The IAF is not fundamentally opposed to theatre command or an empowered CDS. There needs to be better understanding between the three services.
Having broadly laid out the template for a debate on integration, I will now attempt to highlight certain critical issues that would need to be argued, resolved and implemented in a spirit of give-and-take.
During this process, I will alternate between offering an airman’s perspective and a joint one.
Losing the advantage of air power
Let us assume that the Indian geographical expanse is divided into five or six theatres. While naval assets will largely remain deployed as they are and Indian Army deployments will only marginally change, it is allocation of air force squadrons to various theatre commands that will cause a ‘penny packet’ distribution of scarce assets and dilute their operational impact.
How would you share 10-12 C-17 aircraft between theatres? Should a division have to be switched from one theatre to another, which is a possibility that armies across the world have as a contingency plan, would the theatre commander go out with a begging bowl, asking other theatre commanders to release their C-17s for this tasking?
As against this, in a centralised structure, scarce assets like this can be swung from one area (theatre) to another to maximise a concentration of effort, which is one of the prime characteristics of air power.
Similarly, every theatre commander will ask for his share of the limited C-130 J Special Forces aircraft, should it not be placed under the proposed Special Forces Command. Instead of a cost-cutting exercise, distribution of such assets into small components will have huge accompanying costs of infrastructure and bases.
In the current environment, with barely 32 squadrons of fighter aircraft currently on inventory, the Chief of Air Staff, through his commanders-in-chief, can stretch his resources to the optimum because he can exercise direct control over asset allocation.
To give you an example, to cater for the shortfall in fighter assets, a Su-30 squadron is often carefully split into two or three detachments of five or six aircraft each and distributed across two or even three commands. Should operations in a particular area dictate the need to concentrate firepower for a decisive battle, these detachments can be moved out to augment forces at extremely short notice of less than 24 hours, because of centralised control and flexibility.
Allocation of limited air resources to rigid theatre commands takes away the strength of flexibility and concentration of effort that air power so distinctly possesses, as compared to surface capability.
Economic viability also lies at the heart of the IAF’s skepticism towards the theatre command concept, as it has consistently argued that India does not have the luxury to merge or create competencies that are significantly distant from core competencies. Hence, when resources are scarce, operational outcomes, and not ownership, is important.
The IAF argues that should the Indian Army have to expand its own air arm beyond a point, it would entail unnecessary duplication of training costs and infrastructure requirements as the existing IAF resources would not be able to take on this added responsibility. Similarly, the readiness to complement the Navy’s aerial requirements has seen several Air Force fighter squadrons assuming a primary role of maritime strike and operating at great distances in support of fleet operations.
Can an enhanced naval aviation component do that task? Of course, it can, but the moot point is that the costs of developing such capability far exceeds the value it can add as compared to asking the Air Force to multi-task and exploit the flexibility of air power.
What the IAF needs to think about
The IAF, on its part, has some deep doctrinal issues to think about, particularly when it comes to remaining relevant in the rapidly changing milieu of modern warfare and refining mission-capability to deliver swift and decisive ground-enabling operational outcomes that would ultimately need boots on the ground to transit from conflict termination to conflict resolution.
Precision strikes against fleeting and mobile targets, which in operational parlance is called ‘dynamic targeting’, are among the most critical missions that the IAF needs to train for. Punitive strikes, shaping the battlefield to facilitate Special Forces strikes and conflicts of the Kargil kind, and most importantly, convincing the political establishment that airpower is not always escalatory, are areas where air strategists have much work to do.
I have wondered – what if a few targets that were hit during the much publicised ‘surgical strikes’ of September 2016 were taken out by IAF precision strikes? Wouldn’t that have demonstrated synergy of the highest order and conveyed coercive intent of a much higher order?
Finally and as alluded to in part one of this article, the IAF has to think more about deterrence, coercion and acting as a scalpel and sword-arm of statecraft.
The IAF is not fundamentally opposed to theatre command, or an operationally empowered Chief of Defence Staff. However, it also does not buy the emotive argument that by offering a contrarian view at this moment, it is empowering those who would like to see the services divided.
As a first step, let us get the IAF back to its authorised strength of 40-plus combat squadrons; enhance understanding and communication between the three services; and integrate higher defence organisation, including the Ministry of Defence, as many committees have suggested, before thinking of over-ambitious operational structures with depleted and diffused capabilities.
Until this mindset changes, integration may be superficial or even a bridge too far.
Arjun Subramaniam is a retired Air Vice Marshal from the IAF who is currently a Visiting Fellow at Oxford University.