With announcement of Rafale as the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) next generation fighter, the “dogfight" among six of the world’s leading aircraft seems to have ended. However, those unfamiliar with weaponization strategies might wonder how countries decide upon any weapon system. Is it simply a matter of the best? If so, what is best?

The answer isn’t straightforward. The choice of a weapon system has less to do with specifics of its technical capabilities and more with imperatives of strategic doctrine. To understand this better, let’s start the journey from a lowly assault rifle rather than a sophisticated aerial platform such as a fighter jet.

Stephan Agostini/AFP

For example, accuracy over long ranges means the barrel will have to be long and the rate of fire cannot be high. This in turn makes the rifle unwieldy and suboptimal in a fierce firefight. If the rifle has to be sturdy with heavy munitions then it can’t be light and soldiers will tire before they enter battle.

Such complications exacerbate as weapon platforms get more complex. For instance, let’s consider the battle tank. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) designers were compelled to build heavier tanks because their theatres are limited in space and their tanks had to be heavily armoured to hold ground without ceding position. A lesson reinforced by the German blitzkrieg when France was overrun in a matter of days. Also, Nato countries have comparatively low manpower though they are better skilled and educated. Hence, tanks such as the British Chieftain and French Leclerc were designed upward of 55 tonnes, have high crew comfort and the crew is “dual traded", i.e. each member of the crew is expected to know more than just his own job, necessitating higher investments in training and retention.

The Soviets, however, relied on a much lighter and cheaper tank of the T54/55 series, because they could trade “time for space". The Soviet strategy was to let invaders enter deep into the Russian hinterland—a situation they could afford, primarily because of their strategic depth—and then hit the supply chains through encirclement and, of course, the assistance of “General" Winter. The “Warsaw" doctrine, therefore, catered to Russia’s strengths which are plentiful supply of conscripted manpower, manoeuvring space and the severe weather where sophisticated equipment had more chances of failure. These strategies are consistent with their assault rifles as well. While the West has relied on relatively sophisticated weapons such as the American M16, British FAL and the French Famas, the Soviets developed the cheap but reliable AK47 series.

The key to understanding these strategies is to appreciate that in combat, a weapon is never pitted against another weapon in purely technical terms. It is, instead, a combination of the technical prowess, soldier’s capabilities, terrain and the national doctrine which decides the optimum arraignment of weapon platforms. So, while a sophisticated Heckler and Koch rifle could be an ideal weapon for highly-trained special forces, a much cheaper and rugged AK47 is better suited for mass infantry attacks, though on a purely technical comparison, the Heckler would outgun the AK.

Fighter aircraft are sophisticated weapon platforms and, hence, their inter-linkage is far more complicated. Modern fighters are expected to perform “omniroles". They have to be highly manoeuvrable for “air-to-air" dogfights, possess heavy lift capability for tactical and strategic bombing, have long radius of action, be capable of operations from land and sea, etc. Their supply chain is even more complicated, especially for India, which has a wide and diverse area of geographical interest. Fighters need air refuelling, naval carriers, multi-weapon capability, an intricate web of radars, airborne warning and control system, sophisticated maintenance, repair and overhaul facilities and indigenous manufacturing to minimize external dependence.

They also need synchronization with other arms such as the army and navy. For, while IAF may pummel the enemy and establish air superiority, it is of little use unless armoured formations can rapidly exploit this hole and pour into enemy territory. And the latter’s ability to do that is contingent on their own modernization programme which depends on the country’s threat perceptions and mitigation strategy over the coming decades.

Viewed from this perspective, it is rarely the technical superiority of any single weapon system that matters. Instead, it is the complex “organization for battle" derived from strategic doctrine which serves as credible deterrence. And deterrence is what it must be—because as any soldier will affirm, war is an ironic game. The only winning move—is not to play.

Raghu Raman is an expert and a commentator on internal security.

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