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Why India’s military leaders must have a free and frank discussion on demarcation of air power roles and missions

Arun Prakash writes: The conundrum that needs to be resolved is the IAF’s certainty about the indivisibility of air power, versus the army and navy’s belief that aviation must be available at their disposal.

Written by Arun Prakash |
Updated: August 12, 2021 8:39:28 am
An indigenous LCA Tejas at the Aero India show in Bengaluru. (Express Photo)

India’s Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) could have avoided controversy and the recent inter-service spat had he been a little more selective about phraseology. While the air chief was entitled to take umbrage at the IAF being termed a “support arm,” no one could have reasonably objected if the CDS had described “air-power” as performing a support function, since the two are not synonymous.

One felt a sense of déjà vu at the ensuing uproar having witnessed similar scenarios during the proceedings of the 1999 Arun Singh Task Force as well as the 2011 Naresh Chandra committee on defence reforms. This was not the first time that air-power issues have triggered bitter debates that serve to stall and delay the process of defence reform in India — and elsewhere.

Ever since the advent of military aviation, air power has been the cause of fierce controversies and debates worldwide. While the outcome of strategic bombing in the Second World War remains an issue of disputation, the extensive employment of air power in support of land and maritime operations met with outstanding success. Allied air operations did, however, see multiple instances of inter-service overlap and confusion, and this led the US Congress to enact the National Security Act of 1947, which, apart from unifying the armed forces, created an independent US Air Force.

However, many issues related to resources as well as institutional boundaries remained unresolved and bitter infighting broke out between the US Navy and the USAF over aviation “roles and missions”. Given the urgency of addressing these contentious issues, in March 1948, the US Secretary of Defence cloistered himself with the service chiefs, and, together, they hammered out a consensus. This was enshrined in the “US Code of Federal Laws”, and remains the legal basis for roles and missions of the US military.

In India, no such discussion has ever taken place and there is no mutually agreed upon or government-mandated demarcation of aviation roles and missions. Periodic “sniping” and even “poaching” has, therefore, taken place, leaving the IAF beset with a deep sense of insecurity, for reasons that I outline.

The 1970s saw an acrimonious debate between the IAF and the Indian Navy (IN) about the discharge of the maritime reconnaissance (MR) role, which the air force had inherited at independence. The penetration in 1971 of our waters by Pakistani submarines, having brought matters to a head, the government decided to hand over the MR role and aircraft to the IN in 1976.

The Indian Army, too, had been demanding the creation of an integral air arm, citing unsatisfactory aviation support by the IAF in forward areas. The issue became another inter-service squabble till the government intervened in 1986 and sanctioned the transfer of assets from the IAF to the newly formed Army Aviation Corps. The controversy did not end here as control of attack helicopters remained an issue of inter-service contention.

The IAF, having seen sister services appropriate its roles and assets, remained wary about jointness. Concepts of CDS and integrated commands which would require air assets being placed under non-IAF control, ring alarm bells in Air HQs. There are misperceptions on both sides of the “air-power divide”, and the crying need of the day is for the tri-service leadership to sit around a table and provide mutual reassurance regarding service “roles and missions”.

Air power, in the post-Cold War era, acquired a new aura. Based on the lethality and speed of modern air power, it is claimed that once “air dominance” has been achieved, the war is virtually won. In this paradigm, close support of surface forces receives low priority because quick military victories can be won from the air at minimal cost. However, such euphoric assumptions were based on recent conflicts where modern air forces wielding advanced technology had encountered irregular forces.

India, on the other hand, is faced with well-equipped, motivated and competent adversaries. The PAF, although numerically inferior, is a professional peer and has the assurance of Chinese support. The PLA Air Force not only outnumbers the IAF, but has the advantage of an advanced technological base. In our calculus, therefore, we cannot afford to bank on any specific advantage, nor speak nonchalantly about establishing “air dominance” over Pakistan or Tibet.

For too long have we treated the demarcation of air power roles and missions as a “holy cow” and shirked from free and frank discussion. The facade of inter-service bonhomie has concealed a germ of discord which needs to be exorcised. The conundrum that needs to be resolved is posed by the IAF’s certainty about the “indivisibility of air power”, versus the belief of the army and navy that aviation must be an integral resource, available at their disposal.

Questions that military leaders will need to address, jointly, are: One, should attainment of air dominance be an end in itself, superseding military and maritime strategies? Two, should air power be seen as merely an instrumentality to gain operational objectives on land, sea and air? Three, is there a via-media which will maximise the synergy and combat effectiveness of all three services, perhaps by modifying the IAF’s 2012 doctrine?

Three final points need to be made in the closely related context of the joint commands being currently contemplated/constituted. First, it must be ensured that allocation of air power is not made piece-meal, but flows from an integrated, tri-service plan. Second, operational deployment of the command’s aviation resources must be managed on behalf of the C-in-C, by his 2/3-star IAF component commander. Finally, the government must clarify that most high-level posts will, eventually, be tenable by officers of all three services. The rationale for integrated commands must, therefore, not be dictated by provision, to each service, of its “quota” of ranks/posts.

The writer is a retired chief of naval staff, who flew with the IAF fighter squadron in the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war

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