The proposed “Air Defence Command” is a retrograde step and if allowed, would become the biggest strategic military blunder for the Indian Armed Forces
Soon after taking over in January 2020 as the first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), under directions from the government, General Bipin Rawat initiated the process of creation of an integrated military command that would take charge of air defence operations of the Indian military. The proposal seeks to take away the critical “Air Defence” role from the Indian Air Force (IAF) and create a separate “Air Defence Command”. This issue needs to be examined from the prism of national interest and cannot be clouded by interservice rivalry and misplaced military ego.
The Air Defence Command would be a stand-alone arm of Indian air power whose aim would be to protect vital areas and vital points (V/A’s/VP’s) of the nation from enemy aircraft. The system would bring under one umbrella all the components of the air defence machinery. The four components of the system would continue to be detection, identification, interception and destruction. The current assets of the IAF namely aircraft, systems and manpower, would be amputated from the main body to create the new Air Defence Command. This reminds one of the air defence organisation set up of the 70’s and 80’s. What has changed since then is the dramatic enhancement of capability in each of these four areas that comprise an air defence network.
Strategic Shift. These well orchestrated changes brought about by the planners capitalised on acquiring more capability, third and fourth generation technology in aircraft so that the multi-role employment could be contemplated. More importantly, the change in the planning of an air battle occurred was made possible by the acquisition of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft and the in-flight refueller. Today, India has a very potent Air Force having evolved over the years of its existence. Having so evolved, the proposed “Air Defence Command” is not how a potent air power machine, like what India has, should be employed. Let us, dispassionately, examine whether a stand-alone air defence system is more suited to the Indian context or an offensive/defensive philosophy which revolves around destruction of enemy aircraft and other military targets before they are allowed to bear down on our VA’s/VP’s. The system so suggested, must be most suited to war scenarios and also cater to peacetime threats.
NUANCES OF AIR DEFENCE OPERATIONS
Whilst analysing both the systems, we must avoid the temptation of templating different global scenarios and shoe-horning them to the Indian context. Our situation is, that there is a near parity in capability on our Northern and Western flanks. We, therefore, may never have the luxury of “Air Supremacy” or even “Air Superiority” initially. A hard fought “Favourable Air Situation” in the early phases of the war, is the most likely condition that will exist. As the war progresses beyond three to five days, the Indian Air Power would be able to create the higher levels of dominance where the destructive capability of Indian air power can be unleashed to destroy the enemy’s war-waging potential. Therefore, a defensive strategy of “let him come and I will stop him” is far less likely to succeed than a strategy of offensive/ defence where his aircraft are destroyed as early as possible.
EVOLUTION OF THE OFFENSIVE / DEFENSIVE STRATEGY
The first hurdle that any military air power planner faces, is to keep pace with the rapidity that each of the four air defence components change. Military aviators find that they have to continuously keep updating their arsenals of knowledge to understand and capitalise on the unimaginable technological leaps in capability that take place. The sensors are now airborne, the weapon platforms have multiple role capability, the offensive/defensive divide had first blurred and now does not exist. Besides, the sensors and weapon platforms can now be tasked for both roles in the same mission. Understanding each of these separately, requires effort, putting it all together to form a potent force takes generations of military aviators putting their heads together, depending on years of actually operating the sensors and weapon platforms and bringing it all to fruition in what is loosely termed as “The Indian Air War Machine”.
The Air Battle. This requires some elaboration. India has over the last 30 years developed its air power potential with the acquisition of the AWACS and in-flight refueling platforms as well as air dominance combat aircraft. This combination is lethal and has permitted the IAF to be able to become truly offensive. The philosophy of engagement of an enemy target itself has changed. The command and decision-to-destroy loop now permits real time allocation of targets to our aircraft which are already airborne and can stay on station for long durations. The philosophy of dynamic targeting has evolved. The point at which a potential threat could be destroyed has shifted farther and farther away from our own VA’s/VP’s. The AWACS controls an air battle with the envelope extending over 200 km into enemy territory and down to surface levels. This gives us the ability to destroy enemy aircraft as close to the launch bases as possible, it also permits the same aircraft to carry out attacks against runways, bridges and concentration of enemy surface forces. The battle commander chooses the target which has the highest threat priority. Thirty years ago, these would be four different missions with no guidance across the border and additionally another lot of aeroplanes would be solely devoted to Classic Air Defence which depends on a multi-tiered engagement philosophy because the threat in the form of a high speed low flying aircraft is very potent. Preventing such a lethal intruder from delivering a weapon has to be achieved by an early detection and identification process followed by achieving multiple engagement solutions by aircraft and surface weapons. The engagements must culminate in a weapon solution which results in the destruction of the intruding enemy. Coordinating the airborne and surface weapons is a massive task achieved by putting systems in place and then practicing near real time solutions. This was thirty years ago!! Today the strategy is of an offensive/defensive air battle and this is planned and executed by one agency to achieve destruction of the enemy aircraft, optimisation of resources and avoidance of fratricide. Our capability now permits us to shift the entire air battle into enemy territory to increase the chance of a weapon solution on multiple and diverse targets.
The Resources. The IAF has a sanctioned strength of 42 combat squadrons and today the squadron strength is 30. Splitting this further would cause a dramatic drop in war waging potential. Flexibility and the ability to rapidly redeploy have been factored into plans, however, the challenges posed by recent military developments can best be thwarted by the present IAF plans which revolve around a coordinated offensive/defensive philosophy of employment.
The Identification Dilemma. Another crucial function of an air defence system is that of Identification. This assumes even greater importance in a battle scenario. We need to understand that the air space is common for all air operations whether it is in own or enemy territory. The problem is compounded by the large radar field of view of our aircraft as well as the enhanced launch envelopes of the missiles. The coordination required is large and can be best achieved if the air operations are planned and controlled by one agency.
The present system also needs continuous upgradation as the IAF has no time to rest on its laurels. The force levels are woefully low and the emergency acquisition of third and fourth generation aircraft is a positive step. Rapid and accelerated crew training needs to be undertaken to make the pilots fully operational as quickly as possible. An area of deep concern is the Nepal border. Chinese aircraft launched from Tibet can fly virtually undetected over Nepalese airspace and pose a serious threat to VA’s/VP’s in the Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.. The Chinese surface forces could use this route too. Once again, in this scenario the Offensive/Defensive employment strategy would work much more effectively.
IMPLICATIONS FOR NATIONAL SECURITY
With this concept, in one stroke we want to move back to segregating the air defence role from other air operations. The step would indeed be a folly of mammoth proportions and a Godsend for the enemy. The effects of such a move will directly impact India’s ability to wage an effective simultaneous offensive/defensive air war. Let us understand that surface forces on land can at best be used to impact the enemy targets within 30 kilometers of any boundary. It is only the IAF that from the beginning of a conflict, can impact the enemy deep inside his territory, destroy his war waging potential and will to fight. Air power must be utilised and the reluctance of leaders to apply air power, as it might be escalatory, should be dispensed with. Hit the enemy hard and be prepared to inflict more damage on the enemy when he retaliates. The proposed “Air Defence Command” needs to be viewed from the perspective of national interest. It is a retrograde step and if allowed, would become the biggest strategic military blunder for the Indian Armed Forces.