The debate over integrating the services: Understanding the Air Force perspective
Flexibility, concentration of effort & centralised control are essential for best utilisation of the IAF. These could be compromised under theatre commands.
Several articles in the media over the last year by accomplished strategic scholars and retired service officers have articulated the pressing need for not only an all-powerful Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), but also integrated theatre commands that place all military resources in a designated geographical area (‘a theatre of operation’) under a single commander.
The rationale for theatre commands rests on two basic pillars — economy of effort and integrated application of combat power in a contiguous geographical area.
The argument, has, over the years, been given a parochial twist by cornering the Indian Air Force (IAF) as being the ‘perennial spoiler’ in the quest for what is termed as ‘true jointness’.
Having taught extensively at joint institutions of Professional Military Education and served alongside an Indian Army command that has a geographical area of responsibility that permits the best exploitation of air power, I guess I am well positioned to offer a balanced perspective on the existing debate, and not a mere defence of the IAF’s point of view.
The air disadvantage
Notwithstanding the growing discourse on the importance of the Indian Ocean Region and the Indo-Pacific, India’s institutional security focus still retains a predominantly continental texture, largely due to over 4,000 kilometres of unsettled borders that experience continuous stress. Consequently, the Indian Army remains the largest and dominant element of our national security structure, and rightly so, considering the enormous sacrifices it makes daily.
Navies across the world are sanguine that they operate in a domain that is so unique that whatever be the profile of operational structures, their share of the pie is assured for as long as oceans remain contested spaces.
Air forces across the world have grappled with the reality that while they have the capability to deter and coerce at the strategic level and shape and impact the land and maritime spaces, they lack the staying power that boots on ground and warships demonstrate to sustain operational and strategic outcomes.
Current paradigms of conflict in the conventional domain point at short, high-intensity and geographically localised limited conflicts that demand synergised and simultaneous application of combat power. Air power offers the element of surprise and possibility of seizing an early initiative in any such conflict. Imagine if air power had been given the opportunity to strike the positions of Pakistan’s Northern Light Infantry first during the Kargil conflict—we may have had better outcomes with lower casualties.
Why theatre commands could be detrimental to the IAF
If that is a given in contemporary warfare, why are air forces most skeptical about physical integration of operational structures? Why do they prefer integration of application of capability instead?
First, it is all about impact, relevance and respect. It has been marginally over a century of air force operations, and in that time, its practitioners have developed their skills and capabilities which are unique and demand a lifetime of study and practice. The task of leading a six or eight aircraft mission into enemy territory will generally be assigned to a flying supervisor with over 2,000 hours of flying and between 13-16 years of service, of which all but a year or two would have been spent in the cockpit.
The same professional dedicates the next two decades planning, operationalising and leading the application of air power in pursuit of national interests and offering politico-strategic options rather than mere operational, technological, or tactical ones. That is not to say that air power cannot be understood or leveraged by practitioners of land and maritime warfare; however, there are some unique characteristics that can only be understood by air forces and airmen, and it is these unique characteristics that are under threat in an Indian context.
Flexibility, concentration of effort and centralised control are essential if medium-sized air forces like the IAF are to be exploited best; all of which could be seriously compromised should existing air force resources be distributed among theatre commands.
Considering a two-front conventional threat that currently exists, India’s military air power resources are woefully inadequate to be split among even the three likely operational theatres with a continental focus (west, north and east).
If one looks at extended western and eastern theatres with maritime areas included, and an exclusive southern theatre with a maritime focus, a rough calculation indicates that we would need to double the existing fighter, transport, helicopter and air defence assets to allow theatre commanders the freedom to employ their resources in consonance with the threats envisaged. We are thus looking at something like a US model without the wherewithal to financially support it.
The way forward
This is not to say that the IAF is myopic when it comes to understanding the tactical aviation needs of its sister services. Its almost complete operational allocation of medium-lift and attack helicopter assets to Army tasks, and complementing the current inventory with the soon-to-be inducted Apache attack helicopters is testimony to this understanding.
The IAF has consistently delivered in terms of supporting the Indian Army’s operations in the northern and eastern sectors and, the current year’s airlift figures amply support that claim.
Another argument doing the rounds is that since China has created theatre commands, India should follow suit. Nothing can be more facetious as there is a fundamental difference in the way the People’s Liberation Army is controlled, and that the change in structure was preceded by a clear articulation (series of White Papers) of how military power would be employed as an instrument of the state.
Should such clarity emerge from within India’s politico-strategic establishment in the years ahead, a road map on future structures could then be laid out.
Source:- The Print