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Monday, November 16, 2015

Pakistan Tests New Joint Services 'Air-Sea Battle' Concepts During EX Sea Spark 2015

Pakistan’s on-going EX Sea Spark 2015, jointly conducted by the Pakistan Navy and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in the northern Arabian Sea, has seen the participation of the PAF’s ZDK-03 Karakoram Eagle KE-3 AEW & CS platform for the very first time in a simulated joint services warfighting environment.  
During this exercise, the PAF’s ZDK-03 Karakoram Eagle KE-3, apart from providing airspace surveillance of Pakistan’s Makran coastline, also extended airborne battlespace management support to not only the Pakistan Navy, but also for the PAF’s MRCAs operating out of Masroor air base.  
The PAF’s Masroor air base in Sindh province is presently home to No.2 ‘Minhas’ Squadron flying F-7P Airguard L-MRCAs (which in future will convert to the FC-1/JF-17 Thunder L-MRCAs), No.4 Squadron with four four ZDK-03 Karakoram Eagle KE-3 AEW & CS platforms, No.7 ‘Bandits’ Squadron with upgraded Mirage-3EA/Mirage-3DP MRCAs, No.8 ‘Haiders’ Squadron with Mirage-5PA maritime strike aircraft (to be replaced in the near future by up to eight FC-1/JF-17 Thunders armed with CM-802A and CM-400AKG anti-ship cruise missiles), and No.22 ‘Ghazis’ Squadron with Mirage-3D/E MRCAs.
Immediately west off Masroor air base is an underground base—one of three that Pakistan now possesses—housing some of Pakistan’s nuclear warheads and SRBM/TBM ballistic missiles, which are kept there in a semi-recessed state. It is for this reason that the Masroor air base is equipped to provide ‘hardened air-cover’ for such nuclear WMD storage sites. The other air bases tasked with providing hardened air-cover include the air base at Jacobabad, Rafiqui air base in Shorkot, and the air base at Sargodha.
The four ZDK-03 Karakoram Eagle KE-3 AEW & CS platforms worth US$278 million were ordered in early 2008 from prime contractor China Electronics Technology Group Corp (CETC). Xi’an-based Shaanxi Aircraft Corp built the aircraft. For operating these aircraft, the PAF secured approval for raising No.4 Squadron on November 27, 2010. This Squadron was raised on August 10, 2011 at the PAF’s Masroor air base. The first ZDK-03 Karakoram Eagle KE-3 arrived there on November 29, 2011, and its acceptance sorties was flown on December 29 the same year. The full-strength Squadron was formally commissioned on February 26, 2015.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Striving For An Achievable Force-Mix

Since the 1950s the Indian Air Force (IAF) has been striving for attaining a balanced force-mix of combat aircraft platforms, be they deep-penetration strike aircraft (DPSA), medium multi-role combat aircraft (M-MRCA), dedicated tactical interdiction/tactical air-support aircraft, air superiority combat aircraft, defensive counter-air combat aircraft, and light MRCAs (L-MRCA).
Consequently, in the DPSA category, the IAF took delivery of 104 English Electric Canberras between 1957 and 1970, and they were eventually replaced by 196 BAE Systems/SEPECAT Jaguar IS (built between 1982 and 2008, with each of them qualified for carrying 4.5 tonnes of offensive payload.
In the M-MRCA category, 140 single-seat Hawker Hunter FGA.9s and 20 T.66 two-seat operational conversion trainers were procured between 1957 and 1962 (these were decommissioned in 1996), followed by 59 Dassault Aviation-supplied Mirage 2000H/THs in the mid-1980s and mid-1990s (of these, 51 are now being upgraded). 
When it came to L-MRCAs, 110 Mystère IVs were acquired  since 1957 (they were decommissioned by  1973), followed by 205 Type-77 MiG-21FLs (procured between March 1965 and 1972 and decommissioned by 2006), 158 Type-88 MiG-21Ms between February 1973 and November 1981 (decommissioned by 2012), and 295 Type-75 MiG-21bis between 1977 and 1984, of which 125 were upgraded to MiG-21 Bison standard in the late 1990s and these will be decommissioned by 2017.
The IAF had also acquired, purely for defensive counter-air operations, 243 Folland Gnats and 89 Ajeets since the early 1960s, whereas for offensive air superiority operations, 46 MiG-23MFs served the IAF between July 4, 1983 and March 20, 2007 (logging nearly 32,581 flying hours), and these were augmented by 80 MiG-29B-12s (procured between October 1987 and 1995), of which 63 are now being upgraded to serve as M-MRCAs.
It is, however, in the dedicated tactical interdiction/tactical air-support aircraft category that the IAF went in for ambitious expansion since 1968, starting with the procurement of 220 Sukhoi Su-7BMKs (each qualified for hauling 3 tonnes of offensive payload), followed by 95 MiG-23BNs (serving between January 1980 and March 6, 2009 and having flown more than 154,000 hours) each carrying a 3-tonne weapons payload, and 175 MiG-27Ms (165 of which were licence-built by HAL between 1986 and 1992) each of which could haul a 3-tonne weapons payload. Of these, 40 were upgraded to MiG-27UPG standard—the upgrade work involving only the mission avionics suite.
From the above, it becomes evident that the IAF’s continuously evolving force-structure exercises (in response to the evolving threat perceptions) have resulted in an operational fleet inventory comprising about 180 DPSAs, about 180 air-superiority aircraft for both defensive counter-air and offensive air-escort missions, about 160 M-MRCAs, about 270 tactical interdiction/tactical air-support aircraft, and some 250 L-MRCAs. In other words, a total of about 1,040 combat aircraft (inclusive of war reserves) distributed among the authorised 42 squadrons (of these 12 being dedicated for operations along India’s northern frontiers in a two-front wear scenario). This was the situation till 1991.
Since the mid-1990s, a number of factors led to the IAF re-examining its force-mix of combat aircraft. Firstly, the advent of open-architecture avionics suites, higher-thrust turbofans and standoff precision-guided munitions (PGM) meant that existing (like the MiG-29 and Mirage 2000) and future M-MRCAs (like the Rafale, which can haul 9.2 tonnes of offensive payload) could easily take on the roles of deep interdiction and tactical interdiction and offensive air-escort, thereby doing away with the need for role-specific combat aircraft like the Jaguar IS, MiG-23MF and MiG-23BN/MiG-27M. Secondly, L-MRCAs, both existing and future acquisitions, would also stand to gain from such technological advances. 
Thirdly, the ‘game-changing’ availability of heavy MRCAs like the Su-30MKI and AEW & CS platforms meant that in the initial 96 hours of an offensive air campaign, the IAF would have the luxury of having its M-MRCAs escorted by H-MRCAs (with airborne battlespace management being provided by AEW & CS platforms) deep inside hostile airspace, and after air supremacy is achieved, the H-MRCAs, operating from medium-altitudes, too would serve as DPSAs and tactical air-interdictors. The L-MRCAs would, from Day 1 of hostilities, be assigned for both tactical air-support and defensive counter-air missions. 
So, the ideal 42 squadron force-mix—when dealing with a limited but high-intensity, sequential two-front war scenario—ought to comprise 30% of the combat aircraft being composed of H-MRCAs, 35% of M-MRCAs and the remaining 35% of L-MRCAs—these being backed up by no less than 12 AEW & CS platforms and 28 aerial refuelling tankers.    
In reality, however, matters started worsening from the early 1990s itself. While the Indian Army, due to political reasons, was prevented from implementing its Field Artillery Rationalisation Plan (which had called for the introduction of up to 2,900 155mm towed and self-propelled howitzers) and was also denied the opportunity to procure attack helicopters (despite a firm commitment in writing from the MoD way back in 1986 that acknowledged the Armys need for such hardware), the IAF was hit with a double whammy: unavailability of the promised L-MRCA—the Tejas Mk1, and the sudden reason by the Russian Federation to decommission all members of its MiG-23BN and MiG-27M families and instead use the Su-25 family of close air-support aircraft as tactical interdictors as well.      
The twin-engined, subsonic Su-25’s R & D began in early 1968, and its maiden flight took place on February 22, 1975 (the single-engined, supersonic MiG-27M took to the skies for the first time in 1974). But Pavel Puthakov,  the Soviet Air Force Commander-in-Chief from 1969 till 1984, was more in favour of inducting supersonic tactical air-support aircraft in service and therefore chose not to order the Su-25. It was only in mid-1976, when Poland asked Russia if it could licence-build the Su-25, that Leonid Brezhnev, the then General Secretary of the Central Committee of the USSR’s Communist Party (from 1964 until his death in 1982) became aware of the Su-25’s existence and ordered its service-induction. The first production-series Su-25 was rolled out in 1979 and during its nine years of combat in Afghanistan, only 23 were lost out of 60,000 flights. 
It was also discovered then that compared to the MiG-27M, the Su-25, armed with a 4-tonne weapons payload, was five times better in terms of viability. No wonder Russia continues to swear by the Su-25 and has even developed a follow-on, upgraded version known as the Su-39, this meaning that the Su-25 family will remain in service till 2030 at best. One can therefore only guess why the Soviets never offered the Su-25 for export to India, and instead sold only the MiG-23BNs and MiG-27Ms, and why India, unlike Poland, never even asked the then-USSR to licence-build the Su-25 instead of the MiG-27M.
Due to the above-mentioned reasons, the IAF’s force-mix is quite lop-sided today and will remain so till the end of this decade, since close to 40% of IAF’s authorised combat force will be comprised of Su-30MKI H-MRCAs, 20% of upgraded M-MRCAs like the Mirage 2000Is and MiG-29UPG, and the rest with platforms like the Jaguar IS, MiG-27UPGs, MiG-27Ms and MiG-21 Bisons. Squadron-wise, this breaks down into 5 with Jaguar IS/IM, up to 13 with Su-30MKIs, 3 with MiG-29UPGs and another 3 with Mirage 2000Is, 4 with MiG-27UPGs and MiG-27Ms, and 11 with MiG-21 Bisons. The shortfalls are particularly critical in the tactical interdiction and close air-support arenas.
Squadron-wise, this breaks down into 5 with Jaguar IS/IM, up to 13 with Su-30MKIs, 3 with MiG-29UPGs and another 3 with Mirage 2000Is, 4 with MiG-27UPGs and MiG-27Ms, and 11 with MiG-21 Bisons. The shortfalls are particularly critical in the tactical interdiction and close air-support arenas.  
The obvious solutions include the procurement of six squadrons (189 units) of Rafales between 2017 and 2032 and use them as DPSAs, upgrade some 150 of the existing Jaguar IS DPSAs into tactical interdiction/close air-support platforms between now and 2020, convert some 60 of the 132 Hawk Mk.132 advanced jet trainers into the ‘Combat Hawk’ configuration to serve as close air-support platforms by 2019, and procure the IAF-specific version of the LCA (Navy) Mk.1 from 2017 onward to serve as the L-MRCA. 
This will ensure that by 2020 the IAF has some 350 Su-30MKI H-MRCAs, close to 50 Rafale M-MRCAs serving as DPSAs, and close to 210 aircraft for tactical interdiction and close air-support. However, the US$4 billion question still remains: how exactly should one go about the process of procuring the required 250 fourth-generation L-MRCAs comprising a mix of the IAF-specific version of the LCA (Navy) Mk.1 and the projected Tejas Mk.2 and in what kind of timeframe?