By Rakesh Krishnan Simha
The Indian Air Force has a total strength of 1,276 aircraft, including 434 combat/air superiority jets and 102 ground attack planes. Although the IAF remains the fourth largest air force in the world, its fighter fleet is severely depleted and well below its sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons or 756 aircraft. The good news is that with modern aircraft acquisitions being a priority under the Narendra Modi government, the IAF may finally be able to enhance its fleet strength to the optimum number of squadrons needed to fight a collusive two-front war with China and Pakistan.
While the 36 new French Rafales together with the Su-30 MKI Sukhois (set to cross 314) will form the spearhead of the IAF’s air dominance fleet, it is the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft that will form the bulk of the future fixed wing fleet. The Centre’s green light in January 2021 for the acquisition of 83 Tejas Mark 1A jets will not only give a boost to India’s aeronautical industry, it will also help fill the gaps in the IAF’s current fleet, which is down to 30 squadrons or less. These 83 jets are in addition to the 40 Mark 1 already ordered.
The Tejas acquisitions tie in with Deputy Chief of Air Force Air Marshal Sandeep Singh’s statement that the number of fighter squadrons in the IAF is expected to improve in a decade’s time. In October 2020, at a programme jointly organised by the New Delhi-based Centre for Air Power Studies and the Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers, he had said, “The IAF will have around 37-38 fighter squadrons in a decade.”
Since a well balanced fleet is critical to war fighting, there are two things the IAF must keep in mind while planning its fleet expansion. One, the service must have enough number of aircraft as a hedge against war attrition. This may seem like stating the obvious but the importance of having a numerically superior force is often neglected while air force brass chase the mirage of wonder weapons.
Two, there should be a good mix of aircraft keeping in mind future threats and types of missions. In a nuclearised subcontinent, full-on wars are unlikely and short localised conflicts and punitive strikes – such as Balakot – are more likely.
Why Numbers Matter
The IAF’s desire for 42-plus squadrons is compelling if India is to preserve the airpower superiority it has enjoyed in the Indian subcontinent since 1971. Since the IAF also aims to transform itself into a strategic force with the ability to take on regional tasks, its needs will only grow.
Numerical superiority can be the decisive factor in the backdrop of both Pakistan and China planning to significantly increase their air power. By 2032 the Pakistan Air Force aims to acquire 614 fighters, eight to 12 AWACS/AEW&C aircraft and six flight refuelling aircraft. China’s PLA Air Force is currently the third-biggest in the world with more than 2,000 combat aircraft, including fighters, bombers and multi-mission tactical and attack aircraft.
The history of aerial warfare brings out the importance of higher numbers of aircraft in a specific engagement for success. According to a report titled ‘IAF Equipment and Force Structure Requirements to Meet External Threats, 2032’, by the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, “Two forces equal in numbers and reasonably close in equipment and skills have tended to have equal losses in combat. On the other hand, whenever the numbers ratio has become favourable to one side, its losses as well as loss percentages have fallen disproportionately, with the opposite effect on the less numerical party. Thus, technology and skills irrespective, numbers do matter in aerial combat. The slogan of ‘fighting outnumbered and winning’ has no place at the operational level of war unless a very large technological asymmetry exists.”
The report adds: “Numbers will matter always as there are limits to how much a fewer number of aircraft and crew combinations can do. That is why the USAF plans to induct several hundreds (1,763 to be exact) of the fifth-generation F-35 Lightning-II fighters…. The US does not have a high-tech enemy since the demise of the Soviet Union, but still sees the need for large numbers of very advanced fifth-generation fighters.”
Getting The Mix Right
The 26 February 2019 raid by twelve Mirage-2000 fighter-bombers on Balakot, deep inside Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakthunkhwa province, didn’t just destroy the training camps of the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorist group. More significantly, the IAF raid strike shattered the myth that nuclear weapons can help protect Pakistan from India’s punitive actions.
Balakot wasn’t the first time the IAF used air power to expose Pakistan’s vulnerability. According to a Strategy Page report, the PAF’s “psyche took a big beating” because of the IAF’s aggressive deployments during the 1999 Kargil War and the 2002 border stand-off.
In the nuclearised environment, full-on wars as happened in 1965 and 1971 are highly unlikely. Even those two wars were of short duration – lasting 22 and 14 days respectively. Modern wars will be swift and localised. Against Pakistan they will be more like Balakot and the 2016 surgical strikes of Uri. It is worth noting that of the myriad of aircraft in its fleet, the IAF deployed 12 Mirage-2000 fighter-bombers that are nearly 40 years old.
The reason the IAF assigned the Balakot mission to its old warhorse is that the multirole French fighter is best equipped for such a dangerous mission. Compared to the much larger Sukhoi Su-30 MKI, the Mirage-2000 is more nimble and has a smaller radar cross section, making it ideal for a shoot and scoot raid deep into Pakistan. In fact, the Mirages did such a brilliant job that they were back in Indian airspace before the PAF could scramble its American F-16s.
The IAF currently has around 45 Mirage-2000s although back in the early 1980s it had planned to acquire 150 of these versatile aircraft. However, after buying just 50 jets, the air force brass decided not to exercise the option to buy more. The Soviet lobby seems to have played a role in the scuttling of the plan to expand the Mirage fleet. That legacy continues to haunt India. While the Sukhois and MiG-29s are excellent dogfighters, there is no denying that the IAF’s Russian aircraft have very poor fleet availability. As compared with the Western average of around 70 per cent for their frontline fighters, the Sukhois have a fleet availability of around 50 per cent and the MiG-29K has an abysmal 45 per cent.
With the political leadership in Delhi now represented by a new breed of nationalist leaders such as Prime Minister Modi and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, India has shed its Congress-era reticence for military retaliation. This political dispensation believes in giving the military a free hand to deal with military matters. In particular, it agrees that the Indian armed forces must be allowed their right to retaliate – with disproportionate strength – in response to an attack on India.
In this backdrop, the IAF needs to orient its fleet for punitive strikes against Pakistan and have the capability to absorb retaliatory strikes in response to such strikes. This is an area in which the IAF needs to improve. While Balakot was a brilliant success, the IAF wasn’t 100 per cent prepared for its repercussions.
For instance, just six hours after the 12 Mirage-2000s had returned from their raid on the terror factories in Balakot, the PAF launched a counterattack across the Line of Control. Comprising a package of 28 PAF fighters, Operation Swift Retort had two objectives. One, attack the Brigade HQ at Bhimber and the ammunition depot at Narian in J&K in order to mollify the Pakistani public that the PAF wasn’t completely helpless. These targets were to be attacked by standoff missiles launched by Pakistani jets from within their own airspace.
Two, knowing that Sukhois would be scrambled to intercept these attacking aircraft, the PAF hoped to bring down a few Sukhois by firing their AMRAAM long-range air-to-air missiles at the IAF’s air dominance fighter. Had the plan succeeded, the PAF would have scored a coup and embarrassed the IAF.
It is worth mentioning here that the IAF had the edge over the PAF during the 1999 Kargil War but lost it in 2010 when the PAF’s better planning allowed it to acquire the 56-km range American AMRAAM. The Sukhois were equipped with the much inferior R-73 with a mere 40-km range, giving the Pakistanis an edge in beyond visual range (BVR) warfare.
The PAF took advantage of the IAF’s Rules of Engagement which do not permit IAF fighters to fire on PAF aircraft — until fired upon or in violation of the Line of Control. As the Sukhois raced to intercept the Pakistani jets, some of them launched AMRAAMs against the Sukhois.
While the Su-30MKIs were outclassed in BVR missiles, they are unbeatable in super-maneuverability – which gives them a huge advantage in dogfights – and have vastly superior electronic warfare systems. For instance, the Sukhoi’s BARS radar has a 350 km search range and a maximum 200 km tracking range, and 60 km in the rear hemisphere. The radar can track 15 air targets and engage the four most dangerous ones simultaneously. These targets can even include missiles and motionless helicopters. Additionally, the Su-30MKI can function as a tactical airborne command post or a mini-AWACS. Due to this capability, the Sukhoi’s second pilot, the Weapons Systems Operator, is able to provide directions to other aircraft in the heat of combat. In comparison, the PAF F-16s are single-pilot aircraft.
These advanced capabilities along with the much superior training and morale of IAF pilots blunted Operation Swift Retort. The IAF pilots who not only avoided the missiles but one of them, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, chased a Pakistani F-16 into Pakistani controlled airspace that was bristling with air defence guns and missiles and shot it down before his own MiG-21 got shot down.
The lesson from this episode is that the Pakistanis, despite being outnumbered, were able to find a window of vulnerability in India’s air defence – the lack of enough capable combat aircraft in J&K. The PAF knew there was only a single interceptor squadron based in Srinagar for the defence of J&K. The Pakistanis were not overly concerned about it because the squadron comprised the outmoded MiG-21. Plus, the PAF exploited the gaps in the changeover times of the IAF’s combat air patrols over the Kashmir Valley.
Designed in the 1950s, the MiG-21 has very short legs, with a loiter-time of just 30 minutes. In comparison, the Sukhoi and Rafale can remain airborne for more than four hours without aerial refueling. This is not to trash the MiG-21, which despite its age remains an excellent interceptor. However, by chasing the F-16 into heavily defended airspace, the 60-year-old Russian aircraft was way out of its comfort zone. It was designed to intercept enemy aircraft and shoot them down; it is not equipped with electronic warfare systems to survive in an air-defence rich environment like PoK.
While multirole aircraft like the Mirage-2000, Rafale and Su-30MKI are able to both attack and also defend themselves, the barebones MiG-21 is simply not equipped for such multitasking. Had Wing Commander Varthaman been flying a Mirage-2000, he would have safely brought it back because the French jet is a more survivable aircraft.
In view of the success of the Balakot strike plus the shortcomings of the IAF’s fleet that were revealed during the J&K air battle, the IAF should opt for multirole aircraft and equip them with long-range beyond visual range aircraft. Over the past 60 years, India license-manufactured nearly 800 units of the outdated MiG-21 while rejecting the vastly more capable Mirage-2000. Such a state of affairs must not happen again. Again, in the area of BVR warfare, the IAF is set to regain the advantage with the 150-km French Meteor and the 80-km Astra missiles.
Better Planning Needed
In order to bridge the current shortfall and replace retiring MiG-21s, the IAF requires an estimated 400 new fighter aircraft over the next few years. But the only replacements in sight are the 36 Rafales, 40 Tejas Mk1 and 83 Tejas Mk1A for a total of 159 fighters. To meet this wide gap the government has two easy options – approve additional Rafale purchases or crank up the production of its fallback fighter, the Su-30MKI. The problem is it will make the IAF even more top-heavy than it is now.
What the service needs are fewer silver bullets and more hard working workhorses like the Mirage-2000. While the Sukhois are set to cross an unprecedented 314, the Mirage fleet is now in the low 40s. The reality is there are some tasks that the Sukhois are simply not equipped for. They are air dominance fighters that can create an impregnable cover for other IAF aircraft to operate with impunity. What they are not ideal for is a raid into Pakistan where they will light up like a Christmas tree on enemy radar. Similarly, the MiG-21 is on its last legs and no amount of upgrades can help it survive an air-defence rich environment.
This sorry situation did not happen overnight – it was caused by two decades of flip-flop by the political leadership. Modern aircraft have a technical life of around 25 years, which is extendable through midlife upgrades. Replacements have to be ordered years before the aircraft is likely to be retired or mothballed.
The IAF is currently overhauling its plan to induct 114 medium-weight multirole fighters that will cost about $17 billion, making it bigger than the $8 billion Rafale contract. These aircraft will be built in India with significant foreign technology transfer and no foreign procurement. While expanding and re-equipping its fleet, the IAF should have a simple rule – acquire the right mix of aircraft that will help it do the job in the transformed battle space of the Indian subcontinent.
–The writer is a globally cited defence analyst. His work has been published by leading think tanks, and quoted extensively in books on diplomacy, counter terrorism, warfare and economic development. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda