Air power has been with us for nearly a century. Within less than a decade of the historic first flight of a ‘heavier than air machine’ at Kitty Hawk in the US on 17 December 1903, the Italians were bombing Turkish forces at Ainzara in Libya. On 01 November 1911, Lt. Giulio Gavotti dropped four bombs each weighing a mere two Kg. on Turkish positions at Ainzara. Subsequent bombing attacks were denounced by the Ottoman Government as contravening the Geneva Convention.1 Air power saw rapid progress through the two World Wars and major advances in technology further accelerated the pace of modernisation of air power in the second half of the last century.
Air power is defined as ‘the ability of a nation to assert its will through the medium of air.’ This is usually further expanded to include ‘the ability to project military force by or from a platform in the third dimension and includes a nation’s total aviation activity; potential as well as existing, public and private, and civil or commercial and military’.2 This definition clearly remains applicable and highlights the importance of forces in being as also the nation’s potential to continually upgrade its forces to meet emerging challenges. Force structures are invariably constructed on the basis of affordability, access to technology and above all the current and future capability of the likely adversary and not his demonstrated or perceived intent.
Air power “¦ “˜the ability to project military force by or from a platform in the third dimension and includes a nations total aviation activity; potential as well as existing, public and private, and civil or commercial and military.
The likely development of aerospace power in the next two decades would depend on many of the factors cited above. Given the high costs of research its progress is likely to be incremental rather than dramatic. Some of the questions that this essay attempts to answer are: Would it become more effective in sub-conventional warfare? Are there any enduring trends in the way platforms and weapon systems are being developed? What role would the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) and missiles play in the future? Would the US and its Western allies continue to dominate the air power arena? Is there a possibility of some of the developing countries of the Asian region becoming more self-reliant in this field? What role does the indigenous aviation industry play in these countries?
The experience of the wars of the 1960s to 1970s raised the importance of air power but it was the 1991 Gulf War that proved beyond doubt its efficacy. Operation Desert Storm saw that the USAF led Allied Air Forces mounted an air campaign against Iraqi targets for six weeks before the ground forces entered the war and successfully defeated the formidable Iraqi ground forces in a matter of days. This not only proved the thesis proposed by Col John Warden of the US that air power must target the ‘centres of gravity’ of the enemy but also that air power could significantly reduce the casualties to one’s ground forces.3 This was a turning point of sorts and those countries that had not paid much attention to modernising their air power assets sat up and took notice.4 The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), the Indian Air Force (IAF), (Pakistan Air Force) and many other air forces in the region renewed their efforts to modernise their fleets. Iran, DPRK, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Israel are some of the other Asian countries that today posses sizeable air power assets.
Although the jet fighter had already crossed the sound barrier on 14 October 1947 (Chuck Yeager flying the Bell X-1)it was a decade before the supersonic aircraft became commonplace. The ever rising costs of the platform resulted in the pure fighter soon doing strike missions and later graduating to multi-role capability. With improvements in the thrust/weight ratios of the turbo-jet, turbo-fan variety of jet engines it became possible to steadily increase their capacity to carry more fuel and armament. Progress in solid state electronics resulted in microminiaturisation of avionics further improving the effectiveness of the modern platform. Increased fuel gave greater range while Inertial Navigation and later, space-based assets like the GPS further enhanced accuracy.
Iran, DPRK, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Israel are some of the other Asian countries that today posses sizeable air power assets.
Improved performance of air defence radars, early warning and interception put a limit to how low a fighter could fly to avoid radar detection by the enemy and forced the manufacturers to look at ways to reduce the radar signature of the aircraft. The over-two-decade old RMA or Revolution in Military Affairs is generally accepted to include stealth, long range, and precision fire power. By the end of the 1990s the earlier platforms such as the Hawker Hunter, Folland Gnat, Dassault Mystere and Oregon, the MiG -15/17/19’21 and F-4 Phantom F-5 Freedom Fighter, the Mirage F-1, III and V were being gradually phased out. Some of the old types like the MiG-21 variants and Jaguar Deep Penetration Strike Aircraft (DPSA) and indeed the F-4 and F-5, continue to fly with many air forces. The Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon designed in the early 1970s and comprehensively modified and upgraded throughout its long years in the service with many air forces is the sole exception to the rule and today remains a front line fighter in the US, Europe and many other countries.
One of the most noteworthy developments in the region was the relatively early introduction of the Su-27/30 class of the air superiority/multi-role fighter in China in 1992,5 followed by India in 1996 and much later in Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. The end of the Cold War and the economic difficulties faced by Russia as well as the spectacular rise of the Chinese economy were the major triggers to this event. Until its entry, the F-15 and F-16, its Western peers, were available to only American friends and allies in the region such as Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Having learnt its lessons from the 1991 Gulf War, China had by the early 1990s embarked on a full scale modernisation and indigenisation process. It not only inducted the Su-27 in sizeable numbers but also began to manufacture the J-11, its licensed version, in the country. Newfound access to money and technology also helped it to quickly build two of its own fighters the FC-1 or JF-17 and the J-10 in record time.
The availability of the Russian RD-93 and the Saturn Lyulka AL-31F aeroengines was the key to this achievement.6 Of the 1653 combat capable aircraft with the PLAAF some 936 comprise MiG-21 and J-8 variants that are unlikely to last more than a decade.7 The 80 odd H-6 (Tu-16) medium bombers and air refuelling tankers would also be phased out by 2020 but it must be noted that the fifty year old Tu-95 Bison four-engined bomber/reconnaissance aircraft is still performing its Cold War task of long range surveillance in the Baltic and North Atlantic theatre. The much modified version of the H-6 bomber is thus likely to serve with the PLAAF for many years.
In 2030, the PLAAF and PLAN would likely have some 800+ J-10, another 800 Su-30/J-11Bs, and many JF-17, JH-7, L-15/FTC-2000 advanced trainers and an assortment of XXJ (sometimes called JXX) and other fifth generation stealth fighters.
- Bombing and the Air War on the Italian Front, 1915-1918, Journal Article by AD Harvey, Air Power History, Vol.47, 2000, accessed from www.questia.com on 15 June 2010.
- Doctrine of the Indian air Force, Amended Reprint, 1997, p.28.
- Col. John A Warden III, “The air Campaign: Planning for Combat” NDU Press Publication, 1988 electronic copy available at, http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/warden/ward-toc.htm, accessed on 02 Nov.2009
- Ibid. Today, after a gap of nearly twenty years, critics feel that air power is not necessarily as effective as it is made out to be especially when the enemy does not present the classical target system as happened in the 2001 Afghanistan Air War.
- John Wilson Lewis & Xue Litai, “China’s Search for a Modern Air Force”, International Security, Vol 24, (Spring 1999) p. 89.
- Jon Sigurdson, “Technological Superpower China”, Edward Elgar Publishing Limited, Cheltenham, UK, 2005, pp. 191-214. Also see, Sergio Coniglio, “China’s aviation- A Military and Industrial Perspective”, Military Technology, MILTECH 11/2004.
- IISS, The Military Balance 2009, Routledge, London, East Asia & Australia, pp. 386-387.
In India, the IAF had acquired a large variety of new types in the early 1980s which included the Jaguar (1979), MiG-23 (1980), Mirage-2000 (1984), MiG-29(1987) and the MiG-27 (1989). Of these the MiG-29 aircraft are being upgraded but it is unlikely that these fighters will meet India’s needs for the next two decades. What, however, will continue to restrict India’s options is its lacklustre record in building its own defence industry.
Of the 600 combat capable aircraft of the IAF as many as 293 comprise the old and ageing MiG-21 variants leaving only a mere 48 Su-30MKI, 48 MiG-29 and 36 Mirage-2000,1 clearly highlighting its ‘air defence orientation’.