A trick question: What was the most decisive weapon of the Second World War? If your answer, as expected, is the atom bomb, you are wrong. It was the B-29 Superfortress bomber that delivered it. Without the plane, the A-Bomb would have been only a novelty. The flip side of this question is: What was the most egregious policy failure of Imperial Japan (besides the surprise raid on Pearl Harbour)? It was the delay in developing its Nakajima G10N Fugaku strategic bomber with the range to hit American island bases in the western Pacific and the US west coast early enough in the war to make some difference. Often, the means of delivery are as important as what’s delivered.
These historical thoughts were prompted by the statement of the new Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Arup Saha, who talked of his service achieving a “strategic” profile in terms of its ability to pull “expeditionary” missions. While the growing numbers in the inventory of C-17 and C-130J transport planes, and of aerial tankers able to extend the range of combat aircraft, make expeditionary actions easier to mount, such tasks in the past (Operation Cactus in the Maldives, Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka) were adequately managed with the old An-32s. The Saha statement revealed an eagerness to sidestep the traditional criterion — a fleet of bombers capable of long range attack — that distinguishes a strategic air force from a theatre-oriented one, such as the IAF.
How and why did the IAF, despite a palpable need, not become strategic? The fault lies in the natural shrivelling of missions beginning in the 1950s that accompanied the dimming of the strategic vision and the narrowing of the military focus, laughably, to Pakistan as main threat, and the quality of leaders helming the air force. The 1947 era of service brass, mostly Group Captain-Air Commodore rank officers fast-forwarded to the top, having loyally served the Raj and imbibed British ways of thinking, configured the service in the manner their old bosses had planned. It resulted in the IAF emerging as a creditable tactical force.
Short-legged fighter aircraft with a leavening of fighter-bombers became its calling card with the UK-built Lysanders, Tempests, and Spitfires of the 1940s replaced by the French Dassault Ouragans and Mystere-IVs, and the Hawker-Siddeley Hunters which, in turn, were succeeded by the Russian Mig-21s, MiG-23s, MiG-27s, MiG-29s, and the Su-30MKIs. The odd Western import during this latter phase — the Jaguar and Mirage 2000, were also only short to medium range aircraft. The only dedicated bomber the IAF ever acquired was the medium-range Canberra in the Sixties. But highlighting its limited operational mindset was the air force’s choice of the Folland Gnat, a local area air defence aircraft, for licence-production in the country.
It was different early on. When Jawaharlal Nehru’s government first approached the United States for arms aid in 1948, it was the war-tested B-25 Mitchell bomber which topped the procurement list. During the Second World War the Walchandnagar aircraft company (precursor to the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd), among other planes, built the Avro Lancaster bombers in Bangalore. Most of these aircraft were shipped back to Britain. But a significant number, which could have constituted an embryonic bomber component of the IAF, was deemed “surplus to the need” and deliberately destroyed by the departing British at the Maintenance Command in Kanpur by hoisting these aircraft, one by one, up by their tails to considerable height and dropping them nose down on the hard ground.
The IAF brass at the time — Subroto Mukherjee, M.M. Engineer, Arjan Singh, et al — did not protest against this dastardly deed by the British, apprise Nehru and the Indian government of the strategic cost of the loss of long range air power, and otherwise failed to prevent these wanton acts of sabotage. True to form, after the 1962 Himalayan military fiasco, the IAF sought not bombers able to reach distant Chinese targets as deterrent but the US F-104 for air defence, before settling on the MiG-21.
What showcased the IAF’s apparent institutional reluctance against transforming itself into a strategic force, however, was the decision by the Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal-led regime to reject in mid-1971 the Soviet offer of the Tu-22 Backfire strategic bomber. The reasons trotted out verged on the farcical.
As Wing Commander (later Air Marshal) C. V. Gole, member of the Air Marshal Sheodeo Singh Mission to Moscow and test pilot, who flew the Tu-22 informed me, he was appalled by the fact that he had to be winched up into the cockpit, and that the plane would have to takeoff from as far east as Bareilly to reach cruising altitude over Pakistan! (This and other episodes are detailed in my book ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’.) Evidently China didn’t figure in the threat perceptions of the Air Headquarters at the time, nor has it done so since then.
IAF’s doggedly defensive-tactical thinking married to theatre-level capabilities have ensured its minimal usefulness in crises and conflicts.
Forty years on, while China is bolstering its already strong strategic bomber fleet (of Xian H-6K aircraft) by buying off the production line of the most advanced Backfire, the Tu-22 M3, and prioritising the indigenous development of the four-engined, wing-shaped, H-18 strategic stealth bomber, IAF hopes its Su-30s assisted by aerial tankers will be a credible deterrent and counter against the Chinese bomber armada.
It will be prudent for the IAF, even at this late stage, to constitute a Bomber Command and cadre, lease ten or so Tu-160 Blackjacks from Moscow and, rather than the fifth-generation fighter, invest the Rs 35,000 crores in a programme jointly to design and produce with Russia the successor aircraft to the Blackjack — the PAK DA, which is expected to fly by 2025. I have long advocated acquisition of a bomber because, compared to strike fighters and ballistic and cruise missiles it has far more strategic utility, including in nuclear signalling, crisis stability, and escalation control. It is a conclusion also reached by a recent RAND report extolling the virtues of a new “penetrative bomber”.
Bharat Karnad is Professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com