The Indian Ocean has become an area of geostrategic competition. As Australia is an Indian Ocean country, it is incumbent our national security community to understand the strategic and military dynamics of the region. The diverse air power capabilities within the region are an important aspect of those dynamics. Over a series of three posts, Peter Layton provides a starting point for readers to begin to understand Indian Ocean air power. In this first post of the series, Layton provides an overview of some of the capabilities of seven regional countries from Africa and Asia.

The Indian Ocean is changing. A new balance of power is emerging as India rises, China enters, and America begins focusing its efforts elsewhere. The old balance kept the peace, albeit sometimes by making war. The defining features of this new balance still need working out and, in this, Australia is vitally interested.

The balance of power term explicitly relates to military power and the most technical, individually destructive, and prestigious military power is air power. In recent years, Indian Ocean states have invested in enlarging and modernising their air forces, some to fight and win wars, others to enhance their status. This first of three posts undertakes a tour d’horizon of Indian Ocean air forces, initially looking at those at peace and then four at war.

On the western side of the Indian Ocean, most air forces comprise mainly air transport aircraft with a token obsolescent fighter force. The Kenyan Air Force operates upgraded American F-5 aircraft, Tanzania next door has Chinese J-7s (new build MiG-21s), while Mozambique has several old Soviet-era MiG-21s recently refurbished in Romania.

South Africa is the standout with its modest force of modern Swedish JAS-39 Grippens, a competent personnel training infrastructure, a small but capable export-oriented defence industrial base, and an innovative national science and technology organisation. The South African Air Force is suffering from spares shortages, reducing flying hours and a lack of investment in new equipment. Most of the South African Air Force’s budget now goes to personnel. Structural change is necessary together with reliable funding, which may come as the national economy recovers.

On the opposite side of the Indian Ocean are Malaysia and Indonesia. Malaysia has an eclectic mix of Russian, United States (US), and European aircraft, which includes a small Su-30 fighter force. A Light Combat Aircraft competition is underway assessing Pakistan’s JF-17 Thunder, India’s Tejas, South Korea’s FA-50 Golden Eagle, Russia’s YAK-130, and Italy’s M-346. The FA-50 may have an advantage in being in service with other ASEAN nations with its cost possibly offset through palm-oil barter options. In its own way, having three Asian-made options highlights the shift to the Asian Century now underway.

Indonesia has also used palm-oil barter in its most recent purchase of Russian Su-35S aircraft that will operate alongside Su-27, Su-30, and refurbished US F-16 Block 52 fighters.  More ambitiously Indonesia has joined as a 20% partner with South Korea in the development of KAI KFX/IFX 4.5-generation fighter. Indonesia has joint developer status and has integrated engineers into the project in South Korea. The first flight is set for 2021 with Indonesia initially acquiring 16 to enter service in the late 2020s.

Also bordering the Bay of Bengal are the air forces of Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. All are principally force structured for internal defence, although Bangladesh has aspirations to modernise its air defence capability by 2030, including replacing its aging Chinese J-7s and Russian MiG-29s.

The Indian Ocean air forces discussed so far are all peacetime-oriented, not so others in the Arabian Gulf and South Asia.

In the Gulf region, the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) now leads a major coalition effort that includes the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, and Bahrain air forces in a protracted war against a Houthi uprising in Yemen. The RSAF is very well-equipped with the modern US and European fighters employing precision-guided munitions. But the RSAF has so far been unable to translate its air dominance into victory over a now well-dispersed light infantry opponent. The initial battlefield air interdiction campaign was successful in supporting an amphibious assault on Aden and deep inland advances by friendly land forces. The air campaign, though, quickly ran out of significant military targets and adopted a coercion strategy attacking Yemen’s civilian infrastructure, trying to punish the Houthis and force them to disarm and leave the capital.

The RSAF operating in Yemen appears an effective air force at the tactical level, although air-to-air refuelling remains a noticeable gap. However, the RSAF has had difficulties at devising winning strategies, targeting in dynamic situations, intelligence support, and in applying the laws of armed conflict. In earlier Saudi wars, these higher-level headquarters functions were provided by the US, but in this war, the RSAF must provide for itself. Many Indian Ocean air forces are likely to have similar problems: competent tactically but deficient in operational level command and control, and so unable to realise their full combat potential.

In terms of future air power, the Houthi’s have responded in two significant areas. They have fired numerous ballistic missiles deep into Saudi Arabia requiring the Royal Saudi Air Defence Force (an independent Service in the kingdom) to deploy Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries for defence. Secondly, the Houthis have also launched numerous small drones in attacks against Saudi Arabia and UAE airports and oil industry infrastructure. While more than 140 of these commercially available low-technology drones have been shot down, they are proving a useful weapon. The Houthi’s drones and missiles highlight that countries can now have offensive air power capabilities without fielding manned aircraft and that such weapons are threats that Indian Ocean air forces need to consider seriously.

Nearby in South Asia, Pakistan operates some 450 combat aircraft of Chinese, US, and European origin, albeit about half are obsolescent. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is structured for a major war with India with a strong focus on national air defence and a lesser emphasis on-air support of land forces, including in counterinsurgency operations on the northern frontier. In recent years its ability to prevent intrusions into Pakistani airspace have been questioned. These intrusions though have been rare one-off events and arguably not representative of the PAF’s wartime capabilities. Even so, the PAF’s February 2019 armed intrusion into Indian airspace was operationally unimpressive saved only by shooting down a defending Indian fighter.

The PAF has a nuclear weapon delivery role reportedly using its US F-16 fighters. Pakistan though also has a comprehensive range of indigenously developed short and medium-range ballistic missiles, and medium-range cruise missiles operated by the Army Strategic Forces Command to strike airfield, port facilities, and critical military targets. These missiles can be fitted with conventional or nuclear warheads; Pakistan has around 150 nuclear weapons, increasing by about 15-20 each year.

The Indian Air Force (IAF), the PAF’s bête noire, must deter not just Pakistan but also an increasingly assertive China. China has built airbases in Tibet, meaning the IAF now faces the difficult prospect of a two-front war. The IAF has about 650 combat aircraft of mainly Russian or French origin. It is a well-balanced, highly capable air force that includes some 270 Su-30 fighters, airborne early warning (AEW), electronic warfare, and tanker aircraft. The IAF regularly exercises with major international air forces including at US Red Flag exercises and in 2018 at Australia’s Pitch Black. However, budget issues, a focus on problematic indigenous aircraft development, and a flawed acquisition system mean the IAF’s end-strength is gradually reducing.

The capabilities of the IAF were highlighted in the February 2019 raids on three insurgent training facilities in Pakistan and Pakistani Kashmir. The IAF launched a night raid in poor weather involving 18 Mirage 2000 strike aircraft dropping laser-guided bombs and the Spice imaging-guided weapon. In support were 4 Su-30s fighters for air defence, an Il-78 tanker, and an Embraer AEW aircraft with its indigenously developed air-surveillance radar. This was a complicated mission operationally, and tactically that fell short as the attacks apparently used inaccurate mapping data to program the Spice weapons.

Such a shortcoming highlights that modern air forces are very complicated systems of systems. A small failure can make a modern air force operationally ineffective. This is becoming more so with fifth-generation aircraft requiring much greater extensive mission support than ever before. Indian Ocean air forces that try to keep up with the leading edge of military aviation must now make sizeable investments in support systems, even if at the expense of buying more air combat aircraft.

In that, only three Indian Ocean states deploy globally significant air power: India, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. However, offstage US, Chinese, British and French air power await the call to intervene. The next post will discuss their Indian Ocean capabilities.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, a Senior Correspondent with WA DEFENCE REVIEW, and the author of the book Grand Strategy. This article was originally commissioned for, and published in, the WA Defence Review 2019 Annual Publication.