Contested Skies: Bangladesh Air Guard (Force) Uncertain Future

Burning Wreckage of Bangladesh Air Force Yak-130

Picture: Burning wrackage of Yak-130 of BAF

The Current Situation

In recent time, regional harmony is distressed and disruption rules. At times, defence capability dominates, at other times offensive capability dominates. This is noticeably so in today’s arcane world of air warfare.

While much investment has gone into the improvement of infrastructure, education, healthcare and so forth. The Defence capability and air superiority stay behind, with more powerful regional air force emerge as the technologically advanced air force, the operational environment is not standing still. The dynamics of air warfare changes so quickly than the acquisition of new fighter jet in an air force.

The contested skies

The skies of South-Asia and South-East Asia are increasingly contested by superior fighter jets of these regions supplied by China, Russia, the US and the EU.

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Emerging threats are making airborne tanker, airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft and even civilian aircraft more vulnerable, and the emergence of advanced anti-stealth surface-to-air missiles, stealth-fighter jet technology, long-range cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and even hobbyist drones are proliferating in everywhere of the world.

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The game changer

The recent acquisition of plus fourth generation JF-17 block II and Su-30SME (Standardised, Modernised, Export) fighter jets by neighbouring Myanmar poses a severe threat to Bangladesh’s national security.

The government of Bangladesh needs significant investment in air superiority capabilities, which would be a good starting point of Bangladesh Air Force to discuss the strategic impacts of known and emerging changes in the air superiority operational environment in this region.

The procurement of Su-30 is the beginning of new era in Myanmar Air Force. The Chinese-made J-31 and the Russian Su-57 will dominate Asian market near future even sold to Myanmar Air Force.

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The vulnerable Bangladesh Air Force

The vulnerabilities in Bangladesh Air Force will cost the nation dearly to train pilots and introduce fifth-generation fighter jet near future until Bangladesh Air Force introduces 4.5 generation fighter jet.

It is evident that the Bangladesh Air Force lacks air-superiority and ground attack capability. The alarming concern of Bangladesh is that the Bangladesh military especially Bangladesh Air Force does not have an area denial strategy at all.

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Commitment to the national security

Bangladesh Air Force needs to create a lifecycle plan to continually acquire new fighter jet in a small number so that next 20-30 years Bangladesh Air Force can maintain the capability. Bangladesh Air Force was so inactive in past 20 years that Bangladesh government is financially stretched out to procure a large number of fighter jets in recent time.

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It is beyond imagination that Bangladesh Air Force cannot carefully craft a tender and create a  challenging environment for vendors and suppliers so that Bangladesh can take advantage of the competition.

Bangladesh has to commit herself to national security otherwise Bangladesh might face serious conflict in the future as the enemies of Bangladesh can take full advantages of the weakness of military capabilities.

Area denial approach

The development of an integrated air defence systems covering vast areas are expensive, but at times like this, most countries have no choice but to endure the cost and establish an area denial strategy to deny airspace to the adversary.

The area denial approach implies a reduced dependency on the Air Force, perhaps lessening Bangladesh’s burdens while the rebuilding of strike capability slowly implies continuing to share the burden with the Army and Navy in major ‘must-win’ wars past 2030.

Engaging in Russian roulette

Bangladesh Air Force must learn the lesson dealing with an untrustworthy partner like the Russian Rosoboronexport who desperately tried to dump MiG-35 fighter jet to Bangladesh through the manipulation of the cost of fight jet in each segment of RFP to the recent MRCA tender.

The business strategy of the Rosoboronexport is simple, to place the prospective buyer in a contested situation where Rosoboronexport can fully exploit the buyer to rip them off financially and technologically.

Dragging the feet too long

Bangladesh Air Force is dragging their feet too long to make up their mind the skies are now heavily contested. Bangladesh Air Force needs to be restructured, carefully plan and develop practical strategic options to address this situation. No one else is going to rescue Bangladesh, not the Peoples Republic of China and nor the OIC.

Friendship to all and malice to none foreign policy does not apply to those who violate Bangladesh’s sovereignty. Bangladesh has placed themselves in this situation, and they have to save themselves.

Negativity about the US and the EU

There is a much contrary publication about the EU and the US in Bangladesh. The truth and the matter of fact are that the EU and the US have some consistency in their business strategies, not like the Russian roulette style business strategy.

The Obama administration would not withdraw GSP if the Bangladeshi government openly cooperated with the international community and accepted support from the US and the EU when Rana Plaza collapsed.

The western countries are the most significant export destination of Bangladeshi goods and services. Bangladesh’s export destination will not change regardless of who is ruling those countries and what policies are being made in those countries does not directly affect the national security of Bangladesh.

Although the Chinese manufacturers are the most significant defence supplier of Bangladesh military the Italian, Spanish, the US, the UK and German suppliers remain pivotal to Bangladesh military’s operational capabilities.

The peace is by choice, but the battle is inflicted

The peace is by choice. However, the battle is inflicted on Bangladesh by neighbouring Myanmar. Bangladesh is heading towards a conflict with Myanmar, whether Bangladeshis admit or not. Bangladeshi land, air and sea are already contested by the neighbouring countries.

It would be foolish not to admit the current situation and counter the future threats. Bangladesh does not become adept quickly and establishes deterrence capabilities then soon their will millions of Rakhine, Karen, Kachin and Shan ethnic minorities in Bangladesh.

Making of a clear choice

The current options of Bangladesh are to modify defence procurement plans. That may worry some, but strategic ends cannot be determined independently of the capability means. The two are interdependent.

It makes sense to discuss alternative ways to exit from the current situation that might reasonably bring strategic ends to the traditional security posture. The alignment of the defence strategy is crucial right now to avoid conflict near future.

Even if the cost of acquisition of fighter jets is billions of dollar right now, then this will maintain GDP growth of Bangladesh above 7% keeping the current trajectory, but any conflict with Myanmar will lead to a nosedive of GDP growth and economic disaster for the future generation.

Any conflict with Myanmar will ruin the vision of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to become a middle-income economy by 2021. The point being made here is that spending few billion dollars to maintain peace and deterrence is worthwhile and avoid the conflict altogether.

Bangladesh has three options. It is up to Bangladesh to choose one and carefully implement that option.

Join the Chinese domain:

This ‘back to the future’ approach implies abandoning the current policy as China rises and its sphere of influence expands to South-East Asia and globally. Strategically, this shifts Bangladesh from the long-term foreign policy “friendship with all and malice to none”.

While Bangladesh could contribute by providing a safe base area to the Chinese navy in any conflict in which the skies over the Bay of Bengal were seriously contested, this level of involvement would give Bangladesh much influence on overall allied strategy and oversupplies of Chinese military hardware to Myanmar.

Significant Changes in Forces Goal 2030: 

Currently, Bangladesh air force is facing a doom. Enhance current operational plans, and future equipment programs mean lowering other national projects to fund the defence of Bangladesh. Bangladesh goes to ‘air defence heavy’ and acquires less number of fighter squadrons.

This option changes Bangladesh current capability development plans to stress air defence. A start would include acquiring significant numbers of advanced surface-to-air missiles like HQ-16A or CAMM-ER and FD-2000 or Aster 30, and sensors for integrated air and missile defence, changing fourth-generation plus fighter jet upgrade plans and focusing on making airbases and national infrastructure more resilient.

Strategically, the ‘air defence heavy’ approach would allow Bangladesh to remain deeply engaged in Southeast Asia and make a meaningful, perhaps decisive contribution in times of serious conflict.

Because this approach is less reliant on external support, it would allow Bangladesh to mount independent operations in an area critical to Bangladesh’s sovereignty.

Rebuilding strike capability (best option):

This option entails adjusting the current defence posture to focus on reconfiguring Bangladesh’s strike capability combining forth and a fifth-generation fighter jet to be efficient in contested airspace beyond 2030.

Bangladesh also lowers the cost of integrated air and missile defence. This applies to all of the elements that comprise the strike capabilities, not just to the fourth and fifth generation fighter jets. If Bangladesh wants to maintain a good strike capability into the future, Bangladesh needs to take positive steps to do so.

Air superiority fighter may seem expensive, but it can have a significant impact on the range of strategies that can realistically be considered. To maintain peace and GDP growth of Bangladesh, it is time for a big air-superiority rethink.

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