'Strategic' air power must be centrally controlled

Air power is strategic, assets must be centrally controlled

Air power is most effective when its use is concentrated and focused on objectives

Representative Image. Credit: PTI Photo

“If we lose the war in the air, we lose the war and lose it quickly” -- an apt statement by Field Marshal Montgomery. Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat, known to be close to the political masters,may be pushing the nation to lose the war in the air quickly by dividing the precious few air assets that the Indian Air Force has into an ill-conceived idea of ‘Theatre Commands,’ one that seems designed purely with the intention of transferring control of IAF assets to the Army rather than to improve India’s warfighting potential.

I understand that the aim of a theatre command is to have better coordination between the Services to effectively fight as a coherent force to achieve national defence goals. Therefore, first, the nation has to define clearly our strategic guidance and policy and our national military strategy. Theatre strategy has to be an extension of national military strategy, tailored to a geographic region. Based on this, the requirements and force structure needed for theatre commands have to be formulated and developed. These definitions have to be completed before embarking on forming theatre commands. India presently neither has a clearly defined national strategy nor the infrastructure necessary. Hence, forming a theatre command today is akin to building a house starting from the roof, instead of from the foundation.

A theatre command pools the resources of all three Services under a single commander, towards securing a particular geographical area. Another important requirement is to establish the force structure for each theatre command. Effective and clear communication protocols have to be defined and communication infrastructure developed between theatres so as to avoid fratricide in a war.

Now, coming to the IAF, it is high time that the CDS realised that military concepts have taken off way beyond World War II concepts of the theatre (European and Pacific). Events and technological progress have overtaken many attempts at restructuring militaries. In the 1960s, the JRD Tata Committee recommended that the IAF needed 65 single-role squadrons to be able to fight a two-front war. That number was never reached, but by the 1980s, air forces were moving to multi-role aircraft. Today, the bulk of the IAF fleet comprises multi-role capable aircraft, and they need to be deployed and re-deployed based on how a conflict progresses and the critical need for air power. So, the control of air assets has to be central, and not in theatre.

Tactical vs Strategic

Whoever controls the air generally controls the surface. Army thinking is mainly tactical, but air power is inherently strategic. Bringing a strategic force under a tactical command (theatre command) is an unwise thing to do. The first mission of an air force is to defeat or neutralise the enemy air force so that friendly operations on land, sea and in the air can proceed unhindered, while at the same time one’s own vital centres and military forces remain safe from air attack.

Air power is most effective when its use is concentrated and focused on objectives. If the meagre assets of the IAF today are divided among the theatre commands, it will result in too few aircraft with each command, undermining its effectiveness and efficiency.

Air power produces physical and psychological shock by dominating the fourth dimension -- time. In case of a war in the western sector with Pakistan, air assets from the eastern and central regions are moved to the western theatre to reinforce the air assets in the area of operations. The same applies to the transport fleet of aircraft and helicopters. Logistics support by transport aircraft and helicopters are essential to ensure good availability of aircraft for operations. This shows that the air assets presently available to the IAF are inadequate and further division will weaken it even more.

Imagine the effectiveness of 36 Rafale aircraft divided between three theatre commands, each having 12 aircraft in its inventory. How effective will that be, compared to 36 aircraft taking on a single objective and neutralising it?

Since World War I, there has been an inexorable move towards greater centralised control of air power as aircraft have achieved greater range and firepower. Initially, all air forces were controlled by tactical surface commanders: In the North African campaign of 1942, the RAF was divided into packages and controlled by ground commanders. The results were disastrous and led to fundamental doctrinal changes. Vietnam saw this situation repeated, although it was the US Air Force itself that violated the principle of central control of air assets. Due to struggles within the service, the Seventh Air Force in South Vietnam fought the air war in-country, the Thirteenth Air Force directed air operations in Thailand, and the Strategic Air Command fought its own campaign with its B-52 strikes.

In Operation Desert Storm, the first Gulf War, things finally came together. A Joint Force Air Component Commander (JFACC) was appointed, General Charles Horner, to control all fixed-wing assets in theatre, including those of coalition countries. The synergies gained from diverse air forces working together as a team with one commander to focus their efforts played a major role in the quick victory.

During this combat test, the JFACC concept worked, and thus is the organisational option of choice for the future. This is especially important because future conflicts may not have the overwhelming air assets available that were present in Desert Storm. In such instances, tough decisions regarding prioritisation will have to be made by those who understand air power.

Coordination and cooperation between the forces in war are vital for national security. However, the air assets have to be centrally controlled to be effective. The need to move air assets from one theatre to another, the need to have logistics support aircraft move ground troops, maintenance equipment to support and weapons to the theatre must be left to a central agency and not left in the hands of the theatre commander purely.

Considering the number of aircraft that the IAF possesses, a division of air assets among theatre commands will be a willful mistake that could result in disastrous consequences in future conflict. Will the nation hold the present CDS responsible in case of such a debacle? The USAF has over 13,000 aircraft, and the Russian and Chinese air forces have over 3,000 aircraft each. The IAF has about 700. The division of air assets to theatre commands is not a viable option in India from a military effectiveness point of view.

(The writer commanded a MiG-29 squadron and was a test pilot with the ASTE)