Indian Air Force

Does IAF Really Need A Bomber? Pros & Cons

In 2022, former Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha sir said that India needs a strategic bomber, and it should be operated under “Strategic Forces Command”. In this article, we are going to take a look into this matter covering various aspects of this issue.

What Is a Strategic Bomber?

Pic Credit: SOFREP

Strategic Bomber is a medium to long-range Bomber designed to fly deep into enemy territory to drop a large number of air-to-ground weapons and to destroy strategic targets such as major infrastructure, warehouses, ammunition depots, factories, and military installations. These bombers can also be used for a nuclear strike. At the present USA, Russia, and China operate strategic bombers. The US is the sole country to operate stealth bombers, the B2 spirit, apart from this, the US also operates B1 Lancer and B52 Stratofortress. Russia operates Tu160, and Tu22M and China operate the H6 Bomber which is a licensed-built version of the Soviet Tu16 bomber.

History of IAF Operating Bombers

India operated three squadrons of American B24 liberators till 1968, which were left behind by the British. Apart from this IAF operated British Canberra which was commissioned into IAF in 1957, the bomber played important role in the 1965 and 1971 wars by conducting bombing raids on important positions. It also flew photo recon sorties in Kargil War and in fact once survived a missile hit. This bomber was retired in 2007 after rendering almost 5 decades of service.

Pic Credit: Wallpaper Abyss

Other than British Canberra IAF did not operate any other bombers, instead went for fighter bombers like MIG-27, MIG-23, and Jaguar. During the early 1970s shortly after the Bangladesh war, then Soviet defense minister “Admiral of the fleet (5-star rank equivalent to Field Marshal in the Army)  Sergei Gorshkov offered TU22 backfire bombers to the Indian Air force and he was so confident of the fact that IAF would buy this aircraft, he ordered a squadron of these aircraft to be painted in IAF roundels and station in airbase near Moscow so that it can be flown to India, but due to some unknown reasons, IAF rejected the offer.

Importance of Bomber in Past and Present

During World War 2 aerial bombing of Germany and Japan by American and British bombers like B17 and B29 played key roles in the war effort against the Axis powers. At the end of the war, B29 was used to drop the nuclear bomb on Japan. And after WW2, USA and USSR continued with their effort to develop bombers. At one time in the cold war USA Air force always had a B 52 in the air to retaliate in case of a soviet attack. But with the development of missiles like ICBM which could strike thousands of kilometers, the importance of bombers as platforms to deliver nukes, diminished. Nevertheless, the US continued working on advanced bombers like B2 and now B21 raiders to replace the B2

Considering the role and effectiveness of bombers in the present context many would argue that bombers are absolute since they have large RCS, and improvements in radar and tracking capability made modern Air defense systems very lethal. Another argument is the development of hypersonic missiles which have a very low rate of interception, would render these bombers obsolete in their role. Contrary to this many argue that bombers are now equipped with long-range stand-off weapons which can be fired from a stand-off distance, which is, outside the effective range of air defense systems. For eg B51 Stratofortress can fire Lockheed Martin AGM-158 joint air-to-surface stand-off missile.

Pic Credit: Wallpaper Flare

Adding to this many believe bomber doesn’t face much threat from air defense systems since they are sent only when fighters achieve complete air superiority over the striking region. But during the American invasion of Iraq, B1 lancer, B52 Stratofortress, and B2 were used for initial strikes against Iraq’s defenses. And they are escorted by fighters who protect them from enemy intercepting fighters. Thus the argument that bombers are obsolete is not entirely correct, moreover, the US, Russia, and China are developing stealth bombers that have small RCS.

Bombers are also used to project power, for example whenever a situation heats up in the Middle East US just conducts a fly-past of its bomber, just to signal that, we can strike you anytime anywhere. Russia sent its TU 160 bombers to Venezuela in a show of support for the Maduro government. We can say that bombers give you an unconventional edge both militarily and politically.

Due to this, Bomber still maintained its spot in Major Airforces around the world. Moreover, countries are now working on new bombers like the US with its new B21, Russia with its PAK-DA, and china with its new H20 to enhance their capability.

Also Read, Explained: Per Hour Operating Cost Of IAF’s Fighter Jets

Do IAF Need Bombers

Let us talk about the points that echos the need for bombers

• Considering the present geopolitical and threat perception emanating from china it’s imperative to have bombers.

• Chinese bombers have the range to strike major Indian cities and strategic targets, thus it compels us to have bombers to match the capabilities.

• It said that in the 1962 war IAF was deliberately kept out of war because China had IL-28 bombers which could strike Indian Cities. It had a psychological impact on the political leadership of that time.

• Other than this, large bombers have more power stockpiles for electronic warfare and to deploy directed energy weapons.

• Bombers can carry large numbers of air-launched anti-ship missiles which would strengthen our capability to dominate IOR

• BOMBER equipped with hypersonic weapons missile for eg Russian TU160 can hypersonic weapons (with a nuclear warhead) would be a deadly combination, this combination itself act as the biggest deterrent.

• Bombers can help India to take war deeper into enemy territory, says Air Marshal Anil Chopra(Retd) sir thus creating a huge psychological impact on its citizens and its political leadership.

Also Read, What If Indian Air Force Operates F-35?

Talking About The Cons of Operating a Bomber

  • First thing is, that bombers are costly to acquire, for eg each B1 lancer cost more than 200 million dollars. adding to this cost of setting up the required infrastructure for operating the bomber. Considering if IAF goes with one squadron of Tu160, it would cost us around 5.4 billion dollars, with 270 million per aircraft(data according to Wikipedia), here we are only talking about aircraft, not the associated infrastructure.
  • Second, Bombers are costly to maintain and operate. For Eg per hour operating cost of a B1 lancer is $61,000.
  • During the conflict, if a bomber goes down, it will be a huge blow to the morale of the forces.
  • In 2022, During Major General Samir Sinha’s memorial lecture, IAF Chief, Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhari sir said that bombers don’t have effective self-defense systems, and need fighter escorts, this is one of the main drawbacks that bombers have. Though bombers like B2 can often don’t require escort, we must remember that, a single B2 costs close to 1.5 to 2.0 billion dollars.
  • We have other options like ballistic missiles, Submarine-launched ballistic missiles, which can carry multiple nuclear warheads. We are developing long-range hypersonic weapons which ensure an effective nuclear deterrent.
  • There is no denying fact that bombers come with their inherent advantages and offer a lot when compared to other platforms, but we have to acknowledge the fact that this capability comes with a price.

Thus spending billions on bombers now, which we can’t afford(We can but that’s not the priority now), we should increase our capability in other domains such, as providing more nuclear-capable submarines to the navy both SSN’s and SSBN’s and enhancing the capability of our Strategic Forces Command. The only rationale why many advocate the need for bombers is that we don’t have the reach to strike Beijing, but in case of conflict and if it’s imperative to bomb the eastern part of China, then our SSBN and our Agni series missile will get the job done.

At present we have fighters that can act as bombers and can be used for bombing roles. Mirage 2000, Jaguar, Su30MKI, MiG29, etc can be used as bombers if needed. Even if IAF decides to buy bombers then, we are either left with US B1 lancer or Russian Tu160 or Tu22M.

Conclusion

Taking a view into the current requirements of IAF at present, IAF is in dire need of fighter aircraft, helicopters, AWACS, Refuelling aircraft, Armed and recon drones, and Air defense systems. Depleting fighter squadrons are a major cause of concern, if IAF goes ahead with MMRCA 2 then 114 fighters cost close to 17-18 billion dollars. Apart from this, processes are going on for the acquisition of LCH, LUH, C295 aircraft, and other combat drones. Considering all these, the chances of IAF going for bombers are slim, having said this, as our economy grows in the future and once all the primary requirements are adequately fulfilled, then we can think of getting bombers from friendly countries.

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Bheemanagouda M Patil

Hi, I'm Bheemanagouda Patil, currently I'm pursuing Mechanical Engineering (3rd year) from Dayanand Sagar College Of Engineering. I write on topics related defence and geopolitics.

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