The face-saving reprisal by Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in response to the Indian Air Force (IAF) aerial strike on February 26, 2019, against a Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) training camp near Balakot in Pakistan, has served to emphasize the issue of securing the Indian skies. Implicit to this issue is the defence against an aerial offensive action by either of our two inimical neighbours, as also assurance that our own offensive aerial missions will be able to transit safely through our own skies without fear of enemy action and apprehension of fratricidal defensive action by own air defence machinery. India has a vast expanse of air space to secure – not just that over its huge land area, but also the skies over its territorial waters and island territories.
Air power, the instrument of military prowess that is elemental to securing the medium of the air, has been maturing from the time it was first used as a military appliance. Advances in aerospace technologies have brought about changes to the outer bounds of the medium of ‘air’ to which were predicated concepts such as ‘air superiority’, ‘command of the air’ and ‘air dominance’; space now complements air. As a result, the term ‘air power’ has been enhanced to ‘aerospace power’; the all-important space dimension is being militarised as well as weaponised and has become another arena for power projection and confrontation between inimical nations. In recent years, air power doctrine has been revisited radically rather than evolve incrementally as it did since World War I. Technology has catapulted the debate about ‘manned aircraft versus bomber’ to a new, higher plane where man finds himself outperformed by drones while Artificial Intelligence (AI) is demonstrably surpassing human beings in speed and exactitude of cognitive processes. Aerial dogfights (getting behind his tail) are passé and air defence aircraft fire their air-to-air missiles at targets seen only by their radars while unmanned aircraft fly autonomously or are flown by pilots sitting hundreds or thousands of kilometres away. Securing the Indian skies is thus an intricate and technology-intensive challenge. In the final analysis, numbers of combat aircraft and supporting force multipliers would weigh heavily on the outcome of any aerial skirmishes like the Balakot aftermath or a single/two-front war with our two neighbours. While the probability of war with the neighbours is very low, the severity of its consequences could be disastrous for India.
Threat to Indian Skies
The threat to Indian skies is becoming graver with each passing day. This is so on two counts – one is the increasing might of the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and the PAF, and the other is the steadily reducing strength of the IAF’s combat fleet. The PLAAF has had negligible aerial combat experience and its performance in aerial engagements and strikes over Indian territory is a grey area open to conjecture. However, it has been modernising as its indigenous industry has come into its own by using reverse engineering on Russian licensed aircraft production and with surreptitious acquisition of technology.
At a rough estimate, 300 fighters and 70 bombers could be tasked against India from the airports in Lanzhou and Chengdu Military Regions (MRs). China has developed a large number of dual use airports in Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). However, as these airports are located at high altitudes, fighters with better performance (Su-27, J-10, J-11/ J-11B) may be expected to put forth middling combat potential, while other lower capability aircraft could be severely restricted in operations. The J-20 and FC-31 fifth-generation, multi-role, stealth aircraft could add substantial fire power to the PLAAF in the future. A new long range bomber (H-20) with nuclear capability is under development, but is not expected to complement China’s nuclear triad before 2025.
In contrast to the PLAAF, the PAF has battle experience and is well-trained for combat. Moreover, it is well equipped with numbers steadily on the rise with help from its ‘all-weather friend’ China. According to Flight Global, it currently has around 24 combat squadrons equipped with 98 JF-17s, 45 F-16s, 69 Mirage IIIs, 90 Mirage Vs and 136 F-7s. The JF-17 is a Chinese design co-produced in Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, Kamra, and Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, China and is claimed to be a fourth-generation, multi-role aircraft. There are reports of another 100 being on order. The PAF plans to acquire a total of 250 to replace its Mirage IIIs and F-7s. Some of these would be Block 2 aircraft with 4.5 generation features while some more would be Block 3 which are expected to have fifth-generation characteristics. The PAF is also said to have placed an order for 36 Chinese J-10 (4.5 generation) aircraft. The J-10 is expected to be inducted as the FC 20, an advanced PAF-specific variant. The strength of PAF’s combat fleet was around half of IAF’s last year, but this year, is around three-fifths. Add to that the high level of professional pride that the PAF has in its history (some of which is a bit distorted in its Pakistani version) and you have a credible, worrisome threat.
Another disquieting spectre is the possibility of a two-front war. In this context, India looks with a jaundiced eye at Ex Shaheen, the joint PLAAF/PAF exercise that has been conducted since 2011, with the last edition, Shaheen 7, carried out in December 2018. While the probability of a two-front, all-out war is very low, the point to ponder upon is that India needs to apportion off its combat air assets to secure our skies against both our neighbours. Anybody who followed the conduct of Exercise Gagan Shakti 2018, would have noticed that while the planning of the exercise displayed a resolve to fight a two-front war, its proceedings demonstrated that we can fight only one war at a time. The exercise was conducted in two phases separated by time and front! Coming soon after Exercise Gagan Shakti, Balakot served as a hard nudge for India’s security apparatus.
Lessons from Balakot
The raid on Balakot on February 26, 2019, was a classic offensive operation, with support from AEW&C aircraft, deceptive tactical routing and achievement of total surprise. On the other hand, during the aerial engagement on February 27, 2019, India maintained a largely defensive posture with the objective of securing Indian skies against PAF operations. In a way, the lessons attributable to Balakot did not appear suddenly and instantaneously in one day. The warnings had been there since the previous occasions when India was forced to use military power against China and Pakistan. However, it was the first time since 1971, that Indian and Pakistani combat aircraft engaged each other in the air and indeed shot down one each of the opposing aircraft.
In the context of war, an air force does not conduct its own campaign exclusively against an opposing air force. The aerial action on February 27, 2019, was thus an exception of sorts. There was no war afoot, ground and naval forces were alert but not actively engaged in military action and there was heightened expectation of an aerial strike of some sort in retaliation to the Balakot raid. That retaliation could have come from a number of PAF bases and be aimed at any of a vast number of ground targets on the Indian side. The first lesson that emerges from Balakot, therefore, is the need for more numbers notwithstanding the fact that mathematical comparisons of opposing air forces are not indicative of how aerial engagements between two contending air forces might pan out.
According to World Air Forces 2019 published by Flight Global, China has 1,624 combat aircraft, India 694 and Pakistan 438. These figures were 1527, 804 and 410 according to the 2018 edition of the same publication. The actual holding of the IAF may be less than 600 based on the 31-squadron figure accepted by most analysts. The fact that the IAF aircraft shot down was an ancient MiG-21 is another cause for concern that adds a qualitative aspect to the disquieting quantitative shortfall in numbers. The dwindling numbers of combat squadrons of the IAF in comparison to the corresponding rises in China’s and Pakistan’s are a cause for alarm.
The need for force multipliers to support combat aircraft on their missions is the next lesson that came out loud and clear. Airborne Early Warning (AEW)/Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) and Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA) capabilities of the IAF are limited and there is near consensus amongst defence analysts that the numbers are inadequate for the extensive borders India has and the clear and distinct danger of a two-front war.
The fratricidal downing of a Mi-17 on the same day as PAF forays towards Indian air space was a harsh warning of how well-drafted SOPs, diligently practiced procedures and quick decisions are necessary in the context of air defence where national security is at stake. Gone are the days when the speed at which a blip of a combat aircraft travelled on a radar screen would be a clear indication of its type – easily distinguishable from a transport or a rotary wing aircraft. Battlefield drones have added a new dimension of uncertainty in the identification of ‘Friend’ or ‘Foe’. Fratricide has thus to be accepted as a battle-related risk and painstaking practice of SOPs, adherence to designated height bands and strict abidance by stipulated electronic Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) procedures have to be acknowledged as inescapable if blue-on-blue kills are to be eliminated.
Related to this issue is the fact that the possibility of a similar, less-than-war situation in which our combat aircraft are involved exists and that such a scenario may involve opposing combat aircraft as well. Razor sharp alertness is henceforth dictated by the uncertainties that exist after Balakot to prevent the PAF from indulging intrusion into Indian airspace. That scenario could present itself should India do another intelligence-driven retaliatory operation into Pakistani or POK territory in response to another Pulwama. India’s assertion of its right to strike on Pakistan’s territory in response to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism on Indian soil, has been generally glossed over by the international strategic community and the stage is set for further aerial strikes in future even when no war has been declared. The restraint exercised hitherto, largely attributed to apprehension of a nuclear response from Pakistan, stands trampled. Conversely, PAF can also be expected to retort suitably and the challenge of securing Indian skies takes on new dimension and urgency. The question is – how prepared is the IAF to face this challenge?
Capability of the IAF
The downhill slide of the IAF’s combat aircraft strength is a sordid saga and an oft-repeated refrain that the nation has got used to. The constant complaint about shortfall of combat aircraft has been made so many times and so regularly that the government seems to accept it as background noise – of nuisance value but no more. In the 1960s which is so far back that history and myth have merged, the IAF was authorised to build up to 64 squadrons. Subsequently, this figure got trimmed down to 42. Unfortunately, even the figure of 42 was never reached, the highest ever achieved being 39.5 squadrons. The current strength is around 31 squadrons which is going down steadily with older aircraft reaching supersession and some more old aircraft meeting with age-related accidents. The IAF is critically short of numbers as Balakot served to highlight; moreover, some of the aircraft on its inventory badly need replacement or upgradation.
According to Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), IAF, “We need 42 squadrons for full spectrum of operations. But it does not mean that we cannot fight a two-front war with the existing strength. We have a Plan B for reduced strength; there are ways in which we can carry out the task.” The IAF’s toil to take its combat aircraft strength up was focussed on a 126 aircraft Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) deal which died a sudden death in 2015. The IAF had been talking of a 42-squadron objective with the induction of the 126 MMRCA and the target date was 2022 until the deal fell through. The present strength is barely 31 squadrons of which around two squadrons worth of aircraft can be expected to be decommissioned every year as we move ahead. In his farewell press briefing, the previous CAS, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha had reportedly stated that the IAF required 400 Single/Twin engine MMRCAs. However, the only deal with hope of materialising is for 36 Rafale jets in fly-away condition.
The RFI for 126 MMRCA was issued in 2004, and declared dead in 2015, after which in October 2017, Indian embassies in Washington, Moscow and Stockholm were asked to check out fighter OEMs in these countries for willingness to partner an Indian company in building a medium, single-engine fighter with significant Transfer of Technology to the Indian entity. No RFI was issued and even the number mentioned in the letter was a vague 100 to 200. However, no tangible results accrued and, just before DefExpo 2018 was launched, a Request for Information (RFI) was released by the MoD for acquisition of 114 aircraft. The RFI is 72 pages long and covers substantial ground not just about the aircraft performance and parameters, but about life cycle costs, transfer of technology, offsets et al.
Interestingly, it does not specify the requirement as single or twin-engine aircraft. The two single-engine contenders are Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70 and Saab Gripen E while the prominent twin engine one is Dassault Rafale of which 36 are on order and Dassault can be expected to underscore the advantages of scaling up from 36 to a larger number achieving savings in terms of training costs, spares inventories and maintenance facilities. Boeing has been very voluble even before the RFI issuance about the F/A-18 E/F. The E and F denote single-seat and twin-seat versions respectively. Both the versions are known as Super Hornet and are in the fray. The Typhoon, manufactured by a consortium of Airbus, BAE Systems and Leonardo called Eurofighter Jagdflugzeug GmbH is the European gladiator in the ring while the Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG company will field the MiG-35. Of these, the Rafale and the Typhoon had cleared the earlier MMRCA flight trials. There has been some loose talk about US offering India F-35s if India were to forego the S-400 purchase from Russia, but its authenticity is doubtful.
Although the 114 fighter aircraft RFI does not mention the multi role in its title unlike the 2004 RFI, the requirement of a multi-role is implicit to the quest for these aircraft. Strikes deep into enemy territory would require aircraft with long range and flight refuelling capability. Besides deep strike, the need exists for securing the airspace over areas of strategic interest of which the Indian skies are a subset. Needless to say, the decision on these 114 aircraft would have to focus on these two essential criteria besides support to ground forces in the tactical battle area.
That the IAF is short of combat aircraft to guarantee the defence of Indian skies which it is tasked with, is an acknowledged fact. Non-affordability of much needed, modern aircraft is no longer an acceptable alibi as Indian economy has left indigence far behind and is in fact offering assistance to smaller and less affluent countries. So why are successive governments procrastinating on the procurement of new aircraft, thus effectively denying the IAF the opportunity to gird up for its assigned task of securing the Indian skies? The only explanation can be that the government, in its wisdom, has decided to place its bet on its foreign policies and feels that its initiatives serve as guarantees of there being no likelihood of war. One hopes that the government is jogged out of its somnolence and reviews its disposition towards arming the IAF with the wherewithal to secure Indian skies. The tough line adopted with respect to progressing the S-400 deal with Russia in the face of open US unhappiness, is an encouraging step in this direction.
Even when we do accord priority to fighter aircraft procurement, the numbers we need will need reappraisal. The CAS has been talking about 42 squadrons and so has the media, but this figure has been used so repetitively that there is a general perception that if a 42-squadron strength was to be achieved, the IAF would be able to secure Indian skies against China and Pakistan in a two-front war. What is glossed over is that although the 42-squadron strength is sanctioned currently, the actual requirement of the IAF is much more. However, the IAF is not even talking about that because even the figure of 42 appears to be a distant dream. Whenever the IAF actually achieves a 42-squadron strength, it would be time to mull over its genuine needs and arrive at a reasoned figure which is likely to be much higher than 42.
Qualitatively too, we are lacking as a long time has elapsed since we last procured modern aircraft; there are limitations to what mid-life upgrades can achieve. What is urgently required is that the 36 Rafale jets and the 114 new aircraft are procured with modern weaponry, electronic suites, wide band, high power, airborne jammers and BVR radars integrated with air-to-air missiles. The IAF is a professionally proud force and can be forgiven for giving out varying signals about its war preparedness – from “not ready for a two-front war” to “have a Plan B”. However, should the severe shortfall of combat aircraft find the IAF in an ignominious drubbing at the hands of our neighbours, the nation will not blame the government, but instead point a finger at the IAF. It is time the government took steps to ensure that the IAF is speedily equipped to secure the Indian skies.