Ever since the 211-page global Request for Proposal (RFP) for the procurement of an initial 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) was floated for the Indian Air Force (IAF) on August 28, 2007, there has been incessant and often misguided speculation about the on-going competitive evaluation process involving a total of the six RFP respondants—United Aircraft Corp of Russia’s MiG-35, Saab Aircraft of Sweden’s JAS-39 Gripen IN, Dassault Aviation of France’s Rafale F3, US-based Lockheed Martin’s F-16IN Block 60 Super Viper, Boeing Military Aircraft Co’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and the four-nation Eurofighter consortium’s EF-2000. While at times both the India-based broadcast and multimedia have overzealously engaged in one-upmanship by claiming two years ago that the JAS-39 Gripen IN had been eliminated from the competition, and most recently reporting that the EF-2000 had emerged as the IAF’s favourite choice, the IAF on the other hand too at times added to the confusion by first stating in 2005 that the competition was for a MRCA (meaning the competition was limited to the MiG-35, F-16IN and Gripen IN) and barely a year later upgrading its requirement to that for a M-MRCA, which resulted in the Super Hornet, EF-2000 and Rafale F3 entering the fray as well. Things have since then got further complicated due to two principal reasons: firstly, public assertions by certain ex-IAF officials that the M-MRCA is in essence a substitute for the indigenously developed and long-overdue Tejas single-engined light combat aircraft (LCA) and consequently single-engined M-MRCA solutions like the Gripen IN and F-16IN were the only realistic options, and secondly, diplomatic niceties often mouthed by senior IAF officials since early 2009, which claimed that the IAF’s on-going force modernisation plans (especially with regard to the new-generation M-MRCA acquisitions) are capability-driven, and not threat-driven. The only certainty voiced publicly by IAF HQ has been that it wouldn’t like to put all its eggs into one basket, meaning it would prefer a non-Russian solution, thereby shooting down the MiG-35, which in any case remains non-existent till this day.
In light of the above, if one were to separate the wheat from the chaff, the following ground realities would have to be taken heed of:
· The notion that the to-be-selected M-MRCA would be a substitute for the Tejas LCA presently stands discredited, especially since India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) has officially sanctioned funds for inducting a total of 20 Tejas Mk1s (starting last month) and 83 Tejas Mk2s (from 2016).
· The Tejas Mk2 will, in fact, be delivered as a fourth-generation M-MRCA that will, technologically, be on par with the Gripen IN and F-16IN. Consequently, it would make no sense at all to select an M-MRCA that does not offer enhanced performance/operational capabilities for the IAF.
· Given the IAF’s tight service-induction schedules (driven by the need to arrest and eventually reverse its declining combat aircraft fleet strength and achieve its goal of fielding 40 combat aiorcraft squadrons by 2020), the to-be-chosen M-MRCA will have to be not only a fourth-generation mature and combat-proven solution, but should also have enough future performance growth potential and guaranteed product support from its consortium of original equipment manufacturers (OEM) through to the end of the aircraft’s 40-year life-cycle.
· The selected consortium of OEMs will be required to provide the IAF with full operational sovereignty over its M-MRCA assets in both peacetime and during hostilities.
· Lastly, and most importantly, the winning M-MRCA solution will be required to provide India with the required quantum of dissuasive deterrence against her known adversaries, and should that fail, then provide the IAF with the ways and means to achieve both strategic and tactical airpower dominance through the conduct of full-spectrum knowledge-based air warfare.
In operational terms, therefore, the last two above-mentioned points are deemed most critical to the IAF’s decision-making process that will conclusively tilt the balance in favour of the preferred M-MRCA candidate. This then brings us to, firstly, the IAF’s perceived threat spectrum that will be prevalent over the next 20 years, and secondly, the type of knowledge-based air warfare that will likely be waged, should the need arise. Regarding the first, it is today a foregone conclusion that the IAF today can and in the years to come will be able to overwhelm its Pakistani counterpart en passant, to the point that present-day IAF HQ-based senior officials are confidently dismissive, albeit off-the-record, about Pakistan’s ability to wage any type of conventional warfare, be it full-scale war or limited hostilities, both now and in future. Instead, the focus has, since 2005, shifted to the issue of ensuring airpower dominance over the Indus Valley in northeastern Jammu & Kashmir, and over the Brahmaputra Valley to the country’s northeast. Translated, this means the IAF, in the foreseeable future, is most likely to lock horns with its Chinese counterpart—the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s (PLAAF) J-10, Su-27SK (and its J-11 clone) and Su-30MK2 MRCAs, plus H-6K medium-bombers and JH-7A interdictor/strike aircraft deployed with the Chengdu and Lanzhou military regions.
To make a comparison between the existing PLAAF-owned combat aircraft assets and the contending M-MRCAs, it is necessary to explore the kind of air campaigns one will likely witness along the Sino-Indian border over the coming years. Airpower employment has undergone considerable evolution since the 1980s, driven in part by weapons technologies, in part by sensor-fusion technologies, and in part by airframe aerodynamic performance. The last decade has seen six important trends. The first is the advent of long-range, all-weather precision strike weapons equipped with dual or tri-mode terminal guidance sensors that now enable fourth-generation combat aircraft to attack high-value, well-fortified, fixed and relocateable targets while remaining clear of highly defended airspace and long-range surface-to-air missiles. The second trend is the ability of new-generation multi-mode airborne radars (MMR) equipped with electronically scanned arrays (AESA) to ‘interleave’ different operating modes at the same time (such as airborne battle management, directional jamming, tracking while scanning hostile aircraft formations, and tracking moving land-based targets against severe clutter)—a capability that is best exploited by an M-MRCA manned by a two-man crew complement (it is for this very reason that the IAF-specific fifth-generation fighter aircraft now being co-developed with Russia will also be a tandem-seat platform). The third trend has seen the fielding of stealthy, high-resolution internally-carried or pod-mounted passive infra-red search-and-track (IRST) sensors that are immune to electronic jamming, whose scan volumes are comparable to MMRs (with selectable scan volumes in azimuth and elevation), which can operate in either track-while-scan or single-target-track modes, and whose high-resolution characteristics provide dramatically improved raid cell count (40 times more accurate than existing MMRs) at maximum declaration ranges--information that can stand alone or be fused with other sensor-sourced data to enhance situational awareness, thereby ensuring first-to-see, first-to-shoot capability. The fourth trend is the ascendancy of beyond-visual-range (BVR) air combat, as advances in sensors have permitted beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) engagements with increasing confidence that the target is indeed a hostile. Incorporation of two-way data links on board BVRAAMs now enables a friendly AEW & C platform to provide mid-course guidance cues to BVRAAM, thereby freeing the M-MRCA that launched the missile to engage other targets in rapid sequence. The fifth trend has been the proliferation of extremely agile heat-seeking within-visual-range air-to-air missiles (WVRAAM) for close combat. WVRAAMs such as the Raytheon-built AIM-9X, MBDA-built AIM-132 ASRAAM, RAFAEL’s Python 5, and Vympel’s R-73E give no quarter, and with exceptional G capability, often aided by thrust-vector control (TVC), these missiles are almost impossible to defeat by manoeuvre. Increasingly, such WVRAAMs are acquiring focal plane array-based IIR seekers, thereby making them virtually immune to countermeasures. Whoever takes the first shot in a close in engagement most likely wins. The sixth trend has seen the integration of WVRAAMs well as air-to-ground targetting systems and precision-guided munitions (PGM) like laser designator pods (LDP) and laser-guided bombs/missiles with the helmet-mounted display-cum-cueing system, whose head-tracker and visor display act as a targetting device that can aim the IRST sensor and the fourth-generation WVRAAM’s imaging infra-red (IIR) seeker wherever the pilot is looking. The consequent effectiveness and lethality of such WVRAAMs makes close combat with a situationally aware opponent a high-risk game. In a tandem-seat M-MRCA, each crew-member can wear a helmet-mounted display-cum-cueing system, perform air combat and precision strike operations against moving ground targets independent of each other, and have continuous awareness of where the other crew-member is looking. So, does this all preclude close combat in the future? Only in the minds of those observers who imagine that all future air warfare scenarios will be highly assymetric, not unlike the air campaigns fought during OP Desert Storm, OP Allied Force and OP Iraqi Freedom. Reality is somewhat different.
In the Sino-Indian context, the PLAAF is steadily enhancing its offensive airpower capabilities through the deployment of home-grown airborne battle management platforms like the KJ-2000/KJ-200 AEW & C aircraft, laser-/GPS-guided standoff PGMs, plus force multipliers like H-6U aerial refuelling tankers, specially configured JH-7A escort jamming aircraft, H-6K bombers armed with 800km-range CJ-20 air-launched land attack cruise missiles (LACM), a constellation of synthetic aperture radar-equipped overhead reconnaissance satellites, and Beidou regional constellation of GPS satellites. At the same time, the PLA is expeditiously improving its ground-based operational/support logistics infrastructure throughout the Tibet Autonomous Region and the Chengdu Military Region, which by 2015 will enable it to permanently deploy up to 300 ballistic missiles (like the 250km-range B-611M surface-to-surface battlefield support missile armed with a 480kg conventional warhead, 600km-range DF-15C/M-9 armed with a 500kg conventional warhead, 300km-range DF-11/M-11 with a 800kg conventional warhead, and the 1,700km-range DongFeng 21C with a 2-tonne conventional warhead) along with a similar number of 1,000km-range CJ-10 ‘Chang Jian/Long Sword’ ground-launched LACMs throughout the central and northeastern portions of the Sino-Indian border. Principal targets of such missiles will be India’s air bases and road/rail transportation nodes in states like Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Jammu & Kashmir, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The IAF will thus confront an environment which is at best asymmetric in the quality of specific force structure components, but not asymmetric in force structure, as was the case with the multinational coalition-based air campaigns of the 1990s and earlier this decade. Consequently, the IAF’s future M-MRCA fleet will need to not only ensure air superiority over the tactical battlespace (stretching out to a depth of 300nm), but will also be required to mount sustained, in-depth (out to 600nm) counter-force sorties against both the PLA’s ground-based war sustenance infrastructure and the vast array of road-mobile ballistic/cruise missile forces that would be well-entrenched within a hierarchical and saturated network of medium-/long-range air-defence guided-missile systems like the Kai Shan KS-1A and Hong Qi HQ-9.
From the IAF’s perspective, therefore, the dominance of BVR combat and the ability to shape the tactical air-land battlespace over hilly terrain with standoff all-weather PGMs (ranging from GPS-guided glide bombs and Prithvi-150/250 and 750km-range Shaurya surface-to-surface battlefield support missiles, to 290km-range ground-/air-launched LACMs like the BrahMos) are contingent on having what amounts to ‘information dominance’, or what is an asymmetric advantage in ‘big picture’ situational awareness. Once both sides operate AEW & C platforms, manned and unmanned ISTAR platforms, network-centric airborne command-and-control platforms and multi-spectrum high-power support jammers, the ‘fog of war’ yet again will re-emerge, as sensors will be degraded or blinded, networks and data links be degraded or dropped out, and a clear picture of the tactical battlespace will again become difficult to acquire. In this sense, the uncontested dominance of BVR combat will only last as long as it takes for the key force multipliers to become more widely available to the PLAAF. Over the next 10 years the expected proliferation of long-range air-launched LACMs equipped with tactical nuclear warheads by both China and India, and 100nm range ‘counter-ISTAR platform’ BVRAAMs now being developed by China will add yet another variable to this mix. This is the future network-centric air combat environment, where information dominance will be the new high ground, and being where one is not expected to be (thereby seizing the operational initiative) will become increasingly valuable, as will the ability of the M-MRCA’s aircrew to simultaneously execute multiple air-taskings in order to sustain a surging air campaign. Realistically speaking, therefore, the ideal fourth-generation M-MRCA for the IAF ought to be a twin-engined net-centric platform (for ensuring survivability and reliable hot-and-high performance) that has a tandem-seat arrangement, and which comes equipped with an AESA-based MMR and integrated defensive aids suite. It is believed that other potential export customers of the Super Hornet—Brazil, Finland, Kuwait and Malaysia—also close to drawing a similar conclusion.
Presently, of all the M-MRCA contenders, the only readily available platform that is being offered with a combat-proven level of information dominance and net-centricity, plus a guaranteed industrial roadmap for introducing future incremental performance enhancements, is the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which has aptly been labelled as a ‘sleeper’ of the aerospace industry, thanks to its gradual spiral development over the past five years. It was this very reason that prompted Australia to become the launch export customer for the Super Hornet when it ordered 24 tandem-seat F/A-18Fs in May 2007 and decided in February 2009 to modify 12 of them into EA-18G Growler electronic attack variants. It is widely believed that Canberra opted for the Super Hornet after it emerged through exhaustive operations analysis studies that only this option would guarantee Australian airpower dominance (over the Su-27SKMs and Su-30MK2s now being acquired by Indonesia) through to 2045. What also tilted the balance in favour of the F/A-18F was the demonstrated commitment by Boeing, and its major subcontractors, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and GE Aero Engines to have a “Flight Plan” in place that precisely defines what’s next for the Super Hornet (i.e. Block 2 variant) in the areas of distributed targeting, net-centric operations, battlespace management, sensor integration/fusion, and flight certification for what is byfar the widest array of standoff PGMs.
In the Indian context, if one were to assess the PLAAF’s Su-27SKs, J-11s, Su-30MK2s and J-10s against the Block 2 Super Hornet it is clear from the outset that the advantage goes to the F/A-18F. Considering that the PLAAF has to date been unsuccessful in fielding either a home-grown MMR using passive electronically scanned-arrays (leave alone AESA-based MMRs) or their imported counterparts from Russia (the N011M ‘Bars’ or the Irbis-E), and coupled with the fielding of the BAE Systems-built ALQ-214 integrated defensive electronic countermeasures (IDECM) system (which till this day has no matching counterpart worldwide) on board the Super Hornet, and the incorporation of inlet geometry shaping, inlet tunnel S-bends, and an AESA shroud, all of which reduce its forward sector signature well below that of the PLAAF’s existing fleets of combat aircraft, it is obvious that the Super Hornet will continue to retain a decisive edge over its PLAAF-flown opponents for a long time to come in terms of both the conduct of effects-based airpower campaigns and flight survivability, even though the Su-27SK, J-11 and Su-30MK2 all kinematically outclass the Super Hornet in all high-performance flight regimes. The technology gap will further widen when Boeing begins implementing its ‘Super Hornet International Roadmap’ by 2013, under which the M-MRCA could be equipped (if a customer so desires) with an enclosed weapons pod that is intended to significantly lower the aircraft’s radar cross section, a large (11-inch by 19-inch) one-piece, touch-screen panoramic active-matrix liquid-crystal display, or PAMLCD (to improve the fused presentation of the integrated sensor suite), twin conformal fuel tanks straddling the upper fuselage to confer an additional 10 per cent range, an internal nose-mounted IRST sensor, a spherical missile and laser warning system that will be housed above and below the aircraft, and an enhanced performance engine (EPE) version of the existing 98kN-thrust F414-GE-400 turbofan that would provide a 20 per cent increase in thrust. The F414EPE turbofan will include an upgraded core with an advanced high-pressure turbine and six-stage high-pressure compressor, plus a new fan for greater airflow. EPE enhancements will also offer greater operational flexibility with reduced fuel consumption. At the maintenance-level, the EPE engine will provide a more foreign object damage-tolerant compressor to further lower operating and support costs. Incidentally, India’s Aeronautical Development Agency last October selected the F414-GE-INS6 variant of the F414 to power the Mk2 version of the home-grown Tejas LCA for the IAF. The F414-GE-INS6 is presently the highest thrust F414 variant available. To date, 99 F414-GE-INS6 turbofans have been ordered, while retaining the option to acquire 49 more.--Prasun K. Sengupta