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IDSA COMMENT

A Perspective on Regional Air Power

February 10, 2010

According to media reports India has recently embarked on the most ambitious air power modernisation programme in its entire history. The proposals include the 126 MMRCA for US $10 billion, ten C-17 heavy lift transport aircraft worth $2.4 billion, eight Boeing P8I LRMP (for the Navy) worth $2.1 billion, six Lockheed Martin C-130J for $962 million, six second-hand Sea King helicopters (for the Navy) and a whole host of other equipment including many helicopters for the Indian Army. There are also reports of the Indian Air Force buying some 12 used Mirage-2000 fighters from Qatar.

The last time the IAF did so was in the 1979-89 period during which almost all of its current assets were purchased. Beginning with the BAE Jaguar in 1979, the IAF acquired in quick time the MiG-23 (BN&MF) strike and air defence aircraft, the MiG-25 the Mach 3 high altitude strategic reconnaissance aircraft, An-32 medium lift transports, Il-76 heavy lift aircraft, additional Mi-17 helicopters, Mi-25/35 attack helicopters, Mi-26 super heavy helicopters, Mirage-2000 multi-role fighters, MiG-29 air superiority fighters and the MiG-27 strike aircraft, completing a comprehensive overhaul of its fleet. (In response to the IAF Jaguar Deep Penetration Strike Aircraft (DPSA), Pakistan soon got some 40 F-16 Fighting Falcons from the United States.) The IAF also slowly phased out the Fairchild Packet C-119, the Dakota DC-3, Caribou, Otter, Toofani, Mystere 4A, Gnat, Ajeet and the Hunter and later the Canberra light bomber aircraft as well.

In 1996 it also acquired the Sukhoi 30MKI (Flanker), the modern air superiority fighter which could roughly be compared to the US F-15. Current estimates are that besides the 50 odd Su-30 aircraft with the IAF, some 140 more have been ordered from Russia and another 140 are to be manufactured by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) under licence. There is, however, some confusion about these figures.

The HAL is also slated to participate with Russia in the development of the fifth generation fighter to the extent of 25 per cent. The fighter made its first flight recently and it is believed that since most development is more or less complete India would again end up manufacturing it under some sort of ‘licence’ arrangement.

By the turn of the century its flagship fighter programme bore fruit when the LCA, later named Tejas, flew in February 2001. In the last nine years it has completed most of the flight test work and is due to get its IOC or Initial Operational Clearance by the end of 2010 and begin entering IAF squadrons by 2012.

The HAL-made Dhruv light helicopter also started series production around the same time and has recently been exported to Chile.

The IAF’s current strength is around 600 of which the MiG21 fleet of FL, M, MF and Bis types comprise 293 aircraft. But can we really say whether all is well with its war fighting capability? The combat strength of the Indian Air Force (IAF) has dwindled from 39 to nearly 30 squadrons. There are reports of poor serviceability in many of the fleets, the MiG-27 and 29 upgrade programmes are taking their own time, only a dozen or less of the much vaunted AJT BAE Hawks have been inducted and in the year or so since they began training operations it is rumoured that spares package of the entire fleet of 66 trainers has been used up.

Following a fatal accident of the HPT-32 basic trainer in July 2009 in which two experienced instructors were killed, the IAF grounded the entire fleet of the HPT-32 and switched to ‘all jet training’ on Kiran Mk-1 and II trainers. A debate goes on if this is indeed a better way to train its pilots ‘ab initio’ or should it do so with new aircraft. In the meantime a Request For Proposal (RFP) for some 75 basic trainers has been issued by the government but given our experience of defence procurement it will take anything from three to five years to actually get these trainers. The IJT or the Intermediate Jet Trainer programme is also lagging behind and the HTT-34 project to produce a turboprop basic trainer roughly in the same class as the Toucano was shelved in the early 1980s. Since the Kirans are already over 30 years old it is feared that the IAF’s training schedule and its operational preparedness would be adversely affected simply because there would be fewer pilots to fly the new aircraft that would be inducted by then.

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has recently received an additional 18 F-16 of the Block 52 series taking its total to 64, seven JF 17 (also known as FC-1) Thunder fighters from China and has ordered some 36 J-10 fighters and hopes to get even the Super 10 when it is ready. The Super-10 incidentally is an upgraded version of the J-10 with a TVC engine locally made in China. The PAF is also eying the Chinese L-15 supersonic trainer. Pakistan has also ordered eight Erieye AEW&C from Sweden and is to get some S-70 Super Cobra helicopters from the United States to improve its capacity for anti-terror operations. Its current strength is reportedly 383 combat capable aircraft including 41 obsolete Chinese A-5, 129 F-7 PG/MG (improved Chinese version of the MiG-21), nearly 113 vintage Mirage III/V, some 64-plus F-16 fighters and seven FC-1/JF-17 of which some 150 are on order. PAF officials are aiming to finally acquire a whopping 200 FC-1 and 150 J-10s from China in the next decade.

The Chinese Air Force officially known as the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) currently possesses some 1653 combat capable aircraft (and in addition the PLA Navy has another 290) of which some 30 per cent are current generation including 84 J-10, 116 J-11(Su-27), 97 Su-30MKK, 156 JH/FB-7, 516 J-8, and 540 J-7. It is noteworthy that since its unveiling in 2003-04, the PLAAF has already inducted 84 J-10 fighters of the roughly F-16 class, which means that China has the capacity build 40 to 50 fighters per year.

Not only has China built the first ever Airbus outside Europe but has rolled out a Cessna-162 basic trainer and is planning to produce some 1500 of these aircraft. According to Aviation Week & Space Technology (AWST) Annual Review Resource Book 2009, ‘Aircraft Forecasting’ Report, China would rank among the major producers of modern fighters in the current decade with the capacity to produce 45 to 48 fighters of the J-10 and J-11 class. This means that the PLAAF would field some 1500 to 2000 modern fighters by 2020.

In addition to some 1500 Short Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBM), China has recently modified some of its land-based Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBM) to carry conventional warheads for use as Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy. These missiles are capable of hitting moving targets like aircraft carriers on the high seas. China has already fielded its own version of the AWACS, intercepted a missile in an exoatmospheric engagement (January 2010) and destroyed a satellite (January 2007). In addition it recently launched the third of its geo-synchronous Compass-3 satellites in its effort to complete its own satellite navigation system (like the American GPS) comprising 30 medium orbit satellites and three geosynchronous ones.

In light of the above, India has little choice but to complete its procurement as quickly as possible if the IAF is to be ready to face a conventional conflict. Although India has shown the utmost restraint in its response to terror attacks from across the border, it must always maintain the capacity of launching a punitive strike against Pakistan if and when necessary. It is this capacity that will eventually help deter a terrorist strike or a conventional war.

India has, however, shown extreme reluctance to use force; perhaps for good reasons. But the result is that employment of air power is seen as the very last option. Although things have reportedly improved, many Indian thinkers consider use of air power as escalatory, think it is ineffective in the high mountains and shun it for fear of collateral damage. Given the US experience in Afghanistan, especially the Kunduz incident of last year in which some 100 innocent civilians were killed, air power has taken much flak. In spite of all the developments in precision fire power there is still no way of identifying insurgents or terrorists operating in small groups. So fast jet combat air power is perhaps not always effective against insurgents but no one can write its epitaph. Even after a drone has identified a terrorist hideout a fighter aircraft may be required to finish the task as happened in a recent engagement in the AFPAK region.

China’s increasing emphasis on anti-ship, cruise and conventional ballistic missiles, both land and sea based, raises new questions of a robust response. The PLAAF may well use these in large numbers in the initial stage of a conflict achieving surprise, selective damage, and economy of effort in a lethal air defence environment. Whatever India decides, it cannot but rely on air, or more correctly, aerospace power.