India's Air Force Modernization Worries Rival Pakistan
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, program coordinator of the Centre for Strategic Studies at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, said India is modernizing its air force with newer, more-capable jets but not downsizing its ranks, according to its newly purchased capabilities.
The country is on the cusp of a $20 billion deal to purchase nearly 130 Dassault Rafale fighter jets that could be signed within three months, according to media reports. At 1,500 aircraft, the fleet would be 30 percent bigger than its Pakistani counterpart.
“Even though the air force is buying more expensive things, it should be downsizing in numbers like every Western air force has done, because you can do more things with fewer planes,” he said. “This is not happening.”
“Pakistan has been, traditionally, the quality air force and India has been the numerically superior air force,” he added. “So now, what you see is India is basically disrupting the balance. It is becoming supposedly qualitatively better and quantitatively better and that is scaring the living daylights out of the Pakistanis.”
The Indian air force also has purchased the Dassault Mirage single-engine multi-role aircraft that replaced a portion of its fleet of British-built Jaguar fighters and plans to soon finalize the purchase of more than 100 Dassault Rafale multi-role fighters. Both the Mirage and Rafale are upgrades from the Soviet-era MiG-21s, MiG-29s and Sukhoi aircraft the service also has in its inventory.
“With the Jaguar, we had a very organic game plan,” he said. “We planned that purchase. We got it. It was upgraded about four times in its service progressively with more accurate weapons. … But it never got a proper electronic warfare system.
After the Indian air force began flying the Jaguar in 1982, Pakistan bought a fleet of superior General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons from the United States.
“Our purchase of the Mirage 2000 was something of a panic reaction,” Iyer-Mitra said. “Its only aim was to defeat the F-16 because we never expected something that advanced to be introduced into South Asia that quickly.”
The Mirage was meant to fly into Pakistani territory to fight that country’s air force over its own soil, he said. The small, more agile MiG 29 — purchased from Soviet Russia around the same time — was meant for dog fighting incoming Pakistani jets over Indian soil.
The Mirage was not upgraded until after the Kargil War with Pakistan in 1999. In that three-month conflict, the jets outperformed both the MiG and Jaguar, pushing India to upgrade and expand its Mirage fleet. But the modernization effort devolved into an arms race based on numbers rather than capability, Iyer-Mitra said.
“This is where things start falling apart, because this again degenerates into a numbers game,” he said. “It’s no longer about effects. It’s not about capability. It’s purely about ‘Western technology is superior and we need it.’”
The Indian air force and civilian leadership were unclear on what capabilities they desired and could afford, he said. Aircraft manufacturers likewise described the available technologies poorly, which resulted in a request for proposals from the Indian Defense Ministry for a medium-size, multi-role combat aircraft that rolled all of the service’s aircraft requirements into one — a single aircraft that could replace all of its various Soviet-built jets.
U.S., Russian and European aircraft manufacturers made bids and India ultimately settled on the French Rafale in January 2012.
Iyer-Mitra, also a visiting research scholar at the cooperative monitoring center at Sandia National Laboratories, said the aviation arms race is alarming because air power is deployed in the region only in high-end conflicts. Because India shares borders with rivals China and Pakistan, ground forces rather than air strikes are typically employed to settle territorial disputes, he said.
“In the West … you tend to view technology, specifically air power, as something that localizes effects to a certain area with minimal collateral damage,” he said.
The U.S. “escalation chain” begins with drone strikes, cruise missiles, manned aircraft and ends with boots on the ground as the most extreme offensive option,” he said.
“In India, it is really quite different because air power … is perceived to be extremely destructive, disruptive and it’s not quite as precise,” Iyer-Mitra said. “What you have is this convention in India that you don’t use air power in internal conflicts in spite of the fact that … boots on the ground can be extremely destructive to the environment around it.”
“There is a much more ominous aspect to this because ground forces are our only real means of escalation,” he added. “If you send a division into Pakistan, you know the fighting is going to be localized around the periphery of that division, whereas if you go in for an air strike … [India has] absolutely no way of predicting what the Pakistanis are going to do. Is the response going to be to that one plane … or are they going to come back?”
In the event of a territorial or regional conflict, the Indian air force will not be able to give the country’s political leadership viable options for controlling escalation, he said.