by Meinhaj Hussain
Pakistan and India. Two regional powers frequently at war, armed to the teeth, possessing nuclear weapons and with no end in sight to their mutual animosity. War in the Subcontinent today has very high stakes. But none higher than in their respective air arms. Given the importance of air combat to modern warfare, a crucial factor to analyze the outcome of any conflict between them becomes analyzing the viability of each air force. For wars today always begin in air combat, and the successor there often has Fate decide in its favor.
The Pakistan Air Force has traditionally been known as one of the most professional air forces in the world. But the 1990s was a tough decade for the PAF and much of their prestige was lost. Pakistan chose to invest in nuclear weapons and diverted resources there. Damaging sanctions against Pakistan also hurt the PAF more than any other armed service. Thus, a decade was lost and PAF was left behind.
The Indian Air Force meanwhile, found the 1990s most fruitful. They progressed in leaps and bounds as the Indian economy expanded, military equipment from the West and Russia opened up and the IAF started learning and incorporating Western standards of air combat. Yet there were times when India's political environment forced itself upon the IAF. Forced to wait for a local replacement for its MiG-21s that has been in development for over 20 years, and forced to abandon purchases because of political interference from within India, the IAF, on the turn of the century, found itself restrained.
Pakistan meanwhile gained momentum. Years of sanctions led to the development of a joint project with China - the JF-17. Unlike the Indian effort, this bore fruit quickly, under the able leadership of the PAF and astute decision making on the part of their military leader Musharraf. And after 9/11 the doors to Western equipment and military aid opened up again. But constant stalling plagued them such that little of concrete and operational value has been inducted. The PAF is nevertheless modernizing and by 2012 would have caught up with the IAF. With induction in numbers of JF-17s and J-10s by the end of 2009, the PAF will see the gap vis-à-vis the IAF close rapidly.
Yet in the Winter of 2008/2009, the PAF is half-made and the threat of war is thrust upon her. The PAF and IAF are on their highest alert as the IAF sees its last opportunity to break the PAF, and the PAF holds strong and refuses to back down. The vital question thus becomes what will happen if war broke out now. Today. Would the PAF collapse? Such a question cannot be answered without looking carefully at the assets and capabilities of both air forces.
The first salients we notice is that the IAF is far larger with about 740 combat aircraft versus the PAF's approximate 400 aircraft. We see that the IAF has over 100 FLANKERs that are modernized and top-rate against the PAF's handful of early block F-16As. The IAF fields BVR missiles in platforms ranging from the MiG-21 Bisons to the Su-30 MKI against a PAF which officially does not have BVRs.
Yet everything is not as it seems. What at first glance seems overwhelming odds against the PAF on closer examination, do not seem as overwhelming. For instance, the IAF has far lower serviceability of its aircraft. Their pilot training as evidenced by recent Red Flag exercises with the US is also not yet up to par with the PAF and their maintenance crews are not as diligent. Their mainly Russian/Soviet technology is generally less reliable and less effective than advertised and a large part of their fleet of MiG-21s and MiG-27s are outdated. PAF aircraft are either of Western stock or Chinese and are far more maintenance friendly. Pakistan has also been upgrading their aircraft massively and have incorporated a complex combination of technology from across the globe – from China to Brazil, from South Africa to the US. PAF also very likely has BVRs that are not advertised possibly of South African and Chinese origin. PAF pilot training is on par with the best in the world and its maintenance crews are trained on the level of Western maintenance crews. Lastly, fighting an air war over Pakistan gives the PAF a home advantage and makes their radar and SAM infrastructure very relevant.
IAF aircraft are mainly of Soviet/Russian origin and are not designed for long-term serviceability. The Soviets designed aircraft for mass production and on the view that combat aircraft would have short lives in a full scale conflict. As such, ease of maintenance was the last factor on their mind. Even the latest Indian acquisition of Russian aircraft, the Su-30 MKI is known for being highly maintenance intensive and extremely fragile. Modifications to the FLANKERs have made them even more difficult to maintain – an example being that IAF sometimes faces tire shortages because the increased tonnage of the Indian FLANKERs make their tires burn out more rapidly.
Indian maintenance crews are also not up to par – at least compared to Western air forces. The large number of IAF crashes is indicative of this with one of the highest rates amongst air forces of the world. What compounds this problem is the age of large sections of the Indian fleet which has large numbers of MiG-21s and MiG-27s that are, besides the Bisons, highly outdated and are sometimes referred to as “Flying Coffins” by their pilots. It is no wonder that India has a hard time recruiting and retaining pilots.
Pakistan on the other hand has no problems recruiting pilots, the PAF has one of the highest rejection rates amongst air forces in the world. The PAF also has a better pilot to aircaft ratio than the IAF meaning it could sustain a greater sortie rate over a protracted conflict. PAF aircraft are also “pimped” in that they have been extensively modified. Thus, while on paper PAF is flying ancient Mirages that were bought second hand from the Australians, when one actually examines any such model, one is surprised at how extensively they have been rebuilt – almost from scratch and the hardware is extremely lethal. Other than the secretive BVR AAMs, the PAF has extensively incorporated the strike element into its Mirages, at a level only matched by the IAF’s Mirage-2000s and Su-30 FLANKERs and even then some of the equipment has no IAF equivalent.
Let us also remember than any conflict between the two forces would last a maximum of 2 weeks as neither side has the logistics or the political will to fight a longer war. This means that the smaller air force can sustain itself on a more equal footing for the briefer period of time. Another issue is that the IAF’s fleet of MiG-21s are very short legged. the PAF’s F-7s have better ranges and also don’t need to fly as far given that they would be defending. Considering how large the IAF’s fleet of MiG-21, this becomes a rather relevant point. It would be hard to imagine IAF’s MiG-21s being able to sustain a presence over Pakistani airspace. Meanwhile, Pakistani cruise missiles and ballistic missiles are significantly more developed, effective and numerous than their Indian counterparts. This means that many of the forward Indian air bases would effectively be discounted further compounding the problem for the IAF.
All these factors suggest a far more complex and mixed picture of the balance between the two air forces. To quantify military power in a more concrete way and to see how this balance plays out, let us look at a model of the PAF and the IAF. We can consider three main elements - number of aircraft, how valuable each aircraft is in battle and aircraft serviceability. We have the number of aircraft as a given. We assign percentages for serviceability, and assign a value between 0 and 1 for how effective each aircraft is. To get a broadly accurate picture, these numbers do not have to be absolutely accurate, but relatively accurate. The Table below illustrates this model:
We find the aggregate combat value by multiplying each of the factors and the number of aircraft. As you notice, I have not included factors such as home advantage to the PAF, PAF’s higher pilot ratio or PAF’s better training. I have also not included the short-legged nature of the MiG-21s and India’s likely inability to lose (or risk not losing) their forward air bases effectively rendering them non-operational. These factors are more intrinsic and are harder to quantify so I will leave the reader to judge by how much to upgrade the PAF’s score on these parameters, or discount the IAF’s.
I am assuming that Air-to-Ground capabilities will also be an important aspect as destroying enemy aircraft on the ground or important installations is a significant element of the air war. I therefore am holding higher numbers of effectiveness for aircraft on both sides that otherwise would be completely redundant such as the IAF MiG-27. Of course, Air-to-Air is more important generally but strike missions should also be considered relevant. As such the model is only moderately biased towards air-to-air capabilities.
It would appear that the IAF is still the superior force. And while accounting for the exogenous items in this model would further lower the gap than the massive 39% gap shown in the table, depending on how it is discounted it is still decidedly in India’s favor. However given the short nature of any conflict between India and Pakistan the gap does not lend credibility to India attaining air superiority over Pakistan under any scenario as could be concluded if we took the 82% gap in numbers. I believe that the gap has to at least be 100% to have a reasonable chance of achieving air superiority over Pakistan. Nevertheless, the PAF would likely sustain significant causalities but would be able to deny the IAF any semblance of air superiority over Pakistan, at least for any conflict lasting up to a few weeks. As long as the PAF can deny the IAF air superiority it can be considered to have done its job and would be ready to pick the pieces up from where it left it in the last conflict over Kargil.