Why Reducing IAF to 'Support' Function is a Waste of Precious Assets

A capable, experienced, professional air force, such as the IAF, can be a standalone, strategic power in war.

5 min read
Why Reducing IAF to 'Support' Function is a Waste of Precious Assets

Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, responding to a question during a television interview on 2 June about the reservations of IAF on re-apportioning of its limited assets into the theatre commands, stated,"... the IAF continues to remain a supporting arm, just as artillery support or engineers support the combatant arm in the army."

The reality is even the artillery is no longer a mere support arm, at least in advanced militaries.

The days of protracted artillery bombardments prior to an assault by the “combatant arm” are over, as with precision and autonomous munitions, the artillery can now inflict casualties and material degradation which is deterministic.

And a capable, experienced, professional air force, such as the Indian Air Force (IAF), can almost be a standalone, strategic power that can single-handedly turn the tide of war.

Reducing the IAF to a “support” function in theatre commands, and asking it to provide air support to ground forces, or be part of an air defence command, is thus tantamount to frittering away precious assets piecemeal.

Key to Winning: Attack ‘Engines of War’

Actually, the air force stopped being a “supporting arm” about three-quarters of a century ago. Carl von Clausewitz had famously outlined that the key to winning a war was to attack the centre of gravity of an enemy's capacity to wage war. By World War II, the centre of gravity was no longer the mere destruction of armies on battlefields – but was the factories and the workers which produced the ‘engines of war.’

World War II ended not because Germany and Japan ran out of manpower for battlefields, but because of massive Allied air raids to cripple the industrial heartlands of Germany and Japan eviscerated their capacities to continue the war.

Israel's ‘Follow-on-Forces Attack’ Formed Basis of NATO’s ‘Air Land Battle Strategy’

One of the defining teachings on what an air force should be utilised for, starts with the desperate battle in northern Golan during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

Israel, taken by surprise, was on the verge of being over-run by advancing Syrian divisions. But instead of reinforcing weak defences, two Israeli divisions under General Moshe “Mussa” Peled and General Dan Laner penetrated deep, closed a pincer around the Syrian concentration, and routed and rolled them back.

In summation: In the midst of what could have been a general defeat, the Israelis resorted to an attack in depth. The United States military analysed this decisive battle and concluded that “starting ratios” do not determine the outcome of a battle, and in its opening stages, “it makes no difference who is outnumbered or who is outnumbering” – what will decide the outcome is whether the enemy’s follow-on echelons can be prevented from advancing and joining battle.

Thereafter, the US military issued (1976) a new fighting doctrine entitled “Active Defence”, which argued for “deepening” the battleground and striking non-linearly not only at the forward echelons of the enemy, but using long-range systems to take out successive echelons of backup troops and reserves as well.

This was the concept for a deep ‘Follow-on-Forces Attack’, which formed the basis of the NATO’s ‘Air Land Battle Strategy’ (ALBS). The sophisticated, transformational ALBS integrated the US Air Force (USAF) for ‘deep battle’ – that is, for hitting an adversary’s command centres, logistic lines, depots, communication links, air defences, infrastructure, industry, etc - and the fighting echelons moving towards the frontlines.

Thus, bereft of supplies, and with reserves unable to reinforce, the collapse of the frontline was a foregone conclusion. This is exactly what the USAF did in the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 Iraq War – in each, the Allied ground forces didn’t face heavy fighting.


IAF Capable of More Than 'Supporting Role', Can Conduct Critical Attacks & Isolate Tactical Battlefield

The IAF’s point-of-view thus has merit. It’s equipped with multi-role aircraft which can change roles mission-to-mission, and can be used in counter-air, strike or air defence roles on the same day from different bases.

With good technology, experienced pilots and attack planners, the IAF envisions carrying out integrated counter-air operations to denude adversarial air force(s) and defend the homeland from air attacks, as also conduct attacks to destroy the ‘engines of war’ while isolating the tactical battlefield.

Such actions, which require unity of command and assets, are likely to have a far more telling effect on the outcomes of various battles and the war as compared to attacks in “supporting role”.

US Pentagon in Dire Need of Overhaul

The Indian quest for jointness through theatre commands draws inspiration from the US military’s Geographic Combatant Commands (GCCs), which were created by the 1986 Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defence Reorganisation Act.

This quest received an impetus after China did away with the Military Regions and established theatre commands.

However, in recent years, there has been much debate in the US on the GCC/theatre command model. This is because major military reformation has a gestation period of at least a decade, and the resultant model, if well-thought, should last about 25-35 years since warfare evolves.

The 1986 Act was the result of the US military’s inability to conduct joint operations in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, as also the failures of Operations Eagle-Claw (1980 failed rescue of hostages in Iran) and Urgent-Fury (1983 invasion of Grenada), etc – and the strategic environment now is no longer the same.

Thus, in 2016, the US Congress undertook a 30-year review of the 1986 Act. Important testimonies harped on reforms to Military Personnel and Training, restructuring the existing Combatant Commands, OSD/Civilian Management, Strategy Formulation and Acquisitions.

Earlier (2015), three experts, including two who had midwifed this 1986 Act testified before the US Senate Armed Services Committee that “no organizational blueprint lasts forever”, and although the Act had strengthened the joint regional combatant command structure, it has unintentionally fuelled personnel bloat within joint organizations and the US Pentagon is now straining under a lumbering, outmoded and top-heavy command structure, which is in dire need of an overhaul to compete with faster-moving adversaries and eliminate government waste from a labyrinthine acquisition system.

More importantly, in early 2020, the US Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein opined much the same as what the IAF has implied – that the current GCC structure governing US military operations has to change to cater for the global, all-domain conflicts of the future.


Reforms in a Large Military Neither Easy Nor Quick

And here we are, espousing three Land Theatre Commands, an Air Defence Command (ADC) and a Maritime Command. The former three, army dominated, are (i) Eastern Theatre (China-centric) less the border with J&K; (ii) Northern Theatre (same as the existing Northern Command); and (iii) Western Theatre (Pakistan-centric).

Surprisingly, the China border is to be handled by two different theatre commands, which impinges on command and coordination. Besides, the ADC envisages placing all air defence assets under it. It is not clear how the Army Air Defence, the IAF and the Indian Navy will coordinate air cover for their static, and mobile and offensive assets.

We are not at the same point in history as the US was in 1986. And reforms for the sake of reforms aren’t a good idea. Besides, reforms in a large military are neither easy nor quick – it takes time to create, refine and imbibe new doctrines; acquire equipment; train personnel; and integrate personnel, equipment and the new doctrines/strategies into a functional systematic whole.

And during the reform period, the military – and the nation – remain vulnerable. Hence the need to heed the concerns of each service.

(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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