Can we really afford to relegate air power to a supportive role?

Recent reports on defence reforms towards creation of theatre commands indicate that the government is determined to push ahead with this major change that is expected to contribute to an integrated and cost effective war-fighting machinery and that the decision is likely to be announced on Independence Day . Further that a committee stands appointed to allay reservations of the IAF and resolve matters.

Unlike other areas of national governance, reformers in the field of defence need to be conscious of the impact of their decisions on two very vital aspects of warfare that are inter-related. The first is the fast-changing impact of technological evolution on warfare and its optimal application and the second, the sensitive issue of military ‘leader-led’ relationship, the combatant’s upbringing and training in the parent service and within it, the ethos of the relationship between the enlisted men and their superiors. The integrity of this relationship finally defines the morale of the combatant and potency of the fighting unit.

As example, Air Force culture has been expressed as a combination of rigorous application of advanced technology and individualism where the principal combatants are officers working with small groups of enlisted air warriors. In this environment, formal social and professional distancing between the two is virtually non-existent. This is unlike the sister services more so the army where for good reasons, it is different. It is this relationship through which the larger issue of operational command and control in respective services has evolved.

The inherent strength of air power is both its flexibility and ability to act autonomously and the challenge is to find the optimum overall command and control model that exploits these strengths within the overall context of integrated warfare. This involves far more than ‘copying and pasting’ models of others.

The principal arguments being projected towards the necessity for this reform are the lack of synergy in planning and jointness towards integrated war- fighting and differently- located seventeen single-service commands covering varying geographical boundaries. While there is every reason to overcome the latter through far simpler and effective administrative means, the former needs acceptance of the fact that with the advent of air power, much needs to change. Recognising this, the IAF has for decades, located an advanced headquarters element, headed by a two star rank, co-located with respective sister service HQs for this purpose. That this is considered a mere formality would explain why in the run- up to Kargil , instead of the IAF’s sophisticated tactical reconnaissance resources being exploited, army helicopters were used. In the event, it was shepherds that alerted the army and valuable lessons continue to evade us. That the Kargil Review Committee had no IAF representation, further displays a security mindset yet to come to terms with warfare in three dimensions! The final nail in the coffin to air power comes in a recent TV interview where the CDS labeled IAF as supporting arm to ground forces — likening it to roles of artillery and engineers in Army ! The PLAAF must be delighted !

Since history is a provider of lessons, it is worth looking at how air power has evolved in other democracies. Britain’s experience during the First World War showed that air power, which was then a component of the other services, had a separate and essential role to play in modern warfare, independent of, but in closest cooperation with the other services. Out of this practical lesson in warfare was born the Royal Air Force. Similarly , after US experience in the second world war the USAF was established as a separate service under the National Security Act of 1947. Clearly, two democracies with which our armed forces have many linkages, after having fought bitter wars felt the need for air power to have a separate operational identity.

On an inspection visit to the Air Force headquarters in Beijing in 2014, President Jinping whilst stating that the air force played a decisive role in national security as well as military strategy, called for a stronger Air Force to adopt an integrated air and space defence capability. Not surprisingly in the lexicon of Chinese aeronautics, the phrase, ‘aeronautical patriotism’, is increasingly being heard, as they understand the potential of air power . It is hence ironical that even as our border with China is now live and the latter flexes it’s muscles, rather than explore avenues to expand the potential of our air and space capability, we should be discussing a retrograde proposal that will effectively limit our air power’s exploitation through penny packets limited to theatres on ground !

Reforms as far- reaching as relegating the role of air power to a supportive role within limited theatres must only be studied through scientific and systems- analysis tools and then war -gamed towards arriving at solutions ,not by subjective views of some or in committee rooms.

For the sake of maximising national air-power potential and the operational ethos of the IAF, one hopes that this is one major announcement that is missing this Independence Day!



Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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