air assets. Risk-to-benefit ratio will have to be carefully analysed. UAVs will often replace manned aircraft.
Fifth Generation Fighters
Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) are the latest jet fighters encompassing the most advanced features. While the exact characteristics are vague, they generally include all-aspect stealth even when fully armed; high performance airframes providing high manoeuverability that includes short-field capability; advanced avionics with long-range sensors; networked data fusion from sensors and avionics providing full battle space situational awareness and multi-role capabilities.
The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, the only combat-ready fifth-generation fighter entered service in 2005. Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning variants have just started entering service. The Sukhoi PAK-FA, HAL AMCA, Chinese J-20 and J-31 and Turkish TAI TFX (with BAE Systems support) are under various stages of development. These aircraft will operate in a ‘Combat Cloud’ along with future UAVs.
F-22 programme was closed in 2015 after spending $67.3 billion on just 188 aircraft averaging $357 million apiece. The average unit cost of F-35 is around $125 million. Even the cheaper Indian FGFA will cost over $100 million. While the relatively cheaper Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) costs around $40,000 today, the Tactical Tomahawk costs $730,000. Now that is a lot of money.
Advantage Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
High-fidelity automated flight controls, high-speed computations, revolution in precision navigation and very secure, near break-proof, data-links have allowed development and proliferation of UAVs. With pilot out of the cockpit and attendant benefits of longer endurance and reduced risk to life, it opened a new chapter in the history of warfare. Drones have also made air war more indiscriminate and in turn bloodier. Hundreds of strikes by UAVs in Afghanistan and Pakistan underscore this dramatic change in the way air power is employed today. Capability for long-range precision strikes by PGM-carrying drones was demonstrated in the First Gulf War.
The US has already modified F-4s and F-16s to fly them remotely…
Modern drones provide many of the best features of both cruise missiles and manned aircraft. Despite their great capabilities, they are predominantly still used for information collection in form of electro-optical data. Systems such as Aerovironment’s Wasp, Puma and Raven; Insitu’s ScanEagle and Textron’s Shadow are in operation. Even the Predator variant MQ-9 Reaper, a platform meant for armed strikes, is predominantly employed for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions.
The larger systems such as Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk and Lockheed Martin’s stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel are intended solely to gather intelligence. Armed drones continue to remain a niche function. They are useful in situations where real-time tactical intelligence is required in order to launch a weapon and the operating environment is extremely benign. They can loiter in the area of a suspected target, waiting for positive identification and the proper time to strike with the least possibility of inflicting collateral damage. Armed drones now attack targets that in the past would have required an invasion with thousands of heavily armed troops, displacing huge numbers of civilians and destroying valuable property along the way. Some analysts say that drones in current counterterrorism operations are promoting a ‘license to kill’.
Unmanned aircraft already take off and land by themselves including on a moving aircraft carrier (Northrop GrummanX-47B). Autonomous air refuelling would leave UAVs on station for months. Lockheed Martin’s UCLASS drone ‘Sea Ghost’ looks rather like a stealth bomber and is expected to carry 1,000-lb class weapons. Boeing’s Phantom Eye is used as an eye-in-the-sky in battle zones. It is a High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) vehicle that can spend over four days in continuous flight. The US has already modified F-4s and F-16s to fly them remotely. In France, Dassault leads a multi-nation delta wing UCAV ‘Neuron’ project of the size of Mirage 2000.
The DRDO is developing a Medium Altitude Long Endurance UAV named ‘Rustam’ to replace/supplement the Heron UAVs in service…
UK’s Strategic Unmanned Air Vehicle programme ‘Taranis’ is headed by BAE Systems and is partnered by GE Aviation, Rolls Royce and QinetiQ. This will be a supersonic autonomous stealth bomber with intercontinental range. US Department of Defense Hypersonic (Mach 6) Strike Bomber is likely to be optionally manned. The US Army’s dramatic shift to a nearly all-unmanned flight over the next three decades is embedded in the UAS roadmap. The USAF’s vision document indicates that by 2047, every mission including heavy-lift, would be unmanned. UAVs have become too attractive and potent military asset for any significant power to ignore. The USAF has 300-plus active Global Hawk, Predator and Reaper drones in its inventory. That number is expected to grow to 450 by fiscal 2017.
Since 2011, the USAF has trained more UAV pilots than fighter and bomber pilots combined. UAVs are best for strikes on heavily defended targets. UAVs have much lower training costs and can best concentrate on ISR and BAS leaving air superiority to be handled by manned fighters. Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) can perform the Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) mission and pre-emptive strikes ahead of main force package. UAVs operate at a fraction of the total Life Cycle Costs of manned systems. Mixed manned and unmanned formations, with airborne crew controlling swarms of UAVs including their attack and weapon release is already a reality.
The US Navy already has a mixed force squadron with manned and Fire Scout unmanned helicopters. UAVs will one day carry the nuclear weapon. By 2030, flying robots could be programmed with automatic target engagement logic and would open fire only after going through a checklist of preset engagement rules. By 2047, the USAF foresees fewer pilots and many more stand-alone UAVs. UAVs will thus be a great bet to take on the mission BAS.
BAS Aircraft Choices for India
The IAF’s top of the line air superiority fighter Sukhoi Su-30 MKI has multi-role capability. Finally, the IAF will have around 14 Squadrons. The aircraft already has state-of-the-art navigation and targeting avionics. Its radar can detect ground targets such as tanks at 40 to 50 km. The Israeli ‘Litening’ targeting pod is used for laser guided munitions. It includes long-range FLIR and a TV camera that also support cluster and general purpose bombs. They will one day have AESA radar with over 450 km aerial range giving it mini-AWACS features, and better ground resolution.
A satellite navigation system permits all-weather operations. It has a host of air-defence weapons and a powerful self-protection suite for ‘offensive defence’. The air-to-surface armaments include anti-radiation missiles, TV-guided bombs/missiles, anti-shipping weapons, the BrahMos and Nirbhay cruise missile with ranges up to 1,000 km, Laser guided bombs up to 1,500 kg and a variety of cluster and gravity bombs. In addition to its other roles like sanitising the air space, the SU-30 will be a great aircraft to shape the battlefield.
India’s solid-fuel, DRDO-made tactical missile Prahaar has a range of 150 km with the capability to carry both tactical and strategic warheads…
Two squadrons of upgraded multi-role Mirage 2000, four of Anglo-French Jaguar and two of upgraded MiG-27 dedicated strike aircraft would also take on air interdiction and BAS roles. Five squadrons of upgraded MiG-21 Bison could support CAS missions. Later, indigenous HAL Light Combat Aircraft Tejas will be equipped with FLIR targeting pod and will also support BAS and CAS missions. The Beriev A-50 (EL/W-2090 Phalcon) AEW&C and later DRDO AEW&C Embraer ERJ-145 will give command and control support to the BAS missions into enemy territory. The weaponised version of HAL ALH Dhruv and two squadrons of Mi-25/35 attack helicopters will support CAS missions.
HAL is developing the Light Combat Helicopter that will be capable to operate from altitudes of 6,500 metres. The IAF will acquire around 68 for anti-infantry and anti-armour role. Many more will be acquired by Indian Army. 22 Boeing AH-64E Apache attack helicopters on order for the IAF and 33 planned to be acquired by the Indian Army, will all take on CAS and limited BAS missions. IAI Harpy combat UAV will fly anti-radar missions. The IAF is also trying to acquire UCAVs with low radar cross-section, high service ceiling, 925 km-range and capability to carry PGMs in an internal weapons bay.
The DRDO is developing a Medium Altitude Long Endurance UAV named ‘Rustam’ to replace/supplement the Heron UAVs in service. They are also developing the Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft a UCAV which will be a tactical stealth aircraft built largely with composites, and capable of delivering laser-guided strike weapons. All these will be part of the great basket of BAS aircraft.
Tactical Surface-to-Surface Missiles
The tactical ballistic missiles are designed for short-range battlefield use. They are an extension of the artillery. Typically they have range under 300 km. They are usually mobile for quicker re-deployment and also better survivability. They carry a variety of warheads to target enemy facilities, assembly areas, artillery and other targets behind the front lines. Warheads can include conventional high explosive, chemical, biological or nuclear warheads. Typically, tactical nuclear weapons are limited in their total yield compared to strategic rockets. They are better suited to responding to developments on the battlefield.
BAS missions will have to be shared between fighter aircraft, UAVs and surface-to-surface missiles…
For many nations, tactical missiles represent the upper limit of their land-based military equipment. They are a powerful weapon at very economical price. Only very modern air defense systems such as the Russian S-400 Triumph or Israeli Iron Dome have some ability to intercept tactical missiles. In India’s neighbourhood, the Chinese WS-1 and Pakistan’s Nasr (Hatf IX), Abdali (Hatf II), Ghaznavi (Hatf III) are all between the ranges of 60 to 300 km. Nasr is purported to have a tactical nuclear warhead. India’s solid-fuel, DRDO-made tactical missile Prahaar has a range of 150 km with the capability to carry both tactical and strategic warheads. Most of these will have the battlefield support role.
BAS Planning Imperatives
It is clear that BAS missions will have to be shared between fighter aircraft, UAVs and surface-to-surface missiles. The selection of BAS/interdiction targets would have to be evolved jointly between army and air force. The end-state requirements would have to be clearly defined and achieved. The timing of the strike has to be linked to the ground plan. Timely intelligence would be critical. While CAS would be at Corps HQ level, the BAS will best be planned at Command HQ level. BAS strikes will be part of a larger offensive multi-mission package involving large number of aircraft. Missions will integrate buddy UAVs. Missiles strikes, SEAD and Air Superiority missions will precede and support. The air package will be a mix of high and mid-level fighters.
Fifth Generation Aircraft Missions for India
Thus, it is clear that the IAF has enough air assets to support the operationally very important BAS mission. In addition to targeting enemy airfields, movement of enemy ground forces, especially their strike corps and reserves would have to be thwarted. In the mountainous region, India would have to interdict and close supply routes by air-action. The Indo-Russian FGFA, which is a derivative of the in-development single-seat Russian Sukhoi PAK-FA, will join the IAF by the end of this decade.
Large numbers will be inducted to replace MiG-29s and MiG-27s. HAL and ADA have also started design work on a 20-tonne class, fifth generation stealth multi-role Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) to replace the Jaguar and Mirage 2000 fighters one day. The IAF targets around 250 AMCAs. Both will have multi mission capability but the IAF will have enough air assets for BAS missions and will be able leave these expensive fifth-generation aircraft for air-superiority and strategic missions.