At a time when things are heating up on the Line of Actual Control with China’s aggressive posturing, India needs to bolster its air power. Former IAF chief ARUP RAHA speaks to SOUMYADIP MULLICK on how India’s air warriors need to up the ante.
Q. Is the induction of the Rafale aircraft adequate for the IAF to meet its present combat requirements when China has developed fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA)?
A. The twin-engine Rafale fighter aircraft built by Dassault Aviation of France is one of the best and potent weapon platforms in the world. Its high-performance airborne interception AI radar combined with ‘Meteor’ advanced Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air combat missile provides it with the most formidable technological edge in aerial combat.
In attacking ground targets, the ‘Scalp’ long-range stand-off precision guidance weapon would prove to be devastating in performance. Its weapon carrying capacity, advanced electronic warfare capabilities and good radius of combat action would restore the technological edge IAF had enjoyed in the region, including China.
However, 36 Rafales may prove to be effective in winning a skirmish against our adversaries but they may not be enough to deter a full-scale conflict in the region. The IAF requires the full complement of 126 aircraft for air dominance as envisaged in the original MMRCA procurement project.
The draw-down of IAF combat fleet due to obsolescence has to be arrested with the induction of more MMRCA, preferably Rafale since most of the infrastructure cost has already been subsumed in the earlier contract. Inventory management and maintenance training would be more cost-effective compared to induction of new aircraft.
The airborne threat environment would evolve rapidly with the induction of FGFA, the J-20 which is being operationalised by the PLA Air Force. DRDO & HAL would have to compress timelines in the development of Indian FGFA, the AMCA (advanced multirole combat aircraft) in the next 7 to 10 years. It is necessary to ramp up the production of the Light Combat Aircraft and upgrade the Su-30MKI fleet for operational viability.
Q. India faces a two-front challenge from China and Pakistan. With insufficient squadrons what should IAF’s operational strategy be in present circumstances?
A: A collusive two front challenge cannot be ruled out. This subject has been uppermost in the minds of strategic security analysts and military leadership in India for a long time.
The narrative has been building up progressively with China determined to stymie the rise of India as another ‘Pole’ in Asia. The situation is unfolding rapidly after the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan and skirmishes in Ladakh.
China’s efforts in building military infrastructure, road/rail connectivity in Tibet Autonomous Region, large investments in the military-industrial complex and rapid development of military capability did not go unnoticed but India has been constrained by lack of funds and more importantly political will to build military power to mitigate the rising security challenges.
Though IAF’s combat strength has reduced due to obsolescence and retirement of vintage fleets, the backbone of IAF’s capability is the huge number of heavyweight Su- 30MKI fighters, upgraded Mirage 2000 and Mig-29 aircraft. Induction of Rafale fighters with AI radars – Meteor BVR missile combination has changed the perspective on air operations in the region.
The IAF’s operational strategy would perhaps be to contain the adversary in the North while dealing offensively with the western adversary. However, a full-scale conflict is not likely since it would be a loselose situation for all three nations.
The whole world would be worried to witness three nuclear-powered states in a conflict, an unthinkable situation. However, the belligerence of China towards India is not likely to reduce and India has to build military power to deter China from any misadventure.
Q. An integrated Air Defence Command is being set up for the first time in India, comprising members of Army, Navy and IAF. How necessary and efficient do you feel it will be as a decision making body for averting security threats in Indian airspace?
A. Air Defence of India’s sovereignty over its aerospace, especially the frontiers is IAF’s responsibility. It has layered defences with surveillance radars, integrated air command and control system (IAACS), surfaceto- air missiles, air defence (AD) aircraft, AWACS, AEW&C aircraft etc.
The Indian Army (IA) has an integral AD weapon system, both ack-ack guns and missiles which are deployed in the tactical battle area (TBA) especially with armoured forces. The Naval forces at sea have their own AD weapons and a system of effective independent control.
The IAF and Army have adequate and effective coordination to ensure air defence and offensive air operations are conducted with least hindrance in air engagements in TBA. An IDC may be a utopian concept, difficult to implement because of multiple factors which are relevant in the Indian context and needs consideration.
Firstly, the concept of operations of the IAF is quite different from the Army. Mobilisation and reservation requirements are very relevant for an Army commander to conduct operations effectively. The IAF practices rapid switching roles and theatres in the deployment of combat elements, especially fighter aircraft since mobilisation and reserves are not constraints.
These factors are intrinsic in the employment of airpower, exercising great flexibility and achieving maximum concentration of force through the concept of centralised Planning and decentralised Execution. Secondly, the IAF will find it difficult to distribute dedicated aircraft assets between AD command and Operational commands, especially scarce holdings.
Most aircraft are multi-role, switching roles as per the need of the day’s operational objectives. The Su-30MKI, Mirage 2000, Rafale can perform dedicated air defence or strike missions, as well as both the roles in the same mission carrying bombs and missiles etc. Jaguars are the only dedicated strike aircraft, the rest of the fleet are truly multi-role.
Non-switching roles of air defence (AD) aircraft under Air Defence Command during lean periods would lead to sub-optimal utilisation of scarce resources. Thirdly the AWACS & AEW&C aircraft would be controlling both AD missions and strike missions; splitting these assets would be difficult with so few aircraft but more importantly, two independent commanders effecting control in the same airspace would add to the confusion, especially in the TBA.
However, some of these constraints may be overcome with excellent NCW capability, clear protocols in command, control mechanism between Commands and availability of adequate fighter assets and force enhancers like AWACS.
Q. With China quite apparently being advanced in technology, how prepared is IAF in 2020 for cyber and electronic warfare? Does IAF require more AWACS aircraft?
A. The Chinese Armed Forces, especially the PLAAF had been technologically poor till the late 1990s. In the last two decades, China has invested heavily in acquiring core technologies through R&D to bolster its indigenous weapon manufacturing capabilities.
It has a huge defence budget resulting from a booming economy as the manufacturing hub of the world. It has been able to close the technological gap vis-a-vis the US to a large extent in land, maritime, aerospace, nuclear, cyber and electronic warfare domains. At the current rate, it is expected to catch up with the US in two decades or so.
It has made substantial progress in the use of artificial intelligence and cyber warfare techniques. Currently, the Indian Armed Forces can hold their own against Chinese warfighting capabilities, retaining a technological edge in weapon systems, and even in the future to deter conflict or win a skirmish like Galwan Valley, Balakot air strikes etc.
Budgetary support and dedicated effort from DRDO and DPSUs as well as “political will” would determine the outcome. China is rapidly pulling away, building a gap in warfighting capabilities including cyber and space domains. They are certainly ahead of India in these spheres.
AWACS is a force enhancer, multiplying the combat effectiveness of fighter fleets manifold both in air defence and offensive air operations. IAF definitely requires at least 10 additional AWACS and AEW&C aircraft to effectively conduct operations in a collusive two-front conflict.
Q. With winter coming, Ladakh will see tough visibility conditions. Also with China’s vast air fleet, how equipped should IAF be in engaging China Beyond Visual Range (BVR)?
A. Extreme weather conditions as experienced in Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh in the high Himalayan ranges in winter are treacherous and life-threatening.
Conducting combat operations both for the Army and the Air Force are extraordinarily difficult, though the difficulties are similar for both sides in the mountains.
The IAF and the Army Aviation Corps have exceptional training and exposure to the elements of weather while operating round-the-year air maintenance missions in these sectors. The Siachen Glacier is the highest battlefield in the world while Daulat Beg Oldie is the highest airfield where IAF operates both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft to support the deployed troops.
There is no other Air Force in the globe with the kind of challenges in terms of treacherous terrain and climatic conditions faced by the IAF in day to day operations. In extreme wintry weather conditions on the Himalayan border, the IAF possesses most of the trump cards except for numerical superiority in a conflict situation.
These are, firstly, that in Tibet most airfields would be snow-bound hindering intensive air operations (take-off and landing). Most of the IAF bases are in the plains where the weather would not be such a hindrance. All airfields in the Northern and Western sector were fully operational during the December 1971 conflict with Pakistan.
Secondly, IAF fighter aircraft would carry much greater weapon loads vis-a-vis PLAAF aircraft operating from TAR due to altitude effect. Thirdly, air defence capabilities are evenly matched. However, exposure, training, leadership and morale are factors in favour of IAF and the Army.
Fourthly, the fight will be between professionals (IAF) and conscripts (PLAAF). Fifthly, the ‘METEOR’ (BVR air to air missile) armed Rafale and the MICA (BVR missiles) armed Mirage -2000 are superior to the PLAAF BVR missile capability. The PLAAF’s recently developed J-20 FGFA is yet to prove its operational capability claims in a conflict.
Sixthly, PLAAF air bases have limited infrastructure like hardened aircraft shelters etc. increasing their vulnerability manifold to air attacks. It is not so with IAF bases, outnumbering PLAAF bases in TAR. Numerical superiority will not play an important role since air bases in TAR are limited, restricting their deployment and the TBA would not be large enough to conduct large scale air operations.
Q. How crucial will be the role of IAF’s Jaguar with deep penetration strike capabilities, in a counter-attack against Chinese long-range strategic bombers?
A. The PLAAF possesses H-6 strategic bombers. Currently, a few of these are deployed at Kashgar and Hotan air bases in Tibet, both in depth airfields. H-6 aircraft is a license-built version of the vintage Russian TU-16 bombers. China has 120 such aircraft, optimised for multiple roles that are conventional bombers, nuclear bombers as well as air reconnaissance roles.
China is trying to manufacture a stealth bomber, H-20 similar to the famous US B-2 strategic bomber by 2025. The threat potential of H-20 would be substantial if and when operationalised with enhanced range and stealth features.
The H-6 bomber is subsonic with a very large radar signature and would be extremely vulnerable to the Indian Air Defence weapon systems in the contested airspace in Ladakh and eastern India. Hence, their deployment in Tibet is more for posturing than as a formidable threat.
In fact, the PLAAF would be better off using its SU-27 and Su-30 equivalents and Su-35 fighters than H6 bombers. The IAF does not possess any strategic or conventional bombers in its inventory after the Canberras were retired from service due to obsolescence several decades back.
Deep penetration strikes in the hinterland of a large country using bombers would be difficult to execute unless the adversary is no match for the attacker. An efficient network-centric air defence system would cripple such bombers.
The IAF’s Su- 30 MKI, Rafale and Mirage 2000 fighters with Air to Air refuelling could conduct deep penetration strikes to a reasonable depth but the risks of failure may outweigh the likely gains of such missions.
Currently, the IAF’s capability in the tactical battle area like interdiction of logistics and supply lines, reinforcements of troops and equipment, command and control centres, communication hubs etc. as well as attacks on airfields, is more than a match for the PLAAF due to geographical, training and experience factors – all in favour of IAF.
Q. Do you feel the time is ripe for IAF to increase its operational capabilities in the Eastern Theatre airspace where it shares a considerable length of the LAC with China?
A. India has to contend with two live borders, LOC with Pakistan and LAC with China, both are nuclear powers. The legacy of unresolved borders inherited from the British has forced India to fight several conflicts against its wish to protect its sovereignty.
Till recent times, the entire nation, including the military had focused on Pakistan as the main adversary. However, the belligerence of China and its actions since the 1962 Indo-China conflict have been very proactive. Their hostility towards India would intensify progressively hence India has to prepare for a long haul to contain the Dragon, especially after Galwan Valley and Pongongtso clashes.
The raising of the Mountain Corps by the Army based in Panagarh is one such step. The Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has been working hard to build roads, bridges etc. to improve the communication network in these remote Himalayan borders.
The IAF has already bolstered its operational infrastructure in the region by upgrading ALGs, runways, manoeuvring areas and other specific weapon system related assets. Several Su- 30 MKIs squadrons, C-130 J Hercules, new surveillance radars etc have either been deployed or in the process of deployment. A lot more is in the pipeline for the Eastern Theatre to mitigate the threats envisaged.