An Alpha Defense Guest article
Indian Defence Reforms – Jointness, Theatre commands and the role of Airpower
“Turf war over theatre command escalates”-Indian national TV channels and their websites
“Bitter turf war over theatre command erupts publicly”
These were the of headlines that national TV channels and articles on their websites carried in the first week of July after the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and the Chief of Air Staff (CAS) apparently contradicted each other at a public forum and then in their respective interviews to an Indian TV channel. The CDS had said that the IAF remains a supporting airpower arm to the Army and also equated it with artillery and combat engineers. The Air Chief in his address then stated that the Air Force is not just a supporting arm and it has a huge role to play in any conflict.
The later statement was to be expected because no Air Force in the world would stand being called a ‘supporting arm’ to the Army. The incident has led to Air Force veterans expressing their disappointment at and disapproval of what is
being seen as not just an inappropriate statement by the CDS and one that betrays his land-warfare centric view of war but also a pre-dominantly Army-centric approach to joint warfighting and the proposed structure of the theatre commands (excluding possibly the Maritime Command). Veterans have also opined that such discussions should not take place in public since the controversy and criticism they garner could lead to hardening of stances and even create bitterness between the individual services. This is already evident in the case of the proliferation of the view that it is the opposition of the IAF which is responsible for the delay in the setting up of the theatre commands and that that there is an internal turf war going on.
When queried on this issue during the interview the CAS emphatically denied that the IAF is against the setting up of theatre commands or that it has reservations about the need for integration but stressed that they need to get it right. What can be inferred from his views (although he did say it) is that he IAF has reservations about the structure of the theatre commands as is being currently proposed. His views are echoed by experts like Air Vice Marshall (retd.) Arjun Subramaniam and others.
Background on airpower
Airpower came into being as a combat arm during the Great War/First World War. The British were the first to realize it’s importance and utility as an independent element of national power and established the Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1918 with the war still ongoing. In the US military however air arm continued to remain with the US Army Air Forces although it began to emerge as a virtually autonomous service during the strategic bombing campaign and extensive air combat against the Axis during the Second World War. The United States Air Force (USAF) was established as an independent service in 1947.
The Indian Air Force traces it’s origins to the Auxillary Air Force established in British India in 1932. It’s status was upgraded to Royal Indian Air Force in 1945 and the prefix Royal was discarded in 1950 when India a became a Republic. So in that sense it is even older the USAF and the Luftwaffe (established in 1933). The debate between tactical and strategic airpower has been a pervasive one. Airpower had gained ascendancy after the spectacular display of the US-led allied force in the 1991 Gulf War.
Army’s established importance
Given India’s geography and the pre-dominantly continental orientation of it’s polity and security establishment, it is no surprise that military power often gets equated with the Army. This is not to say that Indians are unaware of or ignorant about the other services but there is a certain outlook and understanding of military power at play here that has crept into the Indian psyche. Admittedly with the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s (PLAN) increasing forays into the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) and the rapid and unprecedented expansion of it’s fleet strength and capabilities, there has been a slight shift from a continental to a more integrated service view of the military with the role of the Navy in focus. The size of the Army vis-à-vis the other two services also by default leads to it dominating the discourse on military power and strategy and seeing itself as the primary service and the other two especially the Air Force as a supporting service.
Now to be fair to the Army it has been the primary service in all of India’s wars, can rightfully claim the bulk of the credit for victory or defeat (as in 1962) in those wars, has been almost permanently engaged in counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism campaigns in the NE, West Bengal, Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir and has also suffered the bulk of the casualties in the wars. It can thus claim to be single-most important institution when it comes to guaranteeing the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India from assault from external forces. However with it’s primacy, comes the land-warfare centric conception of military power and warfare.
The debate between the tactical use of airpower and it’s strategic role and on it’s utilization is neither a new one nor is it unique to the Indian military. The IAF’s 2012 doctrine itself emphasizes that
The structure of air power too needs to be appreciated to ensure optimal employment of air power to achieve national security objectives.-IAF Doctrine
Differences in understanding airpower role
Support to ground troops or counter-surface operations is just one element in the entire spectrum of application of airpower. Much has been made out of the recent episode involving the CDS and the CAS. The fact of the matter is that the IAF has been opposed to the appointment of a CDS and setting up of joint commands ever since the Group of Ministers had (GoM) recommended it during the Vajpayee years. It was the reservations expressed by the IAF along with a lack of political consensus and opposition by a status quoist civilian bureaucracy that had scuttled the move back then. The Naresh Chandra Committee Task Force had recommended (which the UPA-II failed to implement) a watered down version of the CDS more in tune with the roles and responsibilities of the post, eventually established in 2019-2020.
One can look at it as ‘turf war’/inter-service rivalry/clash of service egos and maybe there is an element of it but it is also a larger debate over the conception of airpower and it’s role in any conflict. That it has took more than twenty years after the Kargil conflict to appoint a CDS is evidence enough that the recent controversy was just the most publicized manifestation of the serious differences between the two services regarding not just their respective roles and conception of the other but also between their views of military strategy and the military as a tool of national power. Of course it is not to say that India is unique in this regard. Even the US had to impose jointness on the services from above by passing the Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986. Without the vision and the political will displayed by the Narendra Modi government, we would have still been just discussing the merits and demerits of a CDS and joint
commands but doing nothing.
IAF – an independent strategic airpower
The Air Force is right to insist that airpower has an independent strategic role in a war separate from the ground forces. Support to Army and Navy operations is an integral part of it’s charter. No Air Force can avoid it and neither is the IAF seeking to do so. However the IAF should retain the capability to carry out an independent strategic air campaign against the enemy in order to shape the outcome of the war. The objective of the campaign can be to either draw in the enemy force into combat and through attrition degrade it’s warfighting potential, it could be to carry out a bombing campaign against military and industrial targets or even carpet bombing of their cities (theoretically, because the IAF does not have that capability).
The primary mission of the Air Force though is to establish air superiority. The first objective of course would be to establish air superiority over its own airspace but in the proposed command structure that vertical would be subsumed by the Air Defence (AD) Command. Even to provide close air support (CAS) to ground troops, it is necessary to first establish air superiority over the battlespace. Beyond CAS, there is the need to carry out battlefield air interdiction and air interdiction in the enemy rear. In the Army’s integral, fire support generally extends to a range of around 40 km which can be increased to around 90-100 km through the use of rocket artillery. In the mountains engagement takes place at closer ranges. Attack helicopters will have limited utility in a battlespace once the forces engage.
The proposed land theatre commands at least from the Air Force’s perspective threatens to parcel out it’s assets and place them at the disposal of Army commanders. This in their view goes against a core tenet of airpower which is centralized command & control (C2). The CDS has tried to assuage these concerns by saying that each Army-led command will have an Air Component Commander who will be an advisor to the theatre commander but it is quite clear that the two sides have not been able to iron out their differences. Air Force veterans have even voiced their
concerns about the Air Defence (AD) Command because it seeks to silo a portion of the Air Force assets into a vertical dedicated solely to defensive operations while subsuming the offensive role into the Army-led theatre commands.
Now it is a given that defence of the homeland from enemy air attacks is not just a military necessity but also a political one. However the role of airpower cannot be limited to just close air support and battlefield air interdiction. The land-centric conception of airpower is evidentfrom the absence of any mention of air superiority in the statements and interviews of the CDS.The Air Force fears that ground commanders will come to use the air assets as their airborne artillery. The fear is not unfounded. It is rooted in historical precedents.
A WW2 lesson on airpower
During the Second World War in the North African theatre, Bernard Montgomery, the commander of the British Eight Army had to issue a directive to his sub-ordinate Army commanders in order to prevent them from trying to control Air Force assets. The directive stated:
‘Nothing could be more fatal to successful results than to dissipate the air resources into small packets placed under command of army formation commanders, with each packet working on its own plan. The soldier must not expect, or wish, to exercise direct command over air striking forces.’-BERNARD MONTGOMERY, COMMANDER OF BRITISH 8 ARMY, NORTH AFRICAN COMMAND, WORLD WAR 2
The seriousness of this issue can be gauged from the fact that a quintessential Army man like Monty had to put it in no uncertain terms that parceling out of air assets and subordinating them to Army commanders would not only lead to less than optimal utilization of air power but also spell disaster for the combined air-land operation. Even in the Indian context during the 1971 War which is seen as the apogee of jointmanship in the post-independence Indian military there were complaints from the Air Force that ground commanders often called in for airstrikes on enemy positions even when their integral fire support could have done the job leading to many casualties for the former.
Why IAF has concerns?
Now from the IAF’s perspective in the proposed structure of the theatre commands where the Army will be the led service, there will be an inherent tendency to prioritize the tactical role of air power leaving it unable to focus and carry out the independent strategic missions. The reports in the media that the IAF has reservations about the nomenclature of the commands, parceling out of assets and leadership of the commands lays bare the debate going on within the higher defence organization. Looking at each of these concerns we understand that the one related to nomenclature is about the Air Defence (AD) command. The IAF was actually never on board with the idea of an AD command which seems to be a brainchild of the CDS. They have actually been voicing support for a more expansive Aerospace Command which will prevent the dispersion of air assets and decentralization of command and control.
The complaints about parceling out of assets is actually related to the issue of command and control and also to the what it sees as the erosion of it’s distinct ethos and identity. Air assets even today are dispersed all over the country but that is not parceling out in the IAF’s view since their control is centralized at the Air HQ or at the geographical command HQ. In my view the IAF cannot be faulted for wanting to preserve it’s distinct service identity and autonomy from the Army. Armed services are proud, tradition-bound organizations which is also the reason it is so difficult to get them to reform. The chain of command in the Air Force is short and at the most can have three levels. For the Army
ground units however there next higher HQ can still be situated only at the lower rung of the chain of command. For e.g., a Brigade tasked with a mission might report either to the Division or the Corps HQ which again has three and two higher HQs. The Integrated Battle Group (IBG) will have the Corps as the next higher HQ. In the theatre command structure the commander will exercise control over the IBG and Division through the Corps leaving Army organization mostly intact but the Air Force would be subordinated and used to provide support to IBG or even lower units.
Questions on hierarchy
The question then arises as to
Why would theatre commanders not be resistant to transferring their air assets to another theatre or to carry out independent strategic missions?
Moreover in the case of an independent strategic campaign how will command and control chain function?
Will the CDS in his role as the Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC) exercise direct control over it?
or will they create a vertical in the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) for such a campaign?
The question is pertinent because the AD Command by definition cannot be tasked to carry out offensive roles over enemy territory.
Will they task the Air Component Commander of the adjacent theatre to exercise command and control over the campaign?– KaalBhairav
That would require pooling together Air Force resources from other theatres to carry out a strategic air campaign by an Army-led theatre command.
Why is then an Aerospace Command which will centralize the command and control of air assets and have both the capacity and the flexibility to direct towards any theatre or battlefield necessary not more suitable than a structure where commanders could end up jostling for air assets and one that emphasizes the tactical aspects of airpower more than it’s strategic application?– KaalBhairav
To be honest it is not just Air Force people who have called for a structure that maintains the centralized C2 structure of airpower and also enables it to independently dovetail it’s strategy into the larger politico-strategic objective.
The question that arises here is how would maintaining Air Force assets under one command and having two or three Army-led commands serve the purpose of integration.
Yes, there will be cross-staffing and the Aerospace Command will have Army and Navy officers and advisor and vice-versa but will it truly serve the purpose of joint warfighting?– KaalBhairav
Questions on operational aspects
The Air Force might be more amenable to the idea of the theatre commands if the leadership position is filled up through a policy of rotation. However that is just a politically expedient step and arrives at a sort of a middle ground without solving any of the fundamental problems. Instead of rotation it would be better if simply a policy in put in place that the commander need not necessarily be from the Army.
Even with an Air Force officer in command, won’t the problems of parceling out of assets and their less than optimal utilization due to decentralization of the command structure still linger?
How will the commander plan and execute an independent air campaign if he has only a limited number of assets at his disposal and the theatre is primarily geared towards land warfare?– KaalBhairav
There is also the issue, as has been raised by many expert commentators, of lack of sufficient training in joint planning, warfighting and staffing and command of unified commands. Tactical level training does not substitute for true jointness or else they would not have gone for CDS to foster jointness and integration.
Finding root solutions
In the words of former Navy Chief and CoSC Chairman Admiral Arun Prakash:
‘Firstly, we lack officers with the background or qualifications to function on the staff, and as ‘component commanders’ or Commanders-in-Chief, of a unified command and to operationally deploy its three service components. Creating a cadre of such officers calls for re-shaping the system of professional military education followed in the armed forces. Important steps in this process will be to recast the Defence Services Staff College as the Joint Services Staff College and to alter syllabi of the service War Colleges so that their graduates are competent to fill billets in a unified HQ.’– FORMER NAVY CHIEF AND CoSC CHAIRMAN ADMIRAL ARUN PRAKASH
Understanding it crystal clear
Naturally the IAF is apprehensive about Army ground commanders with insufficient understanding of airpower and it’s optimal utilization will marginalize it in joint planning and warfighting. This could have consequences not just for the distinct identity of the IAF as an organization but also for the nation and the wars that it will be forced to/choose to fight in the future. I am not prejudiced against the Army. Nor am I trying to portray it as an organization that prioritizes it’s service interests over national security.
However it is a given that each service has it’s own conception of military power and warfighting which then shapes it’s approach towards the other services. The Navy has remained relatively unscathed by this controversy for most part the maritime domain does not overlap with the other two. Even in an amphibious campaign the command remains with the Navy until the forces land and anyway amphibious operation is just one domain. Even then there are major divergences in views between the CDS and the Navy whether it be over aircraft carriers and submarines or peninsular vs maritime command. The Air Force and the Army on the other hand are tied at the hip. As I have already mentioned, no Air Force can plan it’s campaigns without taking into account the need to support ground operations and this will be especially tricky in the case of the IAF with it’s limited number of assets. Similarly which service is supported and which service is supporting depends on the nature of the operation. It is not pre-defined.
In the Second World War the US Army Air Force while still sub-ordinate to the Army carried out the largest strategic bombing campaign in history. The Luftwaffe, an independent Air Force on the other hand had to always make support to ground operations it’s priority. The fact that the Luftwaffe commander was the second most powerful man in the Reich power structure neither enabled it to make independent production decisions nor divorce it’s war planning from the operational requirements of the German Army. That is because Germany’s geography and geo-strategy dictated that the Army which had to wage a three front war against the Allies be the primary arm. The US had no such compulsions.
Airpower in Indian context
The primary task of the Air Force is to secure the skies over the homeland and the battlespace and then take the battle into enemy airspace. In any conventional war on India’s western sector the IAF will go on the offensive from the very beginning. However given the fact that the PAF is a competent force it will take some time for the IAF to completely secure own airspace while carrying out strikes in the enemy hinterland. At the same time the ground forces will surely require air support which then necessitates the establishment of superiority over the expanding battlespace. During the 1965 War there was serious issue with regard to co-ordination between the Army and the Air Force, with the former complaining that the latter was choosing it’s own targets. Apart from the obvious lack of joint war planning and insufficient understanding of each other’s warfighting requirements, there was also the tussle going on between an independent strategic air campaign and support to ground operations.
The situation in the initial days of the 1999 Kargil conflict is well known. The Army initially requested for attack helicopters to provide fire support at that height. The Air Chief refused to support ground operations without clearing with the political leadership first. When finally it committed to providing air support the IAF suddenly realized that it had neither planned nor trained to operate at such altitudes and in conjunction with the ground forces. The lack of joint war planning and sensitization to each other’s warfighting requirements was quite evident. There were other issues of co-ordination between the two services during the conflict.
In the maritime domain the Jaguars should theoretically work in close co-ordination with the Navy to target Pakistan Navy ships from the Jamnagar AFS. There are images of IAF Mig-29 UPG armed with the Kh-35 anti-ship missile available in the public domain so I am assuming that some aircraft in that fleet also have a maritime strike role.
Critical issues pushed down the ‘turf war hype’
The scope for an independent strategic air campaign in the northern sector will be quite limited. One because there are only a limited number of high value targets in the Tibetan plateau and two since the most likely scenario of a conflict is a PLA offensive, close air support and air interdiction in the PLA rear will be of paramount importance. Even in a supporting role to the Army the IAF first needs to establish air superiority over the northern sector to be more effective in it’s support to ground forces and prevent the PLAAF from attacking the Indian troops. So there is no question of it being only a supporting arm but the land-warfare centric view seems to emphasize much more on the CAS and battlefield air interdiction component of tactical airpower and straitjacket the air-to-air role into merely a component of air defence. This is the issue that should be more talked about than the hype surrounding the ‘turf war’.
Another issue that seems to have gone under the radar is the role of airpower in expeditionary warfare.
In the event that India has to carry out another operation akin to the 1987 intervention in Maldives who will be the command authority? Will the CoSC exercise direct command and control over it or will they delegate responsibility to the Peninsular Command which will reportedly be the land-based command in charge of Peninsular India?– KaalBhairav
There have also been differences between the IAF and the Army over airborne operations and even the kind of para-dropping that they should train for. In the event of a major war in the future in the IOR Indian aircraft might need to operate from the island territories of India’s allies. Since ground forces will have little role in such a campaign who will be the command authority for such a campaign.
Will it be the commander of the Maritime Theatre Command with an Air Component Commander advising him?– KaalBhairav
I am not engaging in mental gymnastics here. I merely want to emphasize that the conception of how military power could be applied to achieve national objectives need to move beyond the wars in the continental periphery of the Indian landmass.
The broad expanse of airpower roles
Airpower also has both an enabling and an independent role to play in the non-kinetic domain. It is the service that integrates Electronic Warfare (EW) capabilities into all it’s platforms and is best suited to deploy EW assets an offensive role as it has the greatest reach in terms of distance from the frontline and across the battlespace. The IAF is also right to emphasize that airpower can and should be used to effect strategic outcomes. Airpower provides the political leadership with flexibility of choices and versatility of options across the spectrum from nuclear to sub-conventional. The 2019 Balakot airstrikes were carried out to send a political message both to the adversary and the Indian citizenry. The message that India has the right and most importantly the means to strike back. It was an example of a calibrated application of airpower in a strategic role to achieve politico-strategic objectives. In a conflict or a near conflict scenario the strategic role of the Air Force becomes all the more importance to either shape the outcome in India’s favor or achieve military coercion in the first case and credible conventional/nuclear deterrence in the second.
I have tried to raise some thought provoking questions in this piece. It is not the place of defence enthusiasts like us to preach to the Armed Services about the structure of the theatre commands and how they ought to fight future wars. Neither is it advisable to create hype about some bitter turf war brewing within the Indian higher defence organization. However we can debate and discuss about military power, optimal utilization of the assets of each arm of the military and how best to secure the interests of the nation.
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