On 2 July, the Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat scored a self-goal when he publicly aired his views on the role of air power. Speaking at a webinar, he said: “Do not forget that Air Force continues to remain a supporting arm to the armed forces, just as artillery support or the engineer support the combatant arms in the Army.”
In one sentence, he flew in the face of the experience of over 100 years of application of air power in war fighting, and publicly “endorsed” the reservations of the Indian Air Force (IAF), albeit inadvertently, with respect to his proposed model of tri-Service integration and theatre commands. Consequently, the Chief of Air Staff was content with a more dignified retort, “It is not a supporting role alone. The air power has a huge role to play. In any of the integrated battle areas, it’s not an issue of support alone.”
The statement of the CDS reflects the long prevailing mindset within the Army. His frustration stems from the perceived stubborn attitude of the IAF in internal parleys on tri-Service integration. It first resisted the appointment of CDS and now wants to indirectly maintain status quo under the pretext of ‘one nation one theatre and one command’ with respect to employment of air power. The IAF has failed to suggest an acceptable alternative model of integration, adapting the experience of other modern militaries tempered with our limitations.
Apart from the flawed process being followed with no national security strategy, or vision document in place, or even the formal political directive or an empowered steering committee and parliamentary oversight, the current integration proposals of the CDS are not conducive for optimum utilisation of air power. There is much more to air power than merely acting as a “supporting arm” of the armed forces in a theatre command set-up or being responsible for air defence of the country through the Air Defence Command.
I analyse the role of air power and suggest an alternative model for its integrated, optimal exploitation.
Role of air power
The role and application of air power in the Indian context, based on the experience since the First World War, has been very lucidly explained in the ‘Basic Doctrine of the Indian Air Force 2012’. Unless this doctrine is read and imbibed, the tri-service integration will remain flawed.
The IAF strategy is defined as the process of coordinating the development, deployment and employment of air power to achieve national security objectives. It is executed through three sub-strategies in the form of air campaigns — counter-air campaign, counter-surface force campaign and strategic air campaign — supported by combat enabling operations. The relative emphasis with respect to the campaigns is contingent on the prevailing strategic and operational situation.
The aim of the counter-air campaign is to achieve and maintain the necessary degree of control of the air to prevent enemy air power from interfering with operations of own forces. This generally takes the form of maintaining a ‘favourable air situation’, limited in time and space as air supremacy and air superiority can only be achieved against an adversary with a much weaker air power – an unlikely scenario in India’s context.
Counter-air campaign is executed through offensive counter-air operations and air defence operations. Offensive counter-air operations are conducted in enemy territory to suppress/destroy enemy air defences, including weapons systems and radars, infrastructure of air bases and aircraft on the ground. These also involve fighter sweeps to destroy enemy aircraft in the air over their own territory and escorting own ground attack/transport aircraft.
Air defence operations involve both passive and active measures to nullify or reduce the effectiveness of enemy air/missile attacks over own territory or area under control of own forces. These include use of fighters and ground-to-air weapon systems along with command and control means. Air defence operations are reactive in nature and hence the mainstay of creating a favourable air situation are offensive counter-air operations.
Counter-surface force operations — air land operations and maritime air operations — are aimed at preventing the enemy from applying military power to interfere with operations of own surface forces, that is Army/Navy. Air land operations take the form of air interdiction at the strategic level, battlefield air interdiction at the operational level, battlefield air strikes (formerly known as close air support) in proximity of own troops at the tactical level, tactical reconnaissance, and search and strike missions. Interdiction implies preventing enemy combat potential from reaching the battle area by destroying reserves, command and control means, road/railway network and logistics.
Maritime air operations — anti-shipping and maritime strikes — target enemy shipping in the battle zone and maritime infrastructure.
Strategic air campaign aims at targeting the enemy’s capability to fight and its will to resist at the strategic level. It includes conventional strategic air operations (CSAO) and nuclear air operations. CSAOs target the enemy’s strategic centres of gravity or critical vulnerabilities that include command, control and communication systems and leadership; industrial infrastructure/vital economic targets, transportation system, and fielded forces/reserves in depth areas. Political signalling, punitive surgical strikes in peace time and psychological operations also form part of strategic air operations. A classic example of the strategic air campaign were the air operations conducted as prelude to ground operations during Gulf War 1 in 1990.
Combat enabling air/ground operations include airborne/air transported operations, air-to-air refuelling, surveillance and reconnaissance, employment of UAVs, airborne early warning aircraft, aerostats, electronic warfare, Special Forces operations, search and rescue, training, maintenance and logistics.
Given the limited resources, multi-role aircraft and very meagre combat enabling platforms in the form of Airborne Warning And Control System/ Airborne Early Warning and Control Aircraft, aerostats and air-to-air refuelling aircraft, the application of air power requires a greater degree of centralised control. It is also pertinent to mention that counter-surface force operations and airborne/air transported/heliborne operations are the only classic “support” operations requiring intimate cooperation with surface forces — Army/Navy. Even in counter-surface force operations, strategic interdiction is a centralised task.
An alternative model
In the model proposed by the CDS, only the Air Defence Command is the “one nation, one theatre command” ie including the areas of other theatre commands. All other air campaigns/operations will be controlled by four theatre commanders, based on initial/reallocated resources. Thus, the joint headquarter under the CDS or COSC will have to constantly allocate/reallocate resources. This would not be practical in a limited and high-technology dominated war as the entire might of the IAF will have to be shifted from one theatre to the other on day-to-day or even hour-to-hour basis.
Concentration is a time tested principle of war. The IAF is capable of generating 500-700 sorties in a day. Initially, the bulk of the effort will have to be allocated for strategic air campaign and counter-air campaign that have nothing to do with surface forces. In a two-front war involving Pakistan and China, restricted to the Western Theatre Command and Northern Theatre Command, the entire effort of the IAF may have to be applied against the PLA Air Force in the first half of the day and then shift to target the Pakistan Air Force in the second half.
No other modern military has created a separate Air Defence Command. Air defence operations have remained part of the counter-air campaign. Primary method of neutralising enemy air threat is by offensive counter-air operations. Air defence operations are a reactive secondary method.
I propose that we must restructure the IAF by creating a Strategic Air Command, which must be responsible for carrying out strategic air campaign, counter-air campaign and strategic interdiction across all theatres. It must have an overriding lien over the resources, which may be allocated to other theatres on as required basis. Since air and ground operations may commence simultaneously, initial optimum allocation of resources for counter-surface force campaigns must be made for each theatre. All attack helicopters must be allocated to theatre commands. In due course, we may consider acquiring specialised ground attack aircraft, like the A10.
All modern militaries have gone through the painful process of tri-Service integration. Most of us keenly followed the acrimonious debates that took place in the US for nearly a decade after the Vietnam War until the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defence Reorganization Act 1986 enforced the integration.
My advice to the government is to streamline the process of transformation of the armed forces. Formalise a national security strategy and vision for transformation of the armed forces for wars/conflict of the 21st Century. Set up an empowered committee under the defence minister to steer the transformation. The empowered committee must prepare a vision document addressing all contentious issues that have emerged with timelines that must be approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). Issue a formal directive to the CDS to prepare fresh, detailed proposals for the theatre commands. A parliamentary standing committee on defence/special committee must oversee the transformation process and eventually steer the passage of the new national security/ defence Act.
CDS and the three Service Chiefs must shed parochialism and make a fresh start. Treat the last one-and-half-year as a learning process. Last but not least — do not spat in public.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)