By Brig (Retd) Gurmeet Kanwal
As the 10th edition of Aero-India gets underway at Bengaluru (18-22 February 2015), attention will be focused on big-ticket deals like the long-pending multi-billion dollar acquisition of the MMRCA by the Indian Air Force (IAF). Discussion will centred on whether or not the government is having second thoughts about buying the Rafale fighter from France vis-à-vis adding to the existing fleet of Su-30 MKI aircraft acquired from Russia.
What will not find mention is the fact that both these aircraft are very expensive multi-mission fighters that cannot be risked to strike ground targets in the tactical battle area teeming with air defence weapons. As a future war on the Indian subcontinent will in all likelihood result from the unresolved territorial disputes with China and Pakistan and will be predominantly a conflict on land, the ability to acquire and accurately hit targets on ground will be a key requirement for the IAF.
During the Kargil conflict in the summer of 1999, air-to-ground strikes by fighter ground attack (FGA) aircraft of the IAF played an important role in neutralising Pakistani army defences. The destruction of a logistics camp at Muntho Dhalo was shown repeatedly on national television. In conflicts in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Chechnya, Iraq, Libya and, more recently, the ongoing fight against the Islamic State, FGA aircraft have achieved laudable results, especially while using precision guided munitions (PGMs).
Hence, the importance of close air support in modern wars must not be underrated. A few missions of FGA aircraft and attack helicopters can deliver more ordnance by way of dumb 1,000 lb bombs in a few minutes on an objective selected for capture than a 155 mm medium artillery regiment can deliver in 20 to 30 minutes. In critical situations, particularly in fast flowing mechanised operations, accurate air strikes can save the day. The battle of Longewala during the 1971 war with Pakistan is a good example. Also, it is a truism that accurate air strikes against the enemy in contact that can be seen by own troops provide a psychological boost to the morale of ground troops.
IAF aircraft that are earmarked for ground strikes need to be armed with PGMs in large numbers to achieve the desired effect. Free flight 1000 lb and 500 lb bombs cannot be dropped with the precision necessary to destroy individual bunkers, pillboxes and armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs). Modern jet aircraft flying at supersonic speeds and constrained by the threat posed by air defence weapons in the TBA, such as hand-held, shoulder-fired SAMs like the Stinger and the Unza, cannot be expected to achieve precision with rockets and Gatling guns. Only terminally homing laser-guided and TV-guided bombs and air-to-surface missiles with stand-off capability can provide the necessary reach and accuracy.
During the Kargil conflict, sustained, accurate and high volume concentrated artillery firepower and air-to-ground strikes by the IAF eventually won the battle for India by completely decimating enemy sangars and enabling the infantry to assault virtually unopposed. Tiger Hill and many other enemy-held mountain ridges were finally re-captured with very few casualties. The battle winning utility of ground and aerial firepower in limited wars was established beyond doubt. In view of the firepower capabilities that will be necessary to fight and win India’s future wars, the IAF needs to re-assess the suitability of its weapons platforms and ammunition holdings to support operations on land and launch a concerted drive to acquire the required means.
Ideally, the IAF should be equipped with a specialised, dedicated ground strike aircraft of the A-10 Thunderbolt/Warthog or the Russian SU-25 or SU-39, all of which are relatively slower moving, enable greater precision to be achieved in aiming, can carry several tonnes of payload per sortie, including air-to-ground precision strike missiles and bombs, and can absorb a lot of damage from the enemy’s air defence weapons. Writing about the role played by the US air power during Gulf War I, Robert H Scales Jr has stated, “The A-10 was devastating once the ground war began and once the aircraft dropped low enough to provide effective 30 mm cannon support.”
Dedicated ground strike aircraft cost only a fraction of the cost of multi-role fighter aircraft such as Mirage-2000 and the future MMRCA. It is certain that in the coming decades, the IAF will continue to be called upon to launch ground strikes with precision munitions in support of the army.
Quite obviously, the IAF cannot afford to acquire new, dedicated ground strike aircraft from its present meagre budget. Once the need for such aircraft has been adequately debated and is established beyond dispute, additional funds will have to be provided to the IAF for their early induction.