Keep the flag flying

Updated on Nov 20, 2011 11:25 PM IST

India needs to re-invent its air force so that it gets the upper hand in case of a short and sharp regional conflict. Vikram Sood writes.

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Hindustan Times | ByVikram Sood

For a country like ours, situated in a tough neighbourhood with no hope of changing our neighbours, it is imperative that we remain prepared for the worst. There is no other choice. The Indian Air Force (IAF) must re-invent itself, not just to ward off threats but with the ability to carry the war into the adversary's camp, and retaliate with speed and massive fire power at targets that impose unacceptable damage. Only this would reflect the reach of a regional power.

The rise of China, the intransigence of Pakistan and India's rise have made it necessary that we prepare today to meet the challenges of tomorrow. Should there be an open conflict, it is more likely to be short, sharp and rely heavily on the use of aircraft, as other nations would want to prevent the escalation to a nuclear exchange. The nation that acquires an upper hand will naturally strike a better post-conflict bargain. The IAF has begun a serious attempt to modernise. India is to acquire six more of the versatile C130J transport aircraft, in addition to the six contracted in 2008. The IAF will induct 10 C17 Globemasters beginning mid 2013 and then acquire six more later. These acquisitions would enhance the IAF's logistic capabilities in the mountainous north and north-east where new air bases are being constructed. Equally important is our strike capability beyond the national frontiers.

There are three kinds of aircraft that seem to be or should be under consideration: the much talked about Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MRCA), the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) at present being jointly manufactured by Russians and Indians the top of the range F35, which the Americans have now offered. What should be under consideration is the long range bomber that has the ability to strike deep.

The MRCA is now a choice between two aircraft — the French Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon — in a deal that could be much higher than the original figure of R42,000 crores. A strict comparison between the two is not realistic. The Rafale weighs 10,000 kg empty and has a maximum weight of 24,500 kg with a combat radius of 1,800 km. The Eurofighter weighs 11,000 kg empty, maximum weight of 23,500 kg with a combat radius of 1,400 km. Moreover, the latter has super cruise capability that allows it to fly at speeds greater than Mach 1 for longer periods. Other aircrafts can only attain this in short bursts during a dog fight or while evading missiles. But since Rafale is wholly French, technology transfer will be easier and the IAF, which has the Mirage on its inventory, presumably feels more comfortable with this kind of aircraft. The multi-nation Eurofighter does not have these advantages, as it is manufactured jointly by countries some of whom have strong embargo laws. One way or the other, a decision on the MRCA is expected to be taken shortly.

Since the MRCA is essentially a replacement for aging aircraft, in the process, it incorporates the natural upgrading of equipment and allows the air force to attain its optimum squadron levels in the future. Would this take care of all our future threats? Any future threat scenario must factor in that the Chinese air force, with its 2,900 fighter aircrafts, is numerically far superior to the IAF. Aircraft like the JH7 with an 1,800 km radius could be deployed from bases in Tibet to strike deep into India. This is apart from the missile deployments in Tibet. The IAF, even after the acquisition of the MRCA, will not have the capability to strike deep into the Han homeland in retaliation to a major strike in our heartland. A retaliatory strike has to make news as well. For this, the IAF would need the Russian TU-22 or SU-34 bomber. Deep penetration aircraft need two pilots in a pressurised cabin with a sleeping bay, a galley and toilet. Pilots on long flying missions need facilities to relax and stretch out. True, retaliation with the BrahMos missile is possible; but a strike by an aircraft deep inside the heartland of the adversary has a different connotation. Besides, the capacity to strike with long-range heavy bombers is a crucial part of any nuclear triad.

The two-seater FGFA being planned with the Russians would have a combat radius of 1,500 km, and is expected to be inducted in 2017. The offer of the F35, a single-seater state of the art multi-role stealth aircraft, is being described as a measure of US confidence in India. The aircraft has three variants priced from $110 million to $140 million and not $65 million, as has been quoted elsewhere. This means that there will be extra/hidden charges. Apart from the initial cost of purchasing any aircraft system, the purchaser has to factor in almost a similar amount for maintenance and upgrade through the life of the machine, expected to last about 40 years. India will have to keep in mind the stringent US EUMA (End Use Monitoring Agreement) while negotiating with the US.

There is still some hesitation in New Delhi about such offers from the US. Pakistan is a US ally and China is America's main economic partner. It would be unwise to expect the US to ignore these interests in favour of India. The F35 may not be faulted on technical qualifications but political considerations would be an important factor. Somewhere in the strategic minds in DC and New Delhi, the ghost of the Cold War and its suspicions still lurk. The US looks for allies in the region as it lowers its profile, India can only offer friendship.

Vikram Sood is former secretary, Research & Analysis Wing. The views expressed by the author are personal.

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