May - 2013 ISSUE

Force Magazine
Reaching Across - October 2012
It’s this ‘quality’ that has won Indian Air Force accolades at home and abroad
By Air Marshal K.K. Nohwar (retd)

Ability of a nation’s military to create decisive effects — usually till its objectives are met — at a place of its choosing, or in theatres of war that could be well away from its national borders, could be defined as Strategic Reach.

During my course at the Air War College, Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, AL in 1997, our seminar in charge had asked us for ‘one-liners’ on any air force related issue. The best one-liner would be sent for publication in the college journal. One of the entries read, ‘Grass on the tarmac is strategic’. Viewed in the light of what had transpired just six years earlier during Operation Desert Storm, the import of the one-liner was clear; only an air force that is so large that some of its assets can lie idle during periods of ‘peace’ — and hence allow grass to grow on the tarmac — can mount an air campaign of the magnitude that the world witnessed live on their TV sets in January-February 1991.

While today’s technology has made it possible for such military adventurism — as demonstrated by the US-led coalition during Gulf War 1991 — the same was not easy in the past (in some cases more than 2,000 years ago) when, despite the absence of modern means of travel, kings/nations/plunderers forayed into distant lands either to expand their kingdoms (Chandragupta Maurya, Ashoka the Great, Alexander the Great), expand their empires (Spain, England, France), or in some cases for the sole purpose of adding to their coffers through loot and pillage (Mahmud Ghazni, Timur the Lame, Genghiz Khan, Attila the Hun, et al). The sheer size of the invading armies — and the reputation of their ‘invincibility’ that normally preceded them — would strike terror in the minds of the local rulers/kings who rarely put up a fight; in fact, most willingly offered their treasures and food to the invaders in return for clemency. Genghiz Khan, the greatest conqueror of all times, had the advantage of lightly clad horsemen as his army and was thus, able to extend his Strategic Reach from the Black Sea to Peking — a remarkable feat for the 13th century as it was almost four times the area conquered by Alexander the Great!

Strategic Reach: Genesis
Soon after Independence, once Pakistan realised that the Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir was not likely to accede to Pakistan, it sent frontier tribesmen led by regular army officers into Kashmir to capture Srinagar. Seeing the loot and plunder of his people, the Maharaja of Kashmir requested the Indian government for help on 24 October 1947 which was agreed to on the condition that the state of Jammu & Kashmir accedes to India. The Maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession on 26 October 1947.

The road towards Srinagar lay through Rajouri, Poonch and then through the Haji Pir Pass to Uri and onwards to Srinagar. Most of this road was already under the control of the tribals. The road through the Banihal Pass was not motorable. The only alternative for the Indian government was to activate the Indian Air Force (IAF) to prevent Srinagar from being captured. Early on 27 October 1947, troops of the 1st Sikh Regiment were airlifted in Dakotahs of the IAF to Srinagar, and were able to repulse the attack in the nick of time.

This was the first demonstration by the IAF of the fundamental characteristics of air power, viz. speed and reach. Although air power was used within the country, the timing of the operation was extremely critical, particularly in view of the inaccessibility (to the Srinagar Valley) by road. This, therefore, qualifies as the first effective demonstration of Strategic Reach by the IAF (RIAF then).

Sino-Indian Conflict of 1962: Fighting broke out on 20 October 1962 as a ‘self-defence counter attack’ by the Chinese with the intention of ‘expelling’ Indian troops from China’s claimed positions. The Indian Army put up a bitter fight at Rezang La in the Western sector and inflicted heavy casualties on the Chinese. On October 24, there was a lull in the fighting as the Chinese had recaptured all their claimed positions back from the Indian Army and were now trying to negotiate diplomatically with India to accept settlement of the presently held Line of Actual Control (LAC). During this brief interlude, IAF carried out airlift by An-12 and C-119 Packets of two troops of AMX-13 tanks and ammunition to Chushul (at an altitude greater than 14,000 ft). This gave the beleaguered Indian Army the much needed replenishments before the battle of Gurung Hill where the heroic action by the 114th Brigade of the Indian Army extracted the heaviest toll on the Chinese at Rezang La — a fact acknowledged by Peking radio. The gallant feat of the experienced and fearless IAF transport pilots — often flying at the limits of their endurance — once again helped the Indian Army withstand the Chinese onslaught when it came on 18 November 1962 and prevented their further advance towards Leh. This was the second time that the Strategic Reach of the IAF played a decisive role in maintaining the geography of our nation as we know it now.

1965 & 1971 Conflicts: Although the IAF had grown significantly since Independence, its role still remained that of a ‘tactical’ air force, with more than 80 per cent of air effort being devoted to Close Air Support and battlefield air interdiction during the 1965 conflict.

During the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict, the stellar role played by the Mi-4s to heli-lift the entire 311 Mountain Brigade by night on 9 December 1971, proved to be a game-changer. The airlift by helicopters of troops of 311 Mountain Brigade across the Meghana river in East Pakistan, and later the airdrop of nearly 700 troops of the 2nd Para Battalion at Tangail (by An-12, C-119, DC-3 Dakotah and Caribou) helped the Indian Army side-step the strongly held Ashugang bridge (Div strength Pakistani troops) and reach the gates of Dhaka by 16 December 1971, resulting in the early capitulation of the enemy in East Pakistan. Since 1971 there have been a few more occasions when Strategic Reach of the IAF has been put to the test.

Operation Cactus: One notable action was the rescue of President M. A. Gayoom of Maldives during the attempted coup by People’s Liberation Organisation of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) rebels on 3 November 1988. The audacious operation, code-named Operation Cactus, was carried out by IL-76 aircraft of 44 Squadron, IAF that flew non-stop from Agra to Hulule airfield, Male, a total distance of more than 2,500 km. The IL-76s got airborne at 6:03 pm IST, with troops of 50 (I) Para Brigade, within 12 hours of first receiving the message for help, and landed by 10 pm, after almost four hours of flying. What made the operation — the first strategic military intervention by India on the invitation of a legally appointed government — all the more dangerous was the uncertainty of the type of ‘reception’ that awaited the Indian troops on landing at Hulule airfield. Sheer grit and determination of the IAF aircrew to press on, regardless of the consequences — a reflection of the indomitable spirit inherited from gutsy pioneers like the venerable Air Commodore ‘Baba’ Mehar Singh — once again paid off and the Operation was a huge success.

Operation Pawan: The logistics support to the more than 100,000 troops of the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka from 1987-1990 was carried out by the IAF by flying more than 70,000 sorties by its transport aircraft and helicopters in support of the IPKF, without suffering any aircraft/helicopter losses. The objective of the IPKF was to wrest control of the Jaffna peninsula from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and this was achieved after tanks, BMPs, artillery and more troops were flown in, with the IAF carrying out more than 3,000 sorties in 20 days (from 11-31 October 1987) in support of this operation.

Despite the unpleasant outcome of the IPKF’s involvement in Sri Lanka, the role played by the IAF in keeping the IPKF supplied logistically cannot be undermined. That the IAF played a major role in maintaining the morale of the IPKF cannot be contested either.

The Strategic Reach of the IAF was on display yet again. Absence of any air opposition, barring small arms fire below 2,000 ft, permitted air transport operations and SHBO (Special Heliborne Operations) to go through as planned, although securing the IAF assets on ground at Palaly airfield was a huge challenge, given the proclivity of the LTTE for carrying out suicide attacks against airfields (as was to be proven at Katunayake airbase on 24 July 2001).

Gulf War 1991
The outcome of all the above campaigns was not lost on the leadership of the IAF who realised that in order to achieve the higher military objective — as ordained by the political leadership — it was mandatory to possess the military wherewithal to execute the mission. The Persian Gulf War of 1991 only served to endorse this view, for it was in this war where the relentless air campaign that began at 0300 hours on 17 January 1991, involving more than 2,430 fixed wing aircraft of the coalition forces in theatre, was able to separate Saddam Hussein and his military leadership from their fielded military forces within the first few hours itself. A total of 1,300 combat sorties were flown in the first 24 hours and resulted in severing the Iraqi C3I and the Integrated Air Defence networks. The power generation system for Baghdad was laid to rubble.

A total of 1,09,876 sorties were flown over the 43 day war, averaging 2,555 sorties/day. The targets for the strategic air campaign were the C2 structure, power generation plants, refined fuels and lubricants production facilities, transportation infrastructure of the Iraqi military, and finally the Iraqi Air Force itself. With the pinpoint accuracy achieved during the air campaign, collateral damage was minimised and Saddam Hussein was driven underground along with his cohorts.

Although the US-led coalition were given bases in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Turkey, and some as far from the Kuwaiti Theatre of Operations (KTO) as Spain and UK (for B-52s), the responsibility of ‘maintaining’ and providing the much-needed logistics support for the critical spares for the large fleet of aircraft and helicopters in theatre was that of Military Airlift Command (MAC) of the United States Air Force. MAC, with its fleet of C-141s, C-5s, and aircraft of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) flew almost 20,000 missions during the period 7 August 1990-19 April 1991 towards Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm, transporting more than 500,000 tonnes of load and ferrying 600,000 passengers. C-130s were used for tactical airlift of troops in theatre. The distance from Continental US (CONUS) to the theatre of operations was approximately 11,300 km. More than 250 KC-135s and about 50 KC-10s of the Strategic Air Command were deployed in the area of responsibility (AOR) and flew 20,401 sorties (79,032 hrs), refuelling 60,543 aircraft and offloaded 178 million gallons of fuel during Operation Desert Storm/Desert Shield.

With the extremely large coalition of air, land and naval forces available in the theatre in preparation for an offensive against Iraq, the opportunity to disrupt these forces on ground was too tempting to ignore. Expectedly, Saddam Hussein launched Scud attacks against Israel in the hope that Israel will be drawn into the war, leading to a certain war between Jordan and Israel — another Arab-Israeli war, thereby shifting the focus from the liberation of Kuwait. Scuds were also launched against coalition bases in Saudi Arabia. The Theatre Ballistic Missile (TBM) defences (Patriots) and hard kill of Scud sites/launchers was a challenge that faced the coalition forces right through the war. Scuds have a limited range of 270 km. With greater ranges on present day TBMs/Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs), amassing such huge air/ground/naval armadas in/near the theatre of operations would need careful consideration in future.

Air superiority and air supremacy was achieved in the skies over Iraq after the Iraqi air defence system was paralysed in the opening rounds of Operation Desert Storm. It was unthinkable for the US ground forces to operate without the skies above them being secure; the last time that a US soldier was killed due to enemy air action in the battlefield was in the Korean War.

Gulf War 2003
The US-led coalition forces launched their surprise military invasion of Iraq at 0534 hrs Baghdad Time on 20 March 2003. By 15 April 2003, Tikrit was captured and the coalition declared the invasion to be effectively over; however, it was not until 18 December 2011 that the last US troops finally withdrew from Iraqi soil!

The air armada of the coalition comprised 1801 combat and support aircraft (not counting US Army helicopters). Extensive use was made of Precision Guided Munition (PGMs) (68 per cent of weapons dropped were PGMs) that were guided to their targets by laser beams, satellite signals or TV image matching. Over 78 per cent of the 19,898 strike sorties flown were in support of ground forces. An important take-away from the 2003 Gulf War was that ‘wars of pre-emption’ were to become an accepted part of US strategy for waging wars in future.

Impact on PLAAF
The lessons of the Gulf Wars were not lost on the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) who were able to convince the senior leadership of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the Central Military Commission (CMC) about the need for a strong air force that could carry out operations independent of the army — a philosophy that was anathema to the PLA thus far. The restructuring of the PLAAF with multi-role fighters began in full earnest soon thereafter, although changes in their employment philosophy took much longer. The 1999 Kosovo conflict and the Afghan War of 2001 convinced the PLAAF that a powerful air force can play a decisive role in war.

Lt Gen. Liu Yazhou, also dubbed the ‘Douhet of China’, in his monograph Building an Offensive and Decisive PLAAF observes that whenever incidents occur anywhere across the globe where US interests lie, the USAF is usually the first responder. He has urged the PLA/PLAAF leadership to consider adopting a similar strategy! After the first Gulf War he appeared convinced that “Air strikes not only fulfill military effects but also achieve national objectives — and that air power is used not merely to show military might but to demonstrate national resolve”.

Lt Gen. Liu Yazhou is a senior PLAAF officer, a political commissar at the PLA’s National Defense University (NDU), and has recently been promoted to full general rank on 30 July 2012. More significantly, being the son-in-law of former president of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Li Xiannian, he is considered a ‘Princeling’ along with the likes of Xi Jinping. With such impressive credentials, his vision for the future path to be taken by PLAAF would certainly be acceptable to the CMC.

PLAAF has begun its journey towards achieving Strategic Reach in full earnest with the induction of Su-27 Air Superiority Fighters (ASFs); Su-30 MKK Multi Role Fighters; J-10 Multi Role Fighters; J-11 ASFs/Multi Role Fighters in sufficient numbers (PLAAF already has 493 of these fourth generation fighters); 20 IL-76 and 120 Y-8 (based on AN-12) medium range transport aircraft; 5 KJ-2000 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) (based on IL-76 air frame) and 4 KJ-200 Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) aircraft (based on Y-8 air frame). On order are 30 IL-76 MD medium range transport aircraft and 4 IL-78 Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA) from Russia to enhance its transport and support aircraft fleets respectively. Presently, the PLAAF relies on 10 H-6 bombers modified for air-to-air refuelling. The H-6 can carry up to six CJ-10A Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACMs) (with a range of up to 2,200 km) giving the PLAAF a strategic strike capability within the Asia-Pacific region. China is also developing the Xian H-8 stealth bomber — a B-2 lookalike — which could carry up to 18 tonnes of bombs or stealth cruise missiles that would have the range to reach targets in the US. With likely in-flight refuelling capability, such a bomber would increase the strategic reach of the PLAAF considerably.

To expand its transport fleet further — ostensibly to cater to its shortcomings in airlift capabilities as revealed during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake — two new transport aircraft are being designed indigenously; one is the heavy-lift Y-20 (in the same league as the C-17) and the other is the Y-9 (to replace the Y-8), which is in a similar class as the C-130. The Y-20 could also be the future FRA for the PLAAF.

With the launch of its first aircraft carrier — ‘Liaoning’ — on 25 September 2012, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has taken the first steps towards a Blue Water capability. Although this event is touted ‘more a stepping stone’ than a milestone in the history of the PLAN, the real capability to venture beyond the South China Sea would accrue only once more indigenously built aircraft carriers are delivered beyond 2015. The J-15 (an upgraded Chinese version of the Su-33), and possibly the newly revealed J-21 stealth fighter, are likely to eventually form the complement of PLAN fighters on board its carriers. For the foreseeable future (next 10-15 years), therefore, the strategic reach of the PLAN would be confined to the Second Island Chain, at best.

Where Do We Stand?
Analysis of the 1991 Gulf War, the 1999 Kosovo conflict and the 2001 Afghan War has clearly demonstrated the global reach of the US and its willingness to wield global power in areas where American interests lie – no matter where on the globe. Particularly after the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, once the US took the decision to liberate Kuwait, the first step was to get troops into theatre to prevent a likely push by Saddam Hussein into Saudi Arabia. Heavy airlift capability of MAC became the lynchpin of this effort. What made this airlift – supported by mid-air refuellers – successful was the extensive practice during peace time in these roles by the concerned aircrew. The operational mission was nothing but a repeat of the same; only the destination was different. There were, of course, some occasions when the tankers flew directly into the war zone without fighter escort to help out stranded fighters, braving interceptions/SAM engagements, which they took in their stride.

It is heartening to note that the IAF, too, has been exercising its heavy lifters and mid-air refuellers regularly, not only during exercises within the country, but also during exercises abroad, viz. Exercise Cooperative Cope Thunder in Alaska (June 3); Exercise Red Flag in the US (August 8); Exercise Garuda in France (June 5 and June 10); Exercise Eastern Bridge in Oman (October 9) and Exercise Golden Eagle in South Africa (September 4). During all these exercises, the focus has been to learn from each other’s best practices. Besides the fighter aircrew, the heavy airlift and the FRA aircrew also gained experience in these operational exercises which involved ferry of IAF fighters across the globe. The timely humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions carried out by the IAF around the globe have also added to their experience. That they have been well appreciated and acknowledged by the world community – most of all by the affected nations – has been the icing on the cake.

The professionalism and prowess of the IAF fighter pilots has been acknowledged by all the air forces with whom the IAF has participated in exercises, whether in India or abroad. In a lighter vein, it is also rumoured that after the (poor?) performance of the USAF F-15s against the IAF’s Su-30 K/ M-2000/ Bisons during Exercise Cope India 2003, the USAF is believed to have lobbied in Congress for greater numbers of F-22s!

The Indian Army and the Indian Navy (IN) have also been engaging friendly foreign nations in service-specific and joint exercises periodically. Among others, the Indian Army has recently conducted Ex Bold Kurukshetra with the Singapore armed forces and Ex Maitree with Thailand, the latter with a focus on counter-insurgency (COIN) in rural and urban terrain. Co-ordinated patrols (CORPAT) of the Malacca Straits region are carried out regularly by the IN along with the navies of Indonesia and Thailand. The Malabar series of exercises are conducted annually between IN and the US Navy. The navies of Australia, Singapore and Japan had also participated in Exercise Malabar in 2007, however, presently only the USN and Japanese Maritime Self Defence Forces participate in the Malabar series of exercises along with the IN. Events during these exercises include surface action group exercises; anti-submarine warfare; humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HADR); helicopter cross–deck evolutions; visit; board; search and seizure operations to counter piracy and terrorist acts at sea, maritime strike, air defence and encounter exercises. Valuable lessons are learnt about each other’s best practices and the relevance of own tactics techniques and procedures validated. Shortcomings in weapon systems in order to remain contemporary are also a major learning objective of such exercises.

The MILAN biennial gathering of navies of the littorals at Port Blair aims to foster goodwill through professional and social interaction. Today, navies of 12 countries (Australia, Bangladesh, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam) participate in MILAN, an initiative of the IN started in 1995 to promote ‘Friendship across the Seas’.

Such initiatives help promote camaraderie (through social interactions) and build confidence in each other’s capabilities (through professional interaction), paving the way for cooperation if the need arises. It would be pertinent to note that the Malabar series of exercises in 2011 were held off the Okinawa coast, reflecting the strategic reach of the IN to conduct operations thousands of kilometres away from its home, albeit as part of a coalition.

The modernisation of the IAF is progressing systematically in keeping with its foremost responsibility of ensuring sovereignty of Indian airspace. That it possesses the inherent potential for enforcing coercive diplomacy is not lost on the leadership of the nation who have always supported the IAF’s modernisation unconditionally.

What is needed for Strategic Reach to be Effective?

• Timely and reliable intelligence {Satellite/ ELINT/COMINT/HUMINT (Op CACTUS)} is vital to the successful outcome of any operations
• Credible, deployable air defence system is an inescapable requirement to secure the base of operations in theatre
• Modern war-fighting capability with all forces — expect the enemy to have modern weapons too
• Dispersal of air assets, including high value air assets, i.e. AWACS, FRA, AEW&C etc. in the theatre of operations
• Ability to deal with non state actors with a firm hand
• Develop all-round military capability to sustain operations well away from own borders, should the need arise


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