Affordable Airpower in an Era of Guns vs. Butter
We live in an era where air power has taken on different connotations even as it becomes increasingly expensive and complex to use. Air power now no longer is the sole function of air forces and restricted to the use of combat aircraft. In the United States, the Central Intelligence Agency has built its own air force and used it to take out terrorists in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen. Police forces around the world now use unmanned aircraft for monitoring and surveillance. Yet at the same time, buying and maintaining aircraft has become an increasingly expensive business—especially for democracies that have to balance of the need of the armed forces with the more immediate needs of domestic societies. Thus, in India, the defense budget has stagnated, for over a decade, at around 1.6% of GDP. The question then arises, how do you build up your air power to cover both external and internal security situations in an age of budgetary constraints?
The Escalating Cost of Airpower
Over the past thirty years one secular trend in airpower has been the escalating cost and complexity of aircraft. Back in the 1970s, the United States designed and developed the F-16 as a light weight fighter—a low-cost plane that was highly maneuverable and could be a foil to the more expensive, complex, and versatile F-15 Eagle. Since then, however, there has been only one plane that has been developed to be part of a high-low mix and that is the Chinese JF-17 Thunder which gets sold to the Pakistanis at a “friendship price” of around $26 million. In the rest of the world, however, the push has been to develop increasingly complex and expensive systems. The US and its allies, therefore, are buying the exorbitantly priced F-35 Lightning, China is headed towards building more advanced J-20 and J-31 fighters while Russia is now slowly starting to induct the Su-57 fifth generation fighter (this was the program that India walked out of because the Russians were reluctant to incorporate Indian requirements in the final design and refused to permit a full transfer of technology). In the future, France and Germany are planning to develop a sixth-generation Future Combat Air System that will have an interface between artificial intelligence and human pilots. In fact, under the present contract both manned and unmanned vehicles are to be developed. Yet while this happens, more and more countries are cutting back on the purchase of expensive airplanes and, instead, soldering on with their dated fleets.
If one looks at the present international aviation market, only two countries—the United States and China—have the budgets to buy even a portion of what their armed services want for modernization. The United States is pressing ahead with the F-35 program and, at the same time, building a new version of the Eagle, the F-15X. The F-15X incorporates all the developments of the plane for foreign customers and will also, no doubt, include avionics from the F-35.
China’s own aviation development is impressive. It went from essentially reverse engineered 6,000 MiG-19s and MiG-21s thus laying the groundwork for an aviation industry that has built the J-10 and more futuristic planes like the J-20 and J-31. Moreover, China’s economic growth allows it to invest in the development and production of new aircraft—a luxury that most nations in the world no longer have as seen in the case of the western alliance and the F-35.
Going into the 2020s and 2030s, the backbone of NATO’s airpower was supposed to be the F-35 Lightning which is an advanced fighter that would have given the alliance’s air forces a common and interoperable platform. The problem was that because the costs of the plane ballooned, the Western nations, with aging populations and strong social welfare programs, were forced to choose between buying aircraft or paying for the welfare of their people (the guns vs. butter dilemma). The Canadians were the first to bail when they decided to cancel their F-35 purchase, despite sunk costs, and, instead, bought mothballed F-18s from the Australians. Italy followed by stating that it would not buy additional F-35s and would even prefer to reduce its existing order.
Apart from high costs, the fact is that countries requirements from air power are far more complex than the demand for combat aircraft. Countries like Brazil and Norway now need Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drones to deal with their environmental concerns. Brazil needs to be able to surveil its large Amazon province to prevent poaching and environmental degradation while Norway worries that given its vast off-shore oil resources one day it may face a huge oil-spill and then would need the right type of aircraft to monitor it. Other countries need UAVs to monitor human trafficking and the flow of illegal migrants. But perhaps the biggest shift in air power has been the need to use UAVs in the fight against terror.
It was the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) that first decided to use UAVs for aerial surveillance operations and later for prosecuting air strikes against terrorists. In doing so the CIA, for all intent and purposes, became the sixth air force of the USA and, perhaps, the most effective one in the fight against terrorism.
Terrorism and insurgencies also brought out the limitations of modern combat aircraft and the need for more dedicated platforms that could counter such threats. Thus, in both Nigeria and Afghanistan it became clear that planes like the Jaguar and the F-16 were of limited value against insurgents. Nigeria, therefore, went and bought the Super Tucano turboprop to take on Boko Haram while in Afghanistan the USAF gave Super Tucanos to the Afghan air force because they have a long loiter time and were, therefore, more useful for fighting the Taliban.
And then there are all the sub-systems that make for effective air warfare now. Pakistan’s JF-17 is a low technology, cheap fix for the needs of the Pakistan Air Force (the plane, reportedly, was sold by the Chinese at the “friendship” price of $26 million). But what the PAF, by some accounts, has been able to do is integrate a beyond visual range capability to the plane making it a more formidable opponent for the Indian Air Force (IAF). Better data links and better radars are also part of the package needed now to use an air force effective.
Options for India
Like all democratic nations India faces the problem of guns vs butter and as all real democracies do, it has opted to fund its social development initiatives. Both the Manmohan Singh and Modi governments have kept defense expenditure under 1.8% of GDP event though the erstwhile planning commission used to plan for 3% of GDP being allocated to defense. This has led to pressures been put on the armed forces as they seek to modernize their equipment to meet the two-front threat posed by China and Pakistan.
India’s solutions have lain in delaying weapons purchases as can be seen from the 15 years it took to buy the Rafale. Or, as again in the case of the Rafale, the government reduces the order because it cannot afford to buy the full complement of aircraft. Third, all political parties have bought into the argument that modern weapons can be produced domestically. Lastly, despite very good assessments done by the Public Accounts Committee and the Comptroller and Auditor General with their reports on defense procurement, production, and usage, the Indian government continues with the same pathologies in its military modernization efforts.
India’s long, laborious, and ultimately self-defeating efforts at aircraft procurement have led to the weakening of the countries defense efforts. It took twenty years to procure the Hawk trainer and in the meantime the air force’s effort to train their incoming pilots were hindered. The Rafale should have been in service in a 2012-2015 time-frame which would have meant that they could have been used in the Balakot attack but both the Manmohan Singh and Modi governments hesitated over the procurement. And now, there is the announced intention to procure 114 more aircraft although given the lengthy delays of the Indian procurement process should we expect these aircraft—whichever aircraft is eventually chosen—to enter service in 2030? By that time the air threat will have changed significantly as China’s aircraft industry will have supplied the PLAAF with a number of 5th and maybe even 6th generation fighters.
The IAF and the government have to come up with a long-term plan where mission effectiveness and cost effectiveness are achieved. The way to achieve this is to decide what weapons and systems are needed quickly, what can be built at home, and where should there be collaboration with foreign partners.
The immediate requirement are new fighters that help make a qualitative difference between the IAF and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). While the IAF and the government may keep talking about the China threat, the recent air skirmish after Balakot showed that the PAF can achieve surprise and the IAF needs to up its game to deter Islamabad. The way to begin this process is to purchase more Rafales since the aircraft would give the IAF a qualitative edge with its advanced avionics and the fact that it has beyond visual range weapons, particularly the Meteor missile. It is unfortunate that the Rafale deal took so long to come to fruition and then led to a much smaller purchase of 36 aircraft (barely 2 squadrons). Doubling the deal would be the first step for India to start to regain the qualitative edge against the PAF.
Second, the government should be looking at what used and mothballed aircraft it can purchase from air forces around the world. The government has bought old Jaguars from around the world and is now thinking of buying mothballed MiG-29s from Russia. One has to question why the MiG-29s are being sought since the Russians have a poor record with modernizing aircraft and in recent times India has been treated harshly by Moscow. The Russians refused to transfer the technology for the Su-57 that was to be jointly developed and even locked the design to a single seater even though the IAF had stated that it wanted a 2-seater version of the aircraft. The MiG-29 itself is seen by air forces as expensive to maintain and has smoky engines that makes the plane visible from far away (after the reunification of East and West Germany, the Luftwaffe got rid of its MiG-29s, even they were got for free, because they were a maintenance nightmare).
The planes the IAF should be looking for are second hand Mirage 2000s. Qatar, a few years back, offered its Mirage fleet to India but the government claimed the price was too high. Those planes are still available. And then there are the older Mirages in the French air force that have been well maintained. The plane has a good war record, both in India and elsewhere, the IAF is happy with it, and if the then government had not been foolish, the IAF would have had two brand new squadrons by the early 2000s.
Additionally, there should be serious discussion with the IAF on what subsystems are needed to make the current systems more effective. Part of that would be buying an AESA radar and BVR missile that would give the air force greater capability but also commonality between aircraft.
In the medium term, two steps have to be taken to improve the IAF’s capability. First, there has to be a decision taken to purchase another combat aircraft and there is no need for the government to drag its feet on the issue. The IAF has already evaluated every aircraft when it held the MMRCA competition so it does not have to go back and engage in a time-consuming reevaluation of all the aircraft. In this context, it looked, in 2017, that the IAF was getting close to purchase the Gripen and the idea was to transfer the technologies into the LCA program. That ground to a halt and, instead, there was talk for a while of buying the F-21 (an F-16 renamed to not offend Indian sensibilities) but after Balakot and the subsequent use of F-16s against India, that idea seems to have taken a back seat. There are two more problems with buying the F-16: Pakistan flies the plane and is fully aware of its capabilities and in air combat the element of surprise is important; further, Indian observers are sanguine about the fact that a plane manufactured in India will not end up in Sargodha. To address the latter concern, no one should forget that the Pakistanis used both the American AMRAAMs and the F-16 against India despite commitments that the aircraft and its weapons would be used only for “defensive” purposes.
Second, if the Tejas is to be a viable combat aircraft then it has to be produced in larger numbers, quicker, and with better avionics and weaponry. HAL’s production has been very slow—about 8 aircraft every year—which means to put up 4 squadrons would take up to 8 years. Further, it is not easy to modernize the Tejas to include a better radar, a more powerful engine and a BVR capability for the aircraft. Putting in a new engine is not like swapping a piece of Lego for another. Instead, it will require some redesign of the airplane and that could take years. Further, if the AESA radar is not French or Swedish (the one bedded in the Gripen can talk to Russian, American, and European missiles) it will be able to talk to the Meteor missile. But if the radar comes from elsewhere, it will take years to get the software to talk to that of the missiles and India being India is quite capable of going with a cheap option rather than one that would be quick and make the most sense.
In the long run, three major steps have to be taken to improve the IAF’s capabilities and they all require being imaginative and dealing with thorny issues. The thorny issue is that defense expenditure will continue to be low unless a major ground shifting event like Kargil happens. Balakot, while necessary, is not sufficient cause to allow the government to increase defense expenditure which would necessarily come at the cost of social programs.
The other thorny issue is that HAL has considerable influence with the government which thinks it provides the country with an autonomous defense capability and leads to significant leaps in the complexity of weapons technology. In both cases HAL does not deliver. Despite all the brave talk about self-dependency and indigenization aircraft produced in India have high foreign contents—after all the engine and avionics of the Tejas come from abroad. Then there are serious questions about the reliability of the engines on the domestically produced Su-30s. So, what do you do about HAL?
One easy thing to do is to hold HAL to higher standards and expect it to raise its production and quality standards. A new government will have the time and the legitimacy to bring up these issues and to ask hard questions, for example, why cannot HAL produce 16 Tejas a year since they have been building the plane for over a decade now? Also, the IAF has to be asked what is the bare minimum it can accept from HAL in terms of the quality and capabilities of the Tejas while being given a guarantee that the plane would be subsequently upgraded as the Jaguars and MiG-21s were.
Lastly, in certain cases you have to go for techno-globalization rather than futile techno-nationalism. India wants a fifth or sixth generation fighter and had pinned its hopes futilely on the Russian Su-57 program. The French and the Germans are now building a fifth or sixth generation fighter, the Future Combat Air System. They are also talking of co-developing a armed drone. India needs both and, unlike the Russians, France and Germany will deliver. To sum up, affordable airpower will require smart thinking.
By Amit Gupta
(Amit Gupta is a USA based international security analyst. Views are his personal)