What the IAF-PAF dogfight reveals

The February 27 aerial duel
shows India’s military capability  doesn’t
match its ambitions.Blame the nation’s tardy defence acquisition process for
this.

By: Shekhar Gupta (Source:
Hindustan Times)

Whether the Rafale deal is a scam
or the best thing for India’s defence is for more eminent people to debate. Let
me, meanwhile, list four facts emerging from the February 26-27 air skirmishes
to bring the story of what should be called the real Rafale scandal.

*In the Rajouri-Mendhar sector
air skirmish a day after the Indian Air Forces’ (IAF) successful Balakot
strikes, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) was able to create surprise and local
superiority  technological and
numerical  in a chosen battlefield. It
struck in daylight when least expected, and perfectly timed to attack the
changeover of IAF AWAC patrols. The outnumbered IAF pilots (12 aircraft of
three vastly different types), scrambled from various bases, and showed the
presence of mind not to walk into the ambush set for them, but they failed to
deliver a deterrent punishment on PAF.

* Four Sukhoi-30s, the IAF’s most
powerful air-superiority aircraft, were involved in the melee at beyond visual
range (BVR). They were surprised by the PAF F-16s firing their American AMRAAM
missiles from so far that their own radar/computer/missiles were not able to
give them a “firing solution”. Translated: India’s best fighter, which
constitutes half of the IAF’s combat force, was outranged and outgunned.

* Fortunately, two of the
upgraded Mirage-2000s were on patrol. These have new French missiles (MICA, or
Missile d’Interception, de combat d’autodefense), which are the exact peers of
the F-16/AMRAAM. They were able to lock on to some of the PAF planes, which
panicked into dropping their South African origin, stand-off weapons (SOWs) in
a hurry, mostly missing the targets. Nevertheless, one fell in the middle of
the Nowshera brigade headquarters compound. It was a closer call than we think.

* Surprised, and outnumbered, the
IAF scrambled six MiG-21 Bisons from Srinagar and Awantipur. Since these
climbed in the shadow of the Pir Panjal range, the PAF AWAC failed to detect
them. Their sudden appearance at the battlefield upset the PAF plan. This was
fortuitous.

It is only because of the IAF’s
good training, situational awareness, and some luck that this audacious PAF
mission failed. No ground target was hit. Its larger objective of luring vastly
outnumbered and outranged IAF jets into a pre-set “killing zone” was the bigger
failure.

Which brings us to our central
question: Should we have even been having this conversation today if we had the
military capability to match our economy (eight times Pakistan’s) and strategic
ambition? February 27 reminded us that we don’t.

If we had a functional defence
acquisition system, by now we would have built such a gap that Pakistan
wouldn’t even dare to retaliate. Check out on a rarely-reported Mirage-2000
laser bomb raid to clear a Pakistani incursion across the LoC in Machil sector
in 2002. Forget retaliation, the Pakistanis pretended nothing had happened.
Indian air-to-air missiles then, on both Mirage-2000s and MiG-29s, had better
range than the PAF, which ducked the challenge. Computers, radars and missiles
decide the outcome in modern, mostly BVR, post-dogfight era air warfare.

How did India lose that
edge?                                       

This serial crime dates back to
the Vajpayee government. In 2001, IAF projected the need of a new fighter to
replace the MiGs. Its choice was more Mirage-2000s. Dassault was willing to
shift its production line to India, the IAF knew the plane and loved it. By this
time, the IAF would have had 6-8 more squadrons of the upgraded, Made-in-India
Mirages with new missiles. The Rafale would probably not even be needed so
desperately. PAF wouldn’t have dared to carry out the 27 February raid, and if
it did, it would have been mauled. But then, George Fernandes, smarting under
Coffingate and Tehelka, refused to go with a “single-vendor” deal. The full
process for a new acquisition was launched.

We slept for a decade. The
Pakistanis got their new F-16s and AMRAAM missiles from the US after 2010.
Tactical balance in the air shifted. We, meanwhile, took until 2012 for a new
fighter  Rafale  to be chosen. Except that defence minister AK
Antony wouldn’t take a decision. Three of his negotiation committee of 14
dissented, so he set a committee above them. And he set up another committee of
three outside “monitors” to supervise this committee. Finally, all inputs in,
the choice was cleared. Sure enough, Antony ducked again.

He said three things at different
times: Within the MoD, he then said, call fresh bids. To the media, he said he
didn’t have headroom in the budget that year. And now, he told the media three
weeks ago, that he put off the deal in the “national interest” since two
eminent persons, Subramanian Swamy and Yashwant Sinha, had written letters
pointing out problems in the deal and he had ordered an inquiry. He has since
refused to talk about these letters even when chased by a reporter. The issue
is too sensitive, he tells her. Chances are, his party knocked him on the head
for nearly killing their Rafale story just to save his own neck. I will be
pleasantly surprised if he talks about those letters again.

The earlier 126-aircraft MMRCA
deal was dead by the time the NDA came in. The first wake-up call came early
enough, with the Pathankot raid. As usual, the air forces were first off the
blocks, and during aggressive patrolling, the IAF realised the PAF’s range
superiority. It’s an unwritten story yet, but some MICA missiles were bought
overnight, slung on Mirages which flew deliberately close enough for PAF to
observe them. In the four years since, how many of our 40+ Mirages can even
carry that missile? Don’t ask me for the truth because, as Jack Nicholson’s
Marine Col. Nathan R. Jessep said in A Few Good Men, you can’t face the truth.
Be grateful that those two on patrol on the morning of February 27 could .

As I promised, I am telling you
about the real Rafale scandal without mentioning the Rafale deal. The Vajpayee
government wouldn’t buy additional Mirages, scared of touching a single-vendor
order. The MICA missile had first been sought by the IAF in 2001, the first
only came in 2015 when Pathankot shocked the MoD to pull the file down from
orbit. Existing Mirages then had to be upgraded. Two were upgraded by Dassault.
HAL said it would do the rest. How many has it done yet? I warned you, you
can’t face the truth.

Then it gets even more
scandalous.

How did Wing Commander Abhinandan
Varthaman cross the LoC? He was in visual pursuit of a PAF fighter for sure.
But his controller was warning him to return. He didn’t. Because he couldn’t
hear. As you’d expect in 2019, the battle zone had full radio-jamming. That’s
why modern fighters have secure data links. Why didn’t that MiG have it? Ask
the gallant bureaucrat of MoD who blocked the purchase for three years claiming
that a defence PSU would make it. Don’t ask me his name, find out. You might
learn another truth you don’t want to face.

That order has lately been
placed. With Israel. Soon enough, all IAF fighters will have this secure data
link. And you’d die of shame, when I tell you it is a purchase, worth a mere Rs
630 crore, less than half the price of one Rafale. We were lucky to lose just
one MiG that day. 

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