By Ajai Shukla
I thought that airing my view about the folly of buying a 4th-Gen fighter at this point in time would stir up a debate and it has. Many good responses have been posted on Broadsword, along with some not-so-relevant ones. And, of course, there is the usual bunch of whiners striking up the to-be-expected chorus of, “you’ve been bribed by Lockheed Martin”.
I’m beginning to believe the stinging observation by many foreigners that Indians don’t know how to argue at an intellectual plane. If we disagree with an argument, we try to discredit, not disprove.
Although I delete some posts during vetting (but only on the grounds of verbosity, irrelevance, or communalism/racism/xenophobia) I never remove the “you’ve been bribed” allegations. At some stage, I’ll be able to go back and count them and quantify exactly how whiney Indian bloggers are.
Fortunately, there are plenty of good posts, which attempt to contradict my arguments robustly without getting into name-calling. To acknowledge them, here is my full-length response, laying out the full case for the F-35 and rebutting the many misconceptions around that fighter’s role, ability, cost, availability, etc.
Operational necessity: air supremacy, or ground strike?
What are India’s foreseeable security threats and how must the IAF equip and train itself to face them? While Pakistan remains a lingering hangover, especially in its embrace of cross-border terrorism, it is diminishing as a full-blown military threat to India. The IAF’s most likely missions against Pakistan centre on air-to-ground strikes: punitive raids against terrorist camps or ISI locations, perhaps in retaliation for yet another terrorist outrage; or pre-emptive strikes against Pakistani ballistic missiles when a nuclear launch against India seems imminent.
A devastating ground strike capability is also primary for contingencies on the China border. With Beijing relentlessly developing roads and railways to the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the People’s Liberation Army has already built, and is increasing, the ability to amass an invading force faster than the Indian Army can rush in troops to defend the threatened area. When an attack is imminent, or some Indian territory has already been occupied, New Delhi’s immediate response would inevitably centre on air strikes against PLA forward troops and the routes on which their logistics --- ammunition, fuel, food, water and medical care --- depend. In the 1962 debacle one of New Delhi’s most unforgivable, and inexplicable, blunders was to abjure the use of air power. This time around, as evident from the rapid creation of IAF infrastructure along the China border, India’s first response will be with air strikes.
Given these requirements, it is evident that the IAF needs a highly developed ground strike capability. But the fighter pilots that dominate the pinnacle of the IAF (and every other air force) have an overriding fascination for “air supremacy fighters”. The IAF has traditionally focused less on enemy ground troops and more on that fighter-jock ambition, shooting down enemy fighters in air-to-air duels. The Indian Army has long remonstrated with the IAF over the latter’s airy neglect (pun unintentional) of the crucial ground war. There needs to be a clear realisation that India’s wars --- in an environment where territorial integrity is a fundamental concern --- will be won and lost on the ground. For that reason, the IAF must be held to a ground strike capability.
The Su-30MKI for ground strikes?
For those who try to equate the ground attack capability of the Su-30MKI with that of the F-35, remember: ground attack capability is not a function merely of bomb-load; it is all about the ability to deliver high explosive ACCURATELY without sustaining unacceptable casualties to our strike force. That involves flying through a hostile EW and radar environment and reaching the target area without being detected or being detected too late; fighting one’s way to the target if needed; locating and identifying the target; delivering a weapons load accurately; and then fighting one’s way back to base. In fulfilling this comprehensive mission profile, the F-35 will be the granddaddy of any living fighter, including our Sukhois.
Those who argue that the F-35 can only carry a small bomb load are comparing chalk with cheese: equating a full external profile on other aircraft with an “internal only” profile on the F-35. While there are missions that the F-35 might be required to fly with only internal bomb-loads --- e.g. pre-emptive strikes on radar locations, airbases, headquarters, etc… or to take out nuclear missile sites --- The F-35 will, for the most part, support ground troops with full internal and external bomb loads, even at the cost of some of its stealth. The aircraft will remain a pilot’s dream in difficult strike missions like high-accuracy strikes on mountain-top targets 1000 kilometres away: the F-35 delivers more anti-surface weaponry, with higher accuracy, than any comparable fighter. And its 360-degree cockpit awareness, with total avionics integration and sensor fusion, allows a single pilot to fly and function as weapons systems officer.
The F-35’s range, achieved with internal fuel (rather than external fuel tanks that displace bombs), is more than adequate for the IAF, whose airbases in Assam are just 100-200 kilometres from the Sino-Indian border. With 8 tonnes of weaponry (mix-and-match, according to the mission) carried on six external and four internal pylons, the F-35 packs more punch than any of its Gen-4 rivals, including the brutish Su-30MKI, a bigger, heavier, easily detected aircraft.
MMRCA advocates are being simplistic (dishonest, some would argue!) in presenting the ground strike bomb-loads of Gen-4 fighters. Those PR-brochure figures assume that every external pylon carries a bomb. But actually, in combat missions, when there is an operational need for sensors and targeting pods; electronic warfare equipment, etc, the PR-brochure bomb load is irrelevant because some of those pylons are no longer available! Since the F-35’s sensors and targeting devices and fuel load are internal to the aircraft, external pylons are used (surprise, surprise!) for carrying high explosive, not targeting pods, electronic countermeasure pods, and even flare and chaff dispensers, like Gen-4 fighters.
On a mission, the F-35 uses satellite-based GPS, and will be equipped with SATCOM using the new UHF system called MUOS. SATCOM will be employed when MUOS has an adequate number of systems in orbit. Among the F-35's communications systems is the Multi-Function Advanced Datalink, a high-bandwidth/low-probability-of-intercept system that is now under consideration for retrofit on the two other existing stealth aircraft, B-2 and F-22. F-35 also uses Link-16, Digital Battlefield Communications and Variable Message Format.
Why buy a “bomb truck”, when we can get a “real fighter” that also bombs?
As argued above, we don’t want a “real fighter that also bombs”. We have lots and lots of air supremacy fighters and more --- LCA, FGFA --- on the way. What we need is a ground strike fighter.
MMRCA vendors (including, ironically, Lockheed Martin in selling the F-16 Super Viper!) argue that their “multi-role” MMRCA, are designed and equipped to effectively strike enemy ground forces. Strike they certainly can, but nowhere as devastatingly as the F-35, which is designed ground-up for this role. In cricket, even the best all-rounder does not both bat and bowl at the highest level… a specialist bowler is invariably more penetrating and a specialist batsman better equipped. In athletics, decathletes hurl the discus, throw the javelin, and also sprint 100 metres. No decathletes, however, achieve the highest standards in every one of these events simultaneously.
It is the same with “multi-role” fighters, most of which are designed primarily as air supremacy fighters, with ground attack thrown in for saleability. Take the Eurofighter Typhoon, designed initially as an air defence fighter, and will only obtain a ground attack capability in Tranche 3. A top RAF officer told me yesterday that the Tranch 3 Eurofighters would only start delivery two years from now… and that the AESA radar would be ready two years after that, i.e. at the end of 2014. But it is already being stated that the Eurofighter has a formidable ground attack capability! Given that nobody has any idea how effective the Eurofighter will be in the ground strike role, I can hardly bring myself to buy the argument that it will be anywhere close to the F-35…. which is custom-designed as a strike fighter.
The Indian Army has not forgotten the IAF’s irrelevance during the Kargil conflict. When IAF fighters should have been supporting assaulting infantry by hammering Pakistani positions with air strikes, those troops eventually had to make do only with fire support from their own artillery. Meanwhile, the IAF was searching for a way to equip its Mirage-2000s (an MMRCA!) to deliver bombs accurately onto mountaintops. That is what a world-class, customised, strike fighter like the F-35 is designed and built to do. We do not want the IAF’s pathetic Kargil saga to be replayed some day on the Sino-Indian border.
Can the F-35 survive a hostile air-to-air environment?
MMRCA contenders in New Delhi have been assiduously putting out the word that the F-35, with its orientation towards its strike role, is poorly equipped to fend off enemy fighters that would intercept it before it could reach its target. While I do not subscribe to the “multi-role” school of thought, the facts appear to indicate that the F-35 can hold its own in air-to-air combat as well. Even though air-to-air combat is a secondary role for the F-35, US Air Force simulations (and remember, that is the most demanding of customers) have concluded that the F-35 is at least 6 times better in aerial combat than even advanced fourth-generation fighters. While the Gen-4 fighters handle well in “air show” configuration --- i.e. without weapons and topped up fuel --- comparative studies in combat configuration have proven that the F-35 outperforms all advanced Gen-4 aircraft in top end speed, loiter, subsonic acceleration and radius, besting them comfortably in aerial combat at shorter and long ranges.
According to Lockheed Martin’s written response to my questions:
- U.S. Air Force combat-modelling results show that the F-35 is conservatively more than six times better in air-to-air capability than its nearest competitor.
- In combat configuration, the F-35 outperforms all advanced fourth-generation aircraft in top end speed, loiter, subsonic acceleration and radius.
- F-35 is the only international fighter with total avionics integration and sensor fusion, providing unprecedented spherical situational awareness to the pilot.
- F-35 is comparable to, or better than, the best fourth generation fighters in aerodynamic performance in all within-visual-range categories.
- The F-35 outperforms all fourth-generation aircraft in both the within-visual-range and beyond-visual-range air-to-air combat arenas.
It is also disinformation that the F-35 cannot carry a “long-range” air-to-air missile in its bay. Even though the F-35 has no requirement for such a missile, Lockheed Martin tells me that internal studies have confirmed that the F-35 could deploy such missiles if required. Said a senior Lockheed Martin executive over email, “We have been working with weapon suppliers to identify both aircraft and weapon modifications that would optimize the physical fit within the weapons bays. To date we have determined that most long range missile concepts could fit on both internal and external weapon stations.”
Incidentally, as of today, The F-35A (CTOL) and F-35B (STOVL) variants can each carry a total of 14 air-to-air missiles: 4 AMRAAMs internally, 8 AMRAAMs externally and two AIM-9s externally. The F-35C (CV) variant can carry a total of 12 air-to-air missiles: 4 AMRAAMs internally, 6 AMRAAMs externally and two AIM-9s externally.
Why another Gen-5 fighter, besides the FGFA?
Many argue that we don’t need the expensive 5th Generation F-35, when we will soon have the 5th Generation FGFA? In fact the F-35 would be the perfect complement to the FGFA. In any future war, the FGFA --- which must be purpose-built as an air dominance fighter, not a multi-role “all-rounder” --- would work alongside the F-35 in creating a favourable air situation. While the F-35 would strike enemy air bases and radar installations, the FGFA would go for the enemy’s aircraft. Air supremacy obtained, or even without that, the F-35 would strike enemy ground forces and fly interdiction missions against his combat logistics.
This is not a revolutionary new doctrine. The US Air Force F-22 Raptors gain command of the air; and F-35s will be used to pulverise the enemy’s army, thereby winning the war.
Similarly, the introduction of two Gen-5 fighters into the IAF: the world’s premier air dominance fighter, the FGFA, supporting the world’s most lethal ground strike aircraft, the F-35, would give the IAF an unbeatable edge into the mid-twenty-first century.
F-35 development time overruns… is that relevant to India?
Those who worry about time and cost overruns to the F-35 programme --- and there were, undeniably, overruns --- are grappling with a bunch of facts without placing them in the context of India. Think about it this way: those overruns were irritants for the eight development partner countries, which had put down money and been promised delivery by a certain date. India --- which never put down money, and had no time and cost overruns --- will step onto a programme that is on the doorstep of completion and is, therefore, fully de-risked. The F-35 will start obtaining its IOCs, as many former sceptics now accept, in late 2011 or, latest, 2012. By the way, there are three IOCs to be obtained for the three variants, separately from the US air force, navy and marine corps.
India, whose entry as an F-35 buyer will be a huge boost to the programme, can realistically demand delivery by a certain date during negotiations with Washington. With the development partner countries facing cruel defence budget cuts, there are indications that some are looking for options that would allow them to take delivery slower than originally negotiated. Israel could get its F-35s by 2014-15; India could strongly bargain to start taking delivery soon after that. Remember, there are very few enthusiastic buyers in this depressed global arms bazaar… India is one of them.
Declining squadron numbers
The argument that the MMRCA is an instant fix for India’s declining squadron numbers is the reddest of herrings, given the time frame for induction! The earliest possible date for delivery of the first MMRCA, built entirely abroad, would be 2014… while the F-35 could well become available starting 2015-2017.
The F-35’s later delivery actually suits our strategic circumstances; we should not be rushing the purchase. China is growing fast and is unmistakeably transforming into an assertive power, but it would take another decade before China could realistically contemplate the use of force towards a favourable border settlement. Since that threat would take some time in building, India must prepare for 21st century combat coolly and unhurriedly. It would be self-defeating to hustle ourselves into a hurried buy of 4th Gen fighters in the paranoid apprehension of immediate threat. Today’s insecurity cannot be cited to buy an MMRCA that is unsuitable for our ground strike needs and that will be superseded in air-to-air capability by the FGFA within a decade.
Instead, the IAF should accept a few more years of deficient numbers in order to switch over to a Gen-5 force. I believe that 2017-18 should targeted for obtaining a sizeable number of F-35s, integrating them into the IAF’s network (it will also take that long for the IAF to become a network-centric force!) and training our pilots to use the network-enabled capabilities of the F-35. By that time, the FGFA would also be completing development, rounding off the capabilities of a truly world-class force.
Most countries would bridge such a time gap by an interim purchase of fighter aircraft, but I don’t think India can take out a US $10 billion insurance against a war that can, in an unlikely crisis, be deterred through nuclear posturing.
The death of Indian aerospace industry?
Amongst arguments made against the F-35, the most convoluted one is that Indian aeronautical development programmes like the LCA Mk II and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) will be killed by the procurement of the F-35. As long as India maintains its strategic objective of defence indigenisation, the LCA and the AMCA programmes can continue, alongside joint development programmes with foreign partners, and with procurements like the MMRCA/F-35.
Even if the MoD were to start making hard choices, any threat to an indigenously produced 5th Generation fighter is the FGFA, not the F-35. The F-35 --- a strike aircraft --- is significantly different from the LCA Mk II and the AMCA, which are more akin to the multi-role (and biased towards air defence) FGFA.
In fact, procurements like the F-35, which will strengthen the US-India defence relationship, will facilitate technology inflows that are needed for giving the LCA/AMCA Gen-5 characteristics.
Are we ready to hitch our wagon to the US?
A legitimate question raised by sceptics of my F-35 proposal is: are we are ready to hitch our wagon so fundamentally to the United States? My short answer is: (a) buying the F-35 would not make us a US ally; and (b) this is not a zero-sum game. India’s de facto strategic policy of multi-alignment demands that we diversify defence procurement, R&D and joint development beyond our traditional partners, Russia, Israel, France, UK and Sweden. The move towards US equipment is already evident from the ongoing purchases of cutting edge American aircraft platforms like the P8i Poseidon; the C-130J Super Hercules; and the C-17 Globemaster III. So introducing the F-35 into the IAF would not be a fundamental change in alignment.
This process of engaging the US will inevitably be opposed by an influential segment of India’s strategic community, which appears unable to move beyond the slights, embargoes and denials of the past even when there is much to gain by refashioning the relationship. This peculiarly Indian inability to shed the baggage of the past is rooted in a cultural proclivity for personalising professional, and especially strategic relationships. In this mindset the world is an unchanging place where, if America sent the 7th Fleet into the Bay of Bengal in 1971, it would still be likely to rise against us at a crucial juncture. If America sided with Pakistan in the Cold War --- or so the Americaphobes reason --- it has something in its DNA that will align it with Pakistan forever. America can be pilloried for selling weaponry simultaneously to both Pakistan and India, but India’s simultaneous patronage of both American and Russian weaponry is entirely acceptable!
Fortunately, such cretins do not control any place except the blogosphere.
India is well positioned to create a purpose-built military, suited to its own conditions, by negotiating with multiple vendors from a position of strength. The argument that India will inevitably be a hapless victim of US pressure is a relic of the PL-480 era that survives only in the minds of some outdated analysts. Those of us who are cognisant of India’s already formidable --- and steadily growing --- strategic power and economic heft, are increasingly confident about New Delhi’s ability to get what it wants without giving what it cannot.
Just as India has passed the Nuclear Liability Bill on its own terms, and will not sign the CISMOA and BECA until it is clear that substantive benefits will accrue from these agreements, New Delhi is entirely capable of holding its own in a negotiation to buy the F-35 and to obtain the safeguards that the IAF needs for operating the F-35 in conformity with its doctrines, wherever India’s national interest demands.
Consider the concessions made to Israel, which is a strategic partner, not an F-35 development partner. Senior Israeli officials have confirmed that Washington has conceded Aviv the right to plug in Israeli Air Force command, control, communications, computer and intelligence (C4I) systems into specially made cockpit interfaces in the Israeli F-35 fighters. The F-35 main computer will enable a plug-and-play feature for integrating Israeli equipment. Israeli sources also reveal that the US has allowed the fitment of a detachable fuel tank to increase the F-35’s range for special missions in which “you can fly non-stealthy part of the way and become stealthy as you enter the danger zone”. This is a barely disguised reference to an aerial strike on Iran’s nuclear-bomb facilities, with the connivance of Saudi Arabia.
To argue that Washington will never give India what it is ready to give Israel is to be utterly oblivious of the changing power realities in Asia and, therefore, the world. While Israel and the US are deeply connected at a people-to-people level, India’s steady rise, the power dynamics in the Asia-Pacific, and Pakistan’s apparent freefall place India bang at the centre of Washington’s security calculus in this hemisphere.
Shed your fears, folks. The future is here.