New Branch, New Challenges

Weapon System branch in IAF will face teething issues but is step in right direction

Gp Capt A.K. Sachdev (retd)Air Cmde A.K. Sachdev (retd)

The Air Force Day parade this year took place at Chandigarh, the first time it was held outside Delhi, and marched to the theme of the ‘IAF: Transforming for the Future.’ In his address at the parade, the Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari touched upon various strands running through this theme.

These included the Agniveer induction, the inclusion of space and cyber wars to the traditional land, sea and air domains of warfare, the emergence of hybrid warfare, the need for modern, flexible and adaptive technologies for the IAF, jointness among the three services, Aatmanirbhar/ Make in India campaigns and the criticality of sustaining and enhancing the fighting potential of the IAF.

As a step towards recalibrating the IAF and transforming it to prepare for future conflicts, he announced the government’s approval of a new branch of officers in the IAF called the Weapon Systems (WS) Branch, reiterating the fact that this was the first time since India gained independence that a new operational branch was being created.

So, what are the salient features of the new branch and their allied future repercussions?


CAS Chaudhari during IAF Day parade


Framework So Far

The IAF was officially established on 8 October 1932, with its first flying unit being formed on 1 April 1933, with six officers who had trained with the IAF to be pilots and 19 Havai sepoys who were airmen. The officers were all said to belong to the General Duties (Pilot) branch and indeed, to become an officer in the IAF, one had to be a pilot. All other tasks to support the flying effort were undertaken by airmen. As India was still not independent, the Royal Air Force (RAF) officers controlled all headquarters and stations.

During the build-up to World War II in 1939 the Chatfield Committee proposed the re-equipment of RAF squadrons based in India and authorised an IAF Voluntary Reserve into which officers were commissioned in the General Duties (Observers) and General Duties (Air Gunners) branches too. Aspiring pilots who failed to make it to the flying sub-branches were assigned to equipment branch or the Administration & Special Duties (A&SD) branch. During the first years of the World War, new branches were progressively set up: Education, Accounts, Meteorology, Balloon, Signals, Armament, Radar, Electrical and Engineering.

Despite having ageing aircraft (in contrast to the RAF) the IAF performed exceedingly well and was bestowed with the prefix ‘Royal’ in 1945. After the war, the need for balloons diminished considerably and the Balloon branch was removed. Soon, observers were not needed and that sub-branch was discontinued with the General Duties (Navigator) branch being introduced in 1946. The Radar branch was removed in 1947.

Just before the 1971 war, the IAF’s 14 branches were reorganised into nine (on September 1) with a new nomenclature: Flying (Pilot)/Flying (Navigator) (i.e., F(P)/ F(N)), Administration (ADM), Logistics, Aeronautical Engineering (Mechanical), Aeronautical Engineering (Electronics), Meteorological, Education, Accounts and Medical. This was the dispensation at the time of the announcement of the new WS branch.


Weapon Systems Branch

At almost the same time as the chief of air staff was announcing the formation of a new branch, the ministry of defence (MoD) issued a short press release stating the government had approved the creation of a new Weapon System branch to entail unification of all weapon systems operators under one branch dedicated to the operational deployment of all ground-based and specialist airborne weapon systems encompassing four specialised streams: Surface-to-Surface Missiles (SSMs), Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs), Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) and Weapons System Operators (WSOs) in twin/multi-crew aircraft.

The IAF has Prithvi-II Short Range Ballistic Missiles and the BRAHMOS Cruise missile, which fall into the SSM category. Both are fairly sophisticated weapon systems with unique characteristics.

Coming to SAMs, as the IAF has the responsibility of providing air defence to the entire extent of Indian territory, it has several systems on its inventory. It operates the Pechora, Osa-AK, Igla-1, Akash and SPYDER SAMs for area and point air defence. A more modern system with an enhanced range of over 400km, the S-400, is on order. Moreover, in an innovative initiative, the IAF is converting two obsolete AAMs of Russian origin, the R-27 and R-73, into SSMs. These were shown at DefExpo 2022 as the ‘SAMAR Air Defence System.’ These systems too require specialised training and skill sets for efficient utilisation.

As far as RPAs or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are concerned, the IAF has been acquiring indigenous and foreign systems and currently has on its inventory Searcher II, Heron, Harpy and Lakshya while indigenous Rustom II is under trials and an armed version of the US Predator is in the final stages of acquisition. Needless to say, RPA operations beg an entirely different set of skills and technological knowledge than missiles.

air Akash missile prototype

WSOs were needed for fourth generation combat aircraft as the weapon and onboard system workload was too much for one pilot’s attention span. Traditionally, the WSO was mostly another pilot who understood the aircraft systems and could bring the aircraft back safely in case of the captain’s incapacitation during operations. The fifth generation has a fair amount of artificial intelligence (AI) built into onboard avionics and systems while the sixth generation is expected to be optionally manned, that is it could have a human in the cockpit or be autonomous, AI being the pilot.

But India’s current and expected inventory over the next two decades (including indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) and Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA)) has a large proportion of two-crew combat aircraft. Since 2002, the WSO in Su-30s inducted into the IAF was a navigator trained for WSO duties, while the operational manning of SSMs, SAMs and RPAs has been F(P) branch officers with their Commanding Officers and second in command (Flight Commanders, Senior Operations Officers) being pilots. This dispensation has two attendant problems. Firstly, there is a pilot shortage. Currently, there is a shortfall of nearly 600 officers of which more than 400 are pilots. Secondly, pilot training is enormously expensive; indeed, of all the branches, pilot training is the most expensive.

On the other hand, the WS branch training for WSOs could be largely classroom and simulator based and would be far less costly as the cost of ab initio pilot training would have been eliminated. Thus, replacing pilots with WS branch officers would result in huge savings. According to the Chief of Air Staff, the “creation of this branch would result in savings of over Rs 3,400 crore due to reduced expenditure on flying training.” It is not clear from his statement what period was the saving related to.


Birth Pangs

The introduction of the new branch appears to have been well received by serving and retired IAF officers but there would, no doubt, be some teething troubles. The career progression within this branch (with four major sub-branches) could pose a challenge. Will officers ascending the operational ladder and reaching ranks suitable to command operational stations be allowed to command fighter bases?

To put this into the right context, the IAF has not been able to accept its transport and helicopter stream pilots to command fighter bases, a state of affairs considered unfair by many. Besides, it is a loss for the IAF as some excellent administrators from not just non-fighter flying streams, but also non-flying branches have been kept away from most important command appointments.

As the branch is planned to be headed by an Air Marshal, whether he will be considered operational enough to become the Chief of Air Staff some day is another question. If the WS branch has one Air Marshal, it would be reasonable to assume that there would be at least three Air Vice Marshals, nine Air Commodores and a proportionate number of officers adhering to a similar pyramidical brick pattern down the line. Their suitability as viewed through the prism of the P Staff (Personnel branch managing most of the IAF’s HR policies and affairs) would remain questionable for the simple reason that even transport and helicopter pilots are not on a par with fighter stream pilots for higher command posts (only one non-fighter pilot has been the Chief of Air Staff in the IAF’s history). The diehard optimist commissioned into the WS branch in the near future could, however, dream that the current surveillance and recce-oriented RPA force of the IAF could, with the acquisition of more potent RPAs, acquire impressive organic firepower and become more worthy of veneration.

As new inductees into the branch (being commissioned as officers into WS branch) will take time to rise through the structural pyramid, it is inevitable that responsible command and staff posts would continue to be filled by F(P) branch officers. Will they get their flying pay (which is a substantial amount) during their tenures in the SSM/SAM/RPA sub-branches? Will it be fair to the WS branch officers if these officers get flying pay while both groups are discharging the same duties?


BrahMos’ air launched version

Career Progression

Another issue is career progression. An F(P) officer spends three to five years (one or two tenures) in SSM/SAM/RPA units and then eventually returns to his own stream and competes with officers of his seniority in his branch while possibly having lost out on flying experience. Initiating Officer (IO) and Reviewing Officer (RO) stints (which involve assessing subordinates and are critical to career progression), and command assignments at the head of flying squadrons. While SSM/ SAM/ RPA tenures for medically unfit F(P) officers is a convenient holding arrangement, for fully fit ones such a tenure could be disastrous for their careers.

Incidentally, a similar career stalling scenario is possible even in the case of Administrative (Adm.) branch officers, many of whom are seconded to RPA squadrons but return to his parent branch someday to compete with his compatriots in his branch duties. While in the early years of RPAs a decade ago, the Adm. officers could theoretically command RPA units, policy changes gradually removed them from contention, leaving only F(P) officers eligible. For at least two decades more, this state of affairs would have to be lived with, until home grown WS branch officers rise to senior ranks.

Viewed from the obverse side, one can safely conclude that no pilot would willingly volunteer to go into SSM/ SAM/ RPA streams under the normal circumstances. Discounting a family-related compulsion or the need to be at a particular place of posting (where such a unit was located), no pilot would happily accept such a side-step in his career, especially as there is nothing to gain and a lot to potentially lose.

Moreover, it is reasonable to presume that the officers who get side-stepped into these streams are the ones located in the lower ranges of assessments by their superiors during recent years. Thus, it would be fair to deduce that these streams are not getting the cream of the F(P) branch officers. Having an organic branch dedicated to these streams can be expected to produce willing, professional and dedicated officers.


Training Problem

The problem of training of these officers will still remain. It is understood that there will be four sub-branches (based on the four streams announced by the CAS) but it is not clear if an officer of the WS branch will be trained in all streams or be niche specialist in one stream only. If the latter be the case, will he at some stage have to do a cross training for other sub-branches if he has to rise in the branch?

Within the RPA stream two sub-streams are planned: WS(I) for Imagery Analysts and WS(R) for Mission Command. While the latter could aspire to be IOs/ROs and hold command positions, the former are destined to remain a little less among equals. Hopefully, the IAF has worked out how to solve this problem of bifurcation between two self-evidently disparate and unequal job descriptions with dissimilar career progression and levels of rewards and delights.

Yet another issue relates to the flying pay mentioned earlier in the context of pilots seconded to SSMs/SAMs/RPAs. The naming of the WS branch as an operational branch is a recognition of the high stress and high cost of error that are inherent to operation of these systems (witness the Brahmos accident). Will it not be fair to predicate a specialisation or operational pay or allowance to the discharge of these duties? Perhaps the IAF has already planned for this (although the financial implication might offset the Rs 3,400 crore savings the IAF chief mentioned in his Air Force Day speech.


New Branch Benefits

Speculation that the Brahmos accidental firing in March this year led to a hasty enaction of a new branch is just that, speculation. Given our bureaucratic system, it is reasonable to surmise that getting a new branch accepted, with all the attendant cadre and financial implications, could not be possible in just seven months. The seed of this idea must have been sown more than a decade ago when SSMs and RPAs (especially the latter) started being inducted into the IAF. Incidents like the shooting down of a Mi-17V5 over Srinagar and the Brahmos misfiring may have only helped precipitate the branch’s formulation.

The tangible benefit from the introduction of the new branch is self-evident. The IAF was losing out trained pilots from front line cockpit occupancy to SSMs/ SAMs/ RPAs. They would return after three to five years and need months of re-training for their primary jobs. During this re-orientation, they would disremember the expertise they had gathered over their non-flying tenures. Moreover, as they know they are in non-flying tenures only temporarily, their application to their assigned tasks could be afflicted by less than full attention and interest. This triple jeopardy will now be eliminated with the need to send pilots to non-flying operational tenures having been removed by this branch.

The other benefit will be that the shortfall of pilots will taper off in the future. Pilots being produced by the Air Force Academy will feed into the flying squadrons without any of the squadrons’ pilots being sent for non-flying tenures (which will be populated by WS branch officers).


Change Mindsets

At least one analyst has labelled the announcement of the new branch as the Chief of Air Staff’s pre-emption of the impending ‘Air Defence Command’ as part of the theatrisation process. But neither any iteration of the Chief of Air Staff or the IAF nor any narrative on the discussions about the new branch seem to suggest that motive. It is hard to see how the reallocation of existing officers to a new branch or even the induction of new officers in the future into the new branch will have any implication for the theatrisation process.

The introduction of a new operational branch has crafted an opportunity for the IAF to introspect on the much larger and broader question of whether fighter branch officers are inherently better suited than pilots from the other two streams (and in the future, from the new ‘operational’ branch) to command. Indeed, the self-analysis could also include other branches in its ambit.

In all probability, maintaining status quo would be the recommendation at the end as the soul searching would be carried out by those in command positions, namely fighter pilots largely. Incidentally, the P branch is also dominated by fighter stream pilots. This author is aware that many stout arguments would be offered in favour of fighter pilots being more suited for command posts, possibly many arguments could be offered against the proposition too. Nonetheless, a dispassionate analysis might surprise the IAF on the opportunity costs of discarding (during the rise to the top of the pyramid) excellent thinkers, administrators and professionals who would have been excellent commanders.

But these are challenges that lie far into the future while the immediate benefits of the new branch being introduced are fairly apparent. There will no doubt be some problems related to change management. How well the IAF copes with them will decide how beneficial the new branch is to the ongoing endeavour of the IAF to ready itself for a possible war in the future.



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