By Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
Two opinions repeatedly made by senior Indian Air Force officers cannot be understated. The first is that the air force is imperative for successful air-land and air-sea battles. This underlines the operational importance of the service to both the army and the navy. Given the air medium which easily merges with space, the air force is best suited for the depth battle with the army managing the contact battle. Rounded up, the inference is that the air force by reaching deepest into the enemy territory without footprints on the ground is able to break the opponent’s will to fight. Thus the air force should be used for punitive strikes with least possibility of nuclear weapons retaliation.
The other opinion pertains to the present security scenario, where the defence minister, A.K. Antony issued his operational directive to the three defence services in December 2009 to prepare capabilities for a two-front war, with Pakistan and China. With its flexibility, prowess, technology and reach, and given the non-existent infrastructure in the east needed to facilitate ground forces, the IAF alone can provide dissuasive deterrence against China. While these opinions have merit, unfortunately, the first has not been accepted by the political leadership, and the second suggests that in the absence of political direction, the armed forces could well be preparing for the last war.
A peep into the aftermath of 26/11 attacks provides an insight into the state of things. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met the three defence service chiefs on 29 September 2008, three days after the daring terrorist attack commenced, when Indian intelligence had concluded that the Pakistan Army was behind the massacre. Intriguingly, the three chiefs who walked into the Prime Minister Office had not confabulated amongst themselves either formally in the Chiefs of Staff Committee, or informally to exchange notes. So, three different suggestions were given to the Prime Minster. The air force chief favoured a punitive strike in the form of an air raid; the army chief felt that this would escalate matters leading to a full scale war; while the navy chief refrained from commenting on what would be a series of air-land battles. The meeting concluded with the Prime Minister mumbling that forces be prepared for war; this strangely was the only meeting he had with his service chiefs on 26/11. After a good 10 days, when in any case it was obvious, the National Security Advisor, M.K. Narayanan informed the chiefs that India would not go to war with Pakistan.
This is how the nuclear-armed India suffered the wrath of audacious aggression. A service chief later told FORCE that there was a requirement for regular interaction between the Prime Minister and the service chiefs. According to him, unless compelled by domestic public opinion, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will desist from going to war as it would jeopardise the nation’s happy economic growth story. The chief, however, underplayed the need for more purple opinion amongst the three services; the olive green, blue and white uniforms need to see more of the others’ perspectives. Given these serious shortcomings in India’s national security, it is little wonder that the three services have their own doctrines and capability-building plans to prepare for a war that will not go according to the last script. The geopolitical imperatives and the nature of war have changed.
China is a risen economic and military power and conducts its foreign policy on actual rather than potential strength. A life-time China watcher, Henry Kissinger in his recent book, ‘On China’ feels that the risen, post-Mao China has gone back to its age-old wisdom; the preferred Chinese board game is wei qi (pronounced way chee) as against the Western preference for chess. Unlike chess which aims for total victory through a single head-on clash, wei qi is about a protracted campaign; strategic encirclement through a series of simultaneous engagements on a board. Translated into Chinese distinctive military theory, it suggests strategic flexibility that places a premium on victory through psychological advantage and avoidance of direct conflict.
Given this, there is little reason for China, which views itself pitted against the United States for supremacy in Asia-Pacific region, to have a direct conflict with India, a country it dislikes to be equated with. In a series of calculated moves to beget psychological advantage, Beijing has built a formidable infrastructure on the disputed border with India, demonstrated capability to air-lift large forces into Tibet, announced its doctrine of ‘limited nuclear deterrence’, and has secured an array of ballistic missiles with accurate and unique warheads in Tibet to intimidate Indian forces perched all along the 4,056km long border. China is backing Pakistan strategically and militarily to the extent that the latter appears to be another province of the former, has encircled India through its ‘string of pearls’ strategy, enticed India to continue with an unfavourable bilateral trade, and has allowed no concessions on Sikkim, and the border resolution. If anything, it has modified its stance on Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to suit its satellite province. The psychological pressure on India by wei qi is reflected in Delhi’s inability to ably support the Dalai Lama, Beijing’s Achilles’ heel, against China, and to stand up to Chinese shenanigans.
Consequently, the Indian armed forces lack a clear political directive on how to deal with China on a border which is neither agreed on maps nor on the ground. Senior army and air force ground commanders that FORCE has met over last two years, echoing the thinking of their headquarters, believe that the border dispute would be the most likely reason for China to commence a limited war with India. This is a throw-back to the 1962 war and the 1987 Somduroung Chu crisis when the Cold War was on and Chinese modernisation under Deng Xiaoping had not commenced. Beijing was balancing itself between the two big powers, was at war with itself and envious of India’s stature in the third world. Today, it has little need to fight a war with India on territorial matters. Its stated core interests are Tibet, Taiwan and South China Sea, issues on which it may abandon wei ji and seek direct confrontation. Until then, China will continue to press with its psychological pressure and support Islamabad, unlike previous wars, militarily in case of an India-Pakistan war with impunity.
Based on an inappropriate appreciation, the Indian Army is bracing itself for operational level defence, while the Indian Air Force hopes to achieve a limited offensive advantage if permitted an early initiative. Given army’s increasing force levels, the air force is reviewing its ‘joint operations directive’ for the air-land battles, and has since November 2010 started work on ‘maritime air operations’ with the navy. While inadequate connectivity is the operational nightmare of both the army and the air force, the latter is at sea on how to confront the plethora of Chinese ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as the fact that a catch-up with Chinese war preparedness is not possible. The gap will continue. Interestingly, neither worries about the doctrine of ‘limited nuclear deterrence’, which implies that nuclear weapons could be used in a border war to be fought on enemy’s soil. This issue is pushed under the carpet by military leaders saying that the government is prepared with its stated no-first-use nuclear weapons doctrine.
On the changed nature of warfare, the Chinese have developed a strategy of ‘unrestricted warfare’ that combines electronic, diplomatic, cyber, space, military coercion, economic and propaganda tools to deceive and exhaust an adversary. Probably the first rule of this warfare is that there are no rules. In the absence of a matching strategy that involves coordination between the civilian (both government and private) and military leadership, India will by 2022 end up placing more military resources on the Chinese front for a war that will not happen. Worse, India may provoke a war that was not to be.
The Pakistani front presents its own challenges. While the Indian military used to dealing with Pakistan since decades has correctly identified the changed shape of war, the response, for reasons beyond its control, is inadequate. Pakistan will unleash ‘hybrid war’ against India, which is a mix of conventional war, irregular war and tactics, terrorism, and even criminal behaviour in the battle-space.’ This will blur the military front and civilian rear, a challenge outside the capability of air-land battles. This is not all. Pakistan will press its advantages in a war with India to include liberal use of ballistic and cruise missiles to complement its air force, its unstated nuclear weapons use policy, its possession of tactical nuclear weapons, and fulsome Chinese support. Beijing will spring diplomatic and military surprises on India.
There is little gainsaying that India, and not Pakistan will have reasons to start a conventional war. China will label New Delhi as the aggressor at the UN underplaying Pakistan’s unbridled terrorism against India which would have caused the war. Beijing will employ its cyber and space offensive capabilities against India. Unlike Indian space capabilities (National Technical Research Organisation) which can track satellites, China can black-out Indian satellites in geosynchronous orbit, and kill satellites in low earth orbits meant for navigation of precision weapons (hoped to be operational by 2014); it has demonstrated its anti-satellite prowess, something that caused concern in the US. While this will be a setback for the IAF, the Indian Army faces the prospect of Chinese presence in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. In what form this combination of allies will eventually present itself in an India-Pakistan war is difficult to appreciate. What is certain is that Pakistan with Chinese help will seek to nullify Indian Army’s numerical advantage in Jammu and Kashmir, a prospect that has always worried GHQ, Rawalpindi. The Chinese will ensure that the Indian Army and IAF find it difficult to move their assets across theatres to reinforce capabilities against Pakistan. What China will not do is sign a bilateral defence pact with Pakistan as the latter desires, as this will draw it into a direct conflict with India which runs contrary to its ‘unrestricted warfare’ doctrine.
Against this backdrop, what does a two-front war mean? The term has been coined by the military and in a bottoms-up move it has been accepted by the defence minister. The military appreciation has focussed on two options: in a war between India and China, Pakistan will most certainly open the second front against India. However, in case of an India-Pakistan war, China is unlikely to enter into direct conflict with India. Based on this thinking, in the perspective of air-land and sea-air battles, the IAF, out of the three defence services, will indeed have the most important operational role to perform. Instead of a supporting role to the other services, the IAF will be on the offensive, starting its campaign early.
And this has led to the transformation of the IAF, indications of which were discernable in early Nineties when the IAF under Air Chief Marshal S.K. Kaul in 1994 opted for the Russian Su-30 aircraft. All earlier air force chiefs took pride in calling IAF a tactical air force meant to guard territorial integrity by supporting the land forces. During ACM Kaul’s tenure, the IAF published its first doctrine that emphasised the importance of counter-air operations (defensive and offensive) and substituted the term ‘close air support’ with ‘battlefield interdiction’. The IAF had clearly taken the lead by indicating that primacy of air power should be allowed to shape the battlefield. The argument was that the IAF should not commence any other operations that may jeopardise the attainment of air superiority. This, of course, was in Pakistani context as India had still not woken up to the Chinese military threat even though a frenetic infrastructure build-up in Tibet had begun.
After signing of the 1993 and 1996 bilateral treaties which accrued advantage to Beijing, there was a spurt in PLA’s border violations. The army and the air force were pressing the defence ministry to take action, which came in a fitful manner as the Prime Minister Office egged on by the external affairs ministry did not want to displease Beijing. From IAF’s perspective, ACM S.P. Tyagi in 2005, a full decade after the IAF sought primacy of offensive operations, was the first chief to take the bull by the horns. He coined and popularised the phrase ‘strategic reach’; the meaning was left ambiguous. Tyagi walked the extra mile to woo the media giving the impression that ‘strategic reach’ was primarily about reaching out to India’s area of interest from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Straits. In reality, it was about guarding India’s eastern front against China.
Strategic reach implied acquiring a number of assets: superior multi-role combat aircraft with air-to-air refuelling capability; network centricity to interlock long ranges, secure and real time communications, command and control, and beyond visual range weapons; AWACS and AEWs for better early warning, assured air defence and offensive operations; department of space at Air Headquarters for exploitation of space; and strategic airlift capability. A new post of assistant chief of air staff, operations (space) under then AVM D.C. Kumaria was created in 2007 with the explicit purpose to both interact with ISRO for passive exploitation of space, and to acquaint air force formations with the evolving concept of Aerospace Command. At heart, was the need to change the mindset of officers, to exhort them to think big for the full exploitation of air power. When FORCE asked ACM Tyagi towards the end of his tenure what he thought was his singular accomplishment, he said that irrespective of rank, all air warriors are familiar with the phrase ‘strategic reach’, the nuances be what it may. By the time ACM Tyagi retired, Chinese aggressive patrolling inside India could no longer be ignored. The army and the air force were pressing for definitive counter-moves.
The transformation in the IAF picked up momentum in 2007 under ACM F.H. Major, which happened to be the Platinum Jubilee year of the service. On the doctrinal side, he spoke of ‘strategic reach’ and ‘parallel war’. Even as the IAF undertakes counter-air and air defence operations, which supplement one another, its counter surface force operations in support of the army could progress simultaneously. This was against Pakistan (in support of Indian Army’s Cold Start doctrine). The operational anxieties against China were numerous; the front had been neglected for decades. After all, the military preparedness of any nation is directly proportional to its enemy. Had India seen China as its primary threat all these years, its military muscle would have been robust enough to cater for not only Pakistan but a two-front challenge.
Three things that needed immediate operational attention were the paucity of infrastructure for troops build-up for air-land battles (need for Advanced Landing Grounds [ALGs] until road infrastructure develops); the need to undertake operations with all types of aircraft (modernisation of airfield infrastructure, [MAFI]); and air defence. Given the pitiable state of roads in the eastern sector and the fact that Border Roads Organisation is not under the defence ministry, the air force’s big operational task is to supply land forces and also assist in inter and intra-theatre movement of forces especially before a conflict. Disused ALGs were to be resurrected and a large number of new ones as well as air fields were planned to be built.
The beginning was made by the then western air command chief, Air Marshal P.K. Barbora, who in his area of responsibility opened up three major ALGs at Daulet Beg Oldie, Fukche and Nyoma at high altitude for fixed wing aircraft between May and December 2008. While modernisation of infrastructure started apace in the eastern sector as well, Ladakh got a lot of media attention. In July 2009, under vice chief of air staff, Air Marshal Barbora, an Apex Committee for the North Eastern Region was created with an initial funding of Rupees 2,000 crore. The committee was responsible for improving the plethora of used and unused airfields and ALGs in the region.
Ladakh is a unique high-altitude battlefield with no roads, few tracks, and three military fronts against China, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, and Pakistan in Siachen. In the 1962 conflict, when India got the drubbing from China in Arunachal Pradesh (called NEFA then), in Ladakh, honours between the two armies were evenly shared. Since 1984, when India and Pakistan have been locked in the Siachen conflict, it is the IAF that has been sustaining the Indian Army at heights of over 10,000 feet. At the heart of all this, are two crucial air force stations at Leh (10,680 feet) and THOISE (10,066 feet), which is an acronym for Transit Halt for Indian Soldiers Enroute. THOISE has a remarkable history of its own about its transformation from 1962 onwards; it is presently an independent command and has a 10,000 feet runway to facilitate normal air maintenance operations by IL-76 and C-130J aircraft (once inducted, C-17 will operate from here as well), and will be a base for Su-30MKI aircraft. THOISE supports both, maintenance for Siachen and troops facing China (Sub-Sector North). While both Leh and THOISE air bases complement one another, their importance lies in the fact that they are on either side of Khardung La; for air maintenance the formidable 18,380 feet pass is no longer a handicap during winter months.
Ladakh in the northern sector and Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern sector present their own set of challenges for combat operations. The basic training involving familiarisation with the terrain in Leh started in August 2008, when four Su-30MKIs flew from Bareilly air force station (as an aside, FORCE was witness to these early air manoeuvres). Once air defence at Leh air force station is strengthened and necessary facilities are created, up to two Su-30MKI squadrons will be stationed between Leh and THOISE. It is argued that with the availability of Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA), there is little need to station Su-30MKI in Leh and other forward areas. The advantages of having Su-30MKI in Leh are numerous. It can take off with full weapons load and be refuelled by FRA for providing the entire 700km radius of turn; its mere presence will be deterrence against China; and it will provide the Su-30MKI with the twin operational option of being stationed in high altitude and in the depth.
In the eastern sector, there are plans to station four Su-30MKI squadrons by 2015. The big challenges here are search and rescue (SAR) and air defence, as the entire north-eastern region comprises tropical rain forests and deep vegetation. As classical air defence exercise between the army and air force is not possible in such terrain, the IAF has sought a mix of light-weight, mountain and medium-powered radars for surveillance. The AWACS, when available to the eastern air command for offensive operations could also be utilised for surveillance. While coordination between the eastern air and army commands on sharing UAV sortie information has been formalised since 2009, there are technical and terrain limitations that need to be overcome. The IAF’s best bet will be a dedicated military satellite expected to be built by ISRO by 2014. This will be used for round-the-clock surveillance, communications, and navigation. The IAF indeed stands at the cusp of change, as the only defence force with the capability to provide deterrence, and should it fail, to do India proud in a joint operational effort with the Indian Army.