The air arm of the Indian defence forces can today launch a surprise mission with speed and accuracy. This was demonstrated in the attack on Balakot, a complex mission that employed a large force on a pitch-dark night in which three geographical commands of the Air Force participated. Most importantly, the government understood and acknowledged their capability in giving the mission a go-ahead. It took decades for the Air Force to reach the current level of capabilities.
The Air Chief’s professional leadership of the Air Force is crucial to orchestrate a variety of support elements like aerial tankers, AWACS, AEW, Heliborne support and UAVs in an “offensive operation”. A land theatre command, if given power over the air elements, may not have the confidence to launch such a mission because of the lack of in-depth understanding of the organisational complexity and the risks involved.
The government is reportedly planning to re-organise the military into a theatre command under the chief of defence staff (CDS) in which the assets of the Air Force will be split into four and distributed among four operational theatres. Dilution of the combat assets of the Air Force, a 30-squadron force consisting of five or six types of aircraft, might severely affect mission-effectiveness. The project calls for careful study before it’s implemented. One should not expect the current level of efficiency to be maintained if the combat inventory of the Air Force is split into smaller units.
In 2012, the Naresh Chandra Committee suggested the creation of a CDS, which would take on overall functions of the chairman, chiefs of committee as well as the responsibilities pertaining to centralised planning, induction, training, intelligence and logistics. Operations, according to the committee’s suggestion, would continue to be managed by the respective chiefs of staff. The CDS was to exercise operational control only of the Strategic Force Command and the Andaman Nicobar Command. The CDS secretariat, the CISC, would handle all responsibilities assigned to the CDS.
Sometime in 2016-17, this idea was modified to organise the operational assets of the three services into four theatre commands, all of which are now proposed to be brought under the CDS. That would leave only training, maintenance, and support under the chiefs of staff — a gross under-utilisation of the operational leadership built over 40 years.
It is extremely doubtful if the CDS can cope with the enhanced responsibilities that include operations, albeit through the theatre commanders. Did we not start with the idea to reduce the responsibilities of the chiefs of staff by introducing the CDS who was to take only non-operational responsibilities? An Air Force and an Army Command working jointly within the same geographic responsibility certainly offer better assurance of success. There is no white paper on the advantages of the theatre commands or one listing the merits of the CDS donning the mantle of the operational head of the entire military operation. Joint planning is a must, but operations are best undertaken by individual services who know what other services are doing and when.
Forming a separate air defence command for the air defence of the entire nation seems an impractical idea considering our resource limitations. The current arrangement of a decentralised air defence organisation managed by Air Force geographical commands has functioned faultlessly. What, then, is the need to change it? A majority of the combat element deployed for air defence can also perform offensive air defence (counter-air) missions. These could be switched to a striking role, or even a maritime role when required. The existing structures afford better flexibility.
It has been reported that the proposed maritime theatre command (MTC) will draw the entire operational fleet from the three naval operational commands (West, East and South) into one “fist” under the MTC — a new naval entity without any dispersion of skills or operational systems. The Coastal Command and its fleet will be absorbed by the MTC, giving it further strength. The MTC would also have an Army and an Air Force formation “under command” thus qualifying it for the “Integrated Command” stamp.
While it has been decided to consolidate the operational assets of the Navy under MTC, it beats one’s mind as to why the Air Force should be parcelled into smaller units. Certain operations’ infrastructure of the Air Force is used for the planning and execution of missions. These would need to be modified and new ones added to support the air elements of land and maritime theatre commands. There could be some compatibility issues with respect to communication and networking of Air Force and Army Air Defence (AD) elements. Since Army AD assets will come under the AD Command, the differences need to be ironed out. There will be significant expenditure to construct the operational infrastructure of the theatre commands. Training and orientation would be a continual affair, requiring separate infrastructure and instructors.
The parent bases of operational aircraft, such as Mirage-2000, SU-30MKI and Rafale, have an extensive infrastructure. Billions of rupees have been spent to obtain the multirole capability of these machines and in training crew. The land theatre commander will now have to learn to utilise these assets on missions that are not in the “regular books” of land forces. This will now require extensive training, which AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control Systems) would need to participate in regularly. Will a theatre commander from the army be able to manage such tasks? There are no easy answers.
We are trying to effect changes at a time the military is deployed actively. The Chinese have dug in hard, and we do not yet know their strategy and, importantly, the capability of their Air Force. Standard Air Force missions may not work. The Air Force must have the freedom to experiment and explore what the aircraft and pilots can do. To divide the Air Force into four units at this moment is inadvisable. The Air Force is in the midst of absorbing new inductions and weapons. These are being deployed while training is in progress. In such a scenario, it is inadvisable to initiate organisational changes.
This column first appeared in the print edition on July 28, 2021 under the title ‘Clipping the eagle’s wing’. The writer is former Chief of Air Staff