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A recent FDI paper examined some of the issues surrounding the attack on a convoy of Indian paramilitary personnel by a member of the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), a militant group that is based in Pakistan. Soon after that paper was published, it was reported by several media outlets that India had authorised its air force to attack JeM’s training camps in Pakistan. As is usual in the fog of war, truth became the first casualty, with claim and counter-claim being made by both sides. What is not in doubt is that an Indian MiG-21 fighter aircraft was downed, possibly by a Pakistani aircraft, and its pilot captured. That pilot, after remaining in Pakistani military custody for a few days, was returned to India as a “peace gesture” by Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Imran Khan. Mr Khan also indicated that he sought to have peace talks with India.
After receiving authorisation from Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, to strike JeM’s training camps in Pakistan, the Indian Air Force allegedly attacked a JeM camp about ten kilometres south of Balakot in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Pakistan, at around 3:30 AM on 26 February. Balakot is around sixty kilometres north of Abbottabad, where U.S. Special Forces eliminated Osama bin Laden. At least one Indian media report claimed that around 300 militants were killed in the attack.
Another report stated that number to be around 350. Yet another reported that eyewitnesses had seen up to thirty-five bodies being taken away in ambulances, amid other details. The latter report could not identify its sources because those individuals worked for Pakistani authorities but, significantly, noted that a former Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) officer known locally as “Colonel Salim” was killed in the bombing […] while a “Colonel Zarar Zakri” was injured. Mufti Moeen, a Jaish-e-Muhammad instructor from Peshawar, and improvised explosive device-fabrication expert Usman Ghani were also killed in the bombing.
It is interesting to note that for the first time in two decades, India used its aircraft to strike a target in Pakistan. It is also notable that the target was in Pakistan itself, not in disputed Kashmiri territory. Pakistan disputed the Indian reports, stating that while Indian aircraft had indeed crossed into Pakistani territory, they jettisoned their bombs into an uninhabited area close to the JeM camp and returned to India. There is a degree of veracity to that claim, as another examination of the matter shows. It could be that the Indian attack on a target in undisputed Pakistani territory forced Islamabad to retaliate in order to maintain a semblance of dignity, but it is more likely that it did so to placate a furious populace. It authorised an air strike against India on 27 February.
It was that action that led to the capture of the Indian pilot. In pursuing the attacking Pakistani aircraft as they headed back to Pakistan, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s MiG-21 aircraft was shot down by either a Chinese JF-17 aircraft, which is licence-built in Pakistan, or an American-sourced F-16. If the latter, Pakistan would be embarrassed because the F-16s were sold to them on the condition that they not be used against another country but only against terrorists and insurgents. India claimed that an F-16 had been shot down in Pakistani territory. If that allegation is correct, it would mark the first time that an F-16 has been downed in combat.
#WATCH Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa on Mig-21 Bison, says, "One is a planned operation in which you plan & carry out.But when an adversary does a strike on you, every available aircraft goes in, irrespective of which aircraft it is. All aircraft are capable of fighting the enemy" pic.twitter.com/B2mZQTLBRd
— ANI (@ANI) March 4, 2019
Setting aside claim and counter-claim, the obvious question is this: why were MiG-21 aircraft, a Soviet-era relic that was inducted into the Indian Air Force in 1963, used to combat more modern F-16s and their Chinese copies, the JF-17s? Where were India’s front-line fighters, the Sukhoi-30MKIs? Why are the lives of Indian pilots put at risk in aircraft dubbed “flying coffins”?
According to one news report from 2015, “more than 170 IAF pilots have been killed in MIG-21 accidents since 1970”. According to another report, there are around 200 of these aircraft still being used by the Indian Air Force. In fact, as the report notes, they continue to form the backbone of the Indian Air Force. The blame for that sorry state of affairs must be laid squarely at the feet of India’s political parties.
Rather than work together to acquire modern military technology on time and within budget, the two main political parties appear to be at pains to find fault with the other’s attempts to bring their military forces into the 21st Century. That tension, together with a bloated and inefficient bureaucracy and rampant corruption, has led to India’s military personnel having to put up with dated systems and materiél.
That situation was first made public in India when news of the Bofors scandal broke in the late 1980s. It led the Prime Minister at the time, Rajiv Gandhi, to threaten to stop newsprint supplies to the newspaper that broke the story if it did not terminate its pursuit of the story. The sorry saga of the Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft global tender, which was issued in 2007 and finally scrapped in 2015, is an example of political leaders alleging a corrupt acquisition process combining with bureaucracy to scupper the acquisition of badly-needed fighter aircraft. The tender was scrapped, furthermore, even after the aircraft to be acquired, the Dassault Rafale, was decided upon and the Chief of the Indian Air Force stated that India’s Sukhoi aircraft could not replace it.
The issue of competent engineering is also one that must be addressed. India’s Tejas light combat aircraft was to have been powered by the indigenously-designed and built Kaveri engine. Twenty-four years and US$600 million ($850 million) later, the project was scrapped because the engine could not sufficiently power the Tejas aircraft and replacement engines acquired from the US.
In many instances, India’s political leaders have sought to acquire military technology only when needed. That policy has led to ad hoc purchases and a plethora of platforms and equipment. The Indian Air Force, for instance, comprises US, French, British, Russian and Indian aircraft. That situation requires technicians who are trained to service and maintain those aircraft, holding spare parts for them, etc., all of which adds to the air force’s budget. Poor decisions have seen the country pay more for a battle cruiser that was converted into an aircraft carrier than it would have had it purchased a new one.
Given that situation, India’s policy of “strategic autonomy” – a rebranded policy of non-alignment can hardly be sustainable. To avail of complete technology packages and not compromise the security of personnel, as was done in the case of the C-130 aircraft being equipped by commercial off-the-shelf communications systems, India’s political leaders must choose between the West and the others. Non-alignment has been far from successful, just as strategic autonomy is. It may well be time for the political elite to revisit their suspicions about being contained within the international system and adopt a more positive foreign policy. President Trump’s recent statement about reciprocal taxes could provide the motivation.
In the absence of a sufficiently qualified manufacturing base, and given its dearth of similarly-qualified military systems designers and innovators, it is incumbent upon India’s political leaders to ensure that the country’s military personnel have access to the best resources that are available in order to carry out the tasks for which they are trained. The US F-35, as a case in point, now costs less than US$90 million each. To be able to purchase those, however, would demand an act of courage from the political class and a re-working of India’s foreign policy.
There could be little doubt as to the professionalism of the Indian armed forces; Wing Commander Varthaman’s decision to engage with F-16s and JF-17s in his all-but-obsolete aircraft is proof of that. Their willingness to lay their lives on the line cannot be perfunctorily dismissed, however, by providing them with equipment and platforms that are sub-standard, obsolete or both.
Lindsay Hughes is Senior Research Analyst at the Perth-based Future Directions International FDI’s Indian Ocean Research Programme