The Multi-role Fleet (or Multi-billions down the Ganga)

The MRCA saga - and its origins

In the last couple of decades or a little more, there have been repeated expression of a need for a large number of Multi-role fighters for the IAF and, of course, the Navy has followed suit. In the Air force the requirement has been repeatedly pegged at 18 squadrons. There is nothing mystical about this number; it just represents half the number of the authorized squadron strength of the IAF.

My views on this controversial subject can be gleaned from an episode during my tenure as the Vice Chief of the Air Staff, in 1987. One morning a note, a very short one, came to me from the Deputy chief of the Air Staff. It simply stated that it had been assessed that the IAF needed 18 squadrons of multi-role aircraft and could I please send a note to him to say that it was operationally necessary. Very simple and to the point. Any simple operations man in my position would have jumped with joy for this possible gift of the much glamorized fighting machine – THE MULTI ROLE FIGHTER!!

This was the culminating point in my nearly six years in the Air Hq, three years as the ACAS (Ops) and again two and a half years as Vice Chief, with a one and a half year break in between as AOC in C of South Western Air command. I had seen how the Ops Branch had been emasculated by the Plans Branch and the Ministry of Defense. This was especially so where long term plans were made for the shape of the “Force” in the Air Force. The Ops Branch was more or less kept out of the process and brilliant plans made by some really brilliant Deputy Chiefs. These were called the Long Term Reequipment Plans or LTRE. The threat analysis, our needs to meet them, our capabilities etc wee all assessed by the Plans Branch without, as far as I knew, even from the Director of Intelligence, who worked under the VCAS.

When I was ACAS (Ops), I managed to get a peek at one of these plans because of my relationship with the then DCAS. Never got to see one when I was the VCAS!! I would have thought that for such a plan to be realistic, there was a need for target analyses, threat analyses, number of missions required with particular types of aircraft to ensure success, enemies’ present and future capabilities (especially possible help from ‘friends’ and surrogate partners), all of them the domain of the Ops Branch. Certainly, mention was made in general terms but such ‘general’ terms can only flow from the details given by the Ops Branch. Never!! The division amongst ground attack, air defense and multi-role aircraft was decided by the plans branch and it all depended on what the focus was on at that particular juncture.

So, when this note arrived, I was very peeved. It was like an uncle telling a child, “Listen Kid, I think I know what you need to fight that big bully in the school – a pair of nice strong boots to kick him in the shins”, whereas what was in the mind of the kid was a hefty baseball bat and a pair of brass knuckle dusters. There was absolutely no clue to the logic of the recommendation – just a two line note.

Fortunately, the quantum of the multi role aircraft that we needed was something that had exercised my mind for quite a while and I was in the process of writing a paper on the subject for the consideration of the CAS at a suitable forum like a presentation or some such thing. I had reasonable clear ideas as to how to go about it but had not got it down to paper. So, I got down to doing so. My logic worked on the following lines:

When do we need a preponderance of multi-role aircraft?

1.    When we have more or less achieved air superiority and our ground forces are racing into enemy territory. Our focus is on providing maximum support to the ground forces and continuing to attack counter air and strategic targets. In such a case all our air defense aircraft would have to be capable of undertaking ground attack role.
2.    When the enemy has a superior air force, in strength and capabilities and is likely to or is carrying out punishing raids on all our airfields, support facilities like radar and communication hubs and our own nationally valuable sites. In such a case, most if not all our ground attack fighters would need to be diverted to air defense and must be capable of undertaking such a role.

Can anyone visualize such scenarios in our area, whether we fight Pakistan or China?


So, what is the reality?

1.    We have a finite number of fighter squadrons.
2.    There is a bare minimum number of aircraft required at each of our airfields to meet any raids.
3.    There is a minimum number of sorties per day to be provided for the support of the army. We do stipulate to the Army that for the first two days we will be busy with counter air and strategic targets but would meet their needs from then onwards. Their success, which is the ultimate success, depends on this.
4.    A certain special strategic or deep penetration strike fleet needs to be available for counter air and strategic missions.
5.    Air defense escorts have to be earmarked for the missions on counter air and strategic strikes on densely protected targets.
6.    What is left is the force that can be multi-role, for switching as needed.
7.    A multi-role aircraft is a hybrid compromise and a very expensive one at that. 
8.    An air defense aircraft must be agile, must have very sophisticated radar with beyond visual range and multiple targeting capabilities, capable of carrying a variety of air to air missiles (from BVR to close range) as well as very high capacity guns such as the Gatling gun etc. Helmet mounted sights and everything that has come in the market since I left the air force would be de rigueur. 
9.    On the other hand the strike aircraft would need long range, as many hard points as possible to carry munitions, high capacity internal guns and very sophisticated multiple navigation systems. Such an aircraft cannot be as agile as one wants in an air defense aircraft.
10.    The compromise would give a less sophisticated radar and missile capability than a full fledged air defense aircraft and a far less lethality as a strike aircraft. At the same time, on most missions half the capability of the aircraft would be redundant. But this redundancy would make the air craft very expensive for each mission.
11.    There is a school of thought that says that every strike aircraft should be capable of taking care of itself in air combat and what better than an air defense capability. The basic concept of this school is rooted in the days when the strike aircraft had only guns to defend themselves and even the air defense aircraft had only missiles that could not be launched if the launch aircraft was pulling more than ‘2g’. Both these have changed dramatically. In my time I had insisted on putting the Matra Magic missile on the Jaguar and much of the Russian strike fleet came with air to air missile capability with missiles of comparable performance. I am sure today’s missiles must be even more agile and capable. In our context, meeting enemy ‘air defense’ opposition in the tactical area would be remote and the chances are more that we meet enemy aircraft of somewhat similar capabilities doing the same job. It would be interesting to find out if any of our close support mission in ’65 or ’71 met an air defense CAP. Almost all our missions are four aircraft missions and, if our strike aircraft carried missiles, they should be more than capable of looking after themselves without flying ‘air defense’ capable multi-role aircraft. I expect that our ground attack pilots are well trained in air combat and cross cover, with the large number of fighter combat leaders in the squadrons, unlike what it was in ’65 and ’71. We could even stretch this to counter air targets, airfields and support facilities, where the air threat is low – say a possible pair of aircraft scrambled from an ORP. But, for targets that would be expected to have heavy air opposition, genuine ‘air defense’ escort can be provided. This number would be a very small portion of the counter air/strategic strikes. Such missions would also be carried out by missile equipped strike aircraft, which would complement the escort’s capabilities. In addition, surely these strike aircraft would also be equipped with flares to mislead infrared missiles.

Keeping all this in mind, I calculated in the following fashion:

1.    Allocated half a squadron of air defense aircraft per each of our airfields. This was based on ORP requirements and based on the likely serviceability and usage.
2.    Spoke to my good friend Lt. Gen. K.K. Hazare, the Army Vice Chief and got figures for the maximum and minimum close support they would require in all the sectors, as per their war plans. We had been together in NDC, were the Directors of Training for our respective services, were the ACAS (Ops) and DG Operations together and now the two VCASs
3.    Worked out the set apart for counter air and strategic requirements, both initial and subsequent. This included the escort requirement of air defense aircraft for high risk targets.
4.    And Voila!! That left me with the residual aircraft that could be multi-role, for switching, based on the ground and air situations. This worked out to three squadrons. We already had two genuine multi-role squadrons and therefore our need was only to reequip one more squadron with this capability

So, I sent a note to the DCAS saying that I could not support his estimate and we needed only one more Multi-role squadron. He was certainly very upset and tried to tell me, on the phone, that this was not meeting the Long Term Reequipment Plan. I told him that he was on his own. He did submit his plan to the Government, who asked the Scientific Advisor to the Defense Minister to analyze the need. Strangely, by whatever algorithm they used, they came to the same conclusions I did, even though it was not with inputs from me. I doubt that their methodology was as ‘scientific’ as mine!! That put an end to the 18 Squadrons of Multi-role aircraft at that time.

So, there you have my thinking on the subject of the quantum of multi-role fighters for the Indian Air Force. I believe that we would be a much more effective and optimum force with just the right number of ‘dedicated role’ aircraft and the balance as multi-role ones. A vital consideration is the number of aircraft and PILOTS one exposes on strike missions. To achieve a given ‘Over Target Requirements’, one would need to send many more multi-role aircraft than dedicated ones as the latter would carry a heavier load. Only a very rich country with a large supply of pilots can afford to have a large multi-role fleet. Do we meet those parameters?

But the IAF, as I read from the papers, is again determined to buy the magic number of 18 multi-role aircraft. Hope this article doesn’t upset the applecart.

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