The Sukhoi Vulnerability and Other Post-Balakot Lessons

Diminishing gap in India’s asymmetry encouraged Pakistan to retaliate against a counter-terror air strike

Issue: 9 / 2019By Vishal ThaparPhoto(s): By Gdefon.ru
The muscular Su-30MKI will soon account for almost half of the IAF’s fighter fleet, but the aircraft of choice for strike missions continues to be the three-decade-old Mirage 2000

During the high stakes Kargil War in 1999, the use of air power by India, albeit belatedly, turned out to be a huge force multiplier to the heroics of foot soldiers in winning back the forbidding heights. But while the Indian Air Force (IAF) flew game changing bombing sorties, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was not seen close to the scene of action. The PAF was deterred because unlike the IAF, it did not have Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile capability at that time. The IAF exercised asymmetry with the S530D and R-27 BVR air-to-air missiles on its Mirage 2000 and MiG-29 fighters, and went unchallenged in the air.

In the post-Balakot aerial skirmish on February 27, the asymmetric gap in favour of the IAF had demonstrably diminished. After the IAF’s surprise attack on the Jaish-e-Mohammad terrorist training camp at Balakot on February 26, the PAF dared to retaliate within a day. While Operation Swift Retort was largely foiled by the IAF, with the formidable attack package of Pakistani fighters failing to hit a single target on the ground, the shooting down of an IAF MiG-21 in a dogfight and the capture of the ejected pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman enabled Pakistan to claim redemption for Balakot, notwithstanding the glaring contradictions in its claims, brazen denial of the shooting down of its own F-16 and unabashed flogging of the fiction of shooting down an IAF Su-30MKI.

While only three F-16s could venture close to the LoC – one of which got shot down in the process – the big take-away for the Pakistanis was that the IAF’s frontline Su-30MKIs had been forced to turn ‘cold’ and take defensive manoeuvres to dodge AMRAAMs fired by PAF F-16s. Pakistan appeared to have parity – if not an AMRAAM advantage – in air-to-air combat, even if only in one episodic operation. The BVRs on the IAF fighters – the R-77 and Mica – were broadly in the same range category as the PAF AIM-120 AMRAAM, and the earlier Indian missile edge had been blunted.

The big reminder for the IAF from the close encounter on the LoC was that the diminishing gap needs to be arrested to maintain asymmetry.

Impending inductions of the Rafale fighter aircraft and the S-400 air defence system are stated to be “game changers” which are expected to restore the Indian advantage. The 150 km Meteor BVR on the Rafale will outrange all the missiles wielded in this category by India’s adversaries. The Rafale weaponry includes the Scalp air-to-ground cruise missile in the 400 km range will give Indian airpower hefty punch. The successful development of the 110 km Astra BVR and the air-launched BrahMos ground-attack cruise missile – which has an extended range of 450 km – will lift Indian firepower to new levels.

Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria’s first comment on taking over as the new Chief of the Air Staff on September 30 accorded top priority to integrating and wielding the exceptional capabilities which new acquisitions will bring. “The focus of the IAF shall be to rapidly operationalise newly inducted platforms and equipment as well as to ensure earliest and complete integration of these capabilities in IAF’s operational plans,” he said.

While the planned scaling up will make the IAF a formidable force, the post-Balakot gaps need to be addressed to thwart vulnerabilities and nasty surprises.

THE SUKHOI VULNERABILITY

The muscular Su-30MKI will soon account for almost half of the IAF’s fighter fleet but the aircraft of choice for strike missions continues to be the three-decade-old Mirage 2000.

A disturbing memory of PAF’s Swift Retort is the Su-30MKI being forced on the defensive. Arming the Su-30MKI with a longer range BVR is a priority re-emphasised by the February 27 skirmish. While it is hoped that the 110-km Astra – of which better versions are under development – will give adequate radius of deterrence against airborne missile threats, there is a renewed effort to negotiate longer-range RVV-SD and RVV-BD (K-77 ME) variants of the Russian R-77 BVR.

The need to make the backbone of the IAF fighter fleet more capable of a wider array of missions including precision strikes with low collateral damage such as those undertaken by the Mirage 2000. This frontline fighter can carry a 3,200 kg weapons payload but at the moment, it is suitable for missions which require large-scale damage to be inflicted like destruction of command and control centres, runways, ammunition dumps, et al.

SP’s Aviation has learnt of efforts afoot to integrate more modern and versatile weaponry on the Su-30MKI including the Spice-2000 glide bomb to make it capable of addressing more targets, including those like Balakot.

Arming of this fighter with the air-launched extended range Brahmos will increase its stand-off precision ground attack capability.

AWACS: NOT THE RIGHT NUMBERS

The utility of airborne radars, particularly in offensive operations, was brought out in sharp relief by the simultaneous deployment of an AWACS and an AEW&CS Netra during the Balakot airstrike, keeping a vigil deep inside Pakistani airspace and guiding the IAF strike mission.

Against a requirement of 15 AWACS and AEW&C airborne systems, the IAF is equipped with only five. There are three AWACS mounted with Israeli Phalcon radar for 360 degree surveillance and two indigenously developed AEW&C Netra systems with a more modest but very useful 120 degree radar coverage. In fact, the IAF inducted the second Netra as recently as September 11. The requirement for two more AWACS and eight additional AEW&C is an urgent requirement for the IAF for readiness to face sudden escalations. In a war scenario, there could be many simultaneous missions, necessitating these numbers.

LAX RADIO TRANSMISSION

Reports suggest that in the celebrated dogfight over the Naushera sector of the LoC on February 27, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman could not hear the instructions of the fighter controller Squadron Leader Minty Agarwal to go cold or disengage from his hot pursuit of the PAF F-16 because the radio communication was jammed by Pakistani electronic warfare systems.

The fighter controller wanted to alert the Wing Commander that he was getting too close to the LoC and that he should turn back. He went on to make history by becoming the first MiG pilot to shoot down an F-16 but in the process, got taken down himself.

Had Abhinandan’s MiG-21 Bison been networked to the Integrated Air Command and Control System on the ground through a data link, the fighter controller would have got through to him. That’s because voice can be jammed but data links can be secure from interference by an enemy.

Never before was the urgency for installation of software defined radios (SDRs) brought across in such bold relief as it was in the February 27 skirmish. SDRs are needed to facilitate data linking and securely networking assets in the air among themselves and with a command centre and other sensors.

Procurement of SDRs was hanging fire for a long time. A contract was finally signed in 2017 with the Israeli company Rafael, and the first lot of these radios were under installation in IAF fighters at the time of the post-Balakot dogfight.

The encounter has lent urgency to the process for issuance of a second tender to fulfill a larger requirement.

RAMPING UP WWRS

The Balakot air strike opened up an air element to cross-border counter-terror operations. The paradigm shift created new templates for response to terror attacks sponsored from across the border. It has also created a necessity for escalation management.

The new response paradigm dictates preparation for full blown escalation: That there be a sufficient stock of weapons and ammunition for about two weeks of intense war.

Mindful of the new reality, the IAF is ramping up its War Wastage Reserves (WWR) through powers delegated to its Vice-Chief for quick purchases. The biggest incremental off the shelf imports orders for air-launched missiles and smart bombs have been made post-Balakot.

Balakot was a one-off mission and Pakistan’s retaliation was effectively foiled despite vulnerabilities being exposed. But analysts emphasise the vital need to arrest the diminishing gap in capability with adversaries and maintain an asymmetry in India’s favour to deter escalation of a confrontation in future. To illustrate the dictum of deterrence through strength and asymmetry, it is pointed out that China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) did not get involved in PLA’s stand-off with the Indian Army at Doklam - avoiding escalation - because the IAF enjoys an advantage in that theatre. Force projection could well keep the peace.