Nuclear deterrence remains a preoccupation with Indian strategic thought due to threat from hostile neighbours Pakistan and China, both possessing nuclear weapons.
Advances in satellite and rocket technologies have distended the definitional domain of ‘air power’ into ‘aerospace power’. In simple words, aerospace power signifies a nation’s capability to exploit air and space in support of its national objectives. A logical extension of this idea is the ability to deny or degrade a similar capability for the enemy. Aerial bombing of enemy targets with strategic value played a vital role during World War II; but the term ‘strategic bomber’ attained a new connotation as a currency of nuclear projection as part of a ‘triad’. Nuclear deterrence remains a preoccupation with Indian strategic thought due to threat from hostile neighbours Pakistan and China, both possessing nuclear weapons. While the nuclear factor inhibits full-scale war, the fact that both of these nations are inimical to us, renders conflict in the form of a limited war a possibility. The capability of using strike aircraft for bombing strategic targets over enemy territory is thus an essential element of aerospace power. Is this capability embodied in a strategic bomber and what is a strategic bomber?
Shifting Paradigms of ‘Strategic Bomber’
The B-17 could deliver huge payloads over Nazi Germany due to its massive range, but with the first atom bombs being airdropped at the end of World War II and the advent of the B-52, the sobriquet ‘strategic bomber’ acquired a refined nuance. More sophisticated strategic bombers like the B-1 and the B-2 emerged and added to the bombing muscle of NATO while the USSR produced matching bombers of the Tupolev family. These large bombers, besides their capability of carrying nuclear bombs, were also ‘strategic’ in another sense. The huge conventional payload they could carry and deliver in a concentrated manner, largely on targets deep inside enemy territory, but occasionally nearer to battle areas. However, due to remarkable advances in fighter aircraft technology and performance, there is a tectonic shift in the delineation between the bomber with its strategic connotation and the fighter aircraft which was till recently a tactical instrument of war. Today’s multi-role fighters, operating in suitable ensembles, can deliver clustered and concentrated, conventional but precision-guided weapons with the same strategic effect. Conversely, modern fighter aircraft, supported by air-to-air refuelling, can be used to deliver swift and efficient strikes on enemy strategic assets including nuclear missile bases. So is the classic strategic bomber a dying concept?
The Strategic Bomber Lives On
The answer to that question would appear to be in the negative, if ongoing developments in the leading, technologically advanced aerospace powers are any indication. In April this year, US Air Force’s B-52s were deployed in Qatar for air strikes against ISIS, the first mission being performed against an ISIS weapons storage facility. In August, B-52s, B-1s and B-2s were seen on the same tarmac at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, a unique occasion as the three types of strategic bombers were in US Pacific Command territory simultaneously for the first time ever. Although these deployments were not intended for use in anger and only as part of annual US South Korea war games, the message about the durability of the strategic bomber is loud and clear. Earlier, in March 2013, following increased tensions on the Korean Peninsula, a B-2 was flown all the way from the US to South Korea to drop an inert munition during a training exercise as a demonstration to North Korea of US bomber capability.
The latest and deadliest weapon system to be mounted on board a bomber (B-52H Stratofortress) is the Lockheed Martin AGM 158 joint air-to-surface stand-off missile (JASSM) which is a new long-range, radar-evading, stand-off cruise missile designed to destroy hostile air defences before aircraft are within range. This capability is typical of the new generation of precision guided weapons that is replacing the older dumb bombs carried by strategic bombers. While the B-52 entered service in 1955 and at least some of the type are expected to last into the 2040s, the B-1 was inducted in 1986 while the composite material stealth heavy B-2 was delivered to US Air Force in 1993. The B-1 and the B-2 are expected to go on even beyond the B-52 lifetime.
PAKISTAN’S LACK OF DEPTH DOES NOT INDICATE THE NEED FOR A STRATEGIC BOMBER TO DELIVER PAYLOADS AGAINST MOST OF ITS TARGETS
Meanwhile, the US, not content with the bombers on its inventory, is on the way to producing a more modern one exploiting all the leading edge technologies of stealth, power plants, airframe materials, avionics and precision guided weapons. The new strategic bomber is being developed by Northrop Grumman who competed and won the contract against Boeing last year, to meet the US Air Force’s perceived need for a longrange strike bomber (LRS-B). It will be called the B-21 Raider and is expected to enter active service around 2025. The initial order of 100 B-21s may be doubled as per some estimates as older B-52s and B-1s need replacement. Thus US will have the B-21s and B-2s (both Northrop designs) as the strategic bomber force. The nuclear capable bombers of the US serve under an integrated Air Force Global Space Command which has under it all nuclear bombers, nuclear missiles and personnel.
Russia has been working on the PAK-DA stealth bomber as a launch platform for strategic nuclear and conventional cruise missiles and a host of precision-guided munitions, including hypersonic missiles. The PAK-DA project was launched in 2009 with the intent of producing a single type of strategic bomber to replace the current Tu-160, Tu-95MS and Tu-22M3. It is expected to make its first flight sometime before 2021, with the first deliveries starting in 2023. In May last year, Russia announced plans to revive production of the Tu-160 Blackjack, which is similar to US B-1 and has nuclear capability. Introduced in 1980s, it is now being upgraded and ten copies of the new version Tu-160M are expected to be operational in 2020. Closer home, China last year disclosed its new generation H-6K strategic bomber equipped with the DH-20 landattack cruise missile.
Pakistan’s lack of depth does not indicate the need for a strategic bomber to deliver payloads against most of its targets. Of deeper concern to India are reports of China’s iterations about the need for it to have a long-range strategic bomber which the Chinese military defines as a strategic bomber capable of carrying more than ten tonnes of load to a minimum range of 8,000 km without refuelling. Some sections of governmentrun media talk of the military deeming PLAAF as a ‘strategic force’, a term previously used only in the context of People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF), formerly known as China’s Second Artillery Corps. Concomitant with this perception is the general notion that strategic bombers would be able to carry Chinese attacks to the ‘Second Island Chain’ which, incidentally, includes islands in East Pacific, including Guam (Andersen Air Force Base) which is US territory and one of the four US forward bomber bases. Moreover, Chinese iterations on its ongoing territorial dispute with India, its frequent transgressions into India, its militarisation of Tibet including an extensive road network and a railway line up to Lhasa with further sections being added, are all sobering thoughts which hold implicit warnings for us.
Will a strategic bomber help India? As far as nuclear deterrence goes, matching China’s numbers in strategic bombers and missiles would be an impossible task over the next decade or two. For conventional strategic bombing too, given the territorial vastness of China, the numbers required are mindboggling. However, given the fact that Chinese bombers can reach Indian cities, airports and military installations, the desirability of having strategic bombers capable of holding a similar threat for at least a proportion of Chinese target systems is undebatable.
Can India hope to develop a strategic bomber of its own in the future? The answer would be lost in the din already audible about the three lost decades for producing a partially satisfactory Tejas. Producing a much bigger aircraft the size of an airliner to deliver conventional and nuclear payloads would, even at most optimistic estimates predicated to ‘Make in India’ turning out to be an unadulterated success, take at least two decades. Meanwhile strategic imperatives implore the nation for a strategic bomber.
Indeed, for any big military power with perceived military antagonists, the strategic bomber is an attractive item to add to its inventory. However, before it checks out, a look at the price tag may have a sobering effect on its aspirations. While Pentagon is not giving out the exact cost of development and production of the B-21, some old figures which were bandied about during the build up to the B-21 contract last year suggest $550 million for each aircraft and a $21 billion cost of development. The total production cost is estimated at around $100 billion is so huge that there is heated debate even within US strategic and military forums about the advisability of proceeding with the programme. So if US is forced to rethink its strategic bomber, where do we stand?
We started out by asking a question about whether India needs a strategic bomber. The answer is a definite and loud ‘yes’. However, the answer to a supplementary question about the cost will starkly chastise us. India as a nation may want a strategic bomber and the Indian Air Force may need it to be reckoned as an aerospace power of some standing, but can India afford it? The answer, when weighed against the other priorities we have in meeting long-standing military deficiencies, is in the negative.