A saying that was allegedly unpopular with fighter pilots is that there are only two types of pilots, those that drop bombs and those who support them. While fighter flying has attained a type of romantic image of the rakish cur with goggles and a devil-may-care attitude, the bomber has created a more sinister image of the grim reaper slicing armies with his scythe. Public perceptions of these roles in military aviation matter because ultimately it is the public who support, fund, or oppose decisions that affect the military. The relative paucity of serious literature or media on security decision-making in India has led to an explosion of theories, more fanciful than realistic, about what the future should hold for Indian military aviation in social media. The noise of social media filters into the most guarded environs of the military and leads to bizarre situations like the Air Force swearing by the venerable MiG-21 while dodging brickbats from the public about safety concerns. And while debate centers around the multirole fighter fleet, another less visible public demand is for the heavy, long-range bomber.
Here I will write about the issue of whether a long range bomber fleet in the IAF is necessary, feasible or desirable. The opinions are my own and I do believe that there will be differing perceptions on the issue. I will deal with the topic of heavy bombers under three subheadings: history, geography and mathematics.
The earliest dedicated heavy bombers matured during World War 2 resulting in classic designs such as the British Lancaster, and the American B-17, and the B-24 Liberator. However the US was in a quest for a really long-range bomber that could reach Europe from the continental US and return, and such a design became operational only after World War 2. This was the B-36 “Peacemaker”, a giant with six engines powering propellers and four jet engines known as “six turning, four burning”. This beast could stay in the air for over 40 hours and slotted perfectly into the cold war strategic plans that the US had of “keeping the peace” the world over by being able to reach any part of the world with B-36 “Peacemaker” aircraft carrying nuclear weapons. In this era of the late 1940s and early 1950s, there were no fighter aircraft or missile systems that could take down this aircraft so it ruled the skies for a while. Even as this aircraft was being replaced by Boeing’s B-52 Stratofortress, with an unmatched 15,000-kilometer range, the long-range bomber itself found its role shrinking. This was because Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) took over the role of deterrence by threat – their inaccuracy in that era being compensated by multi-megaton nuclear warheads that would make a 10 km CEP a trifling error. But long-range bombers remained popular among nuclear-armed nations during the cold war because of the fact that they could be kept in the air on continuous patrol, carrying nuclear warheads and did not have the disadvantage of ICBMs that could not be recalled after launch. In other words, long-range heavy bombers of that era were designed for nuclear delivery. The USSR too came up with its own long-range bomber designs for the same purpose, as did the UK with its V-bomber trio of Valiant, Victor, and Vulcan.
However several factors eroded the nuclear delivery role of these bombers further. The first was the development of missile armed supersonic high flying fighters that could shoot down these bombers. Third generation supersonic jets such as the MiG-21 Fishbed, Su-9 Fishpot, the F-102/F-106 Delta Dart and Dagger, and the British Lightning were all designed for this role, and after this development, heavy bombers could no longer stay safe when flying over hostile airspace, their reach was limited mainly to flying over the oceans and the Arctic ice cap, and delivering standoff weapons where available.
It was during the Vietnam war that the role of the heavy long-range bomber that had so far been relegated to nuclear delivery was converted back to the conventional bomb delivery role. This role changeover started a bombing campaign over North Vietnam in which millions of tons of bombs, mines, incendiaries, and defoliants were dropped on Vietnam. By this time effective surface-to-air missiles, namely the Soviet SA-2 (also known as the S-75 Dvina) had been developed, and they took a heavy toll on the US bomber fleet, making it clear that heavy bombers could no longer enjoy free and easy access over defended airspace. American B-52 bombers would fly thousands of kilometers over the sea from Guam only to get shot down over Vietnam. But by now the role of conventional bombing by long-range, heavy bombers had been re-established.
In an earlier era bombers had developed a reputation associated with the names of bombing proponents like “Bomber” Harris and Curtis LeMay. The rebirth of bombing by attacks on “commies” and “baddies” once again acquired a romantic, if murderous, reputation with descriptions like “Operation Rolling Thunder” for the bombing of Vietnam and “Highway of Death” for a bombing campaign over Iraq some decades later. These campaigns have caught popular imagination among some in India who wish to see India equipped with a long range heavy bomber force to achieve the perceived results of bombing campaigns of the past.
A critical question here is whether long-range, so-called “strategic” bombing actually achieved the results that it was supposed to achieve. A joke about surgeons goes that “the operation was successful but the patient died”. Unfortunately, the effect of conventional bombing using long-range heavy bombers seems to be similar. The widely publicized legends of “strategic” bombing to cripple German industries in World War 2 such as the “Dam Busters” raids on German Dams did not have their intended crippling effect, with German industrial production peaking in 1944, the year it was finally defeated. The story of Vietnam is well known. A greater tonnage of bombs was dropped on Vietnam than used in World War 2. Yet, it was the US, the force with strategic bombers that withdrew, defeated. And the famous Highway of Death in which over 300 Iraqi vehicles and untold numbers of personnel were trapped and systematically bombed was in the last days of the war, which had already been won. Still, there are supporters of a strategic bomber force who believe that bombers put far fewer personnel at risk using fewer bombers compared to the number of people involved in sending out fighter bombers to do the same job. Bombers, it is claimed, are good at putting pressure on dictators and despots. Both the US and Russia have maintained and updated long-range heavy bomber fleets, while China maintains a force of aged but effective modified Soviet Tu-16 “Badger” bombers.
The US, Russia, and China, all of which maintain fleets of heavy bombers have a vast stretch of ocean that bombers can fly over unimpeded before they approach their target nations. Although flight over hostile territory is risky, stand-off missiles fired from close to an adversary nation’s borders can penetrate deep into enemy territory to do their job. US bombers have the choice of flying unhindered over the Arctic towards Russia, or alternatively, they can overfly allied nations in Western Europe. For targets in the Far East, the US maintains bases in Guam, South Korea, and Okinawa, and there is an Indian Ocean base in Diego Garcia for Asian or African targets for US long-range bombers. The ocean offers uncontested airspace for anyone who has the capability to fly long distances over it. The Chinese regularly practice sending their Xian-6 bombers over the eastern seas. To the west, those bombers can fly in safe Chinese-controlled airspace over Tibet up to the borders with India. Even if they cannot enter Indian airspace unopposed, the Chinese can use cruise missiles launched from their bombers at Indian targets.
Using the experience of the above-mentioned nations, one could, as a mental exercise, plan a hypothetical long-range bomber fleet for India. Since fighter-bombers of the Su-30 MKI class can undertake missions up to 3000 km with refueling, a hypothetical Indian bomber should have an unrefuelled radius of about 5000 km. Enthusiasts frequently cast fond eyes towards the Russian Tu-22 bomber that seems to fit these requirements. From here the question arises, “What would India do with such a bomber?”
Other than Pakistan and China who are our neighbours, any distant target for India-based bombers would have to overfly hostile airspace over these countries and so the idea can be discarded as a non-starter. Targeting eastern China with bombers flying out of the Indian mainland is ruled out for the same reason. Indian bombers would have to fly 2500 km to the target and back over Chinese controlled territory, putting them at grave risk of being shot down long before they got anywhere near their intended targets. That leaves the eastern and western shores of India and the vast oceans beyond. A range of 5000 km would bring all of Southeast Asia within range, but in the short to medium term (10 to 15 years) India has no reason to target these nations with heavy bombers. That apart, all of them are within reach from an Andaman/Nicobar base. To the west, there is no great strategic imperative to target Madagascar, Somalia, Ethiopia or Kenya which would all be within reach of India’s hypothetical bomber fleet. Once again, an Indian base in Agalega island, north of Mauritius in the western Indian ocean puts many interesting areas within reach without a long range bomber force. Supersonic bombers are unsuitable for patrolling the seas, so their use in that role has little merit.
Doing the Math
Long-range bomber fleets are expensive assets, and doubly so if they are imported. Bombers, being considered strategic assets, are not freely available for purchase, and even after a hypothetical deal to acquire them, they would be subject to wartime sanctions by the seller nation. Advanced weaponry is not sold out of pity or altruism. There is always a quid pro quo in which the seller nation is able to exert pressure on the importer nation, usually at critical times when national security is under threat.
The counter argument to this is that bombers are necessary for strategic power projection and that cost considerations have, for too long been used to keep the Indian armed forces less than optimally equipped. India has a long history of surviving with sanctions and a quick deal to acquire bombers would greatly raise India’s status as a world power.
There is however a third way. If one were to step back and look at the long-range bomber from afar, it is easy to see that it is basically a large, multi-engine aircraft. An overwhelming proportion of large, multi-engine aircraft in the world are airliners for civil transport. Many bombers have, or have had civil versions based on the same airframe and power plants. India’s recently retired maritime patrol aircraft, the Tu-142 had a bomber version, the Tu-95 (Bear) as well as a civil airliner version, the Tu-114. The Chinese bomber that threatens India is a version of the Soviet Tu-16 Badger bomber. India has actually used the civil version of this very same aircraft – the Tu-104. The British Nimrod was a development of the Comet airliner. The armed and capable P8Is of the Indian Navy are based on the Boeing 737 which is itself the most popular civil airliner ever built.
Unfortunately, India has no experience or plan to build a large civil airliner. Admittedly – such a project is fraught with financial risk and explains why neither the Russians nor the Chinese have been able to offer serious commercial competition to Boeing and Airbus. But at least they have developed the infrastructure to enter the arena. The benefits and spin-offs of having an industry capable of designing and building a large multi-engine aircraft are immeasurable. The applications for such an airframe could not only give us the basic design for a long-range bomber and a civil airliner but variants such as military transport, aerial refuelling aircraft, maritime surveillance aircraft, AWACS and platforms for satellite launches, anti-satellite weapons, anti-ballistic missile weapons, zero weight training for astronauts and an engine test platform.
An investment in India using public and private partnership to develop and build a large multi-engine aircraft with its power plants would be a far better long term investment for the nation than a limited short term flushing of funds into the bottomless pit and permanent kowtowing under sanctions that could arise from importing some long range bomber for its imagined benefits. Money and effort thrown at developing a large multi-engine aircraft in India would not only be a good long term investment, but it would also be the first step towards building a long range bomber force if need be. May our nation have the foresight to do what is right, rather than what is convenient.
- No Room for Miracles. German Industrial Output in World War II Reassessed J. Adam Tooze, Geschichte und Gesellschaft, 31. Jahrg., H. 3, Südasien in der Welt (Jul. – Sep., 2005), pp. 439-464 (26 pages)
- When does Aerial Bombing work? Quantitative Empirical Tests, 1917-1999, https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/3176274.pdf
- Strategic Bombardment in Retrospect, Lee Kenett, Air Power History, Winter/1993
- Independent Bomber Force Review, https://fas.org/nuke/guide/usa/bomber/970000-ibr.htm
Author: Dr. Shiv Sastry. The Author is a retired surgeon with a long-term interest in military aviation. The views expressed are the author’s own.
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