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IAF’s requirement of PGMs in the NEXT DECADE

EDITOR’S NOTE: *Possibility of acquiring additional Su-30 MKIs and MMRCA (Built-in option in the initial contract) exists to cater to phasing out of the MiG-21 Bisons and MiG-27 aircraft at some stage. However, at a later stage, the IAF may need up to 50 combat jet fighter squadrons to cater to a possible two-front scenario (should be planned to be accomplished by 2032 – its Centennial Year).  

By Air Marshal (Retd) AK Trikha Published: September 2013

In the next decade or so IAF would gradually shed its legacy fighters (MiG- 21 being the archetypical example). Replacements will consist of vastly superior fourth plus generation aircraft. With anticipated induction of up to 270 Su-30 MKI, 126 MMRCA and about 40 Tejas, by about 2020, it will be a new look Air Force with a vastly enhanced potential. All new aircraft would be capable of multiple roles and therefore fighter assets which qualified exclusively for air defence or which had to be put aside only for EW support would be a matter of yore.


However no matter how sophisticated or advanced, in the final analysis platforms remain merely carrier of weapons. It is the quality and quantity of weapons that really make the difference. Therefore to deliver the appropriate bang for the buck, it is imperative that sufficient quantity of suitable weapons be inducted in tandem with acquisition of new platforms.

Modern technology has enhanced the strike potential of modern fighter aircraft by an order of magnitude. By the same token, air defence systems have also become far more lethal. Increasingly dense and lethal air defence environment makes it necessary to reduce exposure of expensive platforms to the very least while maximising mission effectiveness. Therefore precision and appropriate stand-off capability has to be key features of all air-to-surface ordnance. Precision also makes it possible to miniaturise weapons which in turn offers an opportunity to put aloft many more shots in every mission and place just the right amount of ordnance at the right place to achieve a measured result.

Surface targets list being long, characteristics and environment of each being different from the other, weapons repertoire of a modern air force must include the necessary variety to execute the entire spectrum of missions. Engagement of targets lying behind light terminal defences could be undertaken with smart bombs – their guidance, explosive power and fusing being determined by target characteristics. Targets in depth, or defended by strong multi-layered defences would call for attacks with missiles of appropriate range and war heads. Dictated by some air defence environments, supersonic, stealth cruise missiles of the Brahmos variety may have to be weapons of choice. However, be that as it may, it is reasonably certain that, under most environments iron bombs alone would be insufficient for the task and therefore a significant part of the inventory would have to consist of specialist stand-off precision weapons.

Taking into account the uncertainties that characterise our procurement process, it is hazardous to predict the precise shape of the IAF at some future date. For instance, while Indo-Russian 5th Generation fighter was slated for squadron induction in 2022, serious delays have already pushed forward delivery dates by an indeterminate period. Similarly, retirement of all MiG variants barring the upgraded MiG-29 UPG by 2017 as hoped for by the CAS while addressing the press on the eve of IAF’s 80th anniversary, may not happen - if for no other reason than to sustain the IAF Squadron strength at some reasonable numbers.

From the existing resources and likely accretions in the next decade, IAF fighter inventory could look somewhat as given in a table below.

In the envisaged 42 squadrons by 2022, of the approximately 800 aircraft (as per current squadron configuration of 16 fighters and two trainers) in front line service, about 70 per cent i.e. around 550 aircraft are likely to be available for duty. Assuming the above approximate allocation of roles, 300 to 320 aircraft could be engaged in strike duties of varying descriptions, producing on an average of about 600 to 640 sorties per day. Excluding aborts on account of a variety of operational and environmental reasons, over a thirty-day period of conflict, one could expect an effort of the order of about 15,000 to 16,000 strike aircraft sorties expending up to 50,000 pieces of ordnance. Ideally most if not all of them should be of the smart variety However, considering the expense and even storage constraints, if just a third were to be guided munitions, the resulting figure i.e. some 16,000-17,000 would still pose an immense challenges in terms of acquisition, storage, servicing and other housekeeping activities.

Consider storage itself. Iron bombs of yore required minimal housekeeping to keep them safe and reliable. Smart munitions on the other hand incorporate complex and sensitive sensors which demand carefully controlled storage environment. Unless matters have improved vastly over the last few years, ensuring stable climate control of large storage sites in remote areas experiencing extreme environments would be quite challenging.

Next consider the financial outlay required to bring about this transformation.

Mix of PGMs to engage the entire spectrum of targets would be dictated by target characteristics and the depth at which they lie. Assuming that primary aim in any future conflict would be to deliver a crushing blow to the enemy forces, then maximum density of targets is likely to lie at relatively shallow depths from the borders. In that scenario, 75 per cent of IAF’s smart ordnance inventory (i.e. some 12,000 pieces) could comprise smart bombs with varying types of guidance (viz. laser, LLTV, thermal, INS/GPS), explosive power and penetration capability, etc.

To engage very high value and strategic targets viz. enemy reserves, heavily defended airfields, radar and missile sites, shipping etc. IAF should equip itself with a variety of air-to- surface missiles with different stand-off ranges and war heads to defeat all foreseeable target systems and environmental contingencies. This capability should reside in the 4,000 odd missiles to make up the balance 25 per cent PGMs.

Estimating financial outlay required to build such a capability is hazardous. Besides, infrastructural and housekeeping costs which are difficult to forecast, even ball-parking cost of acquisition is problematic because even similar weapons could vary substantially in cost depending on the version, source, quantities in question and a variety of other factors. However, some back of the envelope sums with figures available in the public domain could be indicative of the sort of budget outlays that would be necessary.

A Pave-way II series LGB which effectively converts a dumb iron bomb into a smart one is said to cost around $19,000. A JDAM kit for the same purpose, but relying on an INS and GPS coupled guidance which can engage static targets from a stand-off distance up to 15 miles with a CEP of 10 meters cost $31,000 (in 2011) per strap-on guidance kit. To engage mobile targets a data link is incorporated to up-date the target position at additional cost. A notable feature related to cost of smart weapons is the very wide variation between base line model and later versions emerging with more sophisticated seekers, anti-jam resistance (in case of GPS guided weapons) and other refinements Thus the average cost of a strap on conversion kit may range between $20,000 to $30,000.

There are more expensive options which offer more flexibility, wider launch envelope, better stand-off ranges, ‘man in the loop’ capability to achieve near 100 per cent mission success. Used against high value targets viz surface-to-air missile sites, radars, command and control centers in the opening stages of a conflict, the highly beneficial cost benefit ratio in favour of such weapons becomes obvious when measured against risks run in repeat missions. Israeli SPICE, French AASM and American JSOW-C1 fall in this category. Cost of a basic AASM (carried by the French Rafale in Libyan campaign) is said to be around $300,000. In 2011, Greece awarded Israeli company ‘Rafael Advanced Defense Systems’ a contract worth about €100 million for 300 SPICE 1000 weapons – amounting to almost $480,000 unit cost. The long range Brahmos cruise missile being adapted to the Su-30 MKI costs in excess of $2.5 million.

A Variety of PGMs ranging from a basic Laser Guided Bomb (LGB) to highly sophisticated cruise missiles are today in the market-place. Each is designed to accomplish a defined mission. IAF will choose specific types depending upon perception of its requirements. Figures above serve only to highlight that substantial resources will have to be committed to build a significant stockpile – and that against several other competing demands. Also not included in the costs above is the necessity of very high quality ISR assets without which smart weapons are useless.

The good news is that DRDO has had some success in its indigenisation efforts in this field. In 2010, IAF appears to have successfully tested a DRDO produced LGB (Sudarshan) with a stand-off range of 9 km. That the tests were followed by an order for 50 units suggests a good beginning. A next generation smart bomb with a stand-off range of 50 km now appears to be under development. There would undoubtedly be teething problems. But if DRDO persists and rekindles user confidence, it could help IAF usher in a new era of capability.

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