Indian subcontinent witnessed exponential increase in acquisition and/or development of conventional aeroplanes as early as 1950s. Immediately after independence in 1947, both India and Pakistan started acquiring aeroplanes from the western nations viz, France, UK and USA. China too was busy acquiring vintage, but still airworthy variants of MiG family from the erstwhile USSR.

India took a giant leap in the sphere of producing indigenous fighter when the first home production, the HF-24 flew on 24th June, 1961. HF-24 was a twin engine, swept wing design fighter with power controls, which could fly at speeds in excess of 900 kmph, in spite of being relatively under powered keeping in view its overall weight. Notwithstanding numerous shortcomings/limitations, HF-24 raised quite a few eyebrows in the developed and militarily advanced nations viz USA and USSR. These nations considered entry of a third world nation in the exclusive domain of production of state of art fighter aeroplane as threat to their continued primacy, not only in the sphere of military aviation but also in the economic arena of military hardware export. Sale of military hardware has been and continues to remain the most prominent money churner for advanced nations viz USA, Russia, France and UK etc after the end of second world war.

By any standards, it was a crowning achievement of scientists and technicians of a fledgling nation within 14 years of getting independence in 1947. India was well on its way to become a formidable Air Power in South Asia. Three successive wars in 62, 65 and 71 changed the scenario of indigenous development of aeroplanes. Military and Political leadership led by less than informed bureaucrats decided for acquisition from foreign vendors. On the face of it, such option might not appear to be a wrong option because we needed military hardware, aeroplanes included, in large numbers almost immediately. Home production was in no position to meet the demands.  But what is incomprehensible is the fact that we deliberately opted to slow down and finally stop indigenous development, which is what we did by consigning HF-24 to museums in late seventies/early eighties.

HF-24 programme closure would perhaps rank as the worst ever  collective decision taken by Military (IAF in particular), Bureaucratic and Political leadership  against the national interests and Security. Without doubt foreign vendors must have popped the champagne to celebrate their unbridled primacy in the field of aeroplane manufacturing. Had we continued development of further variants, we would indeed have not only become self reliant in the field of aeroplane and associated technology manufacture but also become an Aerospace power in the 80s itself.

Perhaps our decision to discontinue the HF-24 programme was also influenced by an equally myopic decision by UK in opting to discontinue the TSR-2 development programme around the same time. Mr Duncan Sandys, a British Member of Parliament, was instrumental in discontinuance of TSR-2 development programme. The learned but ill-informed MP argued that due to advent of HEAT SEEKING Air-to-Air Missiles, the days of manned fighters were over. Rest is history.

An objective analysis would indicate that we are truly not an Aerospace Power. We have, as yet, not become a substantive Aerospace Power primarily because of two reasons. Firstly the lopsided and flawed Defence Procurement Policy and secondly, near total absence of any worthwhile R&D during the period 1960 till 1980s. Merely establishing defence laboratories and ordnance factories was not enough. Had we continued with the HF -24 programme and taken it to higher levels, we might have had indigenous force multipliers, fighter aeroplanes, heavy lift helicopters and transport, radars, SAMs etc of proven operational capability matching in performance with the best systems available.

A nation does not become Aerospace Power on borrowed (read imported) hardware. Nation’s Defence Establishment over the years comprising of Raksha Mantris, Defence Secrataries and Service Chiefs have not exerted themselves as they should have over the years. Euphoria of 1971 victory and almost self defeating decision by the then Prime Minister Smt Indira Gandhi to keep Defence portfolio with herself led to the “defence minister as PM” becoming inaccessible to the executives of the defence establishment. Everything  related to defence affairs slowed down. Her autocratic style of functioning made the matters even worse. Service Chiefs could hardly find the ears of the Raksha Mantri, the PM.

Ordnance Factories, most of these, have merely attained the status of money guzzlers with hardly anything to show for such massive infra-structure and investment in place. Ordnance Factory Board, the controlling apex organization has been worthless and has done immense dis-service to the nation. Most of these factories deserve to be shut down and an entirely new techno-management organization should be structured.

Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO) is yet another bureaucratic behemoth with nothing spectacular to its credit. All projects, without exception, have never met pre decided time lines. Even the quality of finished product continues to be questionable.

Indeed there has been a silver lining in an otherwise bleak military hardware development programme. The Surface to Surface Missile programme under civilian control led by our erstwhile President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam has become a world class SSM programme. We have already perfected technology to mass produce SSMs of 5,000km range. However we still have to perfect cryogenic engine technology.

Satellite fabrication technology has also achieved many landmarks. Our scientists have manufactured sensors installed on satellites for multi-dimensional use from weather monitoring, education, TV transmission, agricultural information etc. At the same time few of these could even monitor ballistic missile launch etc. It might appear to be irony of sorts; the SSM and Satellite development programmes have been totally civilian with hardly any military control. Indian military leadership, past and present, may like to ponder over this.

Our capability to produce force multipliers viz AEW/AWACS, Mid Air Refuellers, ECM Systems, Reliable Cryogenic Engines, SAMs etc remains woefully inadequate. What is worse is that it is not likely to be any better in foreseeable future.

Before entering into the domain of what constitutes an Aerospace Power, the difference between Air Power and Aerospace Power must be understood. Except in case of the erstwhile super powers, USA and USSR, almost all other nations have acquired air power components based on regional threat. Conventional Air Power comprises of three elements viz the Strike Element (fighter aeroplanes, Attack Helicopters etc), the Logistic Element (Transport aeroplanes, Helicopters etc) and Ground Based elements, viz Radars etc. A fourth element has been added in recent years in the form of Force Multipliers viz Mid Air Refuellers, AEW/AWACS, RPVs, Drones, SSMs etc. Relatively more expensive component of Air Power, the Strike Element has little or no use for the nation during peace time. Indeed it remains as the most effective deterrent as a FORCE IN BEING that must remain operational so that if the need arises it can be brought to bear upon the adversary almost instantaneously. Logistic Element of Air Power is the most important component during peace time. Aid to civil power becomes a major commitment during peace time and in times of natural calamity, civil disturbance etc.

Strike element of Indian Air Power has been used only twice during peace time. Once during the Nagaland crisis led by Phizo, when Mysteres were used for strafing the Naga rebels hideouts. Second occasion was during Goa operations, when Canberras were used for bombing.

Aerospace Power on the other hand has numerous other functions to support national requirements related directly to economic development and is constituted keeping in view the Global scenario. Other than support to Military, Aerospace Power contributes to following areas, which cannot be taken care of by conventional air power:-

  • Telecommunication
  • Academics
  • Tele-medicine
  • Cartography
  • Weather Monitoring
  • Monitoring Bio-diversity
  • Soil Conservation
  • Forestry Management
  • Land Cover for Wild Life Sanctuaries
  • Agricultural Produce Estimates
  • Flood Inundation Mapping

Thus Air Power is actually a constituent of Aerospace Power. Global militarization on a very large scale, induction of sophisticated weapons has led to an uneasy state of peace. The situation is almost akin to the cold war period when the two super powers could not risk to escalate tensions and wage a nuclear war. Consequences of such miscalculation were bound to be disastrous for the entire world. “Mutually Assured Destruction”, a term coined during the height of cold war is applicable in modern times more than ever before. Crippling damage can result even with conventional weapons.

Rapidly changing global world order, which has moved from conflict between nations to conflict based on ideology and religion coupled with misplaced/irrational beliefs of few nations about their right to interfere in  governance in the contiguous region. For instance birth of ISIS, Russia’s unilateral action in Ukraine and China’s continued attempt at throwing the gauntlet in South China Sea emerging as one of the foremost  maritime challenge after second world war. It is in this context that it becomes imperative that India move towards becoming a substantive Aerospace Power. But for that to translate into action, Indian leadership, both political and military, must adopt a doctrinal approach.

Hence in order to maintain primacy in the comity of nations in the international arena, nations have taken a conscious decision to become aerospace power rather than remain content from being a formidable Air Power. Primary constituents/capability of an aerospace power could be broadly termed as:-

  • Proven Launch Vehicle/s.
  • Outstanding expertise in Satellite Fabrication.
  • Development of Electro-optical Sensors.
  • Sustainable and Consistent rate of Satellite Production.
  • Development of Reusable Launch Vehicles.
  • Miniature Warheads: Conventional and Nuclear.
  • Advanced Metallurgy.
  • Ground Infra-structure viz monitoring/tracking stations etc.
  • Advanced Ground Testing Facilities.
  • Launch Pads.
  • Suitable Parking Slot/s for Geo-stationary Satellites.
  • Operationally Deployed BMEWS/BMD Systems.
  • Anti-satellite (ASAT) Weapons.

At this stage it would be pertinent to clarify that possession of launch vehicles, indigenous or imported and warheads alone does not qualify a nation from becoming an Aerospace Power. Indeed launch vehicle and warheads are two of the prime constituents of an Aerospace Power, but merely their presence not supported by capabilities listed above, does not make them an Aerospace power. Pakistan and North Korea would then be termed as an Aerospace Power.

Ballistic missile threat has become the most feared situation in the event of hostilities. Thus along with development of  strike capability by using ballistic missiles, nations have embarked on systems that would protect against a ballistic missile threat.  Hence nations have concentrated on developing Ballistic Missile Early Warning Systems (BMEWS) and a protective shield, the Ballistic Missile Defence Systems (BMDS). Efficacy of each of these will now be highlighted.

Famous US project/system codenamed STAR WARS was developed during the height of cold war. Operational capability/effectiveness of this system can be at best a matter of conjecture even as on date. Proposed European  Ballistic Missile Shield to protect against Ballistic Missile attacks is the latest system under development at cost of billions of dollars. BMEWS and BMDS, irrespective of their origin, have never been tested under operational (warlike) conditions, hence the degree of reliability claimed by systems manufacturers cannot be trusted.

What should ring alarm bells amongst the protagonists of BMEW/BMD is a recent update by Pentagon, wherein operational efficacy of THAAD, Aegis and Patriot Systems has been questioned. All tests involving destruction of an incoming  ballistic missile threat by all nations have been conducted in highly controlled environment, in which vital parameters  of the ‘enemy’ ballistic missile were already known viz launch window, likely trajectory etc, which will not be the case in an actual war scenario. Interceptor was ready for engagement. To elaborate further without going into technological details a ballistic missile threat can be neutralized only and only if the exact launch window, trajectory and probable target is known. In case of actual war scenario none of these parameters would ever be known.

Suffice to say that neither the existing BMEW/BMD systems nor the systems likely to be developed in foreseeable future, could be termed as fool proof that would provide assured protection against an incoming ballistic missile. Lessons learnt from anti-aircraft missiles (air to air and SAMs) kill capability would suffice to prove the likely effectiveness of the  BMD system/s for a successful intercept of an incoming ballistic missile with extremely small radar signature. Guaranteed protection is a far cry.

ICBMs deployed all over the world carry multiple warheads along with dummies that behave in exactly the same manner as a live warhead. There is no technology available to differentiate between the two. Further it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to  guarantee intercept during the ballistic phase, when radar signatures are feeble. A ballistic missile has most prominent heat signature during launch phase but the window of intercept during this phase is extremely narrow. Even if it was to be assumed that the missile shield will provide 100% guarantee of successful intercept, the fact remains that warhead will explode and  cause radio activity to spread not necessarily over the intended target. Exo-atmospheric interception would remain a better option as compared with endo-atmospheric intercept either during launch or re-entry phase.

Utopian thoughts such as making the world free of nuclear weapons will remain a distant dream. Nuclear tipped missiles will continue to remain on  top of the list of most devastating weapon systems against which there is/will be no assured protection. Launch vehicle capability will decide the distance to which the warhead could be hurled.

Possibility of an armed conflict between nations is slowly but surely receding. Unfortunately, however, there is no cause for mankind to rejoice because a far more dangerous and unpredictable power in form of radicals has emerged/is emerging all over the world. These groups have no international boundaries as exists between nations. Alignment of such extremist groups with rogue nations can translate into violence of gigantic proportions. If such extremist elements/organisations could get hold of a nuclear tipped ballistic missile system and/or sufficient quantities of fissile material from rogue nations having launch platforms and warheads, threat of nuclear tipped missile launch cannot be ruled out. No military strategist can even hazard a guess/predict the intended time/target for such cases. An organization like ISIS, which burns and beheads human beings with impunity can, rather will resort to such actions without  doubt.

In the prevailing geo-political scenario, India as an Aerospace Power should not only develop the above stated capabilities but also may have to re-examine the  “NO FIRST USE” policy with respect to use of nuclear weapons against a rogue nation/group. A rogue nation and/or group must be conveyed that should our national interests be threatened, we will not hesitate in carrying out a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Such resolve/policy would be a far better deterrent and protect our national interests rather than a ballistic missile shield. The age old principle of “Threat in being”  neutralized by  “Forces in being” is not applicable  in the case of rogue nations/groups.

Our stated policy of non-alignment has kept us out of any military alliance viz NATO, Warsaw Pact etc. However in reality we have had to concede ground to nations from which we import military hardware. In order to remain  truly non-aligned, a nation must be nearly self sufficient with respect to security issues. Unfortunately our myopic leadership and flawed acquisition/indigenous manufacturing policies over the years have made Indian Military entirely dependent on imported hardware. Nearly 80% of our military hardware is of Russian origin. Even the ammunition/missiles/bombs/PGMs etc are imported. In the recent years our shift to other nations viz France, Israel and USA has not been taken very kindly by the Russians. We continue to occupy the top position as the largest exporter of military hardware.

In strictest sense our non-aligned status remains on paper. The truth and harsh fact is that for our security needs we are and will continue to remain dependent on nations from which military hardware is imported viz Russia, USA, France, Israel etc. Selling of arms is the top money earner for any nation. Our position as arms exporter is perhaps at the bottom of the list, primarily because our inefficient and poorly managed defence industry.  Fortunately our diplomacy has been able to sustain our military posturing in the region. We, however, continue to remain at the “mercy” of military hardware exporting nations because of long term dependence on the exporting nation.  In spite of being an export oriented Air Power, a recent study published places IAF  seventh amongst top ten Air Powers in the world.

Creating, maintaining, sustaining and finally deploying the military assets define the national power. Overall power of a nation can be subdivided/classified as under:-

  • Military Power
  • Economic Power
  • Soft Power

Achieving top military/economic power status by India, even in Asia would be a difficult, if not impossible. However current economic growth and future projections as per IMF, our economy might double by 2020. To sustain unbridled national growth in all spheres, we must be ‘militarily’ strong. That can be achieved if we focus on attaining a top SOFT POWER status, which is possible.

It would neither be prudent nor technologically possible to bridge the yawning technological and manufacturing capability gap in the field of shipping, aeroplanes, weapons etc. The only option we have is to expand in the field of our strength, which are satellite manufacturing and launch vehicle design and production. We can safely move into the top echelons of Aerospace Powers by manufacturing and demonstrating that not only can we fabricate satellites embedded with suitable sensors for national applications but also have the satellite neutralization/destruction capability. Wasting time, effort and money in indigenous manufacture/imports to acquire BMEW/BMD systems will be counter productive.

The world today has become increasingly dependent on transponders embedded in satellites. Destroying few important functional satellites can virtually ‘blind’ the nation to which those satellites belonged. Deployed satellites are in different parking slots allotted to each nation in case of Geo-stationary satellites. Others are in Geo-synchronous orbit around the earth and many more in Molniya orbit. Thus orbit parameters of most of the satellites in orbit are known to everyone.

We must adopt a fundamentally different approach in acquiring Aerospace Power status. In that we must firstly aim to achieve fabrication of satellites embedded with sensors required towards national development thus becoming a prominent SOFT POWER. Currently transponders numbering around 200 are installed in various satellites of Indian origin. We need to increase this number to around 500 by 2020. Secondly, in order to maintain a viable, effective and strong deterrent we should focus on  satellite destruction capability of our adversaries, if and when the need arises. We can accomplish this within our existing technological  capability envelope. Nations are developing missiles to destroy satellites. Few nations have attempted it but success rate is unlikely to be high and/or guaranteed.

Position of all satellites in their respective orbits is known. As a concept, if a nation desires to destroy the satellite of her adversary, placing an explosive laden satellite in close proximity of intended target satellite and  exploding it would cripple the target satellite. Geo-stationary and Geo-synchronous satellites could be engaged with relative ease as compared to satellites in Molniya orbit. Engaging a satellite in Molniya orbit at/or near the perigee might be relatively more difficult than engaging it at the Apogee, when target satellite would be at the slowest speed in its orbit. Satellite destruction capability would have an adverse fall out as well. It will give rise to uncontrollable space debris, which would remain in orbit for years. Anti-satellite weapon development, viable economically and technically, therefore, is a distinct possibility and should be explored.

Anti missile weapon system will require extensive and highly advanced tracking infra-structure spread all over the world. Still guarantee for successful intercept cannot be assumed because each strike missile will have a different trajectory. Even if a small portion of the missile trajectory falls in no radar coverage area, chances of intercept would virtually be Zero. However in case of anti satellite system no such dilemma exists because satellite orbits are known since these are pre-designated.

Most nations, India included, which are involved in development of BMEW/BMD systems are actually influenced by US infatuation with ballistic missile defence shield and incurring huge amounts in procuring a non-functional and unreliable system. In order to influence other nations US strategists have successfully embarked on linking Nuclear Deterrence and Ballistic Missile Shield and have succeeded. An objective analysis would  reveal that development programme of Ballistic Missile Defence Systems was in fact a planned “Economic Weapon” against the erstwhile USSR to bleed it economically. Indeed the US succeeded in its plan beyond its wildest imagination. Each nation, individually as well as in a group, is spending (read wasting) huge amounts of money in developing a system that is bound to under perform under operational conditions. In a make believe world of ballistic missile defence systems, new technologies and systems are being sold to less than informed nations. All known/proclaimed ballistic missile defence systems are highly localized and their effectiveness against supersonic missiles with extremely small radar cross section is highly questionable notwithstanding various test results under controlled conditions.

A key component of Aerospace Power is development of Drone technology, both for surveillance and attack purposes. Our progress in this field has been tardy. Extensive and deliberate effort in R&D to develop high quality/capability drones must become one of our top priorities.

Budgetary support for R&D merits a total overhaul in our thinking so far. DRDO is assumed to be the sole proprietor of R&D. In order to retain our top class engineers from IITs, we must offer them better R&D facilities than USA to reduce/prevent the brain drain. At least 1% of the GDP must be allocated for R&D in diverse fields. R&D has been our weakest link in overall national development. While our software engineers rule the world but we have virtually nothing to show in the hardware domain. We cannot, should not and must not subjugate ourselves voluntarily to wear a tag of  a “Data-entry” nation. Unless we change our outlook towards investment in R&D, we as a nation would never become the global power that we can become.

For all or some of the above suggestions to fructify, we have to alter our thinking radically. Aerospace Power is not to be assumed as an extension of Air Power. In fact Air Power is one of the many constituents of Aerospace Power.  In short term Strike element of Air Power will continue to remain a formidable and most preferred option in the event almost instantaneous pre-emptive/retaliatory strike is required against an adversary. In long term Aerospace Power can be used to strike telling blow by destroying satellites belonging to adversary. During peace time Aerospace Power would contribute significantly to overall growth of the nation. Every component of Aerospace Power listed above has a definite function towards making us a potent Soft Power.


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