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Force Magazine
Guest Column - Force Magazine
Experienced Hands
Air power led by the IAF plays a crucial role in India’s defence posture
Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd)
By AVM Manmohan Bahadur (retd)

The Indian Air Force (IAF) held a seminar on 5 September 2014 to commemorate the beginning of the 50th year of the 1965 War with Pakistan. The almost 600-strong audience had a big share of veterans of the war, some of whom had travelled from places as distant as Chennai and Hyderabad to attend the event. The common thread running through all the presentations and discussions was the ‘never say die’ spirit of the IAF, even as it absorbed the substantial losses during the war to come out on top. Since then, the IAF has modernised at a fast rate and by its performance in the 1971 War, Kargil conflict, the ongoing Siachen ops and the numerous instances of Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) situations, it has become the instrument of first choice for the government.

The recent visit by the Prime Minister to Kargil was watched with great interest and his comment that Pakistan must desist from waging a proxy war against India drew an expected rebuttal from Islamabad. The response of the Indian ministry of external affairs (MEA) was that with respect to terrorism,“…our tool kit is not restricted.” And the prima donna in the tool kit is Indian air power led by the IAF.

India has a very challenging strategic neighbourhood that needs careful tending. Notwithstanding the debate whether we have a strategic culture or not, what is for sure is that since independence India has taken positive steps towards acquiring an attitude, based not on cultural factors but on realpolitik security considerations. And the examples of India becoming hardnosed are many as it balances its relations with China, the US, Russia, the Central Asian Republics and Japan. Our forays into the seas bordering Vietnam, the voting pattern in the UN Human Rights Commission vote on Sri Lanka, the abstention in the UN vote on Crimea and the standing firm on solving the border issue with China (during President Xi Jingping’s recent visit) show that India’s foreign policy is pragmatic.

The foreign policy of any nation, to be effective, has to be backed with military power. In our context the navy needs to be strengthened for that’s where threats to our trade and commerce lie. What is also certain is that, at present and for the foreseeable future, India would mandatorily need boots on ground when it comes to control of territory. But what is also a given, and perhaps pivotal, is the primary role of air power in guarding our national interests, power projection in our strategic neighbourhood — and if it comes to a crunch, in war fighting, both over land and on the high seas. The IAF turns a ripe and young 82 this year on October 8 and is shaping up well to take on this mantle. It has a strategy that is visible to the discerning.

Peaceful co-existence is the bedrock of our dealings with other nations. Keeping that as a foundation, we must ensure that our guard is not lowered — and this is for many in this country who question the wisdom of defence spending, especially high cost of technologically intensive procurements like the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). Air power is technology intensive and has become the weapon of choice of the politician due its many unique attributes, foremost amongst them being the capability to escalate and de-escalate a situation quickly.

With its capability to influence the environment, air power operates in almost the entire ‘conflict’ spectrum. The capability of air power to deliver such expectations is inherent in its characteristics. Thus, reach, mobility, flexibility and response, all enable a nation to convey its will in times of need. Its impermanence does not make it look like an intrusive force and scalability enables rapid ramping up or disengagement. Another feature, which often goes unremarked, but has far-reaching effects is the ‘virtual’ nature of air power. Its omni-presence is the intangible which, instead of exerting its influence in a well defined sector whose boundaries can easily be drawn, is felt in a probability field which often encompasses a considerable portion of the area of action. In its short history, air power has managed to earn this aura.

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