The present holdings of force multipliers are enough for limited engagements such as the Balakot airstrike, while a wider conflict would reveal the paucity of these assets in pitiless detail
IAF’s Netra Airborne Early Warning and Control System (AEW&Cs)
An aerial strike against a high-value target is a precisely tailored and carefully choreographed affair with every element assigned a crucial role. For instance, during the Balakot airstrike conducted by the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the early hours of February 26, 2019, twelve Mirage 2000 jets forming the strike element were naturally the stars of the show. But the heavily laden aircraft could count on agile Sukhoi Su-30MKI aircraft for air defence cover. They were also supported by several force multipliers during their mission.
First, the Ilyushin Il-78M Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA) that replenished the jets, enabled them to follow a circuitous route to the target and thereby achieve surprise. Second, a Phalcon Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) mounted on an Ilyushin Il-76TD aircraft as well as a smaller indigenous Netra AEW&C (Airborne Early Warning and Control) system mounted on an Embraer ERJ 145 aircraft were invaluable to vector the strike force towards the target as well as to track possible threats from Pakistani interceptor jets. Third, an IAI Heron unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) provided additional surveillance. Fourth, satellites were probably involved to facilitate secure communications. And finally, it was the Rafael SPICE (Smart, Precise Impact, Cost-Effective) EO/GPS guidance kit that converted the Mirage’s unguided bombs into Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) to hit the target with deadly accuracy.
Force multipliers are a means to dramatically increase the effectiveness of a military force of given size and capability. There are several different types of force multipliers and no modern air force can afford to go to war without these. Although the IAF is striving to boost its assets, the results have been rather dismal so far. Let us take a closer look at the current state of these five elements.
(Left) IAI’s Heron UAV provides additional surveillance for the Indian Air Force; (Right) IAF’s new Rafale jets will carry the deadly 150 km range Meteor BVRAAM.
Force multipliers are a means to dramatically increase the effectiveness of a military force of given size and capability
- FRA. The IAF has been operating a fleet of six Il-78M tanker aircraft since 2003. Considering that all IAF combat jets are planned to have inflight refuelling capability, this is utterly inadequate. From this angle, much publicised demonstrations of aerial refuelling of Netra and Tejas Mk 1 fighter jets are also rather pointless without sufficient FRA. The IAF earlier made two attempts to induct new tanker aircraft. Both times the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) was selected, but the process was cancelled on grounds of cost. In January 2018, a third Request for Information (RFI) was issued for procuring six FRA.
- AWACS. Against an assessed requirement of 18 AWACS/AEW&C platforms to handle a possible two-front conflict, the IAF has just three Phalcon and two Netra systems. During the crucial post-Balakot period, Pakistan which has three Swedish SAAB Erieye and four Chinese ZDK-03 AEW&C systems, was reportedly able to keep two such systems airborne round-the-clock; but the IAF was able to do so for only 12 hours a day. The IAF’s requests for another two AWACS have failed to fructify, again due to cost concerns.
- UAVs. The IAF’s small fleet of Israeli Heron, Searcher Mark II and Harop UAVs belies its aspirations to the status of a strategic force. Efforts to procure unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) for strikes have gone nowhere. Neither has the indigenous route delivered any operational UAVs or UCAVs so far. On the other hand, China is already producing a growing variety of unarmed and armed systems in large numbers and some of these are likely to reach Pakistan sooner rather than later.
- Satellites. For years, the IAF lacked a dedicated military satellite. This changed with the launch of GSAT-7A on December 19, 2018. GSAT-7A significantly boosts the IAF’s operational capabilities by linking combat aircraft with ground stations, radars and other surveillance and communication systems. It also enables the operational control of UAVs at long distances. However, while this is indeed a big step forward, it is only India’s second satellite exclusively for military use. Against this, China has dozens of dedicated military satellites. On March 27, 2019, India also successfully conducted an anti-satellite (ASAT) test. In the operation codenamed Mission Shakti, a Prithvi Delivery Vehicle Mark-II struck and destroyed a defunct Microsat-R satellite in Low Earth Orbit (LEO).
- PGMs. When it comes to PGMs, the situation is more heartening. For instance the Astra, India’s first indigenous beyond visual range air-to-air missile (BVR AAM), will soon be operational and will eventually arm the bulk of the IAF combat fleet. IAF’s new Rafale jets will carry the deadly 150 km range Meteor BVRAAM. The IAF also hopes to acquire some extended range Derby AAMs from Israel. About 40 Su-30MKI jets will soon be armed with the very effective BrahMos supersonic cruise missile. However, the availability of all these advanced weapons is rather low.
LONG ROAD AHEAD
Without the use of effective force multipliers, the story of Balakot might have been very different. The strength of combat squadrons in the IAF will soon drop below 30 and induction of new fighter jets should of course be given top priority. But force multipliers too are essential. The gap with China is large and growing and Pakistan is not far behind.
At the very least, the two additional Phalcon AWACS and six new FRA, which are already much delayed, need to be inducted immediately. And the strength of UAVs should be doubled. The present holdings of force multipliers are enough only for very limited engagements such as the Balakot airstrike, while a wider conflict would reveal the paucity of these assets in pitiless detail.