A Case For the Bombers

The IAF needs to invest in at least a couple of bomber squadrons

Gp Capt. Ram Ithikkat (retd)Gp Capt. Ram Ithikkat (retd)

Surprisingly, the phrase ‘The bomber will always get through’ was made not by an airman but by a seasoned and successful three-time British Prime Minister. In his 1932 speech, ‘A Fear for the Future’, Stanley Baldwin, warned the British parliament that a strategic bombing campaign would destroy a country’s cities and ‘kill large numbers of men and women’, breaking the ‘will of a people to fight’ leading to ultimate victory.

The classic air power theorists of the early part of the 20th Century were almost of the same opinion that in a ‘total war’ against the enemy state, offensive air operations with extensive use of bombing campaigns would break the will of the enemy state. While there was considerable difference on the targets, Douhet, Trenchard and Mitchel were in near total agreement on the use of long-range heavy bombers using mass.


Obscurity for the Bomber

Bombing Campaigns: The studies of the bombing campaigns through the ages reveal that ‘the bomber did not always get through’. Whilst the development of radar gave fore warning of incoming raids, severe attrition was caused by enemy fighters and anti-aircraft artillery (AAA). Difficulties in navigation and inaccuracy due to rudimentary sighting systems required a very large Over Target Requirement (OTR). The Luftwaffe’s bombing campaign of London did not break ‘the will of the people’, and instead steeled their resolve to fight back. A 1964 British study of V bombers indicated that unprotected bombers would encounter six anti-aircraft missiles (AAMs), each with a 75 per cent probability of destruction. A similar result came from a USAF study on the efficacy of bombers versus missiles. Bombing campaigns in general and the bomber in particular seemed to be headed for obscurity.


Shock and Awe: That obscurity reigned until Operation Desert Storm with the coming together of the technologies of intelligence gathering, precision targeting, stealth and Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD), and perhaps more importantly, an operational level concept. This concept focused principally on effects to achieve control over an opponent rather than destruction to achieve military objectives. Col John Warden used this near perfect opportunity to lay the foundation for a complete reversal of the disastrous Rolling Thunder of the Vietnam era with Instant Thunder; a campaign to target the Five Rings of Centres of Gravity (CoG) of Saddam’s regime. As Brig. Gen David A Deptula writes “The first night of the Gulf War air campaign demonstrated that the conduct of war had changed. One hundred fifty-two discrete targets—plus regular Iraqi Army forces and SAM sites—made up the master attack plan for the opening 24-hour period of the Gulf air war. The Gulf War began with more targets in one day’s attack plan than the total number of targets hit by the entire Eighth Air Force in all of 1942 and 1943—more separate target air attacks in 24 hours than ever before in the history of warfare.” Parallel warfare had arrived.


Strategy and Effects

Strategy and Tactics: A bomber traditionally has always been a multi engine long-range aircraft that could deliver heavy ordnance. So, when does it become strategic?

The term strategic has always been concerned with operations at a markedly different level from tactics. Carl Von Clausewitz wrote six volumes and two drafts for his treatise ‘On War’. Had he lived to complete this classic, he would perhaps have elaborated more on strategy. As it is, Clausewitz has very little to say about this even in Book Three on strategy. Strategy, he defines baldly as ‘the use of the engagement for the purposes of the war.’

Technological advancements in aviation have blurred these differences considerably. Gen. Charles A. Horner, the JACC during Desert Storm put this quite simply, “I don’t understand tactical or strategic. The words have now become meaningless and dysfunctional. In fact, in modern military speech, they are more often used to divide people and frustrate efforts than to illuminate and facilitate.”

Closer home, the Basic Doctrine of the IAF published in 2012 defines strategy as the process of coordinating the development, deployment, and employment of military forces to achieve national security objectives.

The IAF understands strategy and Effect Focussed Operations only too well even if it doesn’t articulate it elaborately. On 14 December 1971, IAF struck the Governor’s House in Dacca, with four MiG 21 and 2 Hunters. Firing 128 rockets and guns, it terrorised the East Pakistan leadership forcing a surrender. The innermost ring of command, control and leadership had been struck and forced to capitulate.

As can be seen, a weapon and a platform can be strategic or tactical. What matters is the effect.


Current Heavy Bombers

Only three nations operate heavy bombers today. USAF has its the B-52 Stratofortress, B-1B and B-2. Russia operates the Tu-22, Tu-160 and the Tu-195 while China operates several versions of the Tu-16 designating it as versions of H-6. All other Air Forces operate the fighter bomber or multi-role fighter jets.


Bombers versus Missiles

Comparisons between penetrating bombers and expendable missiles are inevitable. While public perception favours missile and this is a view often shared by some in the military, Project Air Force (RAND) carried out a study that was starkly revealing.

The Project developed life cycle costs estimates (including procurement, operations, and support) for a new bomber. This included the per day cost of fighting multiple conflicts against adversaries possessing moderate air defences. The project also developed cost estimates of long-range cruise missile design launched from stand-off distances by non-stealthy platforms. The project did not include the procurement costs for the missile launch platforms. It also assumed that cruise missiles do not require more ISR support than bombers. Both of these factors worked in the favour of missiles.

Project Air Force’s calculations show that if a nation fights under these conditions for 20 days or more over the next 30 years, penetrating stealth bombers cost less than expendable missiles for similar missions.


The Future Bombers

The United States: Budgets force a nation to allocate its monies judiciously. The USAF will induct the B-21 Raider (named after the famous Doolittle Raid) in the next decade. To be built at a staggering cost of USD 550 million apiece with a mind boggling USD 100 billion research and development budget, the B 21 will be a long-range, highly survivable bomber capable of carrying a mix of conventional and nuclear ordnance.

Russia: The Tupolev Design Bureau is currently developing a long range stealthy subsonic heavy bomber called PAK DA codenamed Poslannik (Envoy). While a full-scale wooden mock-up has been revealed, there is considerable speculation in the West whether Russia will have the resources to continue this programme. This is in light of the economic sanction due to the Ukraine crisis.

China: China is working on inducting its newest and most powerful bomber, the H-20. The South China Morning Post describes the bomber as being a heavy and stealthy plane, capable of flying across the Pacific with a 45-ton weapon payload. The SCMP quotes sources in China as saying the bomber will have a range of at least 12,000 kilometres, which would even put Hawaii within its reach.

Chief of Air Staff ACM Fali Homi Major
Chief of Air Staff ACM Fali Homi Major had mooted the idea of at least one bomber squadron

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