Air force has primacy in deterrence, war and diplomacy
AVM Anil Golani (retd)
A strategic force can be defined as a military force capable of assuming command of its own medium by its own resources. Until the advent of the aeroplane, the army and navy were valid expressions of the nation’s ultimate military power on land and sea respectively. With the development of aircraft, however, that ceases to be true — Lord Trenchard
‘The bomber will always get through.’ This phrase used by Stanley Baldwin in his speech A Fear for the Future given to the British Parliament in 1932 had its essence in the fact that the man on the street cannot protect himself from a relentless bombing campaign from the air. True to the times that were then prevalent there was very little air defence could do until the invention of radars before the second world war.
The nature of war continued to change and evolve with the growth of technology, however the three basic characteristics of war i.e., firepower, mobility and the freedom to exploit the same remained. Firepower increased with modern precise munitions, mobility increased from mechanised forces on the ground to fast attack crafts, frigates, submarines and carrier strike groups on the high seas and supersonic stealth fighters and bombers in the third dimension. Until the advent of air power, warfare remained two dimensional and therefore air power in its initial years was treated as an adjunct of land or maritime power. It was only when the effects of utilising the third domain gained salience that a gradual and reluctant admission of the air force as an independent and separate fighting force was acknowledged.
In an amorphous and changing global environment the concept of national security has also evolved from the ancient kingdoms and civilisations to the present-day nation state. Major wars on the scale of the world wars in the last century may have been averted in the last seven to eight decades but inter and intra state conflicts continue to challenge national, regional and global powers in their quest for peace. National security has come to encompass varied components from environment, energy, economy, food, health, cyber, demography, physical infrastructure etc. The threats to a nation’s security also increasingly emanate from diverse domains of space, cyber, information, economic, biological and perception/ cognitive warfare domains. As technologies continue to mature and innovations challenge the strategists and policy makers the salience of air power or aerospace power as the key enabler to achieve national security objectives remains unchallenged.
Emerging as a growing economy despite the Covid pandemic, India continues to increase its GDP year after year. Surpassing the United Kingdom, India is today the fifth largest economy in terms of nominal GDP even as its per capita GDP remains low because of the size of its population. The latest Global Firepower Index ranks India in the fourth position among the 140 countries considered in the survey.
Having unsettled borders with two nuclear armed neighbours who pose a collusive threat, India has no option but to have a strong and resilient military capability that can deliver in the hour of need. As one of the largest democracies that takes pride in its strategic autonomy by not being a part of any military alliance, India also has the moral obligation of being a net security provider in the region. Aerospace power forms an essential and inescapable component of the nation’s comprehensive national power equation without which peace would not only be difficult, but well-nigh impossible to maintain and sustain.
Air Power as a Deterrent
The key to maintaining peace is to ensure that you have a strong capability with the national resolve to utilise it when required. India has come a long way from the limitations imposed upon the employment of air power in the 1962 Indo-China war to the punitive strikes carried out by the IAF in February 2019. The air strike carried out by the IAF early in the morning on 26 February 2019, by Mirage 2000 aircraft on a terror training camp across the border in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan took the adversary by surprise. Carried out at a time and place of its choosing, in retaliation to the Pulwama terror attack a few days earlier, the message was loud and clear.
Air power had demonstrated its key attributes of precision, surprise, stealth and shock effect by these air strikes. Even though there was retaliation by the PAF a day later, the reality had probably dawned that the risk of escalation would probably be a heavy price to pay. The retaliatory strike and the capture of the IAF pilot Wg Cdr Abhinandan after his MiG-21 had been shot down was proclaimed as victory by the PAF, terming it ‘Operation Swift Retort’ largely for the domestic audience in Pakistan. With India on the ‘moral high ground’ international opinion was against Pakistan and air power had proved itself a valuable coercive and deterrent tool, forcing Pakistan to change its behaviour. The punitive strike carried out by the IAF ensured that Pakistan would think twice before aiding and abetting terror strikes across the Line of Control.
The IAF capability since then has increased with the induction of Rafale fighter aircraft equipped with long range precision stand-off weapon capability. The nation’s air power capability would need to continuously train, equip and demonstrate its prowess to remain the preferred political instrument of choice for the application of military power.
Air Power in HADR
With the acquisition of C 17 Globemaster and C 130 Hercules aircraft, IAF’s strategic reach has increased manifold. Operations undertaken to deliver drinking water to Maldives in September 2014 to the rescue of Indian nationals and those of other countries from strife torn Yemen in March 2015 have time and again demonstrated the IAF capability and rapid response in aid of its diaspora and friendly foreign countries. IAF C 17 moved heavy earth moving equipment to Visakhapatnam to aid in rescue and relief work after the cyclone Hudhud struck the east coast near Visakhapatnam, in October 2014.
After the Nepal earthquake in April 2015, the first Hercules C 130J took off from Delhi, four hours after the earthquake had struck Nepal. During the Covid pandemic the IAF transport fleet was extensively used to deliver vaccines to neighbouring countries and import oxygen for domestic requirements. The helicopter fleet of the IAF has been extensively used within the country from the Uttarakhand flash floods in June 2013 when eight different types of helicopters were positioned within 48 hours, operating from various locations to the Kerala floods of 2018, when stranded people were rescued from flooded areas under inclement weather, food supplies carried out over inaccessible areas and medical teams flown to bring succour and relief to the people.
Cheetah and Chetak helicopters of the IAF have carried out innumerable daring rescue missions over glaciers and high-altitude areas, rescuing stranded foreign nationals and carrying out casualty evacuation (casevac) missions beyond the call of duty. The Mi 17 helicopters with Bambi Buckets have doused fires in jungles and over built-up terrain in cities, and Cheetah helicopters have assisted the Power Grid Corporation to help repair HT cables over inaccessible terrain. With a versatile fleet of Chinook heavy lift helicopters to the medium lift Mi 17V5 and ALH Dhruv and Cheetah helicopters the IAF helicopter fleet deployed across the country is always the first responder to any crisis.
Power Projection Through Air Power
The IAF carries out a fire power demonstration called ‘Vayushakti’ every three years at the Pokhran firing range in Rajasthan. This day and night display of multi-spectrum capability of the IAF is witnessed by the President, Prime Minister, defence minister, chiefs of the army and navy apart from other dignitaries and defence attaches of friendly foreign countries based in New Delhi.
Exercise ‘Vayushakti 2022’ scheduled for 7 March 2022 will have more than 150 aircraft of the IAF participating and displaying their operational capability to undertake offensive air operations, air defence and special ops in a network centric environment. Simulated enemy targets on the ground would be targeted and destroyed by a variety of precision guided munitions, missiles, rockets and bombs by the entire fighter fleet of the IAF which would for the first time include the Rafale aircraft. Indigenous capability would also be on display by the weaponised version of the Advanced Light Helicopter ‘Dhruv’ and the Light Combat Aircraft ‘Tejas.’
Special Heliborne Operations (SHBO) troop insertion by low hover jump with the Garud Special Forces carrying out simulated anti insurgency operations in urban terrain would also be showcased. The indigenously developed ‘Akash’ surface to air guided missile and ‘Astra’ air to air missile would also be on display. The last Vayushakti exercise carried out in 2019 was just two days after the deadly Pulwama terror attack in which 40 CRPF soldiers were martyred, and ten days before the IAF struck the Jaish-e-Mohammed terror training camp across the border in Balakot. This kind of an exercise carried out by the IAF gives a sneak preview of its capability to hit the adversary hard and with precision, in conventional operations, in an urban warfare anti-terror operations scenario and counter insurgency operations including the insertion of special ops forces by helicopters and fixed wing aircraft.
Air Power in Diplomacy
The IAF which had largely been insular and inward-looking post-Independence, till the end of the last century, was faced with hard choices as it fought wars with both its neighbours. The process of consolidation took time and its outlook changed post-economic reforms of 1991 and its engagement with the United States of America leading to the Next Steps in Strategic Partnership in 2005 and the Indo-US Civil Nuclear Cooperation Agreement 123 signed in 2005-06.
India’s isolation by the international community and the sanctions imposed post- 1974 nuclear tests forced the country to remain non-aligned and prevented it from being a part of any military alliance, with the aim of maintaining its strategic autonomy. The first bilateral exercise of the IAF took place with the USAF in February 2004 when their F-15 aircraft came to Gwalior and operated in joint exercises with the MiG-21 Bison, Su-30K and Mirage 2000 aircraft of the IAF. This was followed by Exercise Cooperative Cope Thunder in Jul 2004 when six Jaguars of the IAF flew to Alaska to take part in the exercise with the USAF. This was the first time that IAF fighter aircraft had crossed borders other than for war.
The growing recognition of IAF’s prowess has led India to actively participate in bilateral exercises on a regular basis with France, United Kingdom, USA, UAE, Oman, Singapore, Japan, Thailand, Russia, Egypt and Israel along with a couple of multilateral exercises. These exercises provide an opportunity to understand each other’s training, operational and maintenance philosophies apart from building strategic partnerships.
Professional military interaction in live exercises differs significantly from training courses in each other’s academies and institutions as these exercises help in forging bonds between the participating forces that would greatly benefit joint operations in a conflict or HADR scenario. The IAF in the last five years has carried out more than thirty bilateral/ multilateral exercises with Air Forces of friendly foreign countries in all the regions of the world. In the neighbouring countries tabletop exercises have been carried out to practise simulated disaster relief operations. The IAF has also carried out exercises in coordination with the Indian Navy while they carried out exercises with the Carrier Strike Groups of USA, France and United Kingdom. The IAF aerobatic teams Surya Kiran and Sarang have performed in displays at the leading air shows in Singapore and Dubai.
Air Power in Future Restructuring
As the Indian armed forces look at restructuring or reorganising its commands in order to fight future wars, the primacy of air power must not be lost sight of. The core competency and the capability of the IAF in terms of lethality, precision, reaction time and network centric ability to operate in a multi threat environment must be capitalised to achieve the desired results in the shortest possible time frame. The IAF in the maritime security/ threat environment with its short sensor to shooter time, in coordination with the maritime patrol aircraft of the Indian Navy can be the game changer in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The proposed organisation structure should be able to capitalise on the IAF’s strengths with its new generation aircraft and modern weapon systems by ensuring that the opening salvo and the decisive blow is given by air power. In the Indian scenario, with limited availability of fighter aircraft, albeit with modern, precision stand-off weapons the unity of command for optimal utilisation of these assets must be ensured.
Air Power Capability
The Light Combat Aircraft ‘Tejas’ designed and developed by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) in collaboration with HAL is a fourth generation, single engine multi role combat aircraft. The aircraft has been recognised as a potent platform for air combat and offensive air support missions with the ability of undertaking reconnaissance and anti-shipping roles as well. This agile fighter aircraft capable of operating in a high threat environment has showcased its skills at the Dubai Airshow in 2021, in Sri Lanka the same year to commemorate the 70th anniversary celebrations of the Sri Lankan Air Force and the Singapore Airshow in February 2022.
Being developed as a ‘Flagship’ made-in-India fighter aircraft which has already been inducted into the IAF, the fighter has attracted interest worldwide with the probability of exports to some friendly countries in the neighbourhood. With an edge in its performance in terms of avionics and Beyond Visual Range missiles the aircraft, if exported, would lead to a further strengthening of its ties with the concerned countries, apart from giving a significant boost to indigenous defence industry.
Advanced Light Helicopter (ALH) ‘Dhruv’ is an indigenously built multi role, multi mission helicopter produced by HAL. With more than three hundred already built by HAL and being operated by the Indian armed forces, the helicopter has also been exported to Nepal and Mauritius. The maritime version of the Dhruv is being evaluated and actively being considered by the Philippines security forces for marine policing duties. The ALH Dhruv also forms the ‘Sarang’ helicopter display team of the IAF; one of the only two helicopter aerobatic display teams in the world. The team has performed in a number of airshows, from Al Ain in UAE to MAKS in Russia, Berlin, Waddington, Farnborough and Bahrain apart from displays in Sri Lanka and the series of Aero India shows in Bengaluru. Performing an aerial ballet in the sky, the team with its professionalism and flying skill have mesmerised onlookers repeatedly, serving truly as the ‘Brand Ambassadors’ of the IAF and the country’s indigenous capability.
The medium of air and space will continue to retain its primacy as the preferred option to not only wield destructive power as a coercive or deterrent force but also respond with alacrity for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief operations as and when the need arises. The IAF has over the years continued to build its capability and capacity along with India’s growing economy and its stature as a mature and responsible democracy. The country has in the recent past, shaking itself from the shibboleths of yesteryears, lived up to the adage ‘speak softly but carry a big stick’ by demonstrating its ability to use the IAF as the political instrument of choice to convey its intentions unequivocally.
Th fire power demonstration exercise carried out by the IAF at the Pokhran range in Rajasthan is an unambiguous display of the capability and might of the fourth largest and one of the most professional air forces of the world. The increasing engagement of the IAF in bilateral and multilateral exercises with other air forces from all the regions of the world stands testimony to its recognition as a professionally competent force. These exercises also help in building strategic partnerships with other nations thereby increasing India’s diplomatic clout on the world stage. Any reorganisation/ restructuring of the commands of the Indian Armed Forces to fight future wars must take into account the sensitivities of the IAF to capitalise on its strengths and future ready network centric capabilities. The primacy of air power in a joint organisation must be ensured to retain the edge in any future conflict. The agility, lethality and utility of India’s indigenously developed Light Combat Aircraft, Tejas, and the Advanced Light Helicopter, Dhruv, have aroused interest from potential buyers in the region. The ALH has already been exported to Mauritius and Nepal while Malaysia has evinced interest in the LCA.
The nature of war will continue to evolve and change with the growth of technology. Hybrid, cognitive, cyber, electronic and informationised warfare are the new buzzwords that military strategists and policy makers use on a daily basis. While the effort to win the battle without firing a single shot remains, the efforts to innovate and produce precision munitions with lasers and directed energy also continue simultaneously. Be that as it may, the fact remains that in case a conflict is inevitable, the medium of air and space, through aerospace power will continue to remain the political instrument of choice thereby retaining the salience of air power.
(The writer is additional director general, Centre for Air Power Studies)