No more are bombers used for strategic bombing aimed at crippling an adversary’s war fighting capability, as was the case in World War II. Now, they are used primarily for nuclear deterrence, force projection and attacking aircraft carriers with stand-off missiles. The IAF, the fourth largest air force in the world, currently has no bombers. The IAF’s principal adversary, the PLAAF, has invested heavily in bombers. It has a large fleet albeit of ageing aircraft which it assiduously nurtures and modernizes to steadily increase their lethality.
Since the end of World War II, apart from the use of the bomber aircraft having steadily declined worldwide, its role has changed. Advances in missile and radar technology have eroded the capability of bombers to penetrate contested airspace and consequently raised questions about their relevance in modern aerial warfare. Use of Low Observable (LO) shaping to thwart radar detection presents a solution albeit at a prohibitive cost. Currently, the United States is the only country which operates stealth bombers while Russia has started developing its own.
Role of Bombers in Contemporary Warfare
No more are bombers used for strategic bombing aimed at crippling an adversary’s war fighting capability, as was the case in World War II. Now, they are used primarily for nuclear deterrence, force projection and attacking aircraft carriers with stand-off missiles.
During the 1971 War, the IAF was forced to restrict Canberra operations to mostly sneak attacks by night…
The Indian Air Force (IAF) and Bombers
The IAF, the fourth largest air force in the world, currently has no bombers. The IAF’s principal adversary, the PLAAF, has invested heavily in bombers. It has a large fleet albeit of ageing aircraft which it assiduously nurtures and modernizes to steadily increase their lethality. The IAF’s last major acquisition of bombers – around 85 English Electric B(I)58 Canberras – took place over 50 years ago between 1957 to 1962. The B(I)58, the interdictor version of the Canberra, replaced the B-24 Liberator heavy bombers of the IAF, inducted post-WW II by refurbishing USAF aircraft abandoned in India. The IAF also acquired the Photo Reconnaissance (PR) variant of the Canberra. A Canberra could carry 8,000 lbs bomb load and strike targets 700 nautical miles away.
The IAF’s large Canberra fleet started to progressively lose its awesomeness starting in the late 1960s with the acquisition of high performance fighters (starting with Sabres and Starfighters) by Pakistan. During the 1971 War, lacking long range escort fighters and SEAD weapons and sensors, the IAF was forced to restrict Canberra operations to mostly sneak attacks by night. Through the years that followed, the effectiveness of the Canberras was increasingly questioned by IAF brass with Pakistan’s acquisition of lethal Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs), high performance fighters and Air-to-Air missiles (AAMs). In the late 1980s, the IAF quietly junked over half its Canberra fleet due to the aircraft’s perceived vulnerability in heavily-contested airspace across our Western borders.
Instead of modernising and re-arming the aircraft with cruise missiles to preserve its operational usefulness, the IAF allowed its Canberra fleet to slide into irrelevance. From the mid-1990s onwards, the nation almost forgot that its Air Force had a fleet of Canberra bombers. Four Canberra interdictors were operational during the Kargil War but the aircraft was not used despite its ability to haul an 8,000-lbs bomb load operating from Agra, and the loud clamour by Canberra pilots for some action. The aircraft was never fitted with Precision Guided Weapons. In 2007, the IAF’s announcement to retire its Canberras came as a surprise but only because no one expected the aircraft to still be in service!
Tthe Canberra was never a contender for the nuclear attack role…
Under-Utilisation of Canberras
Ironically, some of the IAF Canberra aircraft were phased out with over 75 per cent residual fatigue life! The IAF’s neglect of the Canberra contrasts starkly with the faith reposed by the PLAAF in its H-6 bomber, a license-built version of the Soviet Tupolev Tu-16. Although they differ greatly in size, the Tu-16 and Canberra, both are both powered by two jet engines and were inducted into service in the early 1950s. China has continually reinvented the H-6 bomber – it has metamorphosed from a fuel guzzling behemoth that could only deliver iron bombs to a modern sensor equipped cruise missile launch platform capable of pin-point attacks from stand-off distances. The latest variant, H-6K features new turbofan engines for extended range and is believed to carry six ALCMs.
One wonders as to why the IAF didn’t modify its Canberras to carry cruise missiles? A very experienced former IAF Canberra pilot, who is also a technology buff, told IDR, “The Canberra would have been the right platform for cruise missiles. It would have been able to carry two cruise missiles on its external pylons (one on each wing) which are hardened to carry 2,000-lbs load. Additionally, the aircraft could have carried three missiles in its internal bomb bay which can accommodate 6,000-lbs load.”
“With relatively minor modifications, the aircraft could have been converted to a cruise missile launcher. Carrying five missiles, it would have had a range of 1,200 nm at 40,000 ft at .72M. Alternatively, it would have been able to loiter at 40,000 ft for three hours, 400 nm from base,” explained the pilot. Alluding to the aircraft’s low wing loading (half that of the PLAAF’s H-6 bomber), the pilot added, “Cruising at 40,000 ft with cruise missiles, the Canberra would have been able to comfortably carry out a 45 degree bank turn!”
Concealment, mobility and dispersion make submarine-based nuclear deterrent the most survivable of the nuclear triad…
There was no technical impediment such as lack of spares to the upgrade of the Canberra. The aircraft was simple and robust. Almost all major accidents on the aircraft were attributed to pilot error and most of these accidents occurred during simulated or actual single engine landing. Our Canberra pilot source could not recall a single major accident due to technical failure! Perhaps the avionics required to support cruise missile carriage, targeting and launch may have proved daunting to the IAF staff burnt by poor HAL workmanship and technical support. The precise reasons why the IAF didn’t upgrade its Canberras are possibly buried in the dusty files at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) but leadership failure across the spectrum definitely played a part.
The aforementioned IAF pilot had made several presentations to Air HQs, including one to the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) himself, for upgrading the Canberra. As to their outcome, he bluntly says, “There was only one impediment – a massive mental block of the Operations Staff, which considered the Canberra a threat to new purchases. Fitting a modern engine would have increased the Canberra’s range/endurance by at least 100 per cent – an increase from 2,500 nm to 5,500 nm at 40,000 ft with a corresponding basic weight reduction of 2,000 lbs as newer engines are lighter.”
Canberra Overlooked for Nuclear Deterrence Role
India officially declared itself a nuclear power in 1998 after testing multiple nuclear warheads at Pokharan but the IAF had trained in nuclear weapon delivery since the early 1980s. So had the PAF! Despite its 8,000-lbs weapon load, the Canberra was never a contender for the nuclear attack role. The role was initially assigned to the Jaguar and later, the Mirage-2000 and Su-30MKIs, because of their superior ability to penetrate heavily contested enemy airspace. However, it is hard to understand why a Canberra aircraft modified to carry nuclear tipped cruise missile, based deep in Indian territory would not have performed the role better.
The IAF’s large Canberra fleet started to progressively lose its awesomeness starting in the late 1960s…
Pakistan-Centric IAF Planning
A close study of the history of the IAF reveals that till the mid-nineties, the service trained and equipped itself exclusively to fight Pakistan, not China. Pakistan is a relatively small country with limited depth. Its major military and civil infrastructure lies within the range of IAF fighters. The PAF is well trained and equipped to guard Pakistani airspace. Under the circumstances, agile IAF fighters have a better chance of penetrating Pakistani airspace than Canberra class bombers. So who needs the Canberras?
The IAF consistently ignored the Chinese threat despite the 1962 humiliation, continued PLA occupation of Aksai Chin and bizarre Chinese claims to Arunachal Pradesh! The IAF played dead against the dragon! Questionable, as the strategy may well have been, it did keep the PLAAF out of the border dispute and thereby reduced the risk of any border incident escalating into a full scale war.
Interdicting PLA Supplies
The Canberra was ideally suited for operations across the LAC. The PLA’s long supply lines to the LAC make it vulnerable to IAF interdiction attacks. Also, the PLA infrastructure is located deep in Eastern China, well outside the reach of IAF fighter aircraft. The Canberra’s weapon load and range would have made it a potent interdictor in case of a PLA adventure, because the AD environment in Tibet is not as heavily contested as it is in Pakistan. The aircraft could have struck deep into Tibet cruising at 450 knots/M0.8 with an 8,000 lbs bomb load.
Indeed, two squadrons of upgraded, re-engined, modernised, cruise missile equipped Canberras probably would have done more to dissuade a PLA adventure along the LAC than all the 126 Rafale combined would ever do! Surprisingly, all the IAF Canberra pilots that I have spoken with say the IAF never contemplated using the Canberras against the Chinese which may well explain why Air HQ never considered modernising the aircraft.
Since 2007, the IAF has actually been without a bomber, and since several decades earlier psychologically without a bomber. The IAF’s decision to ignore its bomber fleet, and then discard it altogether, has parallels in the evolution of the RAF and French Air Force. No one can question the IAF’s decision since nothing has gone wrong as a result of it. It must be admitted that the IAF preference for fighters over bombers harked to an era of modest economic growth in India and modest Chinese ambitions. A cash-strapped service, focused exclusively on Pakistan may have felt additional fighters would be more useful than upgraded bombers.
Changing Threat Perceptions: A Need to Bring Back the Bomber?
Having looked at the history of bombers in the IAF, it is now time to dwell on the future of bombers in the IAF. The situation is now dramatically different from what it was just two decades ago. India’s economic growth has perked up, as have Chinese capabilities, ambitions and belligerence!
Since 2007, the IAF has actually been without a bomber he nuclear triad…
India’s energy imports and trade volumes are rising, increasing the imperative to secure the Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC). The country’s steady emergence as a regional power brimming with youthful energy is being openly contested by an economically more powerful China that is determined to call all the shots in the Asia Pacific region. Chinese talk of peaceful rise increasingly appears as a facetious diktat to neighbours to keep the peace while it tramples over their interests to rise! Under the circumstances, it is time for the IAF to rethink its force structure.
There are some good strategic reasons for the IAF to resurrect its bomber force:
- To strengthen the nuclear triad by making the air leg more credible.
- To acquire an A2/AD capability in the IOR.
- For force projection in the IOR.
- To counter the threat from Chinese cruise missile armed bombers.
Strengthening the Nuclear Triad
The major nuclear powers – the US, Russia, China, UK and France maintain a triad of nuclear weapon delivery systems comprising aircraft delivered bombs and missiles, land-based missiles and submarine-based missiles. This triad provides diverse options to deter the enemy and in case of deterrence breakdown, to defeat the enemy. The other three nuclear powers – Israel, India and Pakistan – do not possess a triad either because their perceived threat does not mandate it (Israel) or they are technologically and financially challenged to acquire it (India and Pakistan).
A triad of delivery options provides a hedge against unforeseen technical problems or vulnerabilities. For example, what if the enemy develops a very effective ABM shield or sensors to locate all SSBNs out at sea?
Each leg of the nuclear triad has unique advantages and disadvantages and the absence of any leg erodes credibility.
In the late 1980s, the IAF quietly junked over half its Canberra fleet due to the aircraft’s perceived vulnerability…
Submarine-Based Nuclear Missile Deterrent
Concealment, mobility and dispersion make submarine-based nuclear deterrent the most survivable of the nuclear triad; a big hedge against pre-emptive counterforce strike aimed at destroying one’s ability to retaliate. The assured safety of the sea-based deterrent also makes it least escalatory since the leadership comes under no pressure to use it out of fear of losing it! But sea-based nuclear deterrent is the most expensive of the three triads and prohibitive costs limit its size. India has yet to deploy sea-based nuclear deterrent and may take another ten years to do so, notwithstanding the steady progress in operationalising the first Arihant class SSBN.
Land-Based Nuclear Missile Deterrent
Land-based missiles represent the least expensive leg of the nuclear triad. They can be launched within minutes of enemy first strike when they are containerised. Mobile containerised missiles are difficult to target though more vulnerable to communication disruption. Silo-based missiles are easily targeted but difficult to destroy and less prone to communication disruption. Currently, India relies heavily on land-based mobile missiles. The missiles are not containerised, so they are likely not stored mated with their warheads. The limited number of missiles, the fact that they are not mated with their warheads and the command and control communication network required to mate and arm the warheads make India’s land-based nuclear missile vulnerable to surprise counterforce strike. A more credible deterrent based on containerised missile is under development but may take a decade or two to be completely operationalised.
Air-Based Nuclear Deterrent
Air-based nuclear deterrent is as expensive to maintain as submarine-based nuclear deterrent – around four times more expensive than land-based nuclear missiles. As with sea-based deterrents, prohibitive costs limit its size. The airborne leg of the triad has some unique advantages. It can be recalled after launch and it can be brandished, unlike the sea or land based nuclear deterrent. The ability to launch and later recall a nuclear attack could be particularly useful in a scenario where it is not immediately certain that the enemy has used nuclear weapons. Brandishing nuclear weapons has the advantage to conveying a nation’s resolve to use them on the adversary.
If terrorists were to gain control of a Pakistani nuclear weapon, say by hijacking a nuclear armed ship or waylaying a mobile launcher, launching bombers armed with nuclear tipped cruise missile would be a good way of conveying India’s resolve to Pakistan. During the Cold War, the US put its nuclear bombers on alert several times. Air delivery has other unique advantages – it facilitates the use of small nuclear warheads which would be less escalatory. Ballistic missiles typically carry large warheads and dispersion of bombers which makes it difficult for the enemy to target them in a pre-emptive strike.
The Canberra was ideally suited for operations across the LAC..
Credibility of Air-Delivered Nuclear Deterrent
As a nation committed to No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons, it is imperative that India maintain a reliable triad for credible deterrence, so as not to tempt a nuclear armed adversary to exploit its NFU posture.
Limitation of Fighter-Based Nuclear Weapon Delivery
The IAF acquired the option to air deliver nuclear bombs through toss bombing with the purchase of Jaguar aircraft in the early 1980s. Since the IAF does not possess any nuclear armed Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) it can be assumed that Mirage-2000s and Su-30MKIs earmarked for deterrent role would also resort to toss bombing. The problem with toss bombing is that it is very inaccurate and when airspace is heavily contested, it is also unreliable.
Advantages of Bomber-Based Nuclear Weapon Delivery
To be credible, the air leg of the triad should be based on nuclear tipped, supersonic Air Launched Cruise Missiles that can be launched from uncontested airspace, with little chance of interception by SAMs. Such missiles can only be carried by light (Su-34, J-20) or medium bombers (Tu-22M).
A2/AD in the Indian Ocean Region
China is all set to increase its presence in the IOR to protect its SLOC. PLAN nuclear powered submarines have already forayed into the IOR. It is just a matter of time before we see the first PLAN carrier sail close to Indian shores. China commissioned its first aircraft carrier, Liaoning (CV-16), on September 25, 2012, and PLAN pilots are using the ships to familiarise themselves with carrier operations. China built the Liaoning from the stripped down hulk of the former Soviet aircraft carrier Varyag at Dalian Shipyard in North Eastern China. According to press reports, China is in the process of building an additional two 60,000-tonne Type 089 aircraft carriers based on the Varyag. The ships are expected to be launched in 2015.
China is in negotiations with Russia for the purchase of Su-33 aircraft to be based on the carriers. Alongside, China is developing the Shenyang J-15, a rip-off of the Su-33 developed using an unfinished Su-33 prototype that China acquired from Ukraine. It is likely that within the next five years there will be a PLAN carrier group permanently stationed in the IOR. Such strong military presence would allow China to coerce island states and countries in the IOR to pursue policies inimical to Indian interests. To neutralise the threat from a permanent PLAN carrier group deployed in the IOR, the IAF would need to adopt A2/AD capability similar to the one that China is now acquiring against the US. The IAF would have to deploy cruise missile bombers armed with long range anti-shipping and anti-radiation missile.
If the IAF does not do so, the Indian Navy will! Remember the reports about the IN having leased three Tu-22M3 aircraft for Maritime Reconnaissance? Also, keep in mind the capability of the Indian Navy’s P-8I to carry AGM-84L Harpoon Block II Missiles. Progression to a supersonic light bomber with anti-shipping and anti radiation missiles would be logical.
As a nation committed to No First Use (NFU) of nuclear weapons, it is imperative that India maintain a reliable triad for credible deterrence…
Force Projection in the Indian Ocean Region
To effectively safeguard its interests, India needs the ability to quickly deploy troops in the IOR island states and countries, say to counter an externally enabled coup. Such troop deployment would have to be supported by long range bombers capable of providing air cover, at least till the time IN warships reach the trouble spot. Routine IAF bomber patrols would also reassure small countries in the region who are wary of Chinese expansion.
Emerging Threat from China
China has long range bombers that can strike deep into Indian territory using long range cruise missiles in an all out conventional war. Currently, India has no such capability. Without a long range bomber equipped with stand-off Precision Guided Weapons, the IAF would be in no position to similarly threaten Eastern China where its economic and military might is located. Such a glaring capability imbalance is destabilising. It could tempt China to initiate a localised campaign. Wary of escalation that would put India at a further disadvantage, Indian commanders will not be able to open new fronts to relieve the pressure from the initial attack.