Joint Air Defence Command is an operationally unviable idea
Air Marshal Ramesh Rai (retd)
‘If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking’ — General George S. Patton, US Army
The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) announced setting up of a Joint Air Defence Command (JADC), soon after assuming office, as an apparent first step towards establishing joint/ theatre commands. Purportedly, the JADC would be a tri-service functional command, headed by the Indian Air Force (IAF), with Air Defence (AD) infrastructure of the army and the Indian Navy also as part of the scheme.
Even as VCAS heads a committee to work out the roadmap for its implementation, many senior retired officers, of all three services, are troubled with this idea. Lt Gen. (Dr) Prakash Menon in his discussion document titled ‘India’s Theatre Command System’ cites that a controversy has already arisen, since the CDS, supposedly without proper consultation and study, has decided that there shall be a functional Air Defence Command. This must be avoided. Air Marshal S.S. Soman, in an article, titled ‘Air Defence Command—Need for a Rethink’ opines that the Air Defence Command would have no operational role during war and hence, the need to rethink on the decision for its establishment.
Illustrating further, Air Marshal Anil Chopra cites in an article titled ‘Air Defence Command—Need to Hasten Slowly’, that the Aerospace Defence Command created for continental air defence of the United States in 1968 was deactivated in 1980, primarily, due to large number of aircraft having multiple roles, and limited specialised assets. Another commentary titled ‘Centrality of Indian Air Power via a Central Command’ authored by Rear Admiral Sudarshan Y Shrikhande, describes how the Russian Air Defence Forces, created as an independent service at par with the others, were absorbed into the Soviet Air Force in 1977. Left to operate with just surface-to-air missiles and Ballistic Missile Defence assets, it was finally merged with the Russian Air Force on 1 January 1999. Ironically, when most militaries around the world have either de-activated or merged Air Defence Commands (ADC) with their air forces, we are contemplating dividing our air force to forge one.
An analysis of armed conflicts from the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century unequivocally indicate the strategic significance of air power in achieving military aims. Gaining command/ control of the air has emphatically emerged as a pre-requisite for victory. Without this control, one’s portion is defeat and willy-nilly acceptance of whatever circumstances the enemy may impose.
Counter-air campaign is the bedrock of operations for gaining such control and the crucial enabler for success. Accordingly, air power’s primary mission has been to dominate the air space over all domains, by first conducting a counter-air campaign, as no other operation, on surface or in air, can be conducted effectively unless control of the air is assured. Taking this for granted in the planning and execution is fraught with danger of it becoming a debilitating catastrophe.
A counter-air campaign comprises Offensive Counter Air (OCA) and Defensive Counter Air (DCA) operations. While OCA involves striking at enemy air power in their territory, DCA missions counter any aerial penetration by the enemy. Both are integral to the campaign and synchronised/ balanced in time, space and tempo by a single commander. It is the understanding of this fundamental concept that has compelled militaries around the world, to merge AD tasks with the entire gamut of air force operations.
Quite often, DCA missions get viewed by surface forces as a standalone component that can be detached from the rest of air force operations and combined as a support function with the Army AD forces. This fallacy is a result of inadequate comprehension of tenets of air warfare. Combining army/ naval AD and air force defensive operations in the belief that they would be akin to integrating defence functions of all three arms would fracture air force’s primary mission. Fracturing the integrity of air operations could cost us the war and therein lies the operational unviability of the idea.
Establishing of JADC would tantamount to splitting offensive and defensive roles, in a mistaken belief that the defensive operations can be assigned to JADC and offensive operations to the joint/ theatre commands. This would imply that the all-important counter-air campaign is executed by different commanders. Apart from being an unacceptable absurdity in operational terms, it would create outrageous confusion in terms of coordination to get the right offense-defence balance over the battle space. Furthermore, most air force assets i.e., fighters, AWACS, Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA) have multirole capability and are required to conduct/ support both offensive and defensive operations, for which, placing them under one commander is imperative.
This requires some elaboration. Having acquired AWACS, inflight refuellers, air dominance and multi-role fighters, the IAF now fosters the capability to choose the point of destruction of a potential threat i.e. either at the point of launch in enemy territory, (classified as an offensive operation) or during ingresses into our territory (classified as defensive operation). Taking a call on which option to exercise depends on the battle commander’s perception of the battle.
Furthermore, the battle commander could exercise such options in real time by utilising aircraft already in air to suit the operational situation. Aircraft returning from an offensive strike could be used to intercept an intruder after inflight refuelling and likewise, aircraft on a defensive patrol could be tasked to carry out attacks against airfields, bridges and concentration of enemy surface forces. AWACS would control/ assist/ facilitate such employment with its envelope extending over 200km into enemy territory and down to surface levels. Such flexibility would not be feasible under a dual command.
The era of aeroplanes solely devoted to classic air defence is a thing of the past. In his book titled Command of the Air, Giulio Douhet, an Italian general and air power theorist opines that “For a nation to assign air forces for air defence alone not only jeopardises the home front, but also dilutes the potency of offensive action leading to a situation of profound aerial inferiority”.
Today, the strategy is of an offensive/ defensive air battle, planned and executed by one agency to achieve destruction of the enemy airpower thereby, optimising resources and enhancing efficiency. Hence, assigning any air asset purely for AD role would be operationally improper, nonsensical and unthinkable. More so, in our unique case, we do not have enough air assets to be assigned permanently to the JADC or for that matter to other theatre structures that are to follow.
Lack of Resources
An integrated air defence structure, like the JADC is conceived to combine ground AD assets of the air force, army, navy and air assets of the air force under one commander. While integrating ground assets is conceptually viable, the difficulty will lie in assigning air assets. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has 30 squadrons on its strength and despite induction plans of the LCA and MRFA, the strength is unlikely to go beyond 30 till 2035.
Assuming one fifth of the force is assigned to the JADC, i.e. six squadrons, only 24 would be left for the other three theatres. Even if the remaining 24 squadrons are divided into two, i.e. between theatres opposite Pakistan and China, we would be fielding 12 squadrons against 22 of Pakistan and 22-25 of China. With such gross asymmetry, it is unlikely that the air campaign will succeed in gaining the requisite control of air and we would lose the air war. In the words of Field Marshal Montgomery “if we lose the air war, we lose the war and we lose it quickly.”
The IAF’s strength would remain below the desired figure for a two-front contingency for the next two decades or more. Hence, it would be compelling upon us to orchestrate the air war centrally and multiplex the use of air assets across the entire battle space and for offensive/ defensive operations, to make up for lesser numbers. This should bind the incumbent military leadership to keep the air force’s air elements together in any restructuring for central orchestration of the air campaign. Any parcelling out into JADC or the theatre commands would not only lead to dilution of combat power but also loss of operational flexibility. Since larger numbers are not easily affordable, we will need to deliberate carefully on structuring of the air arm.
Describing the evolution of the AD concept, Douhet states that “It was the disorientation produced by the suddenness with which air power came into being that made for a fallacious concept of defence against it. Aerial offensives were instinctively and empirically countered by anti-aerial defence alone, giving birth to anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles and pursuit aeroplanes”.
Subsequent wars have demonstrated that all means of air defence, despite being spread around the country, have been inadequate to prevent any ingress. The dispersion has been a colossal waste since guns and missiles lie waiting year after year gaping at the sky on the watch for an attack that seldom comes. The practical and effective way to prevent an enemy from attacking is by destroying his air power before it has a chance to strike i.e., reducing the offensive potential of the opponent’s air force and destroying it at its point of origin. In simple words, destroying enemy’s eggs and nests than hunt for his flying bird in the air.
Any time we ignore this principle, we commit an error. It is now axiomatic and has been long so, that coastlines are defended from naval attacks not by dispersing ships and guns along the coastline but by conquering the command of the seas, thus preventing the enemy from navigating. The surface of the earth is the coastline of the air. The conditions prevailing at both air and sea being analogous, the concept for our defence from aerial attacks should be by preventing the enemy from flying and not by scattering guns and planes all over the whole extent. In other words, by conquering the command/ control of air. This is the only logical and rational concept which should be recognised, strategised and promoted in the structures meant for the air defence of our skies.
Re-structuring the armed forces is a far-reaching reform with vast implications on national security and requires due deliberation, debate, war-gaming and validation. It would be pertinent to mention that the Goldwater Nichols act for restructuring the US armed forces was debated for four years and 241 days in their parliament, a time period longer than their participation in World War II.
Expressing a similar sentiment in his article, titled ‘Not media, CDS Rawat should be talking to military chiefs about India’s defence reform’, Lt Gen. H.S. Panag writes that restructuring mandates a consultative process with the service chiefs, before these are examined by the staff in detail. For a major restructuring, as being contemplated by the CDS, it would be logical to first carve out a broad template that outlines the entire restructure, including those of theatre commands with the acceptability of all stake holders. Only thereafter should the modalities for implementation be worked upon. It would seem rather incongruous to first carve out a functional command i.e., JADC and relegate the Operational Commands to settle for what may be left behind in terms of resources. Such an approach carries a grave operational risk.
Integration is not something that can be institutionalised by an ordinance or government order. It requires considerable deliberation for which a cardinal requirement is a conceptual framework of the national security objectives and strategy. Once such a foundational base is laid, only then would we be able to recast a structure to adequately meet the operational imperatives for a future war. This process is crucial and failure to do so may produce dysfunctional structures and unsuitable military strategies.
Since future war will be multi domain, each domain will have to dominate. The process of integration must ensure that in combining domain-specific operational arts, we enhance our overall operational potential and not diminish it or else it would be counterproductive. The assiduousness of most nations, in keeping the air forces together, is a befitting demonstration of its strategic importance. The world has left far behind the idea of a joint command system for air defence as it does not serve the necessities of a future war.
Air defence is and must remain an integral part of overall air force operations. The Indian armed forces leadership would do well to understand and emulate, lest the blunder of diluting air domain capabilities gets translated to a strategic self-goal, to be exploited by our adversaries, leaving our progeny peeping into a futurity of defeat.
(The writer is a former AOC-in-C, Training Command)