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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.

Arjun Subramaniam is a retired Air Vice Marshal from the IAF who is currently a Visiting Fellow at Oxford University.

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7 Comments Share Your Views


  1. I think with this approach from air force we should allow the army to acquire air assets of it’s own. Close Air Support has become as essential to armies across the world as good artillery was 3 decades ago. I realize the budget will get split but at least it will gradually start fixing army’s integrated air power requirements while keeping the air force independent.It will take time but we should definitely let army start acquiring at least some aerial assets (land support attack aircraft)

  2. A very interesting article by AVM Arjun, lucidly spells out the thorny issues from not only an AF, but also a balanced Mil perspective. The comments too made fascinating reading. To add a few thoughts
    1. The Theatre command thinking is archaic.
    2. Distributing the assets of the AF, in support of Army Ops alone, may lead to a further dilution of ability in other equally, or arguably more, important roles that an AF must play.
    3. Sadly ‘Jointness’ has become a convenient handle to press for more assets for the Army, with less thought for AF/ Navy.
    4. The strategic reach of the IAF, over long ranges, supported by AA Refuelling and long range multi-role fighters needs to be exploited by careful management of resources by a Centralised Air Force Command, like an Air HQ, rather than be sub-divided into penny packets.
    5. It would be akin to splitting up the strat photo recently capability of the IAF assets like the MiG25, (now phased out) among the many theatres @ 1-2 per Command. The end result would have been pathetic with no results to show.
    6. As the author rightly points out, advocates of Theatre Commands pushing for subdivision of Air assets are thinking of a USAF or China PLAAF situation. However the IAF has had its growth in numbers stunted due ‘resource constraints’. Hence the emphasis now is fewer numbers, with greater multirole capability.
    7. Such capability is best utilised Centrally, with internal synergy, to meet diverse operational goals. Splitting into smaller elements and placing them with Theatres would be a blinkered approach.

    Most if not all my Army brethren would probably dismiss all the points made as ‘fiddlesticks’. It’s unfortunately reached a point where the current crop of Cdrs cannot grasp this essential aspect of Air Ops. It’s more about power and pelf. I wish it wasn’t.

  3. The debate should be about strategic and operational level planning, and command and control of India’s armed forces as a joint entity (unitary command) where an all arms approach takes primacy vis a vis single services going it alone. This joint planning structure needs unitary command such that operational level planning and decision making devolves on that unitary cdr rather than to multiple commanders each with their own ethos, operational orientation and parochialism. It is not about splitting up the IAF amongst Theatre Commands. It is about resource decisions. Even an IAF cdr in the current system would need to take resource decisions within his area of operations. Hierarchical decision-making and leadership would be the military way to decide amongst diverse options (in say thrust lines and focus areas); where to prioritise and where not to as resources will always be at a premium. In this debate the tactical aviation needs of (say) the army under certain circumstances needs to get accepted and the unitary cdr could ask the IAF to cater for the task even if the IAF has differing priorities. If the IAF is to be the supporting service then the inter se prioritisation will need decisions from one leader and his staff rather than from each different Service. In our current structures this can often be the case. An army cdr could thus be bereft of air support with the IAF cdr thinking from a different point of view. The debate vis a vis the navy got settled to an extent after the IAF (and the IN that it needed to support) falling short in the 71 war with no worthwhile air asw in the Indian inventory at that time with lead Service for Air ASW at that time not having catered for it adequately. As a result the matter was debated from an operational point of view and the political leadership at that time prioritised after the war playing the role of that unitary cdr. As a result we have transformed and addressed an operational shortfall and found the investments for a potent air asw arm that can take the battle to the enemy. The debate must indeed take place. It is essential. For vexed decisions ( especially under resource limited conditions) to be taken unitary command of all three services is how the world does it and I for one can’t understand why it should be different for India. Planning towards a two-front war strategy itself will need resource decisions. A tactical approach would at best be harakiri and sound strategic sense should prevail as operational decisions are arrived at. If we don’t have the muscle for it then we need to think clearly and a core ingredient to critically thinking this would be unitary professional military command and leadership that the IAF challenges within the Indian system.

  4. If resources are inadequate for integrated theatre commands, are they adequate for current theatres?

    Integrated theatres are required for joint planning and execution of operations in a geographic region which must be identified as an integrated theatre.

    Two issues merit attention for the rational against integrated theatres.

    Firstly, air forces globally have lost three star ranks post theatrrisation. It is certain that IAF will suffer the same fate.

    Secondly, air forces have not found a common philosophy of warfare. Airforces globally abhor Clausewitz, but have no one to fall back to. SOD and EBO have unfortunately failed. Thus, self preservation has become an end in itself.

  5. The article is insightful. Whilst the proposal to create joint theater commands is well known, it is relatively rare for the lay public to read about the underlying issues involved. The AVM is right to say that Army commanders (currently, it must be said) lack the understanding of air power to be able to get the most out of the limited assets; that inter-theater flexibility of deployment might be lost. Most people, however, regard the IAF’s opposition to the concept as being born out of an existential anxiety i.e. of being subsumed into the much larger Army, of being reduced to just one arm among many within the Army and thereby losing its identity. The fact is that there are far more Lieutenant Generals than Air Marshals, and in a theater command in any case the overwhelming majority of personnel would be ground troops i.e. fewer chances of IAF officers heading these theater commands. The Army and the IAF both – perhaps more so than the Navy – is very hierarchical, and status-conscious. As seems to be happening within the Indian Army already, the Infantry – being more numerous – are assuming primacy over the Armored Corps and Artillery. The officer corps of the IAF – dominated by fighter pilot class, known for its panache, would find it hard to accept this reduction in status. Undoubtedly any change in organizational structures is bound to lead to the loss of certain attributes whilst enabling other advantages to be realized. Conceptually, we would like to understand why joint theater commands cannot work when already each of the armed services operates its own separate regional (i.e theater) commands. If the IAF and Army leaderships can flexibly deploy their respective assets between their respective commands today, then why cannot a joint leadership do the same between joint theater commands? And just as a Lt. General with an Infantry background must learn to use all arms (Armor and Artillery included) under his command, is it also not possible – with the passage of time – for the joint theater commander to learn to integrate all arms including air and land assets under his command? The IAF may need to explain further why the concept would not work if it is to have a credible argument.

  6. High Time we Integrate. Internal consistency issues in the article :-

    1. Mention of utilisation of Air Power in Kargil, needs introspection. We all remember the statement of Gen VP Malik. OP Vijay & OP Safed Sagar, two different name tags portrays it all. Were we fighting two different wars?

    2. Flexibility, Concentration of Effort & Centralised Control is well appreciated by the Other two Services too. It will not be sacrificed with Integration.

    3. The fourth largest airforce can not give an alibi that resources are short and will be split on theaterisation. Requirement is common doctrines, structures and processes, not batwara of assets. Even Army & Navy assets are swung between commands and fleets. It’s easier with air.

    4. Now who will articulate these joint doctrines, when all air warriors across the board vehemently oppose Jointness. This seems to be a party diktat devolved to avoid common understanding.

    5. The silver lining however is a fig leaf of juxtaposed endnote,
    I quote
    “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.”

    It’s like asking for Manna from Heaven.

    6. It will be appreciated if three Services look at supporting each other, refine joint doctrines, streamline structures and procedures, to facilitate efficiency and effectiveness and achieve competitive advantage.

  7. 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.

    This paragraph is in essence the “sum of all IAF fears” and IAF myopia is today’s biggest hindrance to synergy with the IAF.


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