Wednesday 13 December 2017, 01:27 AM
IS INDIAN AIR FORCE - A STRATEGIC AIR FORCE?
By Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik (Retd.) | Bharat Defence Kavach | Publish Date: 12/29/2016 2:32:06 PM
IS INDIAN AIR FORCE - A STRATEGIC AIR FORCE?

Tactics and Strategy:  Two words that have confused me since my Pilot Officer days. Tactics and Air Combat Development Establishment (TACDE) had just been formed and every fighter jock whoever did a barrel reversal(sic) in a 2 v 1 was talking Tactics. Once in a while, in the bar, one heard the word Strategy, spoken in whispers, by senior and soofy Flt Lieutenants and above. Everyone else just nodded knowingly. I did consult one of our Squadron soofy ones, also read one of the articles he showed me and felt I was quite clear about the difference between Tactics and Strategy. The moment I, a bit superciliously, tried to explain the same to one of my colleagues, I realised I had no clue. Some say strategy identifies clear goals that advance the organisation and organise resources, while tactics utilise specific resources to achieve objectives that support the overall goals. Some say strategy is that above the shoulder while tactics is that below the shoulder. Military strategy is also defined as the art and science of planning, directing and orchestrating military campaigns to achieve national security objectives. Tactics, sometimes called Battlefield Strategy, on the other hand, are the art and science of employing forces on the battlefield to achieve national objectives. Tactics are concerned with doing the job ‘right’ while strategy deals with doing the ‘right’ job, see?

Now, all that is okay. But then over a period of time what happened was that snake in the grass, Technology, came in. Long range sensors, long range weapons and delivery platforms came in. SATCOM, GPS, AWACS, Air-air refuelling (AAR) extended the zones of influence and battlefields dimensions expanded. Forces thousands of kilometres away were in contact with each other. Commanders realised it was possible to effect a strategic outcome by use of tactical forces and vice versa. Especially ,in the air through multi role aircraft. Today a Predator RPV fires a Hellfire tactical missile to kill a terrorist after a Strategic Recce. Things have become pretty mixed up. The easiest way is to remember that Tactics deals with forces in the battlefield and strategy deals with getting them there. The same interchangeability applies to whether an Air Force is tactical or strategic.

Like almost all other Air Forces Indian Air Force (IAF), too, started off as a tactical air force with a flight of four aircraft on 01 Apr 1933. Its main role was to support the Army battle. This continued till independence. During this period, air forces all over the world were slowly realising their potential and the peculiar nature of air power, propounded by the trio of Douhet, Mitchell and Trenchard. By WW II the world had appreciated two unique characteristics of air power. The first was its inherent flexibility. Flexibility to switch roles as well as theatres of operations. The second was the ability to strike directly at the heartland or centres of power or centres of gravity of the enemy bypassing intervening obstacles. The Air Forces were slowly emerging from being a support element to an independent entity. Breaking Army shackles was not easy. Understanding the third dimension takes a lifetime of study. The Army top brass did not wholly appreciate the advantages of autonomous air. To some extent, Army still believes that ‘Under Command’ ops are the best. During WW II the Strategic Bomber emerged as a potent weapon. Air forces had to have the strategic bomber to be recognized as strategic. After WW II during the Cold War, the term Strategic referred to things nuclear, be it bombers or missiles.  Technology continued to kick in changing definitions and, at times, driving doctrines and strategy rather than the other way around. Satellites, communications, PGMs, BVRs, cruise missiles, RPVs and UCAVs, all made many more missions possible, giving a plethora of options to the decision makers. This gave birth to a role oriented definition of a Strategic Air Force.

One way of judging whether it is a strategic air force is whether its employment directly achieves national objectives or meets the state’s aspirations through deterrence or combat ops. A modern strategic air force must be able to undertake a variety of missions and must be equipped and provisioned to ensure this capability. Let us inventory some of the important prerequisites.

  •  A judicious mix of lo and hi tech aircraft in large numbers.
  • 4th and 5th generation aircraft (including stealth ac) with nuclear capability.
  •  Modern long range bombers with nuclear capability
  • Early warning and control aircraft
  • Strategic Transport aircraft.
  • Short and long range Air Defence Systems and SAMs
  • RPVs and UCAVs.
  • Net centricity.

The above list is, of course, not exhaustive. Let us now see whether the IAF has the wherewithal to be called a strategic air force.

  • We do not have a judicious mix . Our most modern fighter, the SU-30 is more than a decade old. MiG 21 and 27s are due to retire. Instead of 45 Sqns we may end up with about 35 by year end.
  • We do not have 5th gen or stealth ac. Indigenous Tejas will take a long time to fill in the numbers required. It is a good thing that we have retained the required nuclear capability. We need to augment the numbers fast to prevent a downward spiral.
  • We do not have a strategic bomber. These days many countries do not have a strategic bomber. Modern fighters with AAR can do the same job.
  • We are quite current with AWACS and AEW&C capability. We will augment it with time.
  • We have the IL-76 and C-17 strategic transport aircraft.
  • Our short range AD is quite strong. It will be augmented with the Russian S-400 long range AD system.
  • We have been operating the Searcher and the Heron RPVs for a long time. More are in the pipeline. UCAVs are being indigenously developed. We need accelerated development.
  • We are well on our way to become net centric. At the moment we can call ourselves net enabled.

From the above we can see that IAF has most of the wherewithal to be called strategic. I would still say shaky grounds till our numbers fill up and we augment our modern ac. The Question I would like to pose is ,”Are mere numbers and modern equipment sufficient to make you a strategic air force?”   We need to look at this question seriously. A lot of soul searching will have to be done before we can lay claim to being a strategic air force. I feel we can go about it in two ways. The first is to claim that the IAF has been a strategic force for many years. We then cite the famous 4x MiG-21 strike over Governor’s house in Dhaka during the 1971 war, or the various HADR ops undertaken, and sit back on our laurels. This path, incidentally, has been trodden by many of our renowned experts on aspects military. The better way in my opinion is to analyse what more the IAF needs to acquire to truly be a strategic air force.

Pure hardware cannot make the IAF strategic. We have to reach bedrock. Examine and modify our own thinking process, our HRD policies, our acquisition process, our ops training, our capability development. We should be capable of assessing the dynamic threat environment to outmanoeuvre our adversaries. Today’s environment is complex and demands a diverse set of skills to exploit the opportunities. We must be able to strengthen our partnerships within and outside to include industry, academic institutions, think tanks and with the other two Services. Basically we need to modify our thinking, our priorities, our processes so that The IAF is  capable of contributing directly in fulfilment of important national security objectives. There are internal factors that the IAF can, probably, resolve on its own. Then there are external factors which seem incapable of easy resolution. Let us look at both with an open mind.

Nuclear Deterrence remains a clear priority of the IAF till the ‘Triad’ is in place. Even after it is effective, the air vector will still remain the first choice. IAF must work towards ensuring its effectiveness and credibility. This involves nuclear command, control, and communications. It involves investing in improvements to quality and reaction time, infrastructure, delivery systems. Some of these may not be possible from within own resources and will involve help of partners.

Integrated C4 ISR (Command, control, communications, computers; Intel, Surveillance, Recce ) is a vital resource. IAF needs to relook, realign, if required, re-organise itself to meet the demands of today. Deterrence is more effective when the enemy thinks he is threatened by a prohibitive and credible threat. Good ISR can affect the behaviour of the enemy who knows he is being watched. IAF needs to increase the reach of its ISR to match the increasing zone of influence of the country. We must realise that today’s C4 ISR may not meet our needs of tomorrow. We must harness technology to ensure capability. Not only technology but the thinking of our leaders must be sufficiently elastic to meet future needs. We must train our personnel to operate in all domains and ops environments. They must get used to taking decisions in conditions of uncertainty since good intel is generally delayed and decisions are often taken on raw ISR data. IAF could have a relook at its Doctrine to make it more responsive to ISR inputs.

IAF must remain sensitised to the fact that future conflict will see more joint ops. IAF will be required more and more for air defence, denial of EM spectrum, cyber ops and space control /denial. PGMs and stand off weapons will become more common. We need to be able to stretch our C4 network to remain effective. Despite long range weapons and PGMs, maximum contribution will be through a shared situational awareness (SA). This is a vital component for reduced reaction time and increased effectiveness. Future conflicts will involve multiple domain dominance. IAF must pay adequate attention to cyber and space domains. This, currently, is a weak area since it involves external agencies. We need to adapt our thinking and our culture to develop a multi domain mind set. We need to train our personnel, from operator to commander,  to think along these lines so that we are not stymied when faced with a complex situation and take recourse to multiple domains to find a solution. With our adversaries also enhancing their capabilities, we will have to deal more and more with contested airspace. Air Superiority in time and space is our job. So we will have to use space and cyberspace capabilities to retain freedom of ops. IAF could also look  to integrate air and space platforms with cyberspace capabilities. This really is a big ask since we are talking here of a full combat network design and this may not be feasible in the near future but needs to be kept in the archives for future reference. Standoff weapons, multi domain dominance, elastic C4, penetrating ISR, Inter theatre mobility are all necessary for survival in future conflicts. These capabilities are not easy to acquire but thinking along these lines must start if we in the IAF are looking at 2027.

The IAF Basic Doctrine has a chapter called Technological Perspective. Technology is presumed to be coming readily. In reality, pursuit of technology has to be relentless. Especially cutting edge or game changing technology needs sustained pursuit. More than technology per se, its application in an ops scenario causes the cutting edge effect. This application  is done by innovative people and open minded leadership. This involves tapping as many sources as possible for ideas, engaging them, making small research investments as well as having the freedom to experiment. The element of risk must be acceptable to the leadership. Innovation, out of box thinking and engaged leadership is essential if game changing technology is to be made to work for you.

Cutting edge technology, innovative ideas are all fine. They are made effective by human beings. Human resource development, therefore, is vital in today’s day and age. IAF has concentrated on it for many years but by and large we have been fire fighting. Ideally IAF should look to recruit the best. In our environment, the best may not opt for the Services. In any case  we should look for those  better able to exploit the global, information based environment. Within AF domain we could look to retain our expert air warriors, officers and others by suitable incentives to them as well as their families. Incentives that go beyond mere financial. Overall, as we get more hi tech and more advanced, taking care of our people and their families must remain an IAF priority. After recruitment, training and skill development are paramount. We have tried many different systems, both to increase the intake and to multi skill. Future systems will include space sensors, power plants, multi domain communication gateways and multi domain armaments. Skill development should cater to this complexity. In the resource crunch era, this is a tough ask. A modular approach to systems, an open ended architecture and using clearly defined functions may make things more cost effective. The IAF needs to adopt modelling and simulation techniques in a much larger way. War gaming in a simplified form could be used in routine problem solving tutorials. Finally, despite the resource scarcity, it is the trust, both up and down which leads to performance beyond expectations. IAF needs to inculcate an atmosphere of mutual trust if we want superlative performance. This aspect should be leadership driven, or a ‘washing the staircase ‘ approach and must be a part of IAF strategy.

Most of the factors we have discussed so far are internally controllable with a little outside help. The only external factor likely to affect everybody’s happiness is that as per the Govt of India Transaction of Business Rules 1961, the three Services are designated as “attached offices” to the MOD and, therefore, placed subordinate to MOD. It means you cannot take policy decisions and you have to follow the policy laid down by MOD. What was envisaged as conceptual civilian control over the military has degenerated today into day to day control amounting to interference. Postings, promotions, assignments are cleared by MOD. The whole acquisition process, other than field trials, precludes much of a say by Services. Freedom for independent action has been totally curtailed by bureaucratic red tape. The Services have no role in decision making. Any move for innovation, out of the box solution is difficult. Therefore I feel that unless the MOD and the Services are integrated the road to becoming a strategic air force is going to be full of obstacles.

Summing up the discussion so far, IAF , if it is to become a truly strategic air force, will have to concentrate on many aspects. Some are within IAF capability and will involve a relook at many of our traditions, policies, procedures and processes. In many instances, IAF may have to look for assistance from its partners. Hence partnerships with external partners like industry, academia, think tanks, even the Parliament through its committees will need to be diligently nurtured. A modern strategic air force should, basically, be able to meet the strategic aspirations of the country and hence should be sufficiently enabled to adopt and exploit all the various technologies of the future that the country is likely to embrace. Pursuit of cutting edge or game changing technology has to be one of the prime missions for a strategic air force. We have seen that mere number of aircraft and weapons do not a strategic air force make. Although we have plans in the pipeline to crunch the numbers, the present state is not reassuring. A reading of Ashley Tellis’s book, ”Troubles, They Come in Battalions” will give us a reasonable idea of the immediate future. Of course, Tellis is a promoter of US enterprises like Boeing and Lockheed Martin but his statistics are generally reliable. But numbers will come. Alongside,  we also need to change our thinking. We need to bring about certain fundamental changes in a few aspects of joint, multi domain ops, more penetrative ISR, more flexible or elastic C4 and inter theatre mobility. IAF’s main resource harnessing and exploiting technology is the human element. We must shape recruitment, training, multi-skilling and employment to meet our strategic needs. Personnel education, retention and separation needs a nurturing touch if we are to get the best out of what we have. An atmosphere of trust needs to be created by the leadership starting right at the top.

The audience this article targets is very well au - fait with the sequence Grand Strategy-> National Strategy-> Military Strategy followed by the rest. The total absence of the first three tiers in India is not only startling but mind boggling. I have intentionally not addressed this quagmire because an entire book can be written on this absence. I am given to understand that this vital aspect is already being addressed. As usual, without involving the Services since we are not a part of the decision making matrix but ‘attached offices of MOD’. The most vital external factor which will accelerate all our endeavours towards a strategic future is the integration of the Services with MOD. This and this alone will be the enabling factor which will grant the required degree of freedom to IAF to facilitate its journey towards truly becoming a strategic air force.   

Air Chief Marshal P V Naik , former Chief of Air Staff, Indian Air Force is a strategic thinker and policy maker 

               

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