Guest Column | Invisible Cogs

IAF force multipliers of the unglamorous kind are equally important for the smooth functioning of the armed forces

AVM Manmohan BahadurAVM Manmohan Bahadur VM (retd)

If there is a prima donna of the armed forces in terms of the glamour quotient, it surely must be the Indian Air Force (IAF). Air power and its flying assets have a seductive appeal in terms of the effect that they bring on to a conflict zone, and the visuals that modern technology brings to all and sundry in their living rooms — possibly, it is for this reason that recruitment advertisements for the army, navy and coast guard also highlight their flying assets, sometimes more than their basic service equipment!

But there are other air power assets and systems that, though unglamorous and not in the forefront of public scrutiny, are vital for the operational effectiveness of the IAF; this piece discusses such vital cogs, some of which are force multipliers in their own right. One ought not to forget the proverbial truth about the war being lost because of the loss of a lowly nail.

Communications: The ability to securely exchange information, both verbal and electronic, is an absolute must in today’s warfare. This has two basic ingredients viz., unimpeded exchange of information and fidelity of the exchange. Imagine an aircraft formation in the final stages of its mission having its radio communication being jammed by the adversary’s electronic warfare action; neither would the leader be able to pass instructions nor would any formation member be able to communicate anything. It is true that radio silence is the norm in such missions but at critical times the ability to talk unimpeded is an imperative that cannot be taken away based on the norm. The same holds good for air to ground and ground to air communications, between the aircrew and air defence controllers.

Electronic data transfer has slowly become more pervasive between aircraft and aerial and ground assets; exchange of radar pictures, target coordinates, target designation, threat areas, operational instructions et al are everyday examples of electronic data transfer. And unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) ops are all about remote electronic transfer of data. With security comes the essential requirement of fidelity which has to be ensured to ensure safe mission accomplishment; in these days of hacking, a mala fide input of a command can wreak havoc. Thus, it is essential that the IAF ensures availability of secure communications at all levels and in all systems that it operates. The prime requirement for ensuring this is to have home-built encryption algorithms, even on equipment that has been imported. While the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) is the agency tasked to ensure secrecy devices, it is an open secret that a great amount of work needs to be done in this vital area.

Electronic Warfare: Advances in computation power has revolutionised Electronic Warfare (EW). A nation that is not adept at offensive EW (Electronic Counter Measures or ECM) will cede the power of the electronic medium to its adversary, while absence of counter measures to the adversary’s EW attacks (Electronic Counter Counter Measures or ECCM) will put one’s own mission success in jeopardy. There is no better example of the power of EW than the Bekaa Valley success of the Israeli in 1982, when they shot down 82 Syrian aircraft for a loss of only one of their own.

A more recent and equally representative example of the importance of EW is the first Gulf War of 1991, when the Iraqi air defence system was totally blinded by coalition EW attacks resulting in a free hand to coalition air power to attack Iraqi assets at will. In fact, the Iraqi commanders taken prisoner were so thoroughly disorientated with respect to their own positions and their encirclement by coalition ground forces that they had to be briefed by the allies with satellite and UAV imagery to show them their helpless position. India has made some progress in the EW segment but a large component of its EW equipment is from foreign sources; this reality is a cause for concern as embedded hostile software that activates on remote instructions can seriously impede mission accomplishment and its safe execution.

Space: Space is a force multiplier in every sense. With satellites specialised for communications and surveillance, space has become an integral part of almost all military terrestrial activity. While it is important that space assets be indigenously developed and launched with home launchers, it is equally vital that their safety and security be ensured in the coming decades.

Militarisation of space is already a reality while, despite treaties banning it, its weaponisation is a proverbial twist of the screwdriver away. The demonstration of anti-satellite capability by China in 2007 was a rude wake-up call to the world and a country can neglect security of space assets at its own peril. India has regional power ambitions and this would carry its military offshore to safeguard its supply of raw materials required for internal development (this is a historical fact as brought out by Paul Kennedy in his classic The Rise and Fall of Great Empires. Sustenance and security of its off shore assets would be heavily dependent on secure and adequate space connectivity and India would do well to plan and invest in securitisation of its space assets.

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