Strategic Bomber for IAF

A trick question: What was the most decisive weapon of the Second World War? If your answer, as expected, is the atom bomb, you are wrong. It was the B-29 Superfortress bomber that delivered it. Without the plane, the A-Bomb would have been only a novelty. The flip side of this question is: What was the most egregious policy failure of Imperial Japan (besides the surprise raid on Pearl Harbour)? It was the delay in developing its Nakajima G10N Fugaku strategic bomber with the range to hit American island bases in the western Pacific and the US west coast early enough in the war to make some difference. Often, the means of delivery are as important as what’s delivered.

These historical thoughts were prompted by the statement of the new Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, who talked of his service achieving a “strategic” profile in terms of its ability to pull “expeditionary” missions. While the growing numbers in the inventory of C-17 and C-130J transport planes, and of aerial tankers able to extend the range of combat aircraft, make expeditionary actions easier to mount, such tasks in the past (Operation Cactus in the Maldives, Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka) were adequately managed with the old An-32s. The Raha statement revealed an eagerness to sidestep the traditional criterion — a fleet of bombers capable of long range attack — that distinguishes a strategic air force from a theatre-oriented one, such as the IAF.

How and why did the IAF, despite a palpable need, not become strategic? The fault lies in the natural shrivelling of missions beginning in the 1950s that accompanied the dimming of the strategic vision and the narrowing of the military focus, laughably, to Pakistan as main threat, and the quality of leaders helming the air force. The 1947 era of service brass, mostly Group Captain-Air Commodore rank officers fast-forwarded to the top, having loyally served the Raj and imbibed British ways of thinking, configured the service in the manner their old bosses had planned. It resulted in the IAF emerging as a creditable tactical force.

Short-legged fighter aircraft with a leavening of fighter-bombers became its calling card with the UK-built Lysanders, Tempests, and Spitfires of the 1940s replaced by the French Dassault Ouragans and Mystere-IVs, and the Hawker-Siddeley Hunters which, in turn, were succeeded by the Russian Mig-21s, MiG-23s, MiG-27s, MiG-29s, and the Su-30MKIs. The odd Western import during this latter phase — the Jaguar and Mirage 2000, were also only short to medium range aircraft. The only dedicated bomber the IAF ever acquired was the medium-range Canberra in the Sixties. But highlighting its limited operational mindset was the air force’s choice of the Folland Gnat, a local area air defence aircraft, for licence-production in the country.

It was different early on. When Jawaharlal Nehru’s government first approached the United States for arms aid in 1948, it was the war-tested B-25 Mitchell bomber which topped the procurement list. During the Second World War the Walchandnagar aircraft company (precursor to the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd), among other planes, built the B-24 Liberator bombers in Bangalore. Most of these aircraft were shipped back to Britain. But a significant number, which could have constituted an embryonic bomber component of the IAF, was deemed “surplus to the need” and deliberately destroyed by the departing British at the Maintenance Command in Kanpur by hoisting these aircraft, one by one, up by their tails to considerable height and dropping them nose down on the hard ground.

The IAF brass at the time — Subroto Mukherjee, M.M. Engineer, Arjan Singh, et al — did not protest against this dastardly deed by the British, apprise Nehru and the Indian government of the strategic cost of the loss of long range air power, and otherwise failed to prevent these wanton acts of sabotage. True to form, after the 1962 Himalayan military fiasco, the IAF sought not bombers able to reach distant Chinese targets as deterrent but the US F-104 for air defence, before settling on the MiG-21.

What showcased the IAF’s apparent institutional reluctance against transforming itself into a strategic force, however, was the decision by the Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal-led regime to reject in mid-1971 the Soviet offer of the Tu-22 Backfire strategic bomber. The reasons trotted out verged on the farcical.

As Wing Commander (later Air Marshal) C. V. Gole, member of the Air Marshal Sheodeo Singh Mission to Moscow and test pilot, who flew the Tu-22 informed me, he was appalled by the fact that he had to be winched up into the cockpit, and that the plane would have to takeoff from as far east as Bareilly to reach cruising altitude over Pakistan! (This and other episodes are detailed in my book ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’.) Evidently China didn’t figure in the threat perceptions of the Air Headquarters at the time, nor has it done so since then.

IAF’s doggedly defensive-tactical thinking married to theatre-level capabilities have ensured its minimal usefulness in crises and conflicts.

Forty years on, while China is bolstering its already strong strategic bomber fleet (of Xian H-6K aircraft) by buying off the production line of the most advanced Backfire, the Tu-22 M3, and prioritising the indigenous development of the four-engined, wing-shaped, H-18 strategic stealth bomber, IAF hopes its Su-30s assisted by aerial tankers will be a credible deterrent and counter against the Chinese bomber armada.

It will be prudent for the IAF, even at this late stage, to constitute a Bomber Command and cadre, lease ten or so Tu-160 Blackjacks from Moscow and, rather than the fifth-generation fighter, invest the Rs 35,000 crores in a programme jointly to design and produce with Russia the successor aircraft to the Blackjack — the PAK DA, which is expected to fly by 2025. I have long advocated acquisition of a bomber because, compared to strike fighters and ballistic and cruise missiles it has far more strategic utility, including in nuclear signalling, crisis stability, and escalation control. It is a conclusion also reached by a recent RAND report extolling the virtues of a new “penetrative bomber”.

[Published,7th February 2014 in New Indian Express, at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, Bangladesh, China military, Defence Industry, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian Ocean, Japan, Maldives, Military Acquisitions, Pakistan, Pakistan military, Relations with Russia, Russia, russian assistance, russian military, South Asia, Special Forces, Sri Lanka, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Technology transfer, United States, US., Weapons, Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Strategic Bomber for IAF

  1. Shaurya says:

    Love the out of box thinking here on PAK DA.

  2. Subhash Bhagwat says:

    I am not a member of the armed forces and hence can not comment on any aircraft’s quality. I am, however, a keen student of history and have some observations from that perspective to offer.

    In India, as in most democracies, the armed forces are subordinate to the elected government. What happened before, during and after partition had everything to do with the incapable civil rulers and little to do with the leadership of the armed forces. If anyone had imbibed the British attitude it was Jawaharlal Nehru, not Cariappa or Subroto Mukherjee. Does anyone really believe that Brigadier or Air Commodore level Indian officers could have stopped the British when Jawaharlal Nehru himself was unable or unwilling to resist Mountbatten? It is a well established fact that Nehru ignored open eyed counsel from Patel regarding China. Nehru couldn’t wait to speak for China’s entry into the UNSC, nor did he tell the Lok Sabha until well after Aksai Chin was taken by it. In fact, if we are at it we may as well ask who was responsible for putting Nehru in the leadership position over Patel? We really get to the roots of historic strategic blunders committed by India’s political leadership if we study history as it happened. Blaming the armed forces for blunders committed by the political leadership does a great disservice to the country because it deflects blame to those who give their lives for the country and obey democratic traditions.

    A recent report on how the U.S. is about to banish the A-10 ground support aircraft that has been most responsible for whatever war victories the United States have to show demonstrates that an array of political decisions influenced by aircraft manufacturers is behind such blunders. History tells us that wars are ultimately won on the ground. Strategic long distance bombers have a role and should be obtained but it presumes the existence of a political will to project power beyond immediate neighborhood. That will has been absent in India.

    Subhash Bhagwat

    On Thu, Feb 6, 2014 at 7:09 PM, Security Wise

    • The lack of political will to project Indian power beyond the subcontinent is the pet theme I have been bashing away at for, what, nearly three decades now! The point about bringing up the political leadership is precisely that w/o professional military advice, political leaders don’t act at all. Even Nehru would have benefitted from more strategic counsel from his Indian military chiefs — IAF and the navy had British chiefs of staff into the Fifties, but by 1958 all Services had been Indianized and one’d have expected a more forthcoming attitude from those hoisted into high positions in the military for no fault of their own, except seniority!

      • From KSanjeevan in email, reproduced below:
        Dear Mr Karnad.
        I think it was not the AVRO Lancaster but the B-24 LIberator which were refurbished by HAL.

    • Shaurya says:

      Bhagwat ji: Capabilities create options. Lack of options act as foreclosures, regardless of will. Best to separate capability development such as a strategic bomber and its use based on political will. Political will is a separate issue. The long and short of it, in the immediate future is to vote for Modi. Not that by itself it will solve all things, but just commenting on the immediate options available.

      An example of an institutionalized approach to capabilities are our nuclear assets, who’s use and development is governed by the Indian doctrine of NFU and MCD. The doctrine provides for an institutionalized use mechanism, NCA provides for command and control and the SFC provides dedicated and secure execution. I myself desire to see changes in NFU, MCD, NCA, SFC but the fact that they exist is an institutionalized asset. When faced with exigencies these institutionalized structures and forces, makes the political decision simple (grave maybe but simple) and transparent.

      Acquiring a squadron of strategic bombers and their regular practice rounds around the IOR and South China Seas, will send volumes of messages to all concerned and when needed an institutional option that everyone understands would have been made available. Yes, we need all the hypersonic and reusable missile platforms et al, but man think about being able to do the job of 10 Su-30’s at twice its range! Also, provides us with some great options, like launch ALCM (not just limited to one scrappy one from one au-30) and even ALBM’s? Once you make them stealthy – more aggressive options open up.

  3. Mr Sanjeevan,
    You are absolutely right. It was the B-24 Liberators that were assembled and refurbished in B’lore, and big number of these destroyed at Kanpur, as reported in his memoirs by the senior most Indian engineering officer at the time in IAF, Air Vice Marshal (Retd) Harjinder Singh. I’m making this correction in the above main blog.

  4. satyaki says:

    Bharat Sir,

    1. In today’s time, aren’t lumbering bombers big fat targets when trying to penetrate the airspace of any country with a credible air defense ? By credible air-defense, I mean a combination of effective fighter-interceptors and long range SAMs (S-300 and successors). China, for example has such a well developed air defense….

    2. Therefore, shouldn’t the A-V (and A-VI) be the top priority for the services (no credible defense against A-V like missiles for the foreseeable future) ?

    3. Over the long term, isn’t a SLBM the most desirable deterrent ? However, for it to be credible against PRC, it needs to allow the submarine to roam a vast stretch of the Indian Ocean. This means an 8000 km range with 4-6 MIRVs is what is needed. Very stringent for a SLBM. Will take us at least 10 years.

    4. In the mean time, bolstering land based forces with A-VI might be easier (if GoI pushes it, deployment should be possible in 5-8 years). However, A-VI is not an officially sanctioned project. Am I correct about this ?

    • Fat targets, yes, but not if these bbrs are stealthy, fly supersonic cruise and intercontinental distances! Besides, the strategic triad needs such a genuine bbr, not the make-do option provided by the Su-30s.

  5. Jason Unwin says:

    Great nations have great navies and air forces. India is on the right track with its navy obtaining aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. Long range strategic bombers helped the US in World War II and deterred the Former Soviet Union. If you want to deter China and Pakistan, you need to have a credible navy and air force. The Chinese just concluded an exercise in the Indian Ocean. They will be back and the aircraft on them are probably capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Long range striking ability against ships or enemy land targets would benefit India. The US is starting to move toward “Air Sea Battle with close cooperation between the US Navy and Air Force. Chinese “choke points” have been identified and could be exploited.

  6. Atul says:

    Strategic Bomber is a necessity, no doubt. However, as of today, the scarcity has started hitting even into the quantity and quality of key ingredients of India’s national defence. Army is critically short on artillery, Navy is frighteningly short on submarines and Air Force is dreadfully losing squadrons of fighters while inducting none. It would be mighty helpful if GoI could wake up from its long slumber and fill the critical gaps before it starts hurting the nation. The amount of money spent on imports, if used indigenously, can provide thousands of jobs to people while invigorating science and technology R&D.
    Philippines has already learnt the lesson of ignoring its national defence capability by losing Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal. Even Pacifist Japan has changed its track and initiated massive revisions in its outlook on national defence.
    India has all the money for mega dole projects and subsidies, for mega corruptions and for everything unnecessary while national defence waits and waits. It seems as if deliberately projects are either not sanctioned or delayed beyond its relevance so that in future, billions of dollars can be spent for weapon imports. Some examples would be delay in sanctioning AMCA project, FICV project, LPH project, Project 11536 and many more. The situation has become so bad that even the infantry rifle is being evaluated for import. Where are we going? Is there no vision, no decision-making, no honour left in MoD?

  7. sai says:

    You have made one more correction Mr Karnad – – the New Indian Exp piece was your original article in which you named the IAF Chief as SAHA instead of Raha (since it was at two places, it was not a typo)!!!

    • It was an inadvertent error all along, yes, not a typo. ACM Raha has been known to me since he was in the annual Strategic Nuclear Orientation Course in one of the early years when I conducted it under the aegis of the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies under HQrs, Integrated Command. The IAF PRO contacted me about this error. I admitted it and said I’d correct it in the blog text, which I have done.

  8. Sankalp Gurjar says:


    Isn’t Americans were unwilling to sell us F-104 in 1964 when Defence Minister YB Chavan meet McNamara?.. Apart from heavy criticism over the variety of aircrafts in IAF, they offered us F-6A SkyRay instead.

    Sankalp Gurjar

    • After the Soviet Union offered the MiG-21, the US, which until then had considered transferring only subsonic aircraft, was compelled to up its offer to the F-104G — publicly derided as the “widow maker”. The McConnell-Douglas F-6A Skyray was a naval, carier-based, supersonic fighter and couldn’t have fit in with India’s requirement, so not sure it was made available.

      • Sorry, but actually, the US did offer the subsonic F-6A to India after the 1962 War. It says so in my book — ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security’, page 281!

  9. Pratheesh Gopan says:

    Spot on. This article needs a much larger audience, so that it reaches the right ears.
    As many fellow ‘concerned’ civilians would agree, the lack of long range attack capability in IAF puzzles me. In particular, when PLA (China) has dedicated long range bomber squadrons (deploying its own home grown aircrafts). Also it is reported that China is developing its own long range stealth bomber on the lines of American B-2 Spirit. We, as a nation, should not live with our mistakes.
    No cost is too hign for national security. For the lack of a better option, we must partner Russia in the PAK-DA project (with our specified requirements)
    The issue raised by you through this article is of paramount importance to our national security and must be taken up with serious intentions by the current defense minister. My suggestion is that you need to write more on this subject, so that the nation is better informed.

  10. Shail says:

    Any guesses as to why Russia (developer) doesnt operate Bombers anymore? and has sold lines to China? Yes Sir Mr Karnad..any Guesses? Why isnt the US developing bombers anymore?

    • Incidentally, both the US and Russia have plans for new strategic bomber — the American NGB (New Generation Bomber) to replace the B-52s and B-1s, and the Russian Tu-PAK/DA, based on the Tu-160 Blackjack planform. Talking of combat aircraft they are, in fact, design-wise, tending towards bombers. See the report on ‘Trends on Air-to-Air Combat: Implications for Future Air Superiority’, a 2015 study by John Stillion for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, Washington, DC.

    • Parabin says:

      Russia does operate bombers

  11. Parabin says:

    Sir the political apathy seems to be fathomless. It caused Marut 1 not to be upgraded. And now what you have said is appalling. Performance of Indian scientists are in general, pathetic. India does not have good doctors with the notion to help. All these problems lie in one fact. We are not nationalists

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