In recent times, regional harmony is distressed, and disruption rules. At times, defense capability dominates; at other times, offensive capability dominates. This is noticeably the case in today’s arcane world of air warfare.
While much investment has gone into the improvement of infrastructure, education, health care, and so forth, the defense capability and air superiority stay behind -- as more powerful regional air force emerges as the technologically advanced air force, the operational environment is not standing still. The dynamics of air warfare change more quickly than the acquisition of new fighter jets 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.
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 everywhere in the world.
The game changer
The recent acquisition of plus fourth generation JF-17 block II and Su-30SME (Standardized, Modernized, 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 for 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 the Asian market in the near future -- they may even be sold to Myanmar Air Force.
Bangladesh Air Force needs to create a plan that enables them to continually acquire new fighter jets in small batches
The vulnerable BAF
The vulnerabilities in BAF will cost the nation dearly, unless we train pilots and introduce fifth-generation fighter jets soon.
It is evident that the BAF lacks air-superiority and ground attack capability. The alarming concern of Bangladesh is that the Bangladesh military, especially BAF, does not have an area denial strategy at all.
Commitment to national security
Bangladesh Air Force needs to create a plan that enables them to continually acquire new fighter jets in small batches, so that in the next 20-30 years, BAF can maintain its air capabilities.
BAF was so inactive in the past 20 years that Bangladesh government is financially stretched out at the moment to procure a large number of fighter jets.
It is beyond belief that BAF 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 enemies can take full advantages of her weak military capacity.
Area denial approach
The development of an integrated air defense system 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
BAF must learn the lesson dealing with an untrustworthy partner like the Russian Rosoboronexport, which desperately tried to dump MiG-35 fighter jet on Bangladesh through the manipulation of the cost of fighter jets 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
BAF is dragging its feet for too long to make up their mind -- while the skies become heavily contested. BAF needs to be restructured, and needs to carefully plan and develop practical strategic options to address this situation. No one else is going to rescue Bangladesh, not the People’s Republic of China, 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 itself in this situation, and they have to save themselves.
The truth of the matter is 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 have withdrawn Bangladesh’s GSP status 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 the policies being made in those countries do not directly affect the national security of Bangladesh.
Although the Chinese manufacturers are the most significant defense supplier of Bangladesh military, the Italian, Spanish, American, British, and German suppliers remain pivotal to the Bangladeshi military’s operational capabilities.
Peace is by choice. However, the battle is inflicted on Bangladesh by the neighbouring Myanmar.
Bangladesh is heading towards a conflict with Myanmar, whether Bangladeshis admit it 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. If Bangladesh does not adapt quickly and establish deterrence capabilities, then, soon, there will be millions of Rakhine, Karen, Kachin, and Shan ethnic minorities in Bangladesh.
Making a clear choice
The current options of Bangladesh are to modify defense 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 defense strategy is crucial right now to avoid conflict in the near future.
Even if the cost of acquisition of fighter jets is billions of dollars right now, it 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 a economic disaster for future generations.
Any conflict with Myanmar will ruin the vision of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which is for us to become a middle income economy by 2021. The point being made here is that spending a few billion dollars to maintain peace and deterrence is worthwhile, and it will avoid conflicts.
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 Southeast Asia and across the globe. Strategically, this alters 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 over-supplies of Chinese military hardware to Myanmar.
Significant changes to goal 2030
Currently, Bangladesh Air Force is facing doom.
What we can do is enhance current operational plans and future equipment programs, which means lowering other national projects to fund the defense of Bangladesh. Bangladesh goes to “air defense heavy” and acquires fewer fighter squadrons.
Any conflict with Myanmar will ruin the vision of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, which is for us to become a middle income economy by 2021
This option changes Bangladesh’s current capability development plans to stress air defense. 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 defense, changing fourth-generation plus fighter jet upgrade plans, and focusing on making airbases and national infrastructure more resilient.
Strategically, the “air defense 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
This option entails adjusting the current defense posture to focus on reconfiguring Bangladesh’s strike capability combining a fourth and a fifth-generation fighter jet to be efficient in contested airspace beyond 2030.
Bangladesh also lowers the cost of integrated air and missile defense. This applies to all of the elements that comprise the strike capabilities, not just the fourth and fifth generation fighter jets.
If Bangladesh wants to maintain a good strike capability in the future, Bangladesh needs to take positive steps to do so.
Air superiority 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.
Raihan Al-Beruni is a contractor and analyst for a global defense and security supplier based in Australia.