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Ajai Shukla: Buy a fighter for war, not air shows

A firestorm of criticism from hundreds of indignant netizens followed my last column (“Scrap the MMRCA, buy US F-35s”, October 19, 2010), which argued that the Indian Air Force is blundering in buying a 4th Generation Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) just a couple of years before Lockheed Martin’s 5th Generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter enters operational service. Given that the IAF will operate its 126 MMRCAs till about 2050, anything short of today’s cutting edge would become irrelevant long before that.

Broadly speaking, the critics’ arguments were: the F-35 is not designed as a high-speed fighter (true); its primary role is striking ground targets and is, therefore, merely a “bomb truck” (Churchill might have said: ” Some truck! Some bombs!!”); the F-35 is many years away from operational readiness (false); it is too expensive (depends on how you calculate); and, of course, the unsurprising, “Goddamit! We can’t trust the Yanks.”

Since my previous 900-word article could hardly cover all corners of this $10-billion question, I shall stay on this subject this week and outline the military realities and doctrinal issues that must shape the IAF’s decision.

What are India’s foreseeable security threats and how must the IAF respond? While Pakistan remains a lingering hangover, especially in its embrace of cross-border terrorism, it is diminishing as a full-blown military threat to India. The IAF’s most likely missions against Pakistan centre on air-to-ground strikes: punitive raids against terrorist camps or ISI locations, perhaps in retaliation for yet another terrorist outrage; or pre-emptive strikes against Pakistani ballistic missiles when a nuclear launch against India seems imminent.

A devastating ground strike capability is also primary for contingencies on the China border. With Beijing relentlessly developing roads and railways to the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has already built, and is increasing, the ability to amass an invading force faster than the Indian Army can rush in troops to defend the threatened area. With an attack imminent, or some Indian territory already captured, New Delhi’s immediate response will inevitably centre on air strikes against PLA forward troops and the routes on which their logistics — ammunition, fuel, food, water and medical care — depend. In the 1962 debacle, one of New Delhi’s most unforgivable, and inexplicable, blunders was to abjure the use of air power. This time around, as evident from the rapid creation of IAF infrastructure along the China border, India’s first response will be with air strikes.

Given these requirements, it is evident that the IAF needs powerful ground strike capabilities. But the fighter pilots who dominate the pinnacle of the IAF (and every other air force) have a special fascination for “air supremacy fighters”, those glamorous machines that incestuously dogfight with enemy fighters during war and mesmerise air-show audiences with aerobatics during peace. The IAF has traditionally focused less on enemy ground troops and more on that fighter-jock ambition, shooting down enemy fighters in air-to-air duels. The Indian Army has long remonstrated with the IAF over the latter’s airy neglect (pun unintentional) of the crucial ground war.

The MMRCA procurement reflects this bias: the IAF’s tender emphasises air-to-air combat capabilities — speed, rate of climb, turn rate, etc. — with ground strike capability a mere side benefit. Already deficient in air-to-ground strike power, the IAF’s two major fighters under development — the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) and the Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) — are primarily air supremacy fighters. The third fighter in the pipeline, the MMRCA, cannot share the same bloodline. Instead, procuring a top-notch strike aircraft — and the F-35 is the undisputed king of this realm — will equip the IAF to contribute to the war effort where it matters the most.

To mask its ideological proclivity for air superiority fighters, the IAF argues that the “multi-role” MMRCA can also strike enemy ground forces. Strike it can, but nowhere as effectively as the F-35, which is designed ground-up for this role. To use an athletics analogy, decathletes hurl the discus, throw the javelin, and also sprint 100 metres. None of them, however, achieve world standards in each of these events.

The army has not forgotten the IAF’s irrelevance during the Kargil conflict. When IAF fighters should have been supporting assaulting infantry by hammering Pakistani positions with air strikes, fire support came almost exclusively from the army’s own guns. Meanwhile, the IAF was searching for a way to equip its Mirage-2000s (an MMRCA!) to deliver bombs accurately onto mountaintops. Without a world-class, customised strike fighter like the F-35, this sorry saga could be replayed some day on the Sino-Indian border.

Another argument fallaciously made, against the F-35, is that its design — optimised for ground strike — renders it vulnerable to predatory enemy fighters. In fact, owing to its stealth capabilities, US Air Force combat simulations have found the F-35 the equal in air-to-air combat of four fighters of the 4th Generation, which the IAF is now procuring.

Finally, New Delhi must be clearer about its threats and opportunities. The US sale of F-35s to Israel, and its willingness to condone the retro-fitment of Israeli avionics and weaponry illustrate Washington’s strategy of building up clearly friendly countries against clear long-term threats. Just as it is supporting the creation of capabilities against Iran’s nuclear programme, the US will equally facilitate capabilities against China’s growing militarism. Furthermore, an F-35 procurement by India would dramatically dissipate the suspicions that currently dog US-India defence relations.

But the basic argument for the F-35 remains Indian self-interest. Tomorrow’s IAF must be a comprehensively 5th Generation force, using custom-designed aircraft for specific operational tasks. In the US Air Force, the F-22 Raptor obtains air superiority; meanwhile, US ground forces are supported by the F-35 joint strike fighter. The IAF cannot fall short on either of these counts. With the 5th Generation FGFA, an air superiority fighter, perhaps a decade away, the IAF must obtain a war-winning advantage from a matching strike fighter: the F-35.

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