Does India really need a strategic bomber?

Tu-160 (Photo by Vitaly Kuzmin taken at the Moscow Victory Day Parade)

It has been a long debated issue whether India should consider a long range strategic bomber or not and once again this issue flared up recently when the former Indian Air Force Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha stated in a dialogue with Chanakya Forum that Indian strategic command forces needed a squadron of such bombers. The need for these has become more important as there are multiple roles that simply cannot be replicated with multirole aircraft like Rafale and Su-30MKI’s. However, a major question also arises that given the condition of Indian defence where IAF is not able to meet its basic requirement of combat aircraft; so, does having a “luxury” like strategic bombers make any sense? The modern active strategic bombers currently in service are Northrop Grumman B-2 sprit, Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, Rockwell B-1 Lancer with United States, Xian H-6 with China and Tupolev Tu-95, Tu-22M and Tu-160 with Russia. As of now only three nations, ie, US, Russia and China operate strategic bombers. Multiple futuristic bombers like B-21 Raider from US, Xian H-20 from China and Tu PAK-DA from Russia are under development with these featuring improved stealth characteristics and longer endurance.

Utility of Strategic bombers from Indian perspective

A strategic bomber is like an aircraft carrier of skies, it would give a similar increase in firepower and physiological impact as an aircraft carrier does to an enemy’s navy. The bomber that can be most likely operated by India in future is the Russian Tu-160 White Swan having a maximum range of 12,000 kms, ability to carry 45,000 kgs of weapon load and travel at 2.05 Mach (faster than multiple combat aircraft). The strategic bombers can perform multiple roles in general and can prove to be even more efficient from an Indian perspective as we are going to discuss in detail. 

Neutralising enemy air defence systems: The reason why we believe a quote from the distant past that “A bomber will always get through, no matters what defensive systems are used” is still valid today is because strategic bombers like Tu- 160 and B-1 Lancer can carry long range standoff weapons that can easily neutralise air defence systems as modern as they get. Hypothetically if a Tu-160 is modified to carry 10 air launched BrahMos missiles with extended range in future, it can easily release this payload from a safer distance and can rain a havoc over enemy SAM sites. The collapse of ADS can easily make way for other aerial assets or bombers to march quite deep into a country. A counter argument could be that enemy ADS can also be suppressed by ground based missile launchers, however it should be understood that the ground base launchers are stationary targets that are themselves under threat of enemy cruise missiles while relatively it is difficult to shoot or intercept a bomber which is constantly maneuvering and moving at speed of Mach-2 at a distance that is out of range of enemy SAMs. It should also be understood from Indian perspective that not every nation operates ADS as deadly as S-400s so it would make airspace of our western neighbors as a cakewalk, deep punitive strikes like Balakot could be done anytime without much consideration, while in regions like Ladakh the ADS either of China or India have reduced potential due to hilly terrain which creates line of sight issues and can drastically reduce effective combat range of ADS, the bombers on the other hand with advantage of height can make Chinese ADS even more vulnerable to strike.

The Indian Ocean region: If strategic bombers are procured then from Indian perspective they’ll find its most utility in the Indian Ocean region. The first Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Lt. Gen. David Deptula of USAF wrote in an air force magazine, “In a modern threat environment, especially in Asia Pacific region, the advantage of using bombers in a maritime strike role is becoming more relevant to future military strategies, plan and budget priorities”, he further emphasised on how bombers could strike mobile naval assets with precision in no time and at a less risk than what a naval warship would face. It should also be understood that once a naval warship had exhausted its weapon load, it would have to travel back to coast to get them refilled, the process could take days or even weeks depending on distance from shores while at same time the warship itself remains a potential target to offensive assets. On the other hand a bomber having supersonic speed with adequate range could reach at any point in Indian ocean region within hours and could deploy a devastating amount of warheads in a single sortie which would be enough to neutralise something as large as a carrier battle group, further even if it ran out of weapon load it could easily replenish it within hours and perform another combat sortie at a pace much faster than naval warships. The effectiveness of using such bombers for maritime purposes could be understood from the example of Russian Tu-22M Backfire bombers. They were the first bombers dedicated for maritime purposes and Russian tests revealed that its primary weapon Raduga Kh-22 cruise missile, when laden with 1000 kgs of warhead, created a hole 40 ft deep and 16 ft in diameter in naval vessels (we have also seen the footages of BrahMos doing even bigger damage). These kinds of impacts are enough to sink a number of aircraft carriers or at least decommission them for months. The authors of book called Soviet Air power by Bill Sweetman and Bill Gunston described Backfires as capable of “scaring the bejejus out of carrier groups”. Due to the excellent capability of strategic bombers to neutralize enemy’s ADS, it can also destroy enemy’s costal ADS, hence paving way for other naval assets to safely move in. A counter argument could be that when India which had already deployed a squadron of Su-30MKIs based in Thanjavur that are capable of carrying the long range standoff missile like BrahMos with its descent range, then what is the requirement of a strategic bomber for maritime purposes? It should be understood that Indian Air Force may not be always available to respond to Navy’s requirement in a momentary notice, a reason why even the Indian Army is raising its fleet of assault helicopters rather than being dependent on IAF. Even if we suppose that IAF is capable of responding quickly one should also understand that radar and avionics on IAF jets are not that efficient over water, there’s a whole different communication and software linking network between naval assets and naval aircraft which may not be that suitable for IAF aircraft. The maritime strike bombers would also be an adequate reply to Chinese Navy, which is today world’s largest navy with three active aircraft carriers and seven more planned in future. It would be impossible and unsuitable for India to ever think of ten aircraft carriers or even half of it. In such a case submarines are another alternative to counter increasing Chinese naval dominance, however a maritime strike bomber (although can’t replace submarines and warships) would emerge as an appropriate force multiplier at a fractional cost of an aircraft carrier or submarine.

Using Sukhoi-30MKI’s for bombing purposes

strong argument against strike bombers is provided by giving reason that the Su- 30MKI that is itself a long range heavy multirole aircraft can be used as a bomber due to its huge weapon carrying capability, ability to carry BrahMos A missiles and large internal fuel reserves giving it a decent combat range. It is indeed true that Su- 30MKIs could be used as tactical bombers but then it would be quite risky to do so and a waste of actual capability of aircraft. The Su-30MKI can carry only one BrahMos A missile, if we assume that somehow the missile fails to hit its target then the whole mission could fail, further with a weapon as bulky as BrahMos the flight characteristics of aircraft are also severely impacted that would make it difficult for aircraft to evade a surface to air or air to air missile by maneuvering if enemy retaliates. Even assuming that missile will hit the target, then considering an average Su-30 squadron and 70% availability rates, 14-15 aircraft would have to be in flyable condition which would be able to carry 14 BrahMos A missiles. Now given the capability of Tu-160, a single bomber can carry 10-12 BrahMos missiles after modifications.

Future perspective

The HAL Combat Air Teaming System comprises a set of UAVs, UCAV and a mother ship that controls all these systems, although variant of Tejas is planned as a mother ship, but something as mighty as strategic bombers can also work as mother ship with ability to deploy hundreds of mini UAV’s in no time. The weapons like hypersonic missiles and directed energy weapons will also require a platform able to carry mighty payload and is able to provide huge electrical power to support future systems, and a strike bomber fits perfect for that role.

Are strategic bombers an immediate requirement for India?

The increase in firepower that a long range strategic bomber brings with it is quite impressive, it would be not wrong to call a strategic bomber an aircraft carrier of the skies. It should be noted that currently there exist no immediate requirements for mission oriented aircraft like strategic bombers, instead the focus should be on at least completing basic requirements of Indian Air Force like AWACS, long stuck MMRCA for depleting fighter squadron and tanker aircraft. During the dissolution of USSR, India could have acquired a hundred Tu- 22M’s at a fractional cost as Moscow was wondering what to do with 300 surplus of these but India missed an opportunity while on the other hand China tried extensively to procure Blackjacks or even their design blueprints that clearly indicated their utility in future. It is indeed sure that someday or another, especially when China touches 5+ aircraft carrier mark, India will feel the need for a strategic bomber. The cost wouldn’t become a huge constraint when we are thinking from perspective of operating them by strategic command forces, further it would be better to import these bombers rather than indigenously manufacturing them because of the lack of technical knowhow, funds etc.

Tu-22M Backfire (Photo: Dmitry Terekhov)

By Pratisht Chaudhry (Twitter @Pratisht3)

Tag:- Rafale, Su-30MKI, IAF, Northrop Grumman B-2 sprit, Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, Rockwell B-1 Lancer, Xian H-6 , Tupolev Tu-95, Tu-22M, Tu-160, B-21 Raider Xian H-20, Tu PAK-DA, BrahMos, USAF, Indian Ocean region,