The Rise of Airpower in the Indian Ocean Region: How Australia Should Respond

28 June 2020
Caption: Star Performer. A lone AP-3C Orion Maritime Patrol aircraft sits on the tarmac at RAAF Learmonth during Operation RESOLUTE. © Commonwealth of Australia.

Key Points:

  •  Throughout the last decade airpower has become an increasingly salient feature of geo-political competition throughout the Indian Ocean region.

  •  This trend has materialised in a number of Indian Ocean littoral states investing in the expansion and modernisation of their air forces.

  • Seen in tandem with militarisation on the land and sea domains, the intensifying strategic competition in the Indian Ocean region in the air adds another complex dimension to a theatre already riven by a host of regional and extra regional powers vying for influence and dominance.

  •  As a middle power that wields regional influence, Australia can play a constructive role in helping to diffuse tensions by promoting multilateral and pan-regional defence and security cooperation.
  • In particular, Australia should work in collaboration with regional partners to establish an aviation equivalent of the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium, and expand the use of RAAF Pearce in Western Australia to accommodate a broader training program involving the air forces of Indian Ocean littoral states. 

The Indian Ocean region is changing. A new balance of power is emerging as India rises, China enters and the United States begins concentrating its efforts elsewhere. 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.

An Ocean of Air Forces

On the western side of the Indian Ocean, most air forces comprise mainly transport aircraft and a token obsolescent fighter force. The Kenyan Air Force operates upgraded US F-5 aircraft, neighbour Tanzania has Chinese J-7s (new-build Mig-21s), while Mozambique has small number of Soviet-era Mig-21s recently refurbished in Romania.

South Africa is the standout with its modest force of modern Swedish JAS-39 Gripens, a competent personnel training infrastructure, a small but capable export-oriented defence industrial base and an innovative national science and technology organisation.

However, the South African Air Force is suffering from spares shortages, reduced flying hours and a lack of investment in new equipment. Most of the South African Air Force’s budget currently goes on 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 Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. The Republic of Singapore Air Forceoperates a range of advanced mainly US-sourced aircraft. The recent decision to buy some F-35 fighters for trial and evaluation continues its stress on keeping a qualitative edge.

The F-35 has specialised maintenance needs however, and is a data-hungry aircraft requiring considerable mission support; given constraints on personnel numbers, the Singapore Air Force may markedly expand outsourcing.

Malaysia has an eclectic mix of Russian, 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 countries with its cost possibly offset through palm oil barter options. Having three Asian-made fast jet options bidding highlights the shift to the Asian Century that is now underway.

Indonesia also used palm oil barter in its most recent purchase of 11 Russian Su-35 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 the KAI KFX/IFX 4.5 generation fighter.

Indonesia has joint developer status, and has integrated engineers into the project in South Korea. 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.

In the Gulf region the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) has previously led a coalition effort that included the UAE, Kuwaitiand Bahraini air forces in a protracted war against the Houthi uprising in Yemen. The RSAF is well-equipped with modern US and European fighters employing precision guided munitions, but has been unable to translate its air dominance into victory over a well-dispersed light infantry in Yemen.

The RSAF appears effective at the tactical level but has had difficulties at devising winning strategies, targeting in dynamic situations, intelligence support and in applying the laws of armed conflict. 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.

The Yemeni war has partly evolved into a proxy war with Iran which is supporting the Houthis. Iran remains a constant concern in the north-western Indian Ocean. The Iranian Air Force with its mix of aged US aircraft and more modern Russian fighters is beset by international sanctions and is capable of only limited offensive activities. Accordingly, Iran has invested heavily in developing a large ballistic missile force including developing missiles in-country with North Korean and Chinese assistance.

 India-Pakistan Rivalry

Nearby in South Asia, are the Indian Ocean’s other two large air forces. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) operates some 450 combat aircraft of Chinese, US and European origin albeit about half are obsolescent.

It is structured for a major war with India with a strong focus on national air defence and nuclear strike, with a lesser emphasis on air support of land forces, including in counter-insurgency operations on the northern frontier. In recent years the PAF’s ability to prevent intrusions into Pakistani airspace has 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 foray into Indian airspace earlier this year was operationally unimpressive saved only by shooting down a defending Indian fighter.

The PAF’s bête noire, the Indian Air Force (IAF), must deter not only Pakistan but also an increasingly assertive China. China has built air bases 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 the United States Air Force’s (USAF) Red Flag exercises and, in 2018, at Australia’s Pitch Black. However, budget issues, a stress on problematic indigenous aircraft development and a flawed acquisition system mean the IAF’s end-strength is gradually reducing.

The IAF’s capabilities 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 four 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 because the attacks on Balakot, in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, apparently used inaccurate mapping data to program the Spice weapons.

Such a deficiency highlights that modern air forces are very complicated systems of systems, with mission support a critical area to excel in. A small failure can make a modern air force operationally ineffective.

India has also made significant investments in naval aviation with three medium-sized carriers planned to be in service in the 2030s, ensuring one is always available for short-notice tasks. Equipped with about 20 MiG-29K aircraft the carriers would be useful for sea control purposes across the broader Indian Ocean and in air operations in permissive environments.

Extra-Regional Air Forces

Indian Ocean airpower involves more than just the littoral states. The US has been deeply engaged in the north-west Indian Ocean for several decades. There are major US bases in Bahrain, Diego Garcia, Djibouti, Kuwait and Qatar complemented by several bilateral arrangements with other Indian Ocean littoral states. The US can readily deploy significant airpower across the Indian Ocean.

American airpower can be sea or land-based. Three to four carrier battle groups are generally available for global deployment at short notice and in 2001-2002 three operated in the northern Indian Ocean supporting air operations into Afghanistan.

On land, the USAF can rapidly deploy into the Persian Gulf region large numbers of combat aircraft; some 400-500 were deployed there in 2001 although placing similar numbers elsewhere in the Indian Ocean region would be problematic.

Few large air bases are available and there are considerable access constraints imposed by many Indian Ocean countries. However, small numbers of unmanned Reaper drones have operated from bare bases and civilian airfields in northeast Africa to surveil and attack terrorist groups in Somalia and Yemen.

The central Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago has long been important for US regional and global air operations. The UK purchased the Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965, and over time resettled the local plantation workers elsewhere allowing the US airbase and port facilities to be established.

The UK-US agreement on basing expired in 2016, but the 20-year extension option was exercised. There is an ongoing dispute over the plantation workers displacement, and in February this year the International Court of Justice advised the islands should be returned to Mauritius.     

In contrast to the US, China faces some significant geographical challenges. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) must transit through the Malacca, Lombok or Sunda Straits. These natural chokepoints might be made impassable in time of crisis, especially Malacca Straits which is bordered by Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia, and India’s Andaman and Nicobar Islands. In recent years, China has moved military forces into the Indian Ocean for extended periods to be available at short notice if required.

China has established a naval base at Djibouti alongside those of the United States and France, and is now developing Gwadar in Pakistan into a major port and airfield complex. According to the Indian-owned Economic Times, in the next decade some 500,000 Chinese citizens might live in Gwadar protected by PLAN marines. Gwadar forms an important part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative in providing an Indian Ocean port connected to China by road through Pakistan.

A recent article in Gulf News Asia, indicated that Gwadar’s airfield may grow to be the largest in Pakistan, well able to support People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) deployments. This airfield would permit Chinese airpower to move into the north-west Indian Ocean quickly and easily. Highlighting this potential, in 2018 the PLAAF sent J-11B and J-10C fighters, JH-7 strike aircraft and K-500 AEW aircraft to Pakistan to train with the PAF in the largest-ever annual Shaheen exercise.

Gwadar’s development takes on extra importance as China develops its medium-sized aircraft carrier forces. Gwadar will offer a safe port to retire to in time of conflict, avoiding being trapped if the Malacca, Lombok or Sunda Straits are blocked.

The combination of PLAAF and PLAN forces operating from and through Gwadar would noticeably change the local balance of military power. Given China’s considerable dependence on Gulf oil and gas, being able to dampen any future instability in the north-western Indian Ocean region may increasingly be considered essential.

The United Kingdom retains useful air power access across the Gulf region and some parts of the Indian Ocean. The recent deployments to counter Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) suggest what the UK could offer in times of crisis.

In Operation Shader, 30 combat aircraft were deployed, supported by some 12 Airborne Electronic Warfare, tanker, electronic surveillance and transport aircraft. The new British Royal Navy carrier could provide additional air assets including, from 2023, two squadrons of 24 F-35B fighters.

While the UK owns Diego Garcia, as it is distant from the Indian Ocean littoral and mainly used as a transit airbase for Royal Air Force (RAF) forces moving eastwards. 

France is a long-term Indian Ocean resident with bases in the French territories of Réunion and Mayotte islands, and through agreements with Djibouti and in Abu Dhabi. While mainly naval oriented, these facilities allow France to introduce airpower deep into the region when necessary. Using its new A330 (KC-30A) tankers the French Air Force could deploy a squadron of Rafale fighters to Réunion Island within 24 hours.

Moreover, given adequate warning, France could also send a small carrier battle group able to operate some 18 Rafales to participate in US-led coalitions or conduct small independent actions.

For instance, in 2001 and 2019 respectively, a French aircraft carrier did just that, operating Super Étendards and Rafales in air strikes into Afghanistan and the Middle East. In the more recent air war against ISIS, the French Air Force deployed a comparable land-based force to the RAF’s, operating from airbases in the UAE and Jordan.

In noting naval air power, several Indian Ocean countries are developing submarine forces. Most seem intended for short-duration coastal operations against near neighbours but some could potentially interdict major international sea lines of communications.

In the three chokepoints mentioned earlier (the Malacca, Lombok and Sunda Straits), offensive anti-submarine warfare operations would be viable, but given the Indian Ocean’s great size, air power might otherwise be best employed protecting convoys transiting contested zones. Defensive assets however, are scarce. Only Australia and India operate P-8 maritime patrol aircraft although these could be supplemented by US Navy P-8s.

 Consequences for Australia

The major air force remaining is the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), for which the Indian Ocean has traditionally been second to the Pacific. This reflects that Australia has long perceived the Indian Ocean as being stabilised by others, first the British and now the US. 

Some consider that over time the US may substantially reduce its presence in the Indian Ocean, concentrate on Pacific-facing China, and leave Indian Ocean stability to littoral states, particularly India. Accordingly, Australia and the RAAF are looking afresh at the Indian Ocean.

The control of the Indian Ocean was last seriously contested in World War II when intruding German and Japanese warships and submarines sank considerable allied merchant shipping. In that conflict, the RAAF based small air defence and maritime strike forces in Western Australia to protect against possible Japanese carrier raids and to undertake anti-submarine patrols.

Late in the war, B-24 long-range bomber missions were flown from the Kimberley region against strategic targets in Java in support of the Borneo campaign. B-24 missions were also flown out of the Cocos Keeling Islands by RAF squadrons, and these flights ranged across Southeast Asia as far north as Thailand. Spitfire, Mosquito and Catalina aircraft were also then based at the Cocos Keeling Islands.

Today’s RAAF is a well-balanced force with many capabilities that would be useful across a range of possible future Indian Ocean air operations. The RAAF is in the midst of a major re-equipment program, with the introduction into service of 72 F-35A Lightning IIs and 12 P-8A Poseidons being of particular note.

The F-35 force should reach full operational capability in late 2023 and the P-8s in mid-2022. According to the air combat group commander, the RAAF’s most pressing current challenge is personnel. 

In regional terms, the small, well-equipped RAAF probably ranks about number three, behind the much larger IAF and RSAF. The Pakistani and Iranian Air forces are also numerically larger than the RAAF but operate many obsolescent aircraft, lack comprehensive all-weather and night capabilities, and have electronic warfare and stand-off weapon deficiencies. 

The RAAF’s broad capability balance allows it to undertake independent national air operations, however in higher end conflict contingencies it would generally operate as part of a larger coalition. Realistically, if such a coalition was not with the US, it would probably be with India. Yet, while Australia historically privileges military collaboration, India favours autonomy.

India’s reticence in inviting Australia to the Malabar maritime exercise reflects India’s traditional strategic wariness. This may be changing with an early sign being greater interaction between the IAF and the RAAF including the recent deployment of Su-30s to the annual Exercise Pitch Black in Darwin. Indian Air Force participation is now likely each year and opens up the possibility of a reciprocal activity to further deepen ties.

India has held several exercises with the RAF and USAF, Exercise Indradhanush and Exercise Cope India respectively.  While these were held in Gwalior south of New Delhi, in December 2019 Cope India will relocate to West Bengal. The RAAF could perhaps participate with Super Hornets and a KC-30A tanker, mirroring Indian participation in Pitch Black. Sending an E-7A Wedgetail AEW aircraft might also be appropriate.

Closer to Australia, new options are opening up as the RAAF introduces the Triton unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Operating from Cocos Keeling Islands, Christmas Island, RAAF Learmonth or RAAF Curtin the Triton could remain on station undertaking high altitude maritime surveillance in the Bay of Bengal or over the Sunda and Lombok Straits for long periods. The exact patrol time however depends on where the Tritons operate from. 

In broad terms, when flying from mainland bases compared to island bases, the Tritons lose about eight hours of on-station time. The most difficult case is Bay of Bengal air operations where a Triton can have about 12 hours on-task flying from Cocos Keeling, or only some four hours if flying from RAAF Learmonth. Given the RAAF is only buying seven Tritons, maximising their Indian Ocean maritime surveillance effectiveness through developing island deployment basing options seems sensible.   

Under Defence Project R8129 the Cocos Keeling runway is being widened and strengthened to allow P-8 operations but new facilities and infrastructure would be necessary to permit regular, on-going Triton flights.

This raises the issue of whether to invest in Cocos Keeling and/or Christmas Islands. Geographically both have strengths and weaknesses, but Cocos Keeling will be more adversely impacted by climate change due to sea level rises and more destructive tropical cyclones.

Developing appropriate infrastructure on the islands would also provide an opportunity to enhance Australia’s relationship with India. The Indian Navy’s P-8Is could occasionally deploy there for short-term maritime surveillance operations, perhaps operating in conjunction with RAAF P-8As, thereby enhancing interoperability and helping to develop the Australia-India relationship.

India has little capability to surveil that part of the Indian Ocean and in terms of India-China geo-strategic regional competition this is a noticeable gap.

Moving to the mainland, recent Defence White Papers have judged the likelihood of attacks on Australia as low. Nevertheless, there are geo-strategic changes underway and some argue risks to Australian security are increasing.

Prudence may dictate that these risks are managed just in case Australia’s national security situation deteriorates sharply. In such a scenario, airpower might broaden from being maritime surveillance focussed as it is during peacetime, to also including air defence, strike, AEW, air-to-air refuelling and air transport.

Defence of Australia’s North West

Accordingly, some upgrades are planned for the bare bases of RAAF Learmonth and Curtin. At Learmonth, the runway will be strengthened and lengthened and the fuel infrastructure upgraded to allow deployed KC-30A air-refuelling operations.

At Curtin, the asphalt pavement will be resurfaced and airfield lighting replaced. Both projects should be complete by mid-2022. A few years on from then, facilities at both bases will be upgraded to allow deployed F-35 operations and maintenance.

The two bare bases may also have an increasing role in terms of supporting future coalition air operations, in particular USAF long-range bombers and their accompanying air-to-air refuelling aircraft.

In times of crisis, such aircraft flying from the bases could range as far as the northern South China Sea. In times of peace, the bases offer additional training options that might augment the Australia-US Enhanced Air Cooperation program. While this program has focussed on RAAF bases Darwin and Tindal so far, as it develops further with longer and larger US Marine Corps and USAF deployments, it could potentially include air activities in the West, including short-term basing.

In terms of national defence, the internationally significant North West Shelf gas fields are among the most exposed of Australia’s major economic assets. The gas fields are inherently vulnerable to damage although their distance from possible threats provides them with some protection.

Submarine attack might be the most likely military threat, possibly countered by ADF anti-submarine warfare forces including RAAF P-8s deployed forward to RAAF Learmonth or Curtin. Less likely might be cruise missile attack, whether launched from hostile warships or long-range bombers. Such operations might be defended against through operating F-35A, F/A-18F, E-7A and KC-30A aircraft from Learmonth and Curtin.

There may also be concerns in times of high-end conflict about the liquified natural gas export tankers, especially those that supply Japan. These might be best safeguarded by routing them southwards around Australia and east of Papua New Guinea. In lesser crises, tanker protection through the Indonesian archipelago using convoys would be possible, although economically undesirable as delaying ships to form convoys is costly.

Future Options

Looking south, Australia has interests in Antarctica including with the Heard and McDonald Islands located in the extreme and remote southern Indian Ocean. Fisheries exploitation is steadily increasing there, suggesting a new role for the Triton UAV.

Operating out of RAAF Pearce, the aircraft could spend several hours on patrol overhead the islands monitoring foreign fishing activities. Given limited numbers, additional Tritons would need to be purchased if Southern Ocean fisheries surveillance developed into a major role. RAAF Pearce would also need further upgrading. 

In terms of building multilateral cooperation across Indian Ocean states, the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) offers a possible model. Some 32 countries attend a seminar style meeting every two years that involves the respective naval chiefs.

A comparable air symposium could be undertaken, perhaps initially focussing on areas of common interest such as flying safety, training, logistics and search and rescue, before later considering more difficult areas such as maritime surveillance information sharing.

In a more practical vein, many Indian Ocean air forces are quite small and have considerable trouble maintaining an indigenous aircrew training capability.  From a financial perspective it would be sensible to pool resources and undertake training at a single large facility. 

Australia already has such a suitable training capability at RAAF Pearce, that, with expansion, could provide pilot training for many of the smaller Indian Ocean air forces. Indeed, Singapore already uses Pearce for its pilot training, having done so since 1993. While being cost-effective, such pooled training would also help build relationships between Indian Ocean countries.

The Indian Ocean balance of power is changing and with it the importance of airpower. Air Forces across the region are steadily evolving becoming larger, more capable and more consequential.  This has significant implications for Australia, the country with the longest coastline in the Indian Ocean region.  Australian defence strategists and airpower thinkers need to take note.


*This article was first published in the WA DEFENCE REVIEW’s 2019 Annual Publication and can be viewed online here: https://wadefencereview.com.au/publication/

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are that of the author’s only and do not necessarily represent the views of WA DEFENCE REVIEW.