Indian Air Force fighter jets fly during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi
Representational image | Indian Air Force fighter jets | Photo: T. Narayan | Bloomberg
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The appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff and creation of the Department of Military Affairs have been key steps taken by the Narendra Modi government to bring in comprehensive defence reforms, which include integrating military capability and achieving savings through optimal utilisation of resources.

The CDS soon after assuming office announced his decision to establish a joint Air Defence Command (ADC). Though it was touted as the first step towards the establishment of joint/theatre commands, an analysis shows it’s a move in the wrong direction.

Apparently, the announcement pre-dated any formal discussion on the subject. After the announcement, a committee headed by the Vice Chief of Air Staff (VCAS) was formed to work out the roadmap for setting up a joint ADC, suggesting that its formation was a fait accompli.


Also read: India’s oldest flying aircraft in spotlight after radar website shows it going to Pakistan


Why it’s a bad idea

Establishment of a joint ADC would functionally split the primary functions of the Indian Air Force into offensive and defensive roles, with a mistaken belief that the offensive assets assigned to the joint/theatre commands, as and when established, could be employed solely in a segregated manner towards offensive roles.

The ADC would lead to sub-optimal utilisation of all assets and workforce. Either they would be under-utilised, and reduce the weight of attack for offensive operations, or they would be insufficient, and hence ineffective in thwarting enemy attacks. This assumes increased importance due to the reduced strength of air assets currently.

Formation of an ADC would severely degrade conduct of full-spectrum, fast-moving and effective air operations. Air defence is a fundamental war-fighting function of the Air Force and just like placing a Holding Corps and the Strike Corps under different GOC-in-Cs is unthinkable, so is divorcing the entire function of air defence from offensive air ops by placing them under a different Commander.


Also read: Will order for 83 Tejas soon, HAL to deliver 70 aircraft by 2026: IAF chief Bhadauria


Concept of air defence

Air defence encompasses all actions taken to prevent enemy aircraft, missiles, or other weapons and platforms from using the medium of air to attack our assets and forces, by destroying them or nullifying their effectiveness.

As with all defensive operations, air defence is reactive in nature. It requires constant vigilance, and quick reaction. Its efficacy depends on the fulfilment of four functions, namely detection, identification, interception and destruction of any platform or weapon, manned or unmanned that enters the sovereign airspace and which is identified as a threat or is hostile. Within the sovereign airspace of India, air defence is primarily the responsibility of the IAF. The Army and the Navy contribute to ‘detection’ by sharing their radar data. They also engage in destruction through their own organic surface-to-air weapons as they defend themselves against an air attack.

However, identification, including air defence authorisation of every single civil or military flight originating in or transiting through Indian airspace, and interception are the sole responsibilities of the IAF.

To fulfil this responsibility, there are a large number of ground and airborne sensors, a networked command and control system, fighter aircraft/helicopters for interception, and air-to-air and surface-to-air guided weapons (SAGW) for destruction. The system is optimised for quick reaction so that in the limited time available, it can assess the threat, and respond appropriately.

The entire system is digitally networked and rides on the Air Force Net (AFNET) and Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS). Army sensors are integrated, and air defence weapons are also controlled by the same system.

An integrated air picture is available centrally (national level), as well as at regional levels. This allows a holistic assessment, prompt decision-making and optimal deployment of available resources (radars, aircraft, SAGW) as per the developing threat in real time.


Also read: More midair refuellers, UAVs — Bhadauria explains how IAF is bracing for new nature of war


Operational structure of air defence

Centralised (at regional command level) control over weapons is exercised to de-conflict with own aircraft flying for defensive and offensive purposes. Dedicated assets are made available to the Air Defence Commander (AD Cdr) under the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief (AOC-in-C) of the IAF Command for defensive roles. However, both offensive and defensive air operations are re-balanced on a continuous basis as per the developing situation because all air assets are under the AOC-in-C.

This ‘unity of command’ permits full exploitation of another key characteristic of air power–flexibility. If the situation demands so, aircraft can be re-tasked from offensive to defensive roles or vice versa ‘on the fly’ with orders passed over the radio. In fact, it needs to be understood that the air assets cannot be divided into defensive and offensive roles.

If anything, this ‘flexibility’ has now begun to extend to even ground-based air defence systems like the S-400, which have greatly extended the range and can conduct operations against enemy aircraft flying well inside their own territory in support of our offensive operations. Even static ground-based radars play a vital role in enabling offensive operations.


Also read: Naval helicopters will be Modi govt’s first challenge in its ‘atmanirbhar’ push in defence


ADC would create coordination issues

Air defence operations are intricately intertwined with airspace management functions, not only with military Air Traffic Services (ATS) but also with civil aviation. Every single flight originating in or transiting through Indian airspace is authorised by the IAF’s AD organisation. A regional air command gives a single point control, and hence civil-military coordination becomes smooth.

Splitting air defence between ADC and ATS under the regional air commander would create huge difficulties in coordination. This would affect both civil and military flying operations and sabotage the concept of Flexi-Use of Airspace (FUA) badly affecting civil aviation. An additional organisational division will constrict flow of information and increase chances of near misses between military and civil aircraft.

Organisationally, there is no reason to form a pan-India ADC extending through all geographical theatres. If anything, the existing air defence organisation would be disrupted, command lines crisscrossed, organisational bottlenecks created, and flow of information and decision-making slowed down as control switches from one commander to another. In air defence operations, where speed is of the essence and every second matters, this will be disastrous.


Also read: At 16,700 ft, on mud strip: IAF pilot on how his AN-32 reopened Daulat Beg Oldi after 43 yrs


Existing air defence has stood the test of time

The existing air defence setup is efficient and has stood the test of time. Its robustness was seen in the downing of the Pakistan Navy Atlantique in 1999, despite the brief violation. The fact that the existing setup was able to thwart the Pakistan Air Force attacks during Op Swift Retort in February 2019, speaks well for the system. Admittedly, there was the unfortunate fratricide of a Mi-17 helicopter due to noncompliance of standard operating procedures. The incident, however, had no bearing on the air defence organisation. Adding another organisational ‘wall’ will result in further slowing the flow of information and increasing chances of recurrence.

Conversely, the PAF, despite having an air defence command, was unable to stop the Balakot strike, the Abbottabad raid and numerous other strikes conducted by the Western powers in the FATA region.

This does not mean that there are no inter-service issues in the existing setup. These issues relate to interoperability, integration, and commonality of training. These can be overcome technologically, by reconciliation of service philosophies, and common training. With the office of the CDS now having been established, these synergies can easily be achieved.

The decision to form the ADC has grave operational risks and its consequences could lead to an irreversible fracture of the very integrity of the IAF’s air operations.

It is a force-fit unworkable solution to an ill-defined problem. Formation of the ADC would not only go against the operational, organisational and doctrinal wisdom, but would also needlessly add a superfluous organisation with its attendant costs and going against one of the key objectives of integration–savings. Moreover, it will have no role in war. Hence, the proposed establishment of an ADC is a misstep and needs a rethink.

Air Marshal SS Soman, PVSM, AVSM, VM is former Air Officer Commanding in Chief of Western Air Command, IAF. Views are personal

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20 Comments Share Your Views

20 COMMENTS

  1. The AD Command would add needless and unwanted layers to the decision making process, which is extremely dynamic when an AD operation is on. The present intent to forcibly restructure an existing system which is proven and functional is baffling.

    An incisive article, which gives great insight into how Air Defence fits into the intricate matrix of the overall air campaign, clearly brings out that in the air, offensive and defensive operations can be simultaneously prosecuted. An exclusive Air Defence Command would take away that capability.

    Establishing such an Air Defence Command is NOT recommended.

  2. Excellent treatise, Sir….A comprehensive, balanced and lucid presentation on a critical issue.

    Air Defence being one of the few common functions performed by all the three Services within their own domain, one tends to assume expertise in this field. To begin with, it’s not a function or a task but a full fledged operation. And, Air Defence of the entire country is a mammoth, complex and a specialist task, required to be conducted 24X7 with an equal and impeccable efficiency. Let the present, time-tested but ever evolving organisation not be tempered with for imaginary gains and supposedly lofty goals of integration.

    World over, Air Defence is deeply interwoven with Offensive Air Operations as a major part of the overall Air Operations. As such, it just can not be divorced from the Offensive Air Operations and prosecuted in supreme isolation as being envisaged.

    And, who better to preside over the issue than someone who himself has been a Air Defence Commander, headed Air Operations at the two of the most active Air Commands and has commanded the sword arm of the Air Force, the Western Air Command. My deepest compliments to Air Marshal Soman Sir with a sincere hope that the powers that be, lend not just their ears but apply the mind too, unbiasedly.

  3. Please read once again what Air Marshal SS Soman (Retd.) has expressed. You are not one to say that Indian Air Force is “incompetent”. If so, then you join the IAF and prove yourself. He is also not giving any lecture. All rubbish ideas has cultivated in the mind.

  4. Print , wire and so called strategician should be allocated the task of national and international security?only they can handle it,

    • Yes and these Rags would sell India to the enemies. Private views from a CONgi leftist leaning half past six retired fellow!

  5. unwanted reorg is being done and moreover making new commands is totally wrong. We fought 1971 war with existing org and won. There should be no confusion at any level. Present reorg being undertaken should be stopped. Our is a 270yr old army need no teaching from US .let’s look after the man who will be behind the gun in war and win battles for India. Jai Hind.

    • Go live in a Cave thats how ancestors lived ! Interesting to see This Rag printing all manner of nonsense and moderating salt of the earth messages.

  6. Absolutely perfect. Setting up of the ADC will be more detrimental compared to the meagre gain.
    Having personally served in and planned at tactical and strategic level in Air Defense, I think I can say that with some authority.
    Firstly, comparisons with USA, Australia, Europe, etc are completely fruitless… reason… they DO NOT have unfriendly surrounding 360°…..
    Secondly… they have to fight against a single enemy in single area with single mindset warfare expected… absolutely different setup for Indian scenario…..
    Thirdly, can a single Command or Commander “ACTUALLY and PRACTICALLY” look after “real-time” and “split-second decision making from J&K to North East to Andamans to Indian Ocean….. not even USA etc can do that under single Command.
    Fourth, speaking of optimization and trilateral requirements…. no doubt it’s always Nation First and Turfs Later, absolutely no doubt….. So, does the IAF control the IN AD setup when they operate in the Blue Waters??…No…. they have their own protocols…. And does the IAF control the IA assets deep in the mountains, where there may be insufficient coverage of radar chain??…No again…. the shoulder fired is under “autonomous” control….
    Fifth, Air Defense has a clear word “Air”….if marine warfare was suggested to be shifted under army, like by some countries during WW-II, would it be sensible….or D-Day type of operations shifted to Navy….
    The Air Marshal has summed it up beautifully without going into layman explanations (as is expected from that seniority), and I’ve taken the liberty to explain at working levels….
    There is a definite need for Jointmanship…. no one denies it….. but hurried decisions without adequate thought and vision… and attempt at extrapolation of theatre strategy to national strategy (actually way way way beyond) brings forward clear analysis that…. it’s
    1. Not about unwillingness to give up turf
    2. Not about organisational egoism
    3. ABOUT accepting a faulty decision and moving ahead with better and informed decisions. Looks pretty simple to me. Who’s got ego…. time tested organisation or individual wanting to establish instant authority..
    Air Defense is far from just Shoulder-Fired and ADGuns. AD requires ground/airborne radars, understanding of air tactics, strategic air plans, deep knowledge of fingerprinting of each enemy asset (radars, aircraft, EW, manoeuvres, communication)….is it even worthy of consideration for being shifted to LAND Army… maybe other way around… ACTUALLY other way around to avoid “autonomous” controls being dealt with…..
    While individual aspirations were probably Legendary in sub-consicious nature, there remains absolutely no doubt that ADC would be detrimental. More so after certain golden eye-opener words of having gained knowledge recently on capabilities.

    • Really? Ever wondered how to bring about syngernistic approach to Defence. Pls read more and don’t make assumptions. You appear to be a n anti national.

  7. The idea to split Airforce in two different segments of offense and defense, is ridiculous. CDS is lacking in his assessment of air operations. He is also overlooking that army and navy also have air defence units. And we are now buying S400 anti missile system. So aren’t these meant for air defence.? ..Air force signifies and depicts offensive arm.

  8. After shooting down its own helicopter by their own missiles air force officers should refrain from giving lectures. Not to say anything about the pilot getting shot down. And no missile strike images that are verifiable now proves that the IAF just is incompetent and its assets should be placed under army and navy until its senior officers are repLced

    • Well, the pilot flying a vintage aeroplane shot down an F-16, whose parachute too descended alongside is proof of IAF’s training and prowess. Pakistani DG ISPR boasting that they had two pilots in custody, one of whom was injured and in their Central Military Hospital, too should have rung home. The sudden silence that followed on the truth emerging was deafening. But, perhaps, some people choose to sing to the rival’s tunes. This is unfortunate.

      Fratricide is unfortunate too. And that it happened on that very day was taken grave note of by the IAF. The IAF, to its credit, did not hide this event, and chose to learn from it, even instituting some corrective steps. The Pakis live in denial. Balakot too was similarly denied. Even a child (kid/Sid) did see through it.

    • Who are you working for- enemy’s (by providing this stupid idea). Our defence forces are more than enough capable secure ourselves. Let them do that on their own. Stop providing mis judgements. IAF shot down their helicopters, because they have not been equiped with friend or foe systems and for the record our air force pilot abhinandan has shot down a F-16 with with an outdated mig-21 not by some other country’s airforce pilot.

    • Who are you working for- enemy’s (by providing this stupid idea). Our defence forces are more than enough capable secure ourselves. Let them do that on their own. Stop providing mis judgements. IAF shot down their helicopters, because they have not been equiped with friend or foe systems and for the record our air force pilot abhinandan has shot down a F-16 with with an outdated mig-21 not by some other country’s airforce pilor.

  9. While Air Marshal has given all the arguments in favor of a status quo, he has not balanced it with some rationale for a joint ADC that is proposed to be set up. It cannot be the case that there are no arguments in favor of a joint ADC or that the idea has just come out of the CDS’s hat. The issue is strategic and deeply technical in nature and hence, a general reader needs to have more details to form a balanced view of the matter. Otherwise, it would be assumed that IAF wants no change and wishes to protect its turf! The country is concerned with the optimal solution to the issue and not interested in protecting turfs of IAF or Army or Navy.

  10. Russian soldiers to receive wearable thermal imagers

    • Russian Armed Forces will begin receiving Sych wearable thermal imagers for engineering reconnaissance.
    • State tests of the Sych-ZIR wearable engineering reconnaissance device, created at the Ziklon Central Research Institute by the order of the Ministry of Defense, have ended successfully recently and the devices will be available for the Armed Forces starting in 2021.

  11. US next generation missile interceptor programme officially launched

    • The US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has released its request for proposal for its Next-Generation Interceptor (NGI), tasked with forming the core of the country’s homeland missile defence.
    • The RFP, released on 24 April, says that it allows contractors 90 days to provide proposals to the government beginning 1 May 2020.
    • With proposals due 31 July, the MDA allowed for a timetable review in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
    • Eventually, two companies will be selected who will compete for the right to build the interceptor, according to the research, development, and acquisition agency that works on ballistic missile defence systems for the US.
    • Specifically, for the NGI programme, the agency earlier requested $664.1 million in fiscal year 2021 as part of a $4.9 billion five-year budget plan.

  12. Australia pitches for trilateral cooperation with India, Indonesia

    • In an address to the National Defence College (NDC), Mr. Barry O’Farrell, Australian High Commissioner-designate said that India and Australia will face common challenges in the Indo-Pacific as the COVID-19 pandemic is stretching much of the world’s governmental capacity.
    • He called for greater cooperation especially stressing on trilateral cooperation between India, Australia and Indonesia.
    • He said that the three countries should build on last year’s successful trilateral maritime security workshop with Indonesia to identify new ways in which the three countries can collaborate to be the best possible custodians of the Indian Ocean.
    • On enhancing bilateral cooperation, he said there were many ways through which India and Australia could reinforce each other’s efforts and one of the ways was by making defence facilities available to each other to expand their militaries’ respective operational reach. This was already an evolving area with a logistics support agreement in the final stages of being concluded.
    • The High Commissioner designate also referred to the Indian Navy’s Information Fusion Centre – Indian Ocean Region which is emerging as a regional hub for monitoring maritime movements and cooperation.
    • He also mentioned the increasingly common platforms operated by the two militaries acquired from the U.S., the P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, C-17 and C-130 transport aircraft, and India’s soon-to-be-acquired MH-60 Romeo multi-role helicopters.

  13. It is time to come out of a single service monopoly on the resources. People on top are understanding this issue.

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