Oh boy! was my first reaction to Bharat Karnad’s piece, “Strategic Bomber for the IAF” (TNIE, February 7). Why? Well, an earlier piece by him titled “Stop Wasteful Military Deals” (TNIE, November 1, 2013) was equally misleading and drew a strong and accurate rebuttal from a serving Air Vice Marshal of the Indian Air Force. Strong words against an established authority like Bharat Karnad need to have a robust foundation. What follows is another view on his recommendation for a “penetrative strategic bomber”, so that readers of this newspaper get the correct picture and be assured that the IAF knows its beans.
Arguments on defence equipment have to be viewed through the prism of India’s national security policy. Mr Karnad’s recommendations beg the answer to a question—what is the “strategic” vision of our country which would need a strategic bomber? India has a “No First Use” doctrine where nuclear weapons, which would be the weapons for the recommended bomber force, are not for warfighting. As a matter of stated policy, our response would be one of “massive retaliation”, which would be better achieved by other means, including multi-role fighter aircraft which are more affordable and nimble with respect to the many other roles also that they can undertake. Do we have to necessarily acquire other modes of air delivery, when our present aircraft, missiles and submarines (in future) would suffice? Historical baggage needs to be jettisoned and not used as a prop to further views propounded in one’s book. The “penetrative bomber” is not a simple design but a supersonic machine with many stealth features. It is not a stand-alone delivery arrangement but has to be married with other command and control systems. The Americans have this as part of their air sea battle concept to counter China.
The Chinese aim in their development of the carrier killer DF 21A missile is to enhance their anti-access strategy and prevent American carrier battle groups from closing in to their shores to launch their aircraft. The planned American reply is to use supersonic high-flying bombers of the type discussed earlier (as one of the many options) to strike the Chinese missile sites deep in the hinterland and reduce the threat to their aircraft carrier battle groups.
The ill-informed argument of Karnad for establishing a Bomber Command, in the Indian Air Force (IAF) to follow the American methodology, is exemplified by the fact that the IAF Chief is Air Chief Marshal RAHA and not Saha—surely OUR nation’s Air Chief’s name should be known to someone who is advising him on air power issues!! Be that as it may, a RAND Corporation report has been cited extolling the virtues of a “penetrative bomber”.
This falls way short of even the half truth; what has not been stated is the fact that discussions on the merits and demerits of such a bomber have been ongoing since the 1970s vis-à-vis the opposing air defence systems that it would face. Thus were born the F-111, B1 and B2 bombers in the United States, which had their own share of criticism in terms of effectiveness and costs; the costs were so exorbitant that only 16 combat ready B2s are available. Have the B2s been effective? Yes, but for the role that they were destined to perform as part of the doctrinal approach of the US. We thus saw B2s flying from bases in America to strike targets in Libya in March 2011 and some standing by to take over the bombing of Osama bin Laden’s lair in Abbottabad, if that option was to be utilised.
At other times, these were deployed in Guam, as per a Washington Security Forum report, to provide deterrence in the Pacific while B1s flew “armed reconnaissance and watch missions over Afghanistan”. Does India have such roles or visions of performing such duties?
Designing and producing an aircraft, leave alone a “penetrative bomber” of the type recommended by Mr Karnad, is not child’s play. It costs a bomb (pun unintended), even if the aircraft manufacturer has his own design team of aeronautical engineers and the country boasts of an indigenous manufacturing industrial base. Then, there are the engines, which very few make in this world, leave alone of the class that would need to power the proposed “penetrative bomber”; and the avionics, the pilot’s life support system, weapon system and self-protection suite, et al. The technology required is of the cutting edge variety, and we just have a Tejas to crow about, which has yet to get its final operational clearance. His answer is to go into collaboration with the Russians for their PAK DA; the result would be to fund their project with Indian money for a handful of these bombers (remember the small American numbers) to meet the “deterrent requirement” as envisaged by him—something that a multi-role fighter of the Su 30 and FGFA class would easily perform.
Mr Karnad has been critical of the strategic vision of the IAF’s senior leadership. Strategic vision of the military brass cannot be in isolation; it has to be congruent with that of the national leadership. Did our body politic in the 1950s and the ’60s have one? It is worth reading Ramachandra Guha’s “India after Gandhi” to get a sense of the problems our nation faced immediately after Independence, in having to make the proverbial choice between guns and butter. The fact that India procured the Gnat and the MiG 21 is more to do with politics and availability (without strings attached) than with the lack of strategic vision of the IAF leadership of those times. Both the aircraft served the country well in the limited wars that we were involved in. In those times, when under American aid through the PL 480 programme, food went literally from “ship to mouth”, the country could have hardly afforded to think the Karnad way and gone for the TU 22 Backfire. And it is pretty ingenious of him to hint that the aircraft was rejected by then Wg Cdr Gole (later Air Marshal), because “he had to be winched up into the cockpit”; Mr Karnad, besides being totally ignorant of test flying, has been extremely uncharitable to that great test pilot of the IAF and a worthy son of India. A word of caution for the readers is in order.
The writer, a retired Air Vice Marshal, is a distinguished fellow at Centre for Air Power Studies.