In times of increasing fiscal deficit, India is in the process of the largest defence purchase in its history. The acquisition of 126 multi-role medium range combat aircraft (MMRCA), at an approximate cost of $15 billion to $17 billion dollars, would further enhance the strength of the Indian Air Force – already one of the most powerful in the world. This procurement, exorbitant even by global standards, raises many intriguing questions.
Does India have a defined national security objective and is this procurement in consonance with that objective?
In the absence of public debate and a systematic analysis of our security concerns, India has no declared strategic security doctrine which can direct a balanced development of the armed forces. As a result, the Government allots funds independently (as opposed to a consolidated fund) to each of the armed forces; each arm separately spends such funds mostly to retain and expand their turf and to gain national visibility rather than to enhance combat-effectiveness in a balanced manner. Today, there is no critical examination of the necessity, relevance or complementarity of the many weapon-systems stridently demanded by the forces. Therefore all wish-lists items become ‘strategically necessary’ and ultimately receive sanction – just like the MMRCA deal has.
Does the fighter aircraft fit into a balanced application of force?
Historically, the balance in the application of force has tipped in favour of the Air Force. Armed forces the world over have always felt their Air Forces pursue their own aims at the cost of the Army and Navy. Two fundamental changes were put to effect, by many countries around the globe, to resolve that problem: First, national Armies and Navies developed their own tactical, well-equipped, air-strike capability. The second was the institution of a joint command, where a theatre commander has absolute operational command over the three services to execute a nation’s mission.
In India this has not come into being. The navy developed its own, limited air-power capability in the 70s, and the army has reconnaissance helicopters, but no strike capability – leaving the Air Force as the dominant power. India has no joint combat command amongst the three services, leaving them all to operate in silos; each service commander fights his own war in the theatre, rendering what support he wants to or which he can spare, to the other services.
In the absence of both these alterations in the Indian context, the MMRCA certainly looks like too expensive a weapon to be used at the capriciousness of one Air Force Chief alone.
Due to the change in the dynamics of conflict, is air power as-we-know-it, still relevant?
There is considerable truth in the statement that generals “invariably fight the previous war.” Many believe that air power alone can be the fundamental and singular means of achieving national political and military objectives, on the grounds that once air-superiority has been achieved, the war is virtually won. They also believe that air power renders ground forces obsolete, as swift military victories can be won from the air at little or no cost in lives.
In the midst of on-going conflicts around the globe, two important aspects are generally ignored or soft-pedaled: Firstly, most recent conflicts have been asymmetric. They have involved both forces which have the latest in advanced technology and adversaries whose weaponry and tactics were technologically-challenged. Secondly, in none of these conflicts has victory been swift, decisive or cheap. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are testimony to this. In the former, overwhelming air power victory was never achieved, and in the latter, it is yet to be achieved.
Conflict in India is largely in two spectrums: counter-insurgency and the asymmetric spectrum, as interpreted by the conflict in Kashmir against Pakistan. In both cases, an expensive resource such as the MMRCA fighter can quickly be rendered irrelevant. Besides, to counter our advanced technological capability, a potential adversary can quickly shift into asymmetric mode – marginalizing the high technology fighter. Iraq is a case in point, where massive air-borne forces were deployed but were at a disadvantage in asymmetric combat.
Even if we agree to the purchase of the fighter aircraft, what is the adverse effect of a loss of such an expensive asset?
In the case of high-cost combat assets, their utility is inversely proportional to the loss of prestige in their being shot down or destroyed by an adversary. No combat asset should be such that the cost of protecting it is more than its utility, or that its cost precludes its use for fear of being destroyed. A classic example is the destruction of a Black Hawk helicopter in Somalia resulting in the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the mission. Incidentally, the cost of anti-aircraft weapons is a fraction of the cost of the aircraft itself. Hence Air Forces around the world are reluctant to use aircraft in asymmetric situations.
Fighters vs. Drones
The Indian Air Force may be increasing its inventory of combat aircraft but many other advanced countries are reducing their manned fighter strength in favour of drones and other unmanned vehicles. Though at present this shift remains controversial – encouraged by incidents like the death of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud in a drone strike on 5 August, 2009 – the U.S. air force is looking to hugely expand its fleet of unmanned aircraft by 2047. Even today, the U.S. trains more drone operators than fighter or bomber pilots.
An imbalance in the force structure in the Indian armed forces
Within the air force, modern fighters are heavily dependent on support systems. The optimal use of a high-performance aircraft requires air-borne controllers, air-to-air refueling and a host of other support systems which India has little competence in. The acquisitions of these support systems are not as high-profile and hence tend to be at the bottom of the priority list. At present, India possesses few air-to-air refueling tankers and air-borne fighter controllers – both essential for modern combat – and lacks the mechanism and training for the optimum utilization of aircraft like the MMRCA.
Over the past decade, India’s defence budget has consistently increased by an average of roughly 10%. But the capital and revenue shortfall for each year has been anywhere between 4% to 49% – meaning much of it has been left unused and many demands made by the defence sector have not been met. Now, at times of declining growth rates and marginal economic reforms, there is a genuine need for leaders to balance their needs with their budgets. With the absence of a coherent and comprehensive national security doctrine, India simply cannot afford such high-cost acquisitions.
Xerxes Adrianwalla is a retired Brigadier of the Indian Army and a regular contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.
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