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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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