Air-Power Strategy and Ground Support Operations in High Altitude

K.R. Singh, Former Professor, JNU


Though air-power was seeking to find its rightful place in strategic thinking since World War I, it came of age only during World War II. Air-power strategy after the Second World War evolved primarily as a result of the contest between the two superpowers in the context of the Cold War at the global level. Since nuclear weapons, both strategic and tactical, had become the primary source of deterrence, air-power doctrine was bound to be influenced by this new variable. The new strategic thrust was thus superimposed upon the air-power experience of the Second World War.

Air-power was seen as the strategic arm to deter and if necessary to destroy the enemy. Initially, nuclear bombs and long-range bombers like B-47 and B-52 became the basis of the deterrence strategy. Soon, air-power entered the space age both in the context of long-range ICBMs and SLBMs and their spin-off in the form of various types of space-based satellites. Though missiles had emerged as the dominant arm of nuclear strategy, bombers continued to be an important part of the triad for the delivery of nuclear warheads. In the meanwhile, cruise missiles of various types like the American Regulus and the Soviet Shadok gave way to more sophisticated long-range cruise missiles like the Tomahawk.

Anyone who dominates the air and space can also dictate the battlefield. Hence, the concept of air superiority in the broader sense acquired an added meaning not only at the strategic but also at the tactical level. Aircraft as well as associated refinements in electronics and the spin-off in the shape of various types of precision-guided munitions with stand-off range were perfected over the years so as to ensure air superiority even at the tactical level. Developments in air superiority interceptor-fighters as well as long range sophisticated strike aircraft were guided by these requirements.

By the end of the seventies when global strategic deterrence had reached a functional stalemate, the question of war-fighting in Europe was discussed seriously under Air-Land Battle 2000. The concept of air superiority was thus seen in the context of the new requirements of neutralising not only the air power but also the ground-based combat capabilities, including the armour and air-defence systems, of the Warsaw Pact members well behind the immediate battle line.

The new doctrine not only demanded air superiority per se but also the capability to reach and destroy the adversary's rear bases several miles away. Thus, the strike role of air power, in the context of conventional weapons, acquired two distinct dimensions, long-range interdiction of high value targets against increasingly sophisticated ground based air defence systems, and air support on the front-line battle field per se. The two roles demanded separate platforms and weapon systems.

For interdiction behind the main battlefield the need was for an aircraft with the capability to fly long distances at low altitude while evading the defences of the enemy. It had to be armed with sophisticated air-to-surface missiles and other PGMs that could neutralise the target at one low level pass so as to reduce the time that the aircraft was exposed to hostile ground based air defence systems. Hence, high performance supersonic strike aircraft armed with different types of PGMs were the logical outcome of the Air-Land Battle 2000 air power requirements. British Tornado, American F-15/16/18, Soviet MiG-27 and French Mirage 2000 etc could qualify for that role. It should also be noted that some of these high performance aircraft, especially the French and the American aircraft, could also be fitted out as interceptor-fighters.

These high performance and hence costly aircraft were too valuable to be employed for ground attack roles in the front-line battlefield environment. That demand was met by designing two types of aircraft. The one was a robust fixed wing aircraft, often with two power plants, armed with cannons, rockets and guided missiles. The other was an assault helicopter. The best illustration of these fixed wing aircraft are the American A-10A/OA-10 Fairchild Republic Thunderbird and the Soviet (Russian) Sukhoi Su-25 Frogfoot. Probably both had been conceived of in the late seventies and both acquired operational capability in 1984. Over the years, both have undergone modifications and further upgrading to enable them to operate in increasingly hostile ground environment.

The Su-25 was tested in actual combat in Afghanistan in 1987-88 and is now employed in the Caucasus region in Chechnya. The A-10 was used very effectively by USA during the Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 as well as in the Balkans subsequently. Its success has prompted USA to revive 60 A-10 aircraft that were mothballed so as to keep the series in service till 2028 AD. At the moment US Air Force has 385 A-10 and OA-10 in operation.

The following features of these specially designed ground support aircraft deserve to be noted. Both have two power plants to ensure survivability. Both provide armour protection for the pilot and critical components. Both are capable of launching various types of PGMs besides unguided rockets and free fall bombs. They also carry 30 mm cannons. The A-10 is armed with a seven barrel 30 mm cannon. It has a magazine with 1,350 round capacity and dual firing rates of 2,100 rpm and 4,200 rpm. Both aircraft are highly manoeuverable with small turning radius and high thrust-to-weight ratio. Their combat speed is less than 400 knots which suits their role. As a precaution against SAMs they are equipped with chaff and flare dispensers besides the ECM pods.

Assault helicopters evolved under a different set of conditions. Battlefield experience in Vietnam probably prompted USA to take the lead in designing an assault helicopter dedicated to ground attack role. The bell Model 209 AH-IG/Q was a single engine close support and attack helicopter that first flew in 1965. Soon, various improved versions began to replace it. In 1980-83 AH-1W Super Cobra replaced the twin-turboshaft Sea Cobra favoured by the Marines. Super Cobra had a two member crew. The pilot was in the rear while the co-pilot/gunner was in the front. It could be armed with different types of machine guns, cannons, grenade launchers while pylons on sub-wings carried anti-tank guided missiles. Armour protection was provided for the pilots and important components.

The Soviet assault helicopter Mi-24 was not only armed with machine guns, rockets and anti-tank missiles but could also carry about eight soldiers besides the crew. Thus, it was conceptually different in design from the design of US assault helicopters. Mi-24 was larger than American or European assault helicopters. To reduce vulnerability to ground fire, steel and titanium were substituted for aluminium in critical components. As a result of combat experience in Afghanistan and subsequently in the Caucasus, the newly designed Russian assault helicopter, Ka-50 (Black Shark), is closer to the Western assault helicopters in concept, design and even weapons.

Though assault helicopters have several advantages, they are vulnerable at high altitude operations. The hovering of Mi-24 is about 7,200 feet. Effective ceiling of American or European assault helicopters is also reportedly to be between 8,000 to 10,000 feet. This exposes them to serious risks from man portable SAMs while operating in high mountain regions. An Indian transport helicopter (Mi-17), modified for strike role, was shot down by a SAM in the early phase of the Kargil operations.

While analysing the evolution of these above mentioned weapons and their platforms, it needs to be understood that they were an intrinsic part of the evolution of air power doctrine of the superpowers primarily in the context of the European battlefield. Thus, countries of the South had no choice or say in the development of these weapons. The best that was done to convert some trainers, both jet and turbo-prop, into ground attack role, especially for counter-insurgency operations (COIN). Today, these modified trainers, even the advance jet trainer (AJT), with their inbuilt limitations, will be an easy prey to the man portable SAMs that have become an accepted weapon of combatants trained to operate in small bands in inhospitable terrain.

Just as the air force of the states of the South were forced to acquire their weapons from the developed North, they also acquired, consciously or unconsciously, the associated air power thinking of the North, especially of the NATO. The success of the Israeli Air Force against the Arabs in the 1956, 1967 and 1973 wars and against Syria in the Bakaa Valley in the Lebanon in 1982 helped to buttress the validity of that doctrine even in the context of South-South confrontation. Air force of the medium powers of the South began to model themselves on the pattern of the West and began to acquire, at a very high cost, a mix of highly sophisticated interceptor-fighters as well as strike aircraft besides assault helicopters. Acquiring air superiority over the adversary thus became the primary if not the sole objective of their air power doctrine.

Well published versions of the so called success of air operations by the coalition forces against Iraq following the Kuwaiti crisis in 1990-91 added one more feather to the cap of air superiority enthusiasts. What was ignored was the great disparity between the contestants. While on paper, as per the data provided by the IISS Military Balance, Iraq had a formidable air force, the fact was that the Iraqi Air Force had failed to dominate the battlefield during the long-drawn Iraq-Iran War. Also, Iraq had failed to protect its air-space at the time of the Israeli air strike against the Osirak. Moreover, one does not need an expert to emphasise the wide gap that had existed between Iraq and the NATO members in the field of electronic warfare and use of PGMs.

Iraq had become the testing ground for the well rehearsed Air-Land Battle 2000 and the CENTCOM/RDF strategy but without the presence of sophisticated Soviet forces in the region. While experts had all praise for the success of air power during the nineties not only in Iraq but also in the Balkans, it is often ignored that the use of air power alone had failed to intimidate the regimes under attack. It was the actual ground attack or threat of ground operation coupled with air operation that forced them to accept a politico-military cease-fire. The indiscriminate use of air power, however, proved how devastating it could be for unarmed civilians.

Another fact that needs to be underlined is that this air power doctrine, and its associated weapon systems and tactics, were designed for a contest between large and well-equipped conventional forces in Europe. Consequently, one aspect of air operation was neglected while designing aircraft even for their strike role. It was the possibility of employment of air power against small but highly trained bands operating in dense and/or high mountains, especially if they were armed with man portable SAMs. Though these SAMs had become a part of infantry weapons since the early seventies and were successfully used against the Israeli aircraft in October 1973, they were not transferred to insurgents or guerillas till the middle of the eighties. Soviet Air Force was confronted with that challenge in Afghanistan after 1986. American Stinger, British Blow Pipe as well as various versions of SA-7 SAMs of Egyptian and Chinese origin were used by the mujahideen not only against the Soviet aircraft but also against the Afghan aircraft after Soviet forces had withdrawn from Afghanistan.

These SAMs put serious strains on pilots not only of helicopters but also of fixed wing aircraft. While it is relatively easy to avoid these short range infra-red guided missiles when high performance strike aircraft armed with PGMs are operating at low level; but it is difficult to face them while trying to locate and then attack small but highly trained bands in difficult terrain while loitering at relatively slow speed in the battle zone for a long period. In the Kargil sector one Indian MiG-21 that was trying to locate the pilot of a MiG-27 was shot down by a man portable SAM. Russian Su-24 and Su-25 were also shot down in October 1999 in Chechnya under similar conditions while flying at a lower altitude.

Air operations, in their more comprehensive details, in Afghanistan, the Caucasus as also the Balkans need to be studied more carefully, especially by a state like India that has to defend high mountains all along its northern frontiers. Just as Russia (Soviet Union) came face to face with the new tactical challenge to its air-power in Afghanistan and subsequently in the Caucasus region, Indians too were confronted with it during the sharp trans-border confrontation in the Drass-Kargil sector in the summer of 1999. India needs to evaluate the new challenge more carefully and evolve effective countermeasures. Kargil is no one time affair. There is no guarantee that Indian Air Force will not be required to intervene again and again in such air operations in high altitude regions along its northern frontier.

It is understood that these close support aircraft will be operating only under an effective air cover or else they will be an easy prey to the enemy fighters. Thus, they will face major threats primarily from ground-based air defence system. Since the 30-mm cannon, with which these close support aircraft are normally armed, will outrange in the attack role ground-based weapons like heavy machine guns and 20 or 23-mm cannons with which such bands can be equipped, real and effective threat can come primarily from man portable SAMs. These have an effective range of between 10,000 to 15,000 feet and can reach an altitude between 7,000 to 13,000 feet. The weight of the system is between 16 to 20 kg. Hence, they can be easily operated by a team of two even at high altitudes.

Over the years these missiles have been upgraded in several ways, especially in their range, size of the warhead and the mode of guidance. Generally, these missiles have infra-red (IR) guidance system though alternate modes of guidance are also employed. The older British Blow Pipe has command to line of sight guidance system. More recent British SAMs like Starburst and Starstreak have beam riding laser guidance. The Swedish RBS-70 is, however, a heavier system and its laser beam guidance system is supplemented with passive IR homing at the terminal end. This system, though more accurate, is too heavy to be man portable but once installed can be very effective against slow moving targets. Chinese are reportedly experimenting with radar guidance for their man portable SAMs.

There is no doubt that experts would be thinking of utilising other means like the acoustic guidance system or anti-radiation system for guiding short range SAMs as well. Thus, the "electronic armour" or countermeasures systems of the aircraft will have to take into account the possibility of threat to the aircraft from missiles that are likely to be guided by such diverse modes. Hence, countermeasure systems will be an important component of the ground-attack aircraft.

Identifying and locating the target will be of prime importance in a successful ground attack operation in inhospitable terrain, especially at high altitude. That leads one to seek ways and means to interface ground attack operations with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). While aircraft or even satellites equipped for reconnaissance will be useful, their roles need to be supplemented more effectively in day-to-day operations by a suitable aerial platform that can loiter over the area for a long period and which is equipped with various types of electronic equipments that can help locate and identify hostile elements even under adverse conditions (night or poor visibility) by using infra-red, low-light television technology etc and are capable of transmitting that information to the appropriate C41 centres at the tactical level.

In contrast to the Afghan conflict, in which USSR did not make use of UAVs against the mujahideen, UAVs have been used very extensively by the NATO forces during their military operations in the Balkans. Though USA lost a few of its UAVs, it earned valuable battlefield experience in the use of UAVs for command, control, communication, intelligence, surveillance and recovery of UAVs. It seems that contrary to the NATO forces, Russian forces have not made effective use of UAVs during operations in the Causasus. While Russia has combat tested its new assault helicopter (Ka-50) there are no reports that it has used its UAV like Tupolev Tu-141 Strizh. Su-24 MR aircraft reportedly provided the reconnaissance data. It must have been very inadequate. Probably use of UAVs would have acted as a force multiplier for Russia in these difficult operations.

Experience gained in these operations has proved that the normal modes of guidance or surveillance have their limitations, especially under adverse conditions.

Russians are reportedly developing millimeter-wave radar seeker as a mode of guidance for their air-to-surface missiles. USA is already using in its Gnat UAV a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) that can see details smaller than a baseball, or even footprints in soft terrain like sand or dust through the heaviest clouds in the darkest night. This UAV was reportedly used by the CIA in its diverse clandestine operations. USA has succeeded in reducing the weight of the SAR (dubbed Lynx) from its original 484 lb to 115 and proposes to slim it further to 100 lb for use in smaller UAVs like Prowler II. Another UAV that was extensively used by USA in the Balkans was the Predator. It was also equipped with SAR.

For effective use of UAVs it is essential to have some form of interface between them and the ground attack aircraft when they are deployed in operation. They cannot only help to guide the aircraft to the designated target more accurately but can also warn them if they come under attack from SAMs. UAVs will also help in assessing the effect of the attack. Thus UAVs will play a crucial role in ground attack operations, especially in high altitudes and under threat of SAM attack.

These battlefield conditions will, therefore, determine the capabilities of the UAVs needed for the task. While the sensors, electronic equipment and C4I system might remain the same as those used in UAVs operating at lower altitudes, those deployed for use in high mountains should be able to operate effectively at an altitude of about 30,000 feet. Kargil operations have shown that the threat of SAMs can be anticipated from persons located even at an altitude of 15,000 feet and above. A man portable SAM launched from that altitude can be expected to reach upto an altitude of 15,000 feet more. Thus the UAV, if it has to operate over the danger zone, for long periods, needs to be at the altitude of about 30,000 feet from the sea-level. Very few UAVs are designed to operate at that altitude.

As noted, most of these UAVs were designed to interface with operations on land at lower altitude. Hence service ceiling between 10,000 to 20,000 feet was considered more than adequate. Even the UAV Nishant that is to be produced in India has a maximum ceiling of about 13,000 feet. Hence, it is "non-usable" in the northern region where pickets are often located at even higher altitudes. No wonder, India has to acquire a few UAVs, reportedly from Israel, so as to monitor operations in the Kargil-Drass sector.

Not only India but other states too are proposing to have UAVs capable of operating at high altitudes. A mountainous state like Greece has a UAV, Sigma Nearchos, that has a maximum altitude of about 25,000 feet. Italy's UAV, Meteor Mirach 150, has a service ceiling of about 30,000 feet. Israel has two UAVs, Silver Arrow Hermes 1500 and IAI Hernon with a similar service ceiling. USA has a UAV designed to operate at very high altitude ranging from 45,000 to 70,000 feet. Russia, faced with a serious challenge in the Caucasus, might also be interested in a UAV with higher service ceiling. Indigenous development of a UAV capable of operating at higher altitude needs to be taken up seriously in India either on its own or in collaboration with other appropriate partners since it is inextricably linked to its ground operations at high altitude.

UAV and appropriate C4I system will remain inadequate unless India possesses an appropriate platform mounted with weapons that can help to neutralise the target with a minimum of risk to itself. Helicopters, even specially designed assault helicopters, will have to be ruled out because of the intrinsic limitations on service ceiling of a rotor-based flying machine. While they are excellent at lower altitudes where they can duck around small hills or even tall buildings, they will be totally exposed while attacking targets at high altitudes. Thus, the weapon platform has to be fixed wing aircraft.

Several such aircraft were designed or modified for ground attack role during World War II. Some of them were even armed with 37 mm or 40 mm cannon to provide heavy and well directed fire power against targets on the ground. In the fifties and the sixties, many jet fighter bombers like the Sabres and the Hunters could be used for that role. In fact, the Iraqi Air Force had extensively used the Hunters against the Kurdish Peshmarg operating in the mountains of Iraq. The Omani Air Force has used jet trainers modified for COIN role against guerillas in its mountain regions. It must, however, be remembered that most of these aircraft were optimised for operations under condition of good visibility. Also, at that time pilots did not have to face the threat of man portable SAMs while conducting their operations.

An aircraft optimised for ground attack role in an environment of SAM threat needs to have the following characteristics. It has to have two power plants, either jet or turboprop, for greater survivability in case an engine is damaged. It will need a crew of two; the pilot and the co-pilot/gunner. It will need armour protection for critical sectors. If it has to operate from forward semi prepared bases it has to have STOL capability. The aircraft has to be highly manoeuverable. Hence its power plant has to have a high thrust-to-weight ratio though its maximum speed need not be more than 450 to 500 km h.

The advantages of PGMs over free fall bombs or unguided rockets in strike role has been amply demonstrated since the Vietnam War. Consequently, modern high performance strike aircraft, both fixed wing and helicopters, are being increasingly armed with different types of PGMs. There is no doubt that they have amply demonstrated their accuracy and lethality in battlefield environment in the nineties. Yet, even rich states like the NATO members are now reassessing the heavy financial cost of these weapons. By a conservative estimate, the unit cost of anti-tank Hell-fire missile is about $40,000, of T.V. guided glide bomb (GBU-15) $200,000 and HARM (anti-radiation missile) $250,000. The Tomahawk cruise missile costs approximately $1.35 mm. It is obvious that a developing state like India, though it might possess some PGMs, cannot afford to be generous in the use of these very costly weapon systems, especially when the targets are not cost-effective. Consequently, an Indian aircraft dedicated to ground attack role will have to rely mainly upon cannon fire and unguided rockets supplement with selective use of PGMs. Hence, India will need to evolve a mix of more appropriate weapon delivery platform, UAV, C4I system and even effective cooperation with forces on the ground so as to make its operations cost-effective.

To be effective, air-to-surface missiles (ASMs) dedicated to ground attack role, can be guided by laser or radio command signal. Their effective range can be about 8 km. For greater effect the warhead (of about 50-60 kg) can have a proximity fuse designed to explode at about 50 feet distance from the ground. The warhead should comprise small bomblets of 3 kg each designed to explode at pre-determined intervals over a period of about two minutes. These bomblets that would be scattered over a wide area due to explosion of the warhead, would continue to explode intermittently for two minutes. It will not only force the adversary to take cover but also enable the aircraft to approach near enough so that it can direct its unguided rockets and cannons more accurately at the target and veer off before effective counter-measures in the shape of SAM attack can be launched.

In the absence of ASM, the attack will have to be launched with artillery support from the ground. Instead of the ASM and its multiple war-heads, the artillery fire from the ground can force the adversary to take cover and thus enable the strike aircraft to perform its task. But this will need very close cooperation between the two wings. It will also involve the question of "command" over the operation per se. Will such an aircraft, dedicated to ground support operations be under the control of the army or of the airforce? A better understanding of the operational constraints alone will help resolve such inter-services problems.

For a better chance of success as well as of survival of the aircraft, such attacks can be launched at night. Fire needed to heat bunkers located at high altitude at night will give their own infra-red signatures. Also, dark sky will provide added security against ground fire. To enable the aircraft to operate at night it has to be equipped with FLIR besides radar. Radiation suppression devices and magnesium flares will also add to the protection of the platform. For greater effect the attack can be launched by two aircraft acting in coordination.

At the moment India does not possess an aircraft suitable for the task. Hence, high performance strike aircraft like MiG-27 and Mirage 2000, and MiG-29 designed for air superiority role, were utilised to provide air support during the Kargil operations. Few countries manufacture aircraft optimised for such specialised roles. Even USA has stopped production of A10 and is only updating the A-10 aircraft kept as reserves. Russia has Su-25 but the aircraft is also too expensive. India has no option but to design an aircraft suited for its specific requirements either alone or in cooperation with others. Russia, faced with similar challenges in Central Asia and the Caucasus region could be induced to collaborate.

India has depended upon others far too long for its weapons. Hence, it had to make good with what was available in the international arms bazar. It is time that India begins to design weapons more appropriate to its requirements. It is not important if they are less sophisticated by so called international standards as long as they satisfy our national requirements. They can always be upgraded over the years.