Element Air – Joint Operations – Indian Military

Sub Title : Role of the Air Element and the way ahead to enhance and facilitate jointmanship

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 4 Sep – Oct 2021

Author : Air Marshal Anil Chopra, PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM (Retd)

Page No. : 38

Category : Military Affairs

: September 30, 2021

A ‘joint doctrine’ of Indian Armed Forces was released in April 2017. This is the second such doctrine after the first was released in 2006. The doctrine provides for deeper operational synergies among the three services. This article focuses on the role of the Air Element during operations and the way ahead to enhance and facilitate jointmanship

Some of the finest examples of jointmanship were demonstrated by Indian armed forces in the 1971 war. The famous Tangail airdrop, and the Meghna River heli-lift standout among them. With the creation of the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), and later the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), jointness got an additional push. Real jointness is when land, air and naval commanders jointly formulate, train, orchestrate and implement war plans. Each military force possesses certain intrinsic combat capabilities to produce desired results. Matching capabilities to missions is the essence of joint operations. By integrating and coordinating their actions, each force would make a unique contribution to the attainment of the primary objective.

In order to fight together they need to train together. A ‘joint doctrine’ of Indian Armed Forces was released in April 2017. This is the second such doctrine after the first was released in 2006. The doctrine provides for deeper operational synergies among the Indian Army (IA), Indian Navy (IN) and Indian Air Force (IAF). The core aim is to coherently deal with all possible security threats facing India. India is geo-politically the most threatened nation in the world with very serious land boundary disputes with its two nuclear weapon armed neighbours. Also, Pakistan has been running a proxy war through infiltrated terrorists and using sympathisers working as insider cells. The document lists the range of transnational security threats, the proxy-war in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and left-wing extremism. India also remains concerned about the presence and role of external powers in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). The fragile security environment in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region also lends a possibility of it being a conduit for spread of fundamentalist and radical ideologies.

The Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) was created in 2001 based on the recommendations of the Group of Ministers after Kargil war. It was meant to foster coordination and supporting prioritisation across the different branches of the Armed Forces. In the last two decades it has helped streamline joint training and operational equipment prioritisation.

The new doctrine brought in ‘surgical strikes’ as a viable feature in counter-terror operations. While small team actions across the Line of Control (LoC) were part of sub-conventional portion of the spectrum of military operations for years, the well-publicised retaliatory surgical strikes after the Uri Brigade attack have brought such actions in the formal doctrinal lime-light. Similarly, the Balakot air strike as reprisal for Pulwama terror attack, set a new normal.

Joint Doctrine 2017

India has moved to a pro-active and pragmatic philosophy to counter various conflict situations. The joint doctrine proposes joint training of personnel, unified structures besides pushing for a tri-service approach for modernisation of the three forces. The doctrine facilitates establishment of a broad framework of concepts and principles for jointness. The doctrine notes evolution of the ‘Defence Cyber Agency’, Defence Space Agency, and the ‘Special Operations Division”. Clearly ‘jointness’ is essential at strategic, operational and tactical levels.

The doctrine mentions about battles in a network centric environment across the entire spectrum of conflict in varied geographical domains. This would require new guiding philosophy for evolution of war fighting strategies. The doctrine envisages coordination with relevant agencies like RAW, Intelligence Bureau and other intelligence organisations as part of the Joint Intelligence Committee under the National Security Adviser.

The IAF’s Primary Air Operations

The IAF would conduct its own offensive operations to degrade the enemy air’s capability to act against Indian state and to defend Indian military assets. Surveillance and reconnaissance operations will begin much earlier and will be ongoing. Satellites, AWACS, Aerostats, fighter aircraft, and UAVs, will be used. Command, Control, Communications, Computing, Intelligence and Information Systems (C4I2) networks will be used to disseminate information. IAF will mount a counter air campaign to achieve and maintain the requisite degree of control of the air. These operations would be directed against the enemy’s air power. Achieving control of the air would prevent the enemy from using its air assets while permitting freedom to own air power. No country has won a war in the face of enemy air superiority. Any air campaign must be preceded by suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) using strikes and electronic counter measures (ECM). The IAF is responsible for the air defence (AD) of Indian air space.

Air Power – Critical for Joint Operations

The importance of the application of air power in support of the surface and maritime campaigns is well established. For the land and maritime war to be won, it is imperative that air dominance be established first. The inherent speed, reach, flexibility, coupled with the advantages of an elevated platform, enables rapid engagement of surface targets far deeper in the enemy territory. Application of air power in coordination with surface fire power, can allow simultaneous engagement of different targets, thus preventing the enemy from concentrating its forces in space and time. Countering the threat from enemy air power allows own surface operations unhindered. Air also greatly supports Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance (ISR). Modern warfare is characterised by speed of battle and timely dissemination of the data and integrated air picture received from aerial platforms. Air transportation supports intra and inter theatre movements of troops and equipment. Helicopters support inter-valley transfers. They also support air logistics. All this is crucial for the progress of land campaign with the requisite tempo. The joint doctrine for air-land operations is an important document for employment of military power in a joint operations scenario.

Air Land Battle

The aim of Air-Land operations is to seek, strike, destroy or degrade the enemy forces at each stage of the battle. The ability of airpower to target enemy vulnerabilities in depth provides a vital capability in space and time dimensions. This capability helps the ground forces achieve quick and decisive results.

Air Sea Battle

IAF would use the maritime strike aircraft to hit enemy maritime forces within the range of shore based aircraft. With aerial refuelling and standoff cruise missiles, the range of such operations would be significantly extended. IAF will also provide air defence to own ships and installations within the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ). Indian Navy has its own integral air assets for both air defence of its fleet and to carry out anti-shipping and submarine strikes.

Space – A Force Multiplier

The thin line dividing the earth’s atmosphere and space is fast disappearing. Aerospace will thus more or less be a common medium. All the arms would require to use and harness space based platforms for operational purposes. Space based assets will greatly support ISR. Communication satellites will support secure communications and command and control. Navigation satellites like GPS, GLONASS, or Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS) called NavIC, will help manoeuvre and precision strikes, and inter-service operational coordination. Meteorological satellites are crucial for weather prediction and operational planning. Data from Geodetic satellites is important for trajectories of ballistic missiles and guidance of cruise missiles.

Aerial Force Multipliers

Technological advances and acquisition of state-of-art equipment enhances the operational capabilities exponentially. Elevated radars and control systems such as airborne warning and control system (AWACS) or airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) are crucial for the control of air, land or sea battle. Aerostats also allow a high altitude vantage point for radar cover deep into enemy territory. Maritime patrol aircraft, Boeing P-8I of IN, will be used by IAF aircraft for maritime strikes. Other force multipliers include flight refuelling aircraft (FRA), stealth, long range air-to-air missiles, cruise missiles and glide bombs, UAVs, long range ground radars, and enhanced night fighting capability.

Civil Air Assets and Infrastructure

The air assets of civil aircraft operators will be of great use to the armed forces, to augment and hasten the move of troops and materials across theatres. Operational commanders would utilize all civil infrastructure and resources available in their respective Area of Responsibility (AOR), to enhance their combat potential. Stability operations would warrant intimate civil-military cooperation. IAF has integrated civil radars for more complete air picture.

Dynamic Air Dominance

Offensive intent is essential to achieve success. Dynamic air dominance is a concept where modern air dominance fighter aircraft, supported by AEW&C and FRA would be able to dominate airspace of finite dimensions for the specific period of interest. It is dynamic, because the airspace required to be dominated would keep changing with the progress of battle. This would provide a degree of freedom of action to the land forces commander to operate in a relatively secure aerial environment.

Effect Based and Parallel Operations

Larger number of targets can now be attacked simultaneously in a short period of time. Air can take on deeper targets as the surface forces engage relatively closer ones. Therefore, tactical, operational and strategic level targets can be engaged simultaneously instead of sequentially. Joint planning and execution would help achieve campaign objectives. When operations are planned and executed in order to achieve desired effects that contribute directly in achieving desired outcomes, they are called Effect Based Operations (EBO). EBOs focus on causing functional paralysis while conserving own resources. EBO is the approach to all air operations.

Canvas of Operations

The essence of combat operations using air power is:-

  • Shaping the Battlefield. Before offensive land operations are launched, air operations must focus on unbalancing the enemy and shaping of the battle space. Creating air superiority in time and space will be part of the shaping of the battle space.
  • Air Support – Defensive Land Operations. IA’s defensive operations could be for the security of own forces, or for building a base for strike forces, and to create a favourable situation for offensive operations.
  • CSFO and Air Interdiction. IAF will conduct counter surface force operations (CSFO) by attacking enemy ground forces that are actually engaged in combat by battlefield air strike (BAS). It will attack enemy forces, which are preparing to join the ground battle by battlefield air interdiction (BAI) strikes.

Airspace management in TBA

In a joint warfare scenario, the airspace over the battlefield would have more than one user and hence the need for an efficient organisation for airspace management to settle conflicting requirements and avoid fratricide. The density and lethality of projectiles in the air is increasing in  the Tactical Battle Area (TBA) and so is the use of electromagnetic spectrum. Network centricity, real-time communications, on-line real-time sharing of tactical picture and data would enable all the users to operate in the same battle space, in a mutually supporting manner, with adequate safety. There is a need to establish organisations and procedures that leverage the available technology for synergistic application of air power. It is critical that procedures are so evolved that maximum freedom of action is available to all weapons and ‘Hold Fire’ or ‘No Fire’ restrictions be imposed only for shortest durations in time and space.

The Army and Navy are responsible for AD of integral assets. Effective AD depends upon the integration of sensors, weapon systems, security of communications, real time transfer of data, accurate data analysis process and sound decision support systems of all the services, and the ability of the entire system to remain operational under attack. The Joint Air Defence Centre (JADC) would exercise control over the ground based AD weapon systems in the TBA and coordinate with IAF’s Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) for safety of the aircraft transiting through TBA. IA helicopters and UAVs will have freedom of flight up to certain height, beyond which the air defence clearance will be required from the Air Defence direction Centre (ADDC). IACCS and its integration with Army automated C & R system would be handled at JADC level. Plethora of electronic devices like radars, EW, and communication systems operating in the TBA underpin the need for resolving the Electro Magnetic Interference (EMI) / Electro Magnetic Compatibility (EMC) issues.

Air Transport and Airborne Operations

A significant part of the peace time utilisation of IAF’s transport and helicopter fleets is used to support and air maintain IA in mountainous areas. Pre-war, initial effort will be to reposition IAF assets. Thereafter, move of Army combat forces and assets will follow. IAF undertakes special operations whenever required for inserting troops into enemy territory and to carry out clandestine and psychological operations. Due to their inherent flexibility, airborne forces are capable of being employed on various strategic and tactical missions. Airborne operations are generally in furtherance of land forces plans and involve close cooperation with them. It could involve para-dropped forces or air landed near the objective area. Helicopters are used for insertion and extraction of combat forces directly into action through Special Heliborne Operations (SHBO).

Attack Helicopters

The Attack Helicopter (AH) is a potent platform. IAF has its own missions like CSAR, anti UAV, Radar busting, among others. AH is also a powerful option to engage armoured vehicles and its night capability can be well exploited. AH has advantage of nap-of-the-earth (NOE) concealed approach and very quick reaction. Induction of the Apache AH-64 has made a big difference. Indigenous Rudra and LCH will add to the capability.

Joint Training and Exercises

Joint training in peace time is essential not only to practice joint procedures and techniques but also to put to test the structures and the communication systems. Joint exercises also bring out capabilities and limitations of each service which the commanders and staff must be made aware of. Joint training in peacetime should, therefore, be based on the doctrines formulated so that lessons learnt are applied to overcome drawbacks. Exercises must be planned jointly with all services to derive learning points. The conduct and operational procedures necessary to meet all likely contingencies should be worked out and practiced as realistically as possible. Key areas could be joint procedures, CSFO, inter-service secure communications in EW environment, AD in the exercise area, airspace management, JADC procedures, para drops etc. Joint exercises must be conducted during different seasons of the year and in varied terrain conditions. Live firing exercises are effective ways of demonstrating the capabilities of each service. Fine-tuning and validation of joint war plans, doctrines and Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) should also be done through realistic war games. Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) and other forms of aid to civil authority and international peacekeeping, is another area where joint operations or coordination is required. Inter-service cross posting or training of operational planners at each other’s operations rooms should help understand complexities and challenges faced by sister services. More and more officers and other ranks need to do tri-service billets and cross-postings for better synergy.

Way Ahead

As the armed forces evolve further joint structures, in addition to the existing three domains of land, sea and air, the new domains of Space, Cyber, Special Forces and Information Operations require greater tri-service synergy. The DCA, DSA, and AFSOD, are positive steps forward. Information Operations would also require inter-service coordination. The Joint Doctrine 2017 has generated new emphasis on ‘jointness’. The broad contours of CDS responsibilities are now established. Jointness is the way ahead and needs continuous reinforcing at all levels.