On Theatres – Retaining The Air Power Advantage

Sub Title : The need to look at the issue holistically and get the architecture of the theatre commands right

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2021

Author : Air Marshal Ramesh Rai, VM (Retd)

Page No. : 38

Category : Military Affairs

: August 5, 2021

As our quest for Integrated Theatre Commands gathers pace it is of the essence to be seized of the fact that we have finite resources as far as the Air force is concerned. We must therefore look at the entire issue holistically and get the architecture of the theatre commands right

It has been more than 100 years of the air age, and during the said period there have been several wars where the air domain has been predominantly instrumental in shaping victory. Air power can be employed simultaneously at all levels of war making the dynamics of its employment tactically and strategically distinctive. This is a fact that needs to be clearly understood by all stake holders, especially in light of our quest for Integrated Theatre Commands.

A future war is likely to be multi-domain and multi-dimensional and will require to be dominated in each domain if we are to seek victory. Each force will have to operate in full capability and capacity, particularly in a two front contingency to retain the military advantage. Which force is to be applied when, in what quantity, and in what sequence would depend largely on the ensuing operational situation and governed by the emerging operational contingency. Given the diverse forms in which such a confrontation can manifest, the tactical, operational, and strategic value of airpower will always be situational, and our theatre structures will have to provide for air power to manifest its prowess in the entire spectrum at all levels of war. This fundament that air power is employed to dominate the air domain and combine as co-equals to fight a collective war thus emerges as the strategic covenant to carve them.

Conceptually speaking, each theatre will need to serve as a composite whole with integral forces and independence in initiation and sequencing of manoeuvres. In our context, the difficulty will lie in assigning air power resources to be integral to theatres since these are grossly insufficient. If distributed to the five envisaged theatre commands, each would end up with totally untenable numbers and by design we would have created an asymmetry in favour of the enemy, much to our peril. In the words of Field Marshal Bernard L Montgomery, “If we lose the war in the air, we lose the war and we lose it quickly”. In dividing air power, this is where we will be headed. The solution lies in exercising the option to keep air assets together and multiplex their use across theatres making up for the lesser numbers, rather than tie them down to a single theatre’s operational plan.

It would be pertinent to mention here that none of the committees that reviewed the macro level issues after the Kargil war, i.e. Kargil Review Committee, Naresh Chandra Committee, Arun Singh Committee and the Shekatkar Committee had recommended re-structuring into tri-service theatre commands. When Dr K Subramanian, Chairman of the Kargil Review Committee, was asked this question, he responded by saying, 60 squadrons would be required for a theatre command structure. The doyen of Indian strategic thought had seen through two decades ago, that creating such a structure with a 30 squadrons force, would be operationally unviable.

A tenet of air power employment that is often given a miss is that aircraft have large radii of action and a wide mix of weapons. Thus, even when based at one geographic location they have the ability to carry out operations anywhere in India’s geographical war space. This inherent flexibility, reach, concentration of mass, ability to wage war at all levels, ability to traverse distances across theatres to engage targets within a short time span and within the same mission will need exploitation to make for inadequate numbers without falling prey to the theatre structures and boundaries. In one mission, an aircraft could cut across for a strike on the western border and then be engaged to support the surface forces say on the eastern border. Such employment so essential to exploit air power in its full capacity and capability, is only feasible with centrality in execution, uninhibited by theatre structure and boundaries.

Additionally, the ability of air power to bypass the enemy’s surface forces and terrain, which gives it the unique ability to strike at targets deep in hostile territory and impede enemy movement/reinforcements without first achieving success on the surface battlefield will have to be utilised in full. But for this aircraft need to penetrate enemy air defenses, which is not a simple matter when facing strong opponents like ours. Hence, the preeminent importance the air force places on achieving air superiority as a precondition for support to land operations and retaining air power assets together, especially support elements like AWACS, Flight refuellers, EW, is an essential position since these are so few on our inventory. The fluidity, flexibility and the combine required for employment for air superiority, strikes and support to surface forces, makes the dynamics of air power employment tactically and strategically distinctive. This more than any other factor lies behind the argument of its centrality.

Dividing the air force creates an asymmetry in favour of the adversary in each theatre. During war, a stronger side looks for the enemy and defeats him wherever he is found. A weaker side avoids being found and hides. Weakened in each theatre, we would have to avoid the air war, rendering own air force’s offensive capability and capacity unusable and making our land forces vulnerable to enemy air action. While providing support to surface forces is one of the most important tasks for any air force, it is not the only one. The biggest flaw and inappropriate use would be to utilize air power solely as an auxiliary to the Army and Navy.

Worth highlighting is the fact that, despite abundance of air power, need for central orchestration of aerial forces of various arms was still felt in Op Desert Storm. In our case it would be a necessity. A Rand Corporation note evaluating employment of air power in the gulf says that the role of the Joint Force Air Component Commander was never put to the test as the sheer mass of air power available allowed the command to employ it inefficiently at times and to cater to the doctrinal preferences of the various services. Such is not the situation in India as our air power assets are woefully less.

The key to efficient employment of resources of each service lies in joint planning which must serve as the start point for integrated war action. Integration does not imply merging of the armed forces but demands activities for integrated operations to be done jointly evolved by understanding concepts of integrated war fighting, resolving doctrinal issues, clarity on roles and missions, working closely in a co-operative mode with knowledge of the core competencies of the other service and with an overriding perception of what is best for the nation and not necessarily for the individual service.

Air forces though relatively new are a powerful component much like the Army and Navy and must be viewed that way and accorded equal status. Today the sky is of much more interest even to the land and sea forces as it constitutes a battle ground just above their heads and which profoundly affects them. It would be an error to divide airpower and place it under a surface commander on the perception that forcing such a combine will bring integration in pursuance of the land forces war. Winning a war in the future would be critically dependent upon understanding the professional capability of each element in its individual domain. Acceptance of this dictum as the basis for joint professional employment would have to ensured prior to any restructuring any military reform lest it costs us a war.

The debate of airpower versus land power must be put to rest. There are practical reasons for of the non-divisibility of airpower. These are of great significance to national security and must be accommodated in the reforms that must be joint and integrated in practice, rather than just in name. The Air Chief in his reply to the CDS’s remarks has put to rest any misplaced impression that the Air Force is not in favour of theatres. The IAF chief’s assurance that despite the differences of land forces perception in the use of air power, efforts towards the creation of integrated theatre commands would continue. That we ought to get the architecture right, wherein post theaterisation, there is a qualitative and discernable enhancement in the combined war fighting potential goes without saying, or else it would be an exercise in futility. The nation cannot afford a structure skewed towards a single domain and dysfunctional in the other.