It’s imperative for the IAF to adapt to latest technologies and train its men to effectively use networked environment
Air Marshal Ramesh Rai (retd)
Capturing the exact character of a future war with definite certainty is extremely difficult but it could be assumed that future wars will be multi-dimensional, complex, with information domination, immense lethality and unpredictability. Future wars won’t be about explosive destruction alone, but also about synchronisation and manipulation by information in the military, political and social arenas incrementing the hybridity of war.
Such a trend has already been demonstrated by Russia in Estonia in 2007, in Georgia in 2008 and in Crimea in 2014 where a tailored mix of regular forces using conventional weapons, irregular forces using irregular tactics, insurgents, cyber intrusions and political influences were employed to meet the objectives. This trend implies that a future war would have kinetic and non-kinetic components intermeshed to achieve the war aims.
Specifically speaking, the kinetic component comprises the armed forces of a nation, while the non-kinetic component could vary from cyber, social media operations, subversion, trade warfare, resources warfare etc. Given its large canvas, the non-kinetic component could emerge as a great force multiplier if suitably aggregated in the kinetic arena. Our armed forces have focussed on kinetic action and kinetic targeting in the application of military force and the non-kinetic capabilities have received little or no attention. For future wars, non-kinetic capabilities will have to complement kinetic action and combining war fighting tenets of each would be a pre-requisite for victory.
India has been the target of irregular and unrestricted warfare capabilities of Pakistan and China. In the future, this hybrid threat will be more pronounced as China consolidates its new operational concept of fighting an informationalised war. In a two-front war, the hybridity could vary from a mix of regular forces using conventional weapons intermeshed with irregular forces using irregular tactics with support of terrorists and insurgents, cyber intrusions, and possibly some dimension of social and political warfare. While the armed forces would be called upon to tackle the regular war component and portions of the irregular war, the cyber intrusions, political and social dimensions would need a whole of nation approach. However, cyber intrusions that inhibit or constrain military operations will have to be dealt with by the armed forces.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) would also need to understand this new hybrid dimension and rework its doctrine, training and fighting ethos both for a full-spectrum conventional war and an irregular war. For this, two broad areas emerge. First, building capability and training for full-spectrum conventional war and second developing ability to adapt the same capability for operations in an irregular war. This framework has very wide operational, technological and training implications. At one end of the spectrum are the limited technological threats from militant groups or non-state actors and at the other, the highest level of technological sophistication from the adversary’s air force. The IAF will thus have to build capability of operating across the entire spectrum with the distinct possibility of having to operate at both ends either concurrently or nearly so. Achieving this adaptability will be challenging, and the quantum of air power capabilities resident in our air force would have to train to be rapidly scaled for employment in irregular warfare, while retaining the ability to perform the core roles and missions.
Four emerging trajectories provide a strategic context for capability building and training i.e. 5th Generation manned and unmanned platforms, regular and irregular warfare, networked war and cyber war. These trajectories will need to be built with a multi-domain approach underlying the fundamental principle of joint warfare. The key doctrinal update for the IAF would be to integrate the cyber domain into the war-fighting doctrine and operational concept. Air forces exploit the third dimension of the operational environment and leverage speed, range, flexibility, precision, tempo, and lethality to create the desired effects within and from the air. This will now have to be done by intermeshing cyber offensive and defensive operations and making them a part of IAF’s overall employment concept.
Some unique cyber effects that could be employed are, paralysing enemy air defence system and communication using malware, executing feints, selective computer destruction of enemy combat systems through online manipulation and invading C2 systems of the enemy to mention a few.
In Operation ‘Outside the Box’ Israeli Air Force used the cyber domain by employing Electronic warfare technology like the ‘Suter network attack system’ of the US Air Force which fed false targets and manipulated sensors of Syrian radars during their aerial strike on the suspected nuclear plant at Al Kibar site in Deir ez-Zor region of Syria on 6 September 2007. Similar systems would be required to be developed for the IAF to evade Pakistani radars in another Balakot type strike. Networked cyber capability, teamed with IAF operations, will be imperative to close the loop between cyberspace and its war fighting functions.
The key operational update for the IAF would be to transform itself to fight a fully networked force. Networked wars are conducted through an operational data link (ODL) which links all sensors, systems, weapon platforms and C2 centres for data to flow to create an enhanced situational awareness and then to bring to bear the most appropriate weapon on the target. Eventually, it is the formulation of networked tactical level actions that will define how we fight and train for war. Resident in a networked force is the identification of friend and foe function which would avoid fratricide. The IAF already has a secure encrypted Air Force Network (AFNET) operational since 2010 facilitating enhanced communications and data transfer for the air defence setup.
The Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) connecting data of all ground-based radar sensors and AWACS rides on the AFNET. The IAF will need all its manned and unmanned platforms, ISR systems, Surface Based Weapons systems to ride on the secure ODL to transfer data to and from the IAACS, between platforms and C2 centres to complete all elements for netcentric operations. Once networked it will call for a major conceptual shift in conducting warfare specifically, adopting a new way of thinking i.e. network-centric thinking and applying it to operations with a focus on enhancing collective combat power. In networked warfare, the essential aspect is how to compress the time needed to analyse the huge amount of data for a faster and a well-informed decision. This time compression in decision making and force application will be pivotal to winning a future war.
Future wars would be technology intensive and infested with fifth/ sixth generation systems. Precision, stand-off weapons, advanced air and space-based sensors, high yield weapons, long range missiles, 5th generation aircraft, stealthy drones, would probably be the order of the day leaning in favour of who use them more effectively. Technology beyond LCA and Rafale would have to be inducted so that the IAF has platforms and systems more capable than those of our adversaries including with higher stand-off ranges of air-to-air missiles and air-to-ground weapons. The idea being that the air force must field a combination of platforms, weapons and effects with greater speed and reach.
Aircraft with all-aspect stealth, high performance airframes, advanced avionics and networking would be required to counter the Chinese J-20 and J-31, 5th generation fighters. But more than platforms and systems, 5th generation war as a concept is where China is headed. The IAF will be compelled to follow the structure for 5th generation war as each is a result of the other. Fifth-generation air warfare is a concept that encompasses and combines network-centricity, combat cloud operational construct and fusion warfare. (http://airpower.airforce.gov.au/APDC/media/PDF-Files/Working%20Papers/WP43-Fifth-Generation-Air-Warfare.pdf)
This calls for a four-layered grid construct as a way of war-fighting i.e., a sensing grid, information grid, effects grid and command grid linked to a combat cloud construct. The sensing grid would detect, track, and identify targets and the information grid would process and communicate information quickly or make it available in the cloud. The combat cloud serves as a repository of sensed information which enables targeting information to be pushed from one node and extracted by another without the need for platforms to communicate directly with each other. Manned and unmanned platforms would use such targeting information from the effects grid or the cloud and engage targets to create the desired effects by integrated use of ISR systems, radars, surface-to-air missile systems and cyber systems. The command grid would connect the decision-makers into the loop. The fundamental aspect is of interconnectivity and sharing of information for quick decision-making and integrated action crucial for regular and irregular war-making.
The air force’s difficulty in transforming to support irregular forms of warfare emerges from the fact that it traditionally trains for its core functions and is not structured organisationally to meet the unique requirements of irregular war. Quite often in irregular warfare, air force participation is reactionary answering the call to deliver troops, gather intelligence, medical evacuation etc, though, certain tasks using fixed wing fighters/ armed helicopters/ UAVs for strikes against surface targets, inserting special forces and air assault could be planned for. The use of 12 Mirages for the Balakot air strike was a classic example of such planning.
For targeting terrorists/ individuals/ groups without risking lives or aircraft, it would be essential to induct armed UAVs or UCAV into our arsenal. For an indigenous solution, UCAV version of the Brahmos could be fitted on the Rustom-II and made operational. With no risk of aircrew loss, platform attrition becomes less onerous from both a moral and political standpoint. Armed UAVs, therefore, ought to be the preferred option for high-risk, high payoff missions expanding the range of our coercive or punitive methods and must be inducted.
The basic concept underlying the employment of the armed UAV/ fixed wing against individuals and groups aircraft is to quickly kill an emerging target before it disappears back into hiding. This requires tactics, techniques procedures and training formalised and intermeshed into training programmes for a more structured approach towards irregular warfare. Understanding the role of air power in irregular warfare begins with a firm grasp of how air power is applied within the conventional realm, thereafter, building upon this knowledge, combined with the key differences between conventional and irregular warfare. This holds the key to success in an irregular war.
The hybridity of a future war will have dimensions in the non-kinetic arena which may increment in the design of future battles. The IAF will have to adapt to this emerging reality by changing its war fighting concepts, structures and organisation to accommodate this new behemoth. To contest a future war, the fundamental change would be to learn to fly and fight in cyber space in a networked environment. The future battle will see a swarm of technologies from armed UAVs assembling their formations and pushing toward the targets, coupled with 5th Generation platforms/ weapon systems, robotics, AI and AR/VR (augmented reality/ virtual reality), which the IAF will have to induct, develop and operationalise along with the requisite evolution in the cognitive domain.
Our adversaries will also fight using sophisticated multi-domain networks and success or failure will depend on which force is better trained to make collective capability more effective. It is imperative that the IAF not only endeavours to gain a technological edge over its adversaries but also trains its human element and more precisely the decision makers to effectively utilise the networked environment. It will, therefore, be important to understand, at every level, how to integrate the physical and cognitive domains in air planning and targeting as the future vision of air power will probably be a combination of the two.
(The writer is a former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Training Command, Indian Air Force)