India has signalled its intent to strike enemy targets with devastating force early on in a conflict.
In September 2010 India’s newly constituted tri-services Strategic Forces Command (SFC) submitted a proposal to the Defence Ministry for setting up two dedicated squadrons of aircraft comprising 40 Su-30MKI air dominance fighters. The task of this “mini air force” is to deliver nuclear weapons.
The picture became clearer in October 2012 when the Cabinet Committee on Security green lighted a programme to carry out structural and software modifications on 42 Su-30MKIs and acquire 216 air-launched BrahMos missiles. Until then, the BrahMos – the product of an India-Russia joint venture – was for exclusive use by the Navy.
In March 2015 the SFC received the first of these 42 Sukhois equipped with the air launched version of the supersonic BrahMos. This is the first time that the SFC, which at present depends on the Indian Air Force (IAF) for delivering nuclear weapons under its command, is acquiring its own aerial assets.
Currently, India’s nuclear delivery system is based on land-based ballistic missiles such as the Agni and Prithvi plus the IAF’s nuclear-capable Mirage 2000, Su-30 MKI and Jaguar fighter-bombers. The final element of the nuclear triad, submarine-launched missiles, is still being tested.
Individually, the Su-30 and BrahMos are powerful weapons. But when the world’s most capable fourth generation fighter is armed with a uniquely destructive cruise missile, together they are a dramatic force multiplier.
The BrahMos’ 3 km per second speed – literally faster than a bullet – means it hits the target with a huge amount of kinetic energy. In tests, the BrahMos has often cut warships in half and reduced ground targets to smithereens. The Sukhoi’s blistering speed will add extra launch momentum to the missile, plus the aircraft’s ability to penetrate hardened air defences means there is a greater chance for the pilot to deliver the missile on to its designated targets.
Considering that India’s primary enemy is Pakistan and that country’s chief backer is China, against which India has fought two conflicts – losing in 1962 and winning in 1967 – these two countries are the obvious targets.
Against Pakistan, the targets are obvious. A two-squadron attack using most of the SFC’s air assets can within minutes utterly cripple the country’s command and control centres; nuclear power plants, including the Kahuta ‘Death Star’ where the majority of the “Islamic” bombs are manufactured; the Sargodha Central Ammunition Depot west of Lahore where these warheads are stored; ballistic missile bases in Gujranwala, Okara, Multan, Jhang and Dera Nawab Shah; Pakistani Army Corp headquarters in Rawalpindi; the Karachi Port, Pakistani’s only major harbour and its Naval HQ; and ordinance factories that manufacture tanks and fighter aircraft.
The supersonic BrahMos armed with a conventional warhead can theoretically penetrate hardened command, control and communication centres. However, there is no guarantee these targets will be 100 per cent destroyed unless the BrahMos is nuclear tipped. A pre-emptive nuclear strike will therefore ensure that Pakistan’s offensive capability is effectively neutralised and it is never again a threat to India.
Against China, the Sukhoi-BrahMos one-two punch seems counter-intuitive as Chinese targets are located deep inland or on the coast. However, the Su-30MKI has a maximum range of 3000 km (extendable to 8000 km with in-flight refuelling). Now add the BrahMos’s 300 km reach and India can hit targets 3300 km inside China.
Why the Sukhoi-BrahMos option?
The Su-30MKI is an obvious choice. The SFC does not want untested fighters but the ones which can be relied upon to deliver nuclear-tipped missiles. The aircraft has a titanium airframe strong enough to fly a high-speed terrain following profile. The batch of 42 Sukhois will also have hardened electronic circuitry to shield them from the electromagnetic pulse of a nuclear blast.
Having a dedicated aircraft for the nuclear attack role offers India’s war planners strategic flexibility and increases the odds of success. Because ballistic missiles are used only as a weapon of last resort, they cannot really be deployed at will. Once released, they cannot be recalled and if shot down are not easily replaced. Fighter aircraft, on the other hand, can perform repeated sorties and be directed to bomb targets as they move. For instance, if Pakistan moves it warheads out of Sargodha depot, which is presumably under constant watch by Indian satellites, the Sukhois can be vectored against a column of Pakistani trucks transporting their nuclear cargo.
The SFC’s mini air force of 42 Sukhois can also launch their missiles against Pakistani targets from within Indian airspace or while flying over international waters, thereby complicating the enemy’s defences. It is a lot easier for India to destroy Pakistani war fighting capability because not only is Pakistan relatively smaller but it has also concentrated its defences in one province, Punjab.
Because heavy modifications were necessary for integrating such a heavy missile onto the Su-30MKI, initially it seemed to make little sense to deploy a single missile. Aviation Week reports that initially even Sukhoi was reluctant to go along. That prompted HAL to go solo, but Aviation Week says Sukhoi came on board in 2011. The Russian side provided HAL with technical consultancy especially for the modifications to the fuselage in order to accommodate the 9-metre-long missile.
“Work is also underway on a modified lighter and smaller-diameter version of the BrahMos for deployment on the Indian navy’s MiG-29K and, potentially, the Dassault Rafale,” says Aviation Week.
And signalling the country’s immunity from western sanctions, DRDO scientists say the 300 km cap on the missile’s range will be removed. The next generation BrahMos is likely to be a longer range weapon. And with the planned increased in speed, the missile will have considerably enhanced kinetic energy despite its smaller size optimised for relatively smaller aircraft such as the MiG-29.
That’s really bad news if you are in the Sukhoi-BrahMos crosshairs.