At the start of the Kargil conflict in 1999, the Indian Air Force (IAF) found itself ill equipped to provide Close Air Support (CAS) to the Indian Army (IA) in mountainous terrain. IAF attack helicopters (Mi-17) and Close Air Support (CAS) fighters (Jaguar, MiG-27, MiG-21 Bis) lacked the performance to effectively maneuver in valleys at high altitudes and target the enemy from close quarters for good accuracy. The aircraft were not kitted to use Precision Guided Munition (PGM) to engage the enemy from standoff ranges. They lacked self-protection suites against Man Portable Air Defense Systems (Manpads) and Short Range (SR) missiles. (Manpads use rudimentary IR guidance that can be spoofed by dispensing flares; radar guided SR missile can be spoofed by dispensing chaff.) Other than the MiG-27 and Mi-17, IAF CAS aircraft also lacked armor protection against small arms fire.
As a result, IAF' operations were ineffective during the initial stages of Op Safed Sagar, the codename assigned to the air effort in support of the Army. Unguided bombs and rockets released from great distances failed to hit targets. To make matters worse, a day after Op Safed Sagar commenced on May 26, 1999, the IAF lost two fighters - MiG-27 and MiG-21; the next day it lost a Mi-17.
IAF strikes became more effective following the induction of Mirage-2000 fighters on May 30, 1999. With good reserve of power and more advanced weapon aiming system, the Mirage was able to achieve better accuracies. While operations were underway, the IAF acquired Laser Guided Bomb (LGBs) and hurriedly kitted the Mirage-2000 for their delivery. That was when the IAF's CAS effort became truly effective!
Considering that India's disputed borders lie exclusively in mountainous terrain, it is difficult to condone the IAF's poor showing in the initial stages of the Kargil conflict. The IAF privately and tacitly acknowledges that it was ill equipped, but publically prefers to emphasize its good showing in the later stages of the conflict. The IAF stance is justified to a large extent because it is ultimately the MoD which calls the shots on the nature of the weapon systems provided to the armed forces.
One would hope that there has been introspection and course correction since Kargil at an appropriate level to ensure that the IAF is better equipped in any future conflict. However, no such course correction is discernible.
Leading Indian defense analysts believe that India's next war will be fought exclusively in the Himalayas, just as Kargil was, and for the following two reasons.
- India's disputed borders with China and Pakistan lie along the Himalayas.
- India, China and Pakistan are all nuclear armed nations; widening a conflict beyond their disputed borders would risk deterrence breakdown, especially if it threatened the territorial integrity of any one nation.
Let me elaborate the second point, An Indian attempt to blunt any future Pak aggression in Kashmir with a counterattack attack in Punjab or Rajasthan would be fraught with risk of deterrence breakdown. Similarly, a PLA incursion beyond Arunachal Pradesh into the plains of Assam, or an Indian incursion deep into Tibet, could lead to the conflict spiraling out of control!
Use of Airpower
During the 1962 war, both India and China refrained from using air power in order to avoid escalation. More recently, during the Kargil conflict the IAF was under strict orders from then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee not to cross the LoC while providing CAS to the Indian Army. The PAF showed similar restraint by not crossing the LoC.
It's clear from the above that India, China and Pakistan are likely to refrain from indiscriminate use of airpower in a future conflict to avoid escalation. However, unlike in 1962, airpower is likely to be used over the Tactical Battle Area (TBA) - for ISR, CAS and for establishing local air superiority.
Is the IAF Now Well Equipped for CAS in Mountainous Terrain?
Despite threat analysis pointing to a future conflict being confined to the our mountainous border, there has been no change in the IAF's aircraft acquisition pattern, or a reorientation of IAF war planning aimed at augmenting its CAS ability in high mountains. For example, the IAF has shown no inclination towards acquiring a specialized CAS aircraft with good high altitude performance.
The one big take-away for the IAF from Kargil was the effectiveness of PGMs delivered from standoff ranges by multi-role aircraft such as the Mirage-2000. The IAF has since steadily augmented its multi-role, PGM enabled fighter fleet with induction of Su-30MKI fighters and ongoing upgrade of MiG-29 Air Defense (AD) fighters to MiG-29UPG multi-role standard.
A CAS capability built on multi-role fighters like Mirage-2000, Su-30MKI, and MiG-29UPG and eventually Rafale has the added advantage of simultaneously augmenting AD capability. However, there are several problems with adopting such an approach.
First and foremost, multi-role aircraft are far more expensive to acquire and operate than specialized CAS aircraft. Also, multi-role fighters are less versatile in pure CAS support role.
Secondly, you need to establish local air superiority over the TBA to achieve optimum standoff weapon release conditions. This may not be possible, as the airspace along our northern borders would be heavily contested. Keep in mind that the PLAAF now has five airfields in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) capable of supporting J-11 operations. Pakistan similarly has F-16s; both nations would deploy AEW&CS.
Thirdly, PGMs are very expensive; their use would be justified only when an intervention of great tactical importance is required. Also, costs would limit PGM inventory to levels supportive of only short conflicts. A limited conflict along our northern borders is unlikely to be short; it could last months, as was the case with Kargil. With limited PGM stocks, it is likely that the IAF would have to turn down many Army CAS requests.
Fourthly, standoff PGM attacks mandate clear separation between enemy and friendly troops to preclude battlefield fratricide. A clear separation existed during Kargil; enemy troops had entrenched themselves at heights over months before their presence was detected. Indian troops could bide their time before attempting to dislodge the intruders. Such clear separation is unlikely in a future conflict where intrusions would be detected in real time using UAVs, and the enemy confronted immediately.
When lines of separation are fluid, Laser marking of a target by a Forward Air Controller (FAC) and visual identification of the target by the attacking pilot are necessary. Such attacks are best carried out by specialized CAS aircraft capable of flying low and slow with adequate safety.
Need for Specialized CAS Fighter
A specialized CAS fighter, like the USAF A-10 Thunderbolt/Warthog, is optimized for maneuverability, not speed. Taking advantage of its slower speed and better maneuverability, it can enter into and fly in valleys providing CAS from close range after visual identification. An A-10 can carry a good weapon load and mix as well as including guns for minor interventions. It features defensive armor for its crew and self-protection electronic suite with integrated IR and chaff dispensers to spoof AD missiles,
Being cheaper than multi-role fighters, CAS only fighters can be deployed in larger numbers. In war, the larger number would translate to more CAS strikes and increased effectiveness of the air effort.
Stealth through Terrain Hugging
While multi-role fighters attempting to provide CAS from standoff ranges would be picked up easily by the network of enemy ground and airborne radars covering the TBA, an A-10 flying through valleys, occasionally popping over ridgelines, would often be able to arrive over the TBA undetected. Even if detected, it wouldn't be easy to target from high flying enemy AD fighters.
The hype around stealth focuses exclusively on the ability of combat aircraft to deflect radar waves with aerodynamic shaping to avoid radar detection. But there is an equally effective and less expensive way of evading radar detection, a way that has existed since the advent of radar, a way that the IAF has embraced in the past and continues to do so today. It's called terrain hugging. You can evade ground based radar and enemy defenses (AD guns and missiles) by flying close to the terrain. For example, flying at 200 ft. above terrain at night, routing around enemy military deployments and populated areas, an IAF Jaguar could penetrate Pakistani airspace as stealthily as a USAF F-22 Raptor. Admittedly, the effectiveness of terrain hugging gets diluted when the enemy deploys AEW&CS aircraft. However, the dilution, which is significant in plains, is marginal in mountains because of ground clutter and shielding.
The IAF's re-equipment trajectory is set to transform it into a force based almost exclusively on multi-role (Su-30MKI, Rafale, Mirage-2000, MiG-29UPG) and AD (Tejas, FGFA, AMCA) fighters.
The IAF's lack of interest in dedicated CAS aircraft is at odds with the widely prevalent threat perception that the next war would be fought in the Himalayas. The IAF seems to believe that it would be able to meet the Army's CAS requirements along the LAC and LOC through standoff attacks by its multi-role aircraft. But the approach is both expensive and risky.
As an emerging regional power, there is no doubt India needs multi-role, long range fighters with good weapon loads, such as Su-30MKI and Rafale. Such fighters can project Indian power and protect Indian interests well beyond our borders.
However, a war along India's disputed border with Pakistan or China would be the war that India cannot afford to lose, not an overseas intervention.
The IAF was ill equipped to fight the Kargil war. There is a need for IAF introspection on whether it is now well equipped for a future bigger conflict in the Himalayas. Inducting a dedicated CAS fighter would be a step outside its comfort zone, as the IAF would require to develop and validate new tactics, but that must not be the reason for ignoring the option.