For efficient force structuring, IAF must take into account infusion of technology to our east and west
Air Marshal Ramesh Rai (retd)
Force structuring an air force is always a challenge for military planners, as they must endeavour to build the right mix of capabilities to address the myriad challenges of a future battlespace. In our context, the challenge gets further complicated by the growing prospect of a two-front war by Pakistan and China, which is progressively advancing after the Ladakh imbroglio.
Owing to territorial disputes with India, both China and Pakistan have metamorphosed into strategic partners that lends itself to the possibility of collusion between them. In July 2018, General Bipin Rawat, the then Chief of Army Staff and now CDS had stated, ‘A two-front war is a real scenario’. Analysts believe that the most probable plot could be where Pakistan takes advantage of an India-China conflict in a collusive or an opportunistic move. Be that as it may, a collaborative threat would pose a formidable challenge that mandates proper force structuring to contain a combined threat.
IAF would have to win the air war for the army and navy to win the surface war, for which its employment would stretch from the plains of Pakistan to the mountainous regions of J&K, Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh. Structuring would have to cater not only to counter the combined strength of opposing air forces but also make it effective both in the plains and the torturous terrain of the Himalayan, Zanskar and Karakoram ranges. Warfare in the mountains is a different ball game, and nations call upon air power to overcome the retardation imposed on land forces and neutralise military targets that tend to be small, dispersed, and blended well with the terrain. Increasing air power efficacy and lethality would depend a lot on technology, hence ramifications of equipment and doctrine would have to be borne in mind.
Key elements for structuring are identified based on the strategic and operational construct for fighting a war. For a two-front war the debate would be on how many platforms or squadrons would be necessary to meet the security challenge and what technologies would enhance war fighting efficacy. With a 30-squadron fleet, the IAF is clearly short of the desired numbers. In a rare public admission in 2018, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, while briefing the media on the eve of Exercise Iron Fist, a fire power demonstration of the IAF, had stated that the ‘numbers were not adequate to execute a full air campaign in a two-front scenario’.
The IAF has a Plan B, of multiplexing the use of its 30 squadrons on both fronts by centrally orchestrating the air campaign. This could, however, get into jeopardy if it gets divided and allotted to theatres structures, being envisaged by the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). This quagmire of piecemeal fragmentation, in a situation of quantitative and qualitative asymmetry is disquieting and will have to be factored in, since both China and Pakistan, have made concerted efforts to ensure that their air power poses a formidable challenge.
The Chinese Air Force (PLAAF) has transformed itself into a highly trained modern force with high-tech 4th and 5th generation aircraft comprising 40 to 50 squadrons of the 4-4.5 generation Su-30, Su-35, J-10Cs, J-11 (licenced version Su-27), J-16 (licenced version of Su-30) and 5th generation J-20B and J-31 along with advanced precision-guided munitions, force multipliers and a networked command and control system. With the induction of the 5th generation J-20 which began in February 2018 and J-31 which is likely to enter in 2021, China will be the second country in the world, after the US, to field an operational fifth-generation stealth aircraft. China has taken a leaf from the book of the American strategic thought and is concentrating power build-up based on aerospace technologies. It is making huge investments in technologies and capabilities related to space, hypersonic flight, stealth aircraft, strategic bombers, long range missiles, unmanned systems and Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance systems. Our force structuring would have to match the operational consequence of ingestion of such platforms and technologies in to the PLAAF.
The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is the seventh largest in the world with 22 squadrons (aspiring for 28) with around 70 JF-17s, 35 Mirage III (Rose Upgrade), 45 Block 52 F-16 4th generation multi-role fighters and plans to acquire another 100 JF-17s, 36 J-10s, a 4.5 generation aircraft and 40 Chinese FC-31 5th generation stealth fighters to give it a real qualitative fillip. Both air forces employ netcentric concept of operations with indigenously developed tactical data links. Though PAF may have lesser numbers, it has a qualitative edge with formidable beyond visual range, all weather, day-night combat capability for operations against both air and surface targets.
The IAF’s 30 squadron force level comprises 4th generation platforms or below. While it hopes to build up to 45 squadrons, the force mix would still comprise 4.5 generation fighters. Capability of such a force structure to adequately mitigate future threat would need to be established considering that the IAF would have to face the 45 to 50 squadrons combine of the PAF and PLAAF. The fundamental question is what capabilities would be essential and how much of each must be inducted to structure our air force. The picture is blurred both in terms of platforms and technologies and there is a need to review and define the force structure, say for the year 2050 and beyond.
Advanced 5th generation platforms and technologies have changed air warfare, making it more efficient, effective and truly smart. The IAF does not have 5th generation technologies in its midst. The new construct must endeavour for the same by either examining the basis of our current force planning and factor the changes based on our national military strategy for a two-front war or start with the current and future threats and work out a force required to mitigate the same. Unarguably, a combine of advanced fighter aircraft and advanced disruptive technologies which offer significant operational potential such as 5th generation aircraft, UCAVs, land-based cruise missiles, autonomous precision weapons, AI, cyber weapons and robotic autonomous weapon systems would have to be factored in to obtain a winning combination.
Our adversaries will contest in all warfighting domains: air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace with networking as their operational concept. The key structural requirement for the IAF would be to integrate the cyber domain into a networked war fighting operational concept and combine kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities. Networked wars which link sensors, systems, weapon platforms and C2 centres for data flow create enhanced situational awareness and then bring to bear the most appropriate weapon on the target enhancing efficacy. Mesh networking and topology management has moved warfare from platform-centric to networked war architecture for collective force application providing synergistic effects. Such synergies will bear on the force structuring numbers which will have to be arrived at. Likewise, intermeshing cyber offensive and defensive operations as part of IAF’s overall employment concept will entail autonomous cyber bombs to create disabling effect on enemy’s weapon systems reducing aircraft requirement over target. Such technologies will have to be developed in house and a balance between kinetic offensive force and non-kinetic elements is required based on IAF’s operational concept and cyber capability that the nation can evolve.
In the IAF’s operational concept, until the enemy’s Air Defence (AD) comprising high-powered radars and extended-range surface-to-air missiles is suppressed, manned platforms are escorted to avoid attrition. Technology offers options of suppressing enemy AD using stealthy manned strike platforms or a combination of cyber operations, electronic warfare, and artificial intelligence or UCAVs to saturate or attack them. It will be for the planners to decide on the desired option as each would offer a different set of Over the Target Requirement. While each option will need a target wise analysis, the cost of procurement or development of such technologies will need to be factored in the structuring matrix.
The IAF will need a force structure incorporating weapons and systems to operate above the speed and beyond the range of its potential adversaries. Technologies, like hypersonic strike technology offers the potential to engage heavily defended, and high-value targets. Hypersonic aircraft and weapons will have the capacity to fly at speeds greater than Mach 5, allowing them to quickly address threats before an adversary has time to react. This could be a game-changing capability with significant tactical and strategic advantages provided it can be developed inhouse within reasonable costs. Induction of such technology would be necessary to penetrate the enemy air defence set up.
Force planners will need to look at the aspect of using air and land cruise missiles for attack missions. In our context this could form part of the solution once India’s Nirbhay, long-range cruise missile, is inducted alongside BRAHMOS. A cost benefit analysis, however, would be necessary since missiles offer only one-way travel at a certain price vis-à-vis re-useable aircraft that can deliver weapons with high accuracy. While a land cruise missile may seem lucrative in the initial stages, but its exorbitant one-way cost may be unaffordable owing to larger circular error probability (CEP) and hence requirement of more missiles per target. India’s Prithvi missiles are claimed to have a CEP of 25 metres, while Agni-5 is claimed to have a CEP of 40 metres. Fighter aircraft deliver CEPs consistently of under 10 metres. Hence, our current ballistic missiles fall short of being considered for possible tactical use, though this could change in the future and will have to be factored-in accordingly.
The UCAVs are emerging as a preferred option for high-risk, high payoff missions expanding the range of coercive or punitive methods that any air force could employ. Their role will keep increasing along with their capabilities. A quantum jump is expected with a breakthrough in AI, when autonomous UCAVs will make informed, intelligent decisions. Autonomous stealth UCAVs would be able to find and identify targets and strike in the autonomous mode or on obtaining permission from a human operator.
Cheap swarms of autonomous stealth drones armed with weapons or EW/ EO/ IR payloads offer viable strike, EW and ISR solutions and to an extent relieve manned fighters of these tasks. Swarms could be flown to protect manned fighters from enemy air defences and thus alleviate the need for escorts. Whilst losing a UAV is still an expensive prospect, such combinations could be used in highly hostile environment/ densely defended areas expanding IAF’s ability to project force. Autonomous UCAVs though not a panacea, offer the presence of force in a threat environment that 20 years from now will be extremely lethal accruing immense operational and cost benefits. Their advantages, low costs and ability to carry out a variety of roles will be compelling for a significant number to be inducted in our force structure.
Artificial intelligence (AI) and increased machine-based learning/ reasoning will provide increased autonomy in the tactical, operational and strategic environments as it develops and matures. Artificially intelligent sensors, missiles (especially the fire-and-forget variety), UAVs and lethal autonomous weapons could be networked to populate the battlefield of the future. Operating in close collaboration with manned platforms with varying degrees of autonomy these highly automated robotic machines would be able to identify and attack targets automatically through pattern-recognition algorithms. Research in microwave and laser-directed energy systems will pursue offensive and defensive weapons engaging at the speed of light. Other disruptive technologies competing for a place in the force structure to offset the number of squadrons would be in the form smart munitions, quantum technology and robotics. Incorporation of these technologies would enhance efficacy in the mountains.
Air power could change the paradigm of strategy in the mountains if we increase its lethality by inducting the right technology for the various roles envisaged i.e., support of army operations, reconnaissance, offensive action, resupply of ammunition and casualty evacuation. Mountain terrain increases the vulnerability of aircraft to anti-aircraft weapons, imposes difficulties on target acquisition, reduces safety margins, makes navigation difficult and imposes additional difficulties on weapon delivery. Overcoming these would owe a lot to technology—from sensor to shooter. Thus, inducting high technology, even if in low numbers, would be highly desirable. Most advanced fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters would be suited for operations, when configured with a suite that allows enhanced survivability, target acquisition, precision weapons and accurate weapon delivery technology. Networking of sensors, decision-makers, and shooters would make possible the ground-air synergy for targeting using laser and IR sensors both on ground and in air, providing for freedom of operation even by night.
We ought to bear in mind that airpower is sophisticated and very expensive, and so tends to lead to low numbers of assets. But in deciding the balance between large numbers of low cost/ quality aircraft against small numbers of high cost/ quality aircraft, sophistication should not be sacrificed to numbers. This argument holds even more in mountain warfare.
Force structuring an air force requires the right mix of platforms and technologies to mitigate the threats of a future war. Our planners will have to find a balance in induction of technology and platforms based on our concept of fighting a two-front war in the future. The government had sanctioned a structure of 45 squadrons, when its division into theatres was not envisaged. The IAF will need to rework its force structure to cater for the theatre configuration and technology ingestion in our neighbourhood.
The IAF must strive to establish the right combination of platforms and technologies to get greater effects, speed and reach than our adversaries. Advanced and disruptive technologies in the form of precision weapons, smart munitions, quantum technology, AI Autonomous UCAVs, cruise missile and robotics would need to find a place in the force structure as they have the potential to revolutionise the battle space by changing warfare concepts and offer low-cost options.
In employing advanced 5th generation technologies and platform combinations, the air force would have to create a new strategic concept on how it intends to operate them to counter threats of the two-front war. Technology will play a significant role in deciding the force planning numbers as it brings alternate means and alternate concepts to war fighting. These will have to be adequately conceived at the planning stage itself to structure a winning combination.