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Paradigm Shift in Use of Airpower: Atamnirbhar IAF Faces Challenges

© AP Photo / Gurinder OsanA vehicle mounted Brahmos missiles is displayed at the Republic Day parade rehearsal in the backdrop of the India Gate war memorial in New Delhi, India, Friday, Jan. 23, 2009.
A vehicle mounted Brahmos missiles is displayed at the Republic Day parade rehearsal in the backdrop of the India Gate war memorial in New Delhi, India, Friday, Jan. 23, 2009. - Sputnik India, 1920, 26.04.2024
Considering major changes in the air warfare, a military analyst, Vijainder K Thakur advises India to fill in the gaps in the military industry as the paradigm of the battlefield warps.
Russia is inexorably achieving its Special Military Operation (SMO) aims because it's fully atmanirbhar (self-reliant) in defence production. In contrast, Ukraine and Israel are steadily losing ground against their adversaries because they are dependent on US weapons.
Nothing would explain the urgency for India to achieve Atamnirbharta better.
However, for India to strive for full atmanirbharta, across the spectrum of defence technology, is a bit much. Pragmatically speaking, based on India's past record in defence production and weapon systems development, the quest for full spectrum atmanirbharta is fraught with the likelihood of failures and could span a time frame that extends into perpetuity.
At this point of time, developing some defence technologies - aero engine, IADS, hypersonic cruise missile - is clearly beyond the scope of India's defence industrial base and technological capabilities.
There is a need for joint venture (JV) development with foreign OEMs to rapidly fill technology gaps. A paradigm shift in air warfare exacerbates the need for JV development to plug gaps in operational capability.

Paradigm Change in Contemporary Air Warfare

To illustrate my point of view, let's dwell on some of the lessons learnt from the deployment of air power in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, and the recent tit-for-tat conflagration between Israel and Iran.

Both the conflicts illustrate how air power now majorly pivots around adversary air defence (AD) capability. Specifically, the ability to engage missiles and aerial threats at long ranges. The effectiveness of adversary AD can now only be countered using high supersonic/hypersonic speed, manoeuvring missiles at the strategic level, and by low signature long range glide bombs at the tactical level.

Interception, strike and SEAD capability of fighters has now been relegated to a secondary role. The sure way of hitting a target is through the use of hypersonic quasi ballistic missiles or low signature glide bombs. A good way is, through the use of high supersonic speed or stealth cruise missiles.
Manned fighter aircraft strike packages, armed with standoff bombs and missiles, and long range subsonic cruise missiles stand little chance against modern AD systems.

Does the IAF Measure Up to the Paradigm Shift?

Based on the paradigm shift and keeping in mind the AD and missile strike capabilities of our adversaries, specifically the PLAAF, what the IAF needs desperately today are:
AD systems like the S-400;
High supersonic missiles like the Brahmos-A;
Hypersonic cruise missiles like the Zircon;
Hypersonic quasi ballistic missiles like the Pralay.
Luckily for us in India, we have 3 squadrons of the S-400 IADS, capable of engaging adversary ballistic missiles and aerial threats at long range. We also have the Brahmos-A and hypersonic quasi ballistic missile Pralay.
What we don't have are hypersonic cruise missiles like the Zircon.
Overall, the IAF measures up to the challenges of the paradigm shift in aerial warfare. Some gaps remain as does a window of time to plug them.
© AP Photo / Gurinder OsanAn Indian Army Bhishma tank, the locally assembled version of the T-90S tank, rolls in front of vehicle mounted Brahmos missiles during Army Day parade in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009.
An Indian Army Bhishma tank, the locally assembled version of the T-90S tank, rolls in front of vehicle mounted Brahmos missiles during Army Day parade in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009. - Sputnik India, 1920, 26.04.2024
An Indian Army Bhishma tank, the locally assembled version of the T-90S tank, rolls in front of vehicle mounted Brahmos missiles during Army Day parade in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Jan. 15, 2009.

Standout Defence Planning

It's interesting to see how India managed to stay ahead of the paradigm shift curve, mostly.
Thanks to the DRDO's landmark Integrated Guided Missile Development Program (IGMDP), initiated in 1983 under the leadership of former President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, India has reached self-reliance in missile technology.
As a result, India has a tactical ballistic missile in development that is as good as the Russian and Iranian missiles that have recently demonstrated their ability to penetrate the best AD systems that the West can deploy.
ANI reported on December 25, 2022 that MoD has cleared the procurement of around 120 Pralay ballistic missiles for the Indian armed forces.

JVs in India's Quest for Atmanirbharta

Significantly, India filled the gap in its high supersonic cruise missile capability through the joint venture (JV) development of the Brahmos missile with Russia.
The IAF has 3 squadrons equipped with S-400 systems. The service had ordered 5 squadrons. Unfortunately, delivery of 2 squadrons has been blocked by US sanctions that prevent India from paying Russia in dollars.
In the past, IAF sources have indicated that the operational requirement is for 10 S-400 systems. In September 2019, Russia's state corporation Rostec CEO, Sergey Chemezov, said that both India and Russia are currently in talks to launch a local S-400 production line in India.
It's highly likely that local manufacture in India of the S-400 systems is now on hold due to US pressures. If so, it's a rather unfortunate development because JV local manufacture of the S-400 system can quickly plug the gap that will surely emerge as the missile threat faced by India from China and Pakistan continues to mount.

Brahmos-2 JV Development Stifled?

India was well on its way to acquire hypersonic cruise missile capability through joint development of Brahmos-2 by the Brahmos JV. During a visit to India by Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov in 2008, the two countries signed an agreement to develop a hypersonic follow up to the Brahmos missile.
Going by the complete absence of any news on the Brahmos-2 project, it appears that joint development of the missile in collaboration with Russia has been shelved, at least temporarily.
It's interesting to note that in the meantime, Russia has not only completed development of its Brahmos-2 analog, Zircon, it has operationally deployed the missile in the SMO. Indeed, recent reports suggest that Russian Zircon missiles, launched from coastal batteries, have proven more destructive and difficult to intercept than even the Russian Iskander-M quasi ballistic tactical missile.
© Sputnik / Russian Defence Ministry / Go to the mediabankLaunch of Zirkon Missile From the Frigate Admiral Gorshkov in the Barents Sea
Launch of Zirkon Missile From the Frigate Admiral Gorshkov in the Barents Sea - Sputnik India, 1920, 26.04.2024
Launch of Zirkon Missile From the Frigate Admiral Gorshkov in the Barents Sea

Understanding the Air Power Paradigm Shift

It's important to understand that the paradigm shift in the use of air power is for good, as a result of advances in technology.
Till around a decade ago, the air power paradigm was to establish air supremacy through SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defense) and then pound the adversary forces using drones and manned strike aircraft equipped with standoff weapons.
The paradigm has now changed because air supremacy is impossible to achieve in a peer-to-peer conflict.
Besides AWACS, other ISR assets featuring long range optical and radar sensors - such as drones operating well outside contested airspace and satellites in low earth orbit - have improved aerial surveillance.
Ground based surveillance technology has also improved considerably with the operational deployment of multi-band radars that combine the detection capabilities of radars operating at different wavelengths to provide weapons grade tracking even on stealth aircraft.

As a result, battlefield transparency has increased dramatically, which in turn has stripped airpower of its element of surprise. In a peer conflict, a strike package can now be detected almost as soon as it gets airborne. It can then be continuously tracked, affording long range air defence several options to engage it.

Other radar technologies currently under development - bi-static radars, networked radars, OTH (over the horizon) radars, passive radar - combined with Moore's law dictated improvements in computer chip based processing power, will continue to enhance battlefield transparency, negating radar low observable shaping of fighters.

Air Defense Missile Improvements

Over the past 25 years, air defence missile capabilities have undergone significant improvements driven by advances in technology.
Miniaturisation of components and improvements in propulsion, guidance and control systems have improved AD missile range and speed.
Improved navigation (GPS, Inertial) allows AD missiles to arrive more accurately near the computed interception zone. Improved seekers (radar, IIR) facilitate early lock on to the target. Missile seekers employ frequency agility, waveform diversity, and sophisticated signal processing algorithms to prevent spoofing.
Improved warheads, featuring blast fragmentation and directed energy, contribute to increased lethality.
Improved computer processing power facilitates multi-target engagements.
Modern AD systems are increasingly integrated into broader air defence networks, enabling seamless coordination and information sharing among multiple assets. This integration is facilitated by interoperable communication protocols, standardised data formats, and common command and control interfaces.


The gaps that still remain in the IAF's operational capability, resulting from the paradigm shift in aerial warfare, need to be plugged as quickly as possible.
When highways are subject to whimsical closures, the journey to achieve atmanirbharta in defence is best undertaken using country roads (leveraging indigenous technology and industrial base). However, to avoid reaching the destination too late, it's acceptable to periodically ride the technology highway through joint ventures.
When there is a need for JV development of a defence system, India should exercise the option, resisting geopolitical pressures to prevent us from safeguarding our interests.
India has achieved self-sufficiency in missile development, but developing an IADS like the S-400 requires very high proficiency in missile, radar and computer processing technology. DRDO is known to be working on Project Kusha, an indigenous long-range air defence system. However, it's likely that the Kusha system is more limited in scope than the S-400.
Similarly, continuing JV local production of the sea and air launched hypersonic Brahmos-2 should be pursued.
Russia has been a very reliable defence partner for India. It will be unfortunate if India cannot resist geopolitical pressures from the US which is aimed at Russia but derail our quest for atmanirbharta, particularly so since the US itself has never been open to sharing defence technology with India.
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