Policy Talk: The Evolution of Combat Aviation in India

Pictured above: A student Indian IAF pilot with flying kit photographed beside his Hurricane before a training flight at a Flying Training School at Kohat, in the North West Frontier Province of India. (Cecil Beaton/ Imperial War Museums)

Book Review: Combat Aviation: Flight Path 1968-2018 by Gp Capt Kishore Kumar Khera VM, KW Publishers Pvt Ltd, New Delhi, 2020, Rs 1280/-, pp. 350

Captain Chandramohan Thakur

An Indian Air Force MiG-21 fighter jet flies past during the Air Force Day parade at the Air Force station Hindon (Money Sharma/AFP)

The first thought that struck me when I heard of this book was “This would have been a really daunting task.” As a military pilot and now as a commercial pilot, I have been keenly interested in the evolution of aviation though the years. And the amount of literature and reference available on the topic is huge. Combat aviation is a facet, but an extremely interesting facet of aviation. And to even attempt to encapsulate its evolution over a period of 50 years is not for the faint-hearted. Further, though innumerable coffee-table books capture momentary attention of the casual reader through alluring photographs, truly serious matter is usually confined to aviation journals and periodicals. And these are not readily available to the reader (though, I must concede that access to information is far easier in present times due to the Internet, as compared to, say two decades ago). Also, specifics of Indian combat aviation have certainly not been given a serious study.  This book is all about that, and more. That is why it intrigued me.

The book consists of four parts, subdivided into a total of 15 chapters. Part I is called “Facets of Combat Aviation”. It is more pointed and detailed than what the ‘broad-brush’ title may possibly convey. Part II is a detailed analysis of the aircraft inventory in the 50 years of relevance. The third part covers three important aspects about human resource, financial resources and likely future trend in the field of combat aviation. The last part is India centric and covers combat aviation in India and all associated factors.

While giving a bird’s view of the history of Indian aviation, the author gets down to brass-tacks quickly and clearly brings out what specifically ails Indian Combat Aviation. While outlining the actual procurement process and laying out the attendant bureaucratic hurdles, the author hints at a deeper problem i.e. the requirement (and hence the current absence) of clear thinking about what we want. This has been brought out incisively by introduction to the TEAM concept. Also, in the process, the author makes the reader comfortable with acronyms and abbreviations which are otherwise, mostly confined to fleeting mentions in articles in periodicals / aviation magazines (like DPP, TTL, HVTT et al). Specific details covered about some well-chosen conflicts in this 50-year period are well encapsulated. Each of these conflicts showcases a specific attribute of air-power. The Arab-Israeli conflict showcases flexibility; the Falklands war highlights reach, both of physical assets and weaponry; the Gulf War, while exemplifying battle-space transparency on part of the “Allies” (and absence thereof on part of the adversary) also brings out the stark realities of fratricide; the Afghanistan war is a study in fighting by remote-control i.e. the use UAVs an UCAVs to tackle a dispersed adversary; the Syrian theatre tacitly brings out the limitations of air-power despite the stark imbalance in force-levels and technological prowess of the adversaries. The anatomy of the conflict and battle preparation and its intrinsic relation with the planning considerations, assessment of the vulnerabilities of the adversary, the technological tools at one’s disposal and of the factors which go into the design of a “platform” right from cockpit MMI (Man Machine Interface) to integrated weaponry and own vulnerability in terms of radar signature  are covered in detail. The summarization of all this in table-form is particularly note-worthy and easy to comprehend.

Qualitative and quantitative assessment of combat aircraft inventories all over the world in the period of concern has the “Why”s conclusively answered by an analysis of graphs. Indeed, the author has used graphs for laser like focus on the analysis and discussion. The continent-wise inventory count of combat aircraft over the years is a virtual map of the evolving conflict zones in the world. And, it triggers an urge to predict the future. In a way, this part of the book offers a kind of a time-machine to peer into the future. That is the power of graphs! While the US stands out consistently, China’s attempts to hog the centre-space in manufacturing and R&D are brought out clearly. India’s HAL seems to be a very minor player on the world-stage and has a long way to go.  Covering technological advancements in aviation, the shift from metals to composites, the shift of focus or “core capability” from speed, manoeuvrability and sensor fusion to stealth is brought out succinctly. The table on the evolution of prioritization over successive generations of combat aircraft summarizes this argument. The F-16 and the MiG-21 are analysed in terms of their capabilities and their sheer ubiquity in the world’s Air Forces. The F-22 case-study and its not-so-subtle comparison with the Indian LCA program is another revelation. A complete chapter is dedicated to weaponry, both Air to Surface and Air to Air.  The evolution from the MOAB to the BRAHMOS (in case of the former) and from guns to AIM-9X (in case of the latter) is given a concise treatment. Both in terms of capability of the weapon as well as the manufacturers.  The chapter on Force Enablers / Multipliers and competing alternatives and their impact on combat aviation includes an incisive comparison between combat aircraft and SSMs  in terms of effectiveness, costs and other factors which make the business of war a constant battle between cost and effectiveness. The effectiveness of SSMs is significantly affected by battle-space transparency and ease and speed of data-processing about target behaviour (when mobile) or absence thereof. A detailed analysis of UAVs has also been done here. With the prophecy that the effectiveness and therefore the use of UAVs is only going to increase in the future. SAMs have been given a brief overview. The way combat aircraft inventories across the world have so faithfully shadowed the changing shapes of geopolitical events, conflicts and consequent alliances is indeed a fascinating study. The key takeaway is that overall, the number of combat aircraft has significantly reduced because of the changes in the ways nations and alliances have employed to achieve their politico-military objectives.

The man-machine interface and way it has evolved over the decades showcases how basic flying skills have remained virtually unchanged whereas the amount of information available to the pilot inside the cockpit has increased by many magnitudes. How the “knights” of the air have slowly evolved into “scientists” in cockpits. The shift to single to dual and back to single occupancy in the cockpit has been analysed in detail. The subject of “Women in Combat” has been given a remarkably sensitive and at the same time, very incisive analysis. A description and thread by thread analysis of the MiG-21 Vs F-16 Air combat which took place on 27 Feb 2019 explains all intertwined aspects in the combat with what actually happened, the relative performance of onboard sensors, the respective AAMs, the operational environment on both sides and the probable air tactics employed. The author has gone on to analyse gender neutrality (or lack thereof?) and survivability against a hostile mob on ejection. All-in-all, the human aspect in air combat and its various shapes and forms as well as its evolution over the years is well captured. The economic dimension of combat aviation hints at the grand design of European and American arms companies trying to force military spending. Concepts like LCC, the L1 model, the costing process and the mechanism of arms acquisition are explained lucidly. How maintenance and upgrade costs spiral exponentially as a fleet ages is explained beautifully with suitable examples and relevant data. The complexities of combat aircraft acquisition and the consequences of lack of foresight are clearly brought out. Any country which depends heavily on imports is virtually at the mercy of arms manufacturers all over the world. Building up one’s own manufacturing capabilities is essential. That is the overt message. The stealth technology of the F35, the Chinese Beidou Navigation Satellite System (BDS), the Fast Space concept, ASAT (Indian Shakti program) and a fascinating description of an AI exercise in the Yuma Proving Ground at Arizona are some significant technological advancements that will shape future combat aviation application. The new world of Hypersonic missiles and their counters (the Glide Breaker Program), SWARM technology….this chapter reads like science fiction!

The India centric section starts with a direct indictment and reads thus: “India does not have a defined, documented and declared National Security Strategy.”  It goes into details of the formation of the IAF and the evolution of its structure. The mathematical derivation of the Combat value of air assets of India, Pakistan and China by the author has crystallized air combat capability into precise numbers.  And projections of the current acquisition policies into the next two decades.  Giving an overview of the history of acquisitions of the IAF and the Indian government, the complexities and labyrinthine processes are described in vivid detail. The shift from Threat Based Planning (TBP) to Capability Based Planning (CBP), the way the Operational Requirements (ORs) were framed and shelved, key criteria from AUW to number of engines drives home a point. The indictments are scathing and unapologetic.  The faulty foundation of laying down the ORs for the purchase is tellingly evident. The author brings out the sheer lack of capability of both the IAF and the MoD to actually even understand (and therefore, convey) what they themselves want.

The execution process was similarly compromised by a lack of consistency and transparency. Another huge handicap is the malady of corruption at virtually all levels of the acquisition process. The way our decision makers (and even policy makers in many cases) fall prey to machinations and outright bribery by foreign vendors is a sad indictment on us. Lack of transparency and lack of accountability are the twin evil prods which consistently push us deeper into the abyss we find ourselves mired in. The effect of poorly trained personnel occupying vital positions of decision making in the acquisition chain is brought out with unforgiving clarity. The author concludes with a broad plan of acquisition. With his usual mathematical clarity. The verdict is clear. India has to seriously consider reducing the types of combat aircraft in its inventory. And pursue the LCA program with vigour and persistence to address indigenisation and its challenges. Especially the reasons for the present limited capability of HAL. The inability to learn (or is it refusal to learn?!) from its own experiences and the world in general is brought out as the biggest stumbling block of HAL. The author proposes remedies which are as simple as the problems are complex. The role of the reasonableness of performance criteria demanded by the end user, the fatal trap of the “cost plus” basis followed by HAL and production vs manpower cost are explained concisely. The case of Embraer and the snobbishness of HAL is a telling tale. The working culture of HAL and its policies will need a paradigm shift to nudge this behemoth in the right direction. The amount of real estate HAL occupies in virtually all major cities of India could dwarf some African or European countries! And for that, it has precious little to show. Again, lack of accountability and unquestioned government support are the culprits.

Why does India lag in innovation and technological prowess which is so critical for combat capability? Do we lack the brains? Certainly not. Indians are acknowledged as the best coders in the world. The problem is that these coders serve foreign masters. As a country, we are not able to generate the desired level of motivation in our young minds to work for the country. This will need deep thought and addressal at policy level. The absence of a military strategy (no doubt non-expansionist and purely deterrent) makes us flounder every five years or so. We seem to lack the basic intelligence to carefully define what we want as a nation. This is an area of grave concern. The author brings out that the QRs laid out for the venerable HF 24 Marut would not be met even in the present day. This starkly amplifies our ineptitude and lack of clarity of thought. The fact that this foundational ingredient which should shape national policy has been so conspicuously missing is cause for some serious concern.

Though out of the purview of this particular book, the part played by the day’s politics in defining the direction of progress (or lack thereof) of Indian combat aviation cannot be overstated. The preference for Russian ware, the inexplicable diversification of air assets and the tacit acceptance of HAL’s Laissez Faire approach stimulate the reader for further study. In the quest for explanations and answers. One takeaway is immediately obvious. The colonial masters of yore continue their conquests. And they are smart enough to dress for the occasion. In olden times, they forcibly occupied and colonized territories (after the initial customary gifts of beads and later, with clothes infected with Small pox to naive natives). In these times, they colonize the economies and even the minds of these “independent” colonies. Indeed, it would be prohibitively expensive for France or Britain to manage and administer a country like India. So, why not just conquer with the gift (with the inevitable consequence of dependence) of Jaguars, or Rafales? In that way, this book is a must-read for our policy makers to show them the big picture. We will continue to be slaves till we break the shackles of imports and develop our own military ware.

The author sums up with his persistent emphasis on the need for indigenisation. And the need for long-term investments in home-grown surveillance systems, UAVs and UCAVs and home-grown SAMs, consolidation of the ASAT program and operationalization of long-range weapons like the BRAHMOS. The conclusion is more like a question to the reader rather than a verdict. It nudges the reader to foresee or predict the future of Indian combat aviation. To help in this prediction, the author outlines factors like changes in the geo-political situation and the steady downward trend in combat ac holdings all over the world, conflict hybridization, the growth of AI and India’s immediate nuclear neighbourhood.

The annexures are like primers or quick learning pills for the layman and a quick revision for the professional. Concepts and details like TEAM, Battle Space Transparency, the electronic spectrum, threat and capability, Force Structure planning process and the associated challenges and so on are explained in detail. An interesting read is the Annexure on Military Expenditure in Africa, a continent which usually does not figure very prominently in most military analyses. A telling fact is that Africa is spending more than the world average on its military.

Khera’s book is comprehensive in detail and pithy in the amount of information it reveals to the attentive reader. Inclusion of various case studies like the USAF expansion plan make it very interesting. The author has made extensive use of graphs and pie-charts to convey information in the book. This is extremely effective for the serious reader but may not appeal to the casual reader. Some photographs could have added some value. A greater weightage to evolving and expanding role of SAGW and its implications for combat aviation including a brief overview of the Israeli Spyder and Python missiles would have made it holistic.

The book is like a written documentary on the way world combat aviation has evolved in the 50 years this book encompasses. What makes it truly powerful is the detailed analysis of the why’s and how’s of this evolution. The part played by Indian combat aviation, the hindrances it has often itself created, and the consequent challenges to its growth are suffixed at appropriate places in this narration. This makes the book relevant and interesting. It is a good backgrounder for personnel dealing with national security and military aviation and a must read for serious students of combat aviation and combat aviators.

Captain Chandramohan Thakur, a commercial aviator, served as a fighter pilot of the Indian Air Force for over two decades.

Photo Credit: Cecil Beaton/ Imperial War Museums

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