With the IAF on track to become a true strategic force, it cannot content itself with increasing the strength and capability of its fighter squadrons alone. Carefully selected force multipliers are essential to enhance its future operational potential, power and reach. But force multipliers are neither invincible nor are they a panacea for military shortcomings. In fact any force multiplier is most effective when the enemy does not possess it or does not have the means to defend against it. And every force multiplier will inevitably attract a counter. For instance, determined efforts are in progress in many nations to discover an answer to stealth.
What do Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA), stealth technology, Precision Guided Munitions (PGM), Electronic Warfare (EW), Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and military satellites have in common? They are all considered to be force multipliers – assets that can dramatically increase the effectiveness of an air force of given size and capability. By “multiplying” system effectiveness, they make it possible for the force to do far more than without them.
The list of force multipliers is neither exhaustive nor is it limited to hardware. Throughout history, intangibles such as leadership, morale, motivation, superior training, innovative tactics and skilled maintenance have produced results that greatly outweighed the potential of a given force. But military effectiveness on the modern battlefield does depend to a large extent on numerical superiority and excellent equipment.
The strength of the combat fleet of the Indian Air Force (IAF) is well below the desired level and is expected to reduce further as vintage MiG-21 and MiG-27ML jets are retired from service in the next few years. Although 200 to 300 new fighter aircraft are likely to be inducted, this will take time. Force multipliers are a way to rapidly enhance combat potential and that is why the IAF is so keen to acquire them.
AWACS – Defending the Indefensible
For decades, ground radars and a handful of aerostats were all the IAF had for its crucial airspace surveillance needs and their limited coverage meant that important air bases close to the international border were practically indefensible. Therefore, the IAF needed AWACS aircraft or even their less capable but cheaper companions – Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft for timely detection of hostile aircraft, UAVs and cruise missiles. Finally, in 2004, the government signed a $1.1 billion deal with Russia and Israel for three A-50EI Phalcon equipped AWACS aircraft.
India’s long boundaries with truculent neighbours mean the IAF requires a fleet of at least 20 AWACS….
In May 2009, when the IAF inducted its first AEACS aircraft, it was like a dream come true. The A-50EI system consists of an Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) EL/W-2090 Phalcon Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar mounted on an upgraded Ilyushin Il-76TD jet transport aircraft. It is a versatile system with 360-degree coverage and over 400-km detection range. It vastly enhances the IAF’s defensive capability and is also invaluable for supporting deep strike missions and missions in support of ground forces in the tactical battle area.
Therefore, for the last five years, the IAF has been projecting the requirement of at least a couple of additional Phalcon-equipped systems and they were even cleared by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) last year. However, current reports indicate that escalating costs of the Il-76 platform are threatening to stall the deal. That’s a pity because India’s long boundaries with truculent neighbours mean the IAF requires a fleet of at least 20 AWACS.
Realising the prohibitive cost of imported AEW&C systems, the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) began working on an indigenous system in the 1980s. Its efforts finally bore fruit on February 14, 2017, with the formal handing over to the IAF of the first of three indigenous AEW&C systems based on the Embraer ERJ 145 regional jet. Dubbed as Netra, the platform that was developed at a cost of over Rs 2,200 crore, has an AESA primary radar with Electronic Support Measures (ESM) and Communications Support Measures (CSM) capability, secure data links and a comprehensive self-defence suite. The endurance of the ERJ 145 is about nine hours with one in-flight refuelling.
The second Netra system is in the final stages of certification and is likely to be inducted shortly. The third prototype will serve as a DRDO test aircraft and may eventually join the IAF. These aircraft will be based at Air Force Station Bhisiana in Punjab, while the three Phalcon aircraft are located at Agra. The practical utility of the IAF’s Phalcon and Netra systems is enhanced by the Air Force Network (AFNET) that became operational in 2010. It is a secure, encrypted system that greatly facilitates communications and data transfer throughout the country’s vast air defence network. The Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) is the facility for intrusion prevention and it rides on the AFNET.
However, DRDO’s creditable achievement notwithstanding, Netra has limitations. Its surveillance zone is restricted to 240 degrees, while its range is only 250 km. That is why in March 2016, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) cleared the development of two larger AWACS aircraft. The ambitious “AWACS-India” project will start with just two systems/aircraft, estimated to cost Rs 5,113 crore, but may eventually go on to eight. It consists of an AESA radar with 360-degree coverage and up to 300-km range mounted on an Airbus A-330-200 commercial wide-body jet. It will not have inflight refuelling capability, yet its endurance will be nine hours. DRDO proposes to improve on the typical AWACS configuration of three antennas with 120-degree coverage (as in the Phalcon) by providing four antennas with 90-degree coverage. This will certainly increase the cost but will also improve detection and tracking capability.
Unmanned platforms are capable of immense force multiplication as Israel and the US have shown…
But readying the first two AWACS-India systems will take at least seven years after contract signing, without slippages by DRDO (a tall order at the best of times). Even the first step – acquisition of the A-330-200 platform still awaits approval by the CCS. Worryingly, the IAF already lags far behind China and Pakistan in this vital aspect of defence capability. China has over 20 AWACS and AEW&C aircraft, including the new KJ-500. Pakistan has four Swedish Saab 2000 Erieye and four Chinese-built ZDK-03 (KJ-200) AEW&C aircraft, and is trying to acquire some more systems.
Flight Refuelling Aircraft – Punching Beyond Reach
The ten-week long stand-off between Chinese and Indian troops at Doklam, which finally ended on August 28, 2017, highlighted the folly of treating the Chinese challenge lightly. For the IAF, the strategic criticality of FRA to enhance the limited range of its combat aircraft was emphasised, yet again. Tanker aircraft can multiply the reach of the IAF’s powerful combat fleet, especially the Su-30MKIs, enabling them to hit targets deep within the Chinese heartland and also undertake other out-of-area operations.
In 2003, the IAF inducted a small fleet of six Ilyushin-78 tanker aircraft. These are highly inadequate for the IAF’s needs, considering that all its future combat aircraft will have inflight refuelling capability. Besides, the Il-78s have proved rather unreliable. Most IAF runways are too short for them, their serviceability rate is just 49 per cent and their refuelling pods are sadly prone to failure. They are also plagued by shortage of spares and inadequate product support. However, the Ilyushin Design Bureau is currently in discussion with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) on upgrade and life extension for these aircraft as part of a larger deal encompassing the IAF’s entire Il-76/Il-78 fleet.
The IAF decided as early as 2006 that it needed more FRA. Since then there have been two failed attempts to induct new tankers. On both occasions, the Airbus A-330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) was selected. It is a modern militarised version of the A-330-200. With maximum internal fuel capacity of 111,000 kg, plus space for the carriage of 45,000 kg of cargo, it represents a big improvement over the Il-78’s capability. Yet both the times, negotiations collapsed due to price complications.
A third tender for at least six tanker aircraft costing over $2 billion is now expected. FRA manufacturers from the United States, Russia, Europe and Israel are in the running. Airbus may apply yet again. Other likely contenders are IAI Bedek Aviation Group’s Boeing 767-200 based Multi-Mission Tanker Transport (MMTT) and Boeing’s own KC-46A Pegasus military aerial refuelling and strategic military transport aircraft based on its 767 airliner. Ilyushin has already offered its upgraded Il-78MD-90A aerial tanker fitted with the more powerful PS-90 turbofans. The same engines power the IAF’s A-50EI AWACS and have proved far more reliable than the D-30KP engines fitted on the Il-78 tanker aircraft.
Unleashing the Unmanned Force
If manned combat aircraft are restrained from operating because the environment seems too hazardous, it is time to send in the unmanned fleet. Unmanned platforms are capable of immense force multiplication as Israel and the US have shown. They can be employed either as unarmed surveillance UAVs or armed Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAV). They permit a variety of missions, including the judicious use of force, while greatly reducing the risk to military personnel. They lower political risks, even of botched missions.
Some estimates are that India’s three services require more than 5,000 UAVs over the next ten years at a cost of over $3 billion…
The IAF already has a small fleet of IAI manufactured Heron, Searcher Mark II and Harpy self-destructing anti-radar UAVs. It needs many more. In 2015, India ordered ten Heron TP drones from IAI for approximately $400 million. With a maximum take-off weight of 5,300 kg, the Heron TP has an endurance of over 30 hours and a mission payload of up to 1,000 kg. Also called Eitan, it is ostensibly unarmed. However, it is rumoured that it can be armed with laser PGMs and other lightweight tactical missiles, thus potentially enhancing the offensive capability of the IAF.
After India joined the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) in June 2016, the US cleared the sale of 22 General Atomics Guardian UAVs (maritime Predator B variant) to the Indian Navy. While these are unarmed, they are designed to carry weapons and may be so cleared and equipped later. Next, the MoD reportedly has plans to buy 100 General Atomics Avenger UCAVs (formerly Predator C) at an estimated cost of $8 billion for the IAF. The Avenger’s design includes stealth features such as internal weapons storage and an S-shaped exhaust for reduced thermal and radar signature. Its cruising speed is 400 km and maximum altitude 50,000 feet. It is equipped with multiple sensors and its internal weapons bay can take 3,500 lbs of PGMs. The Pratt and Whitney turbofan engine is designed for fuel economy and can keep the UCAV airborne for about 18 hours.
Some estimates are that India’s three services require more than 5,000 UAVs over the next ten years at a cost of over $3 billion. The country therefore cannot depend on imports indefinitely. It urgently needs indigenous UAVs, specifically tailored to meet its own needs. DRDO’s Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) has been striving for years to produce modern UAVs. Its most recent milestone was the first flight of the Rustom-2 on November 16, 2016, about three years behind schedule. The Rustom-2 (re-designated Tapas 201) Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV has a maximum speed of just 225 km/h but an impressive endurance of 24 hours. For many years it was presumed that it would be an advanced UCAV, similar to the US Predator. However, DRDO has clarified that it is intended purely for the surveillance role.
Still to come is DRDO’s Autonomous Unmanned Research Aircraft (AURA) for the IAF and the Indian Navy. AURA, now known as Ghatak, is expected to be a stealthy flying-wing UCAV powered by a modified dry-thrust version of the Kaveri turbofan engine. It will have internal bays for carriage of missiles and other PGMs. It is expected to be ready around 2025.
For best operational results and true force multiplication, the IAF needs to work on integrating its unmanned and manned resources, rather than treating UAVs as a mere add-on. It needs to emulate the US, Israel and UK, where plans are in place for unmanned platforms to constitute between a third and half of their aerial combat fleet. China too is determinedly pursuing production and deployment of indigenous high-end UAVs and UCAVs. And Pakistan will probably ride on its coattails.
Technological Fixes – Electronic Warfare and Stealth
Any strike mission across a heavily defended border will probably encounter an array of Air Defence (AD) systems that may degrade its effectiveness or even bring it down. The two prominent ways to ensure that the strike force fulfils its mission unscathed are EW and low observable technology (stealth).
China too is determinedly pursuing production and deployment of indigenous high-end UAVs and UCAVs. And Pakistan will probably ride on its coattails…
EW is the older technique that seeks to control the electro-magnetic spectrum for own use and to deny its free use to the enemy. The aim here is to degrade enemy AD sensors and weapons while retaining one’s own effectiveness. Most IAF combat aircraft have devices such as Airborne Self Protection Jammers (ASPJ), Radar Warning Receivers (RWR), chaff and flare cartridges to act as decoys. The IAF also has a few dedicated EW aircraft with powerful EW equipment.
Stealth is a relatively recent innovation that seeks to make a combat jet practically “invisible” to enemy radar. Stealth endowed fifth-generation aircraft usually have a high-performance airframe and an advanced power-plant that permits super-cruise (supersonic flight without afterburner). The IAF has long had ambitions plans to acquire stealth jets; but these are yet to taste success. It was hoped that an Indian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) to be based on the Sukhoi PAK-FA T-50 would serve the purpose. But the IAF feels the T-50 is riddled with shortcomings and is apparently not keen to continue with the project. It prefers to wait for the indigenous fifth-generation fighter known as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). The AMCA project dates back to 2008 as a multi-role fighter with stealth characteristics to be produced by HAL. Still in the preliminary design stage, it is projected to have a maximum take-off weight of 24.2 tonne and combat radius of 1,000 km.
Advanced Munitions – Technical Knockout
PGMs and other weapons are also a powerful force multiplier, especially if the adversary doesn’t have them. For instance, Astra – India’s first indigenous Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM) – can destroy an enemy fighter 65 to 70 km away. Its smokeless propulsion allows the missile to streak towards its target without betraying the location of the launch aircraft. This all-aspect, all-weather weapon will be a potent addition to the IAF’s inventory. It will eventually arm the bulk of the IAF combat fleet including Su-30MKI, MiG-29, Mirage 2000, and LCA Tejas aircraft. A planned upgraded Astra Mark-2 will have a range of around 100 km. The IAF’s new Dassault Rafale jets, expected in 2019, will be armed with the deadly 150-km range Meteor BVRAAM.
The military exploitation of space using satellites has become an overarching force multiplier…
The IAF’s Su-30MKI is currently carrying out trials of the 2,550 kg air-launched BrahMos-A – a highly destructive, stealthy Mach 2.8 cruise missile. Although its range is restricted to 300 km in compliance with the MTCR, it is now expected to be doubled, making it extremely difficult to defend against. It can be used against command and control centres, missile batteries and radar stations. As many as 40 Su-30MKI jets will be modified for the purpose. The 250-km range SCALP air-to-ground cruise missile fitted on the Rafale will also give the IAF an edge in operations against Pakistani and Chinese targets.
But the true game changer promises to be the formidable S-400 Triumf AD system. Manufactured by Russia’s Almaz Antey it has a tracking range of 600 km. It can engage up to 36 targets including aircraft, cruise missiles and UAVs. It employs four different types of missiles of varying range against intruders, the furthest missile range being an amazing 400 km. The IAF plans to acquire five regiments of this system. Although China too is expected to begin receiving the S-400 next year, Pakistan has nothing comparable.
Spaced Out – Military Satellites
The military exploitation of space using satellites has become an overarching force multiplier. India ostensibly has about a dozen satellites that can provide military surveillance including the Cartosat-1 and Cartosat-2 series, with better than one metre spatial resolution and the Risat-1 and Risat-2 series. However, the IAF needs a dedicated satellite for its exclusive use, like GSAT-7 of the Indian Navy. When GSAT-7A is orbited, it will greatly enhance the IAF’s Network-Centric Warfare (NCW) capability. Most of its airborne and static assets including advanced AWACS and other surveillance aircraft, unmanned platforms, ground radar stations and airbases will be interlinked through the satellite.
As China rapidly modernises its military and Pakistan reaps the benefits of being its client state, the IAF needs to be vigilant on all fronts…
Multiplying the Future
With the IAF on track to become a true strategic force, it cannot content itself with increasing the strength and capability of its fighter squadrons alone. Carefully selected force multipliers are essential to enhance its future operational potential, power and reach. But force multipliers are neither invincible nor are they a panacea for military shortcomings. In fact any force multiplier is most effective when the enemy does not possess it or does not have the means to defend against it. And every force multiplier will inevitably attract a counter.
For instance, determined efforts are in progress in many nations to discover an answer to stealth. Already, alternative detection techniques, like infrared and acoustic systems, mean there’s no assurance that stealth jets will always evade detection. Even the US which has long banked on the technology is beginning to hedge its bets on stealth. Its futuristic Penetrating Counter Air (PCA) replacement for the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor will indeed be stealthy, but its survival will also rest heavily on EW systems that are far more advanced than anything currently produced.
Large UAVs are very vulnerable to interception and can only be used in a low-threat environment. On October 01, the mighty US military lost an MQ-9 Reaper UAV to a vintage man-portable, shoulder-fired SA-7 missile launched by Houthi rebels in Yemen. However, small unarmed UAVs may be more difficult to counter on account of their size and the large numbers in which they can be fielded. Lasers and other Directed-Energy Weapons (DEW) are the most promising devices to degrade or deflect them. If sufficiently high-powered, DEWs can even knock aircraft or missiles out of the sky. In the near future, even satellites essential for military communications, GPS guidance and tactical intelligence may be vulnerable to DEW that will shoot at or simply blind them. As for AWACS, 400-km range air-to-air missiles like the Novator KS-172 AAM-L already threaten to be “AWACS killers”.
The lesson for the IAF is clear and it is not new. As China rapidly modernises its military and Pakistan reaps the benefits of being its client state, the IAF needs to be vigilant on all fronts. While not slackening its efforts to induct new combat aircraft it needs to pull out all the stops in striving to acquire force multipliers, as well as their counters.