Why India’s military leaders must have a free and frank discussion on demarcation of air power roles and missions?

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Source: Indian Express

Relevance: Unresolved issues pertaining to inter-services cooperation of armed forces in India.

Synopsis: Indian Air Force is marred by a deep sense of insecurity over tri-service integration and the concept of jointness of armed forces. A historical perspective and a way forward.


In India, there is no mutually agreed upon or government-mandated demarcation of aviation roles and missions. This has left Indian Air Force with a deep sense of insecurity.

Historical context
  • Debate b/w IAF & IN: The 1970s witnessed a bitter debate between the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Navy (IN) about the discharge of the maritime reconnaissance (MR) role, which the air force had inherited at independence. After the penetration in 1971 of our waters by Pakistani submarines, the government decided to hand over the MR role and aircraft to the Indian Navy in 1976.
  • Demands by Army for an integral air arm: The Indian Army, too, had been demanding the creation of an integral air arm, citing unsatisfactory aviation support by the IAF in forward areas. The inter-services issue was resolved after the government intervened in 1986 and sanctioned the transfer of assets from the IAF to the newly formed Army Aviation Corps. The controversy did not end here, as control of attack helicopters remained an issue of inter-service contention.
IAF’s issues with jointness

The fear IAF has of tri-service integration can be seen in above context. The IAF, having seen sister services appropriate its roles and assets, remained cautious about jointness. Concepts of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and integrated theatre commands, which would require air assets being placed under non-IAF control, ring alarm bells in Air HQs.

There are misperceptions on both sides of the air-power divide, and the need is for the tri-service leadership to sit around a table and provide mutual reassurance regarding service roles and missions.

Why air-power gained importance over years?

Air-power, in the post-Cold War era, acquired importance. Based on the lethality and speed of modern air power, it is claimed that once “air dominance” has been achieved, the war is virtually won. In this paradigm, close support of surface forces receives low priority because quick military victories can be won from the air at minimal cost.

However, such assumptions were based on recent conflicts where modern air forces using advanced technology had encountered irregular forces.

Can India rely on air-dominance?

India, on the other hand, is faced with well-equipped, motivated and competent adversaries. The Pakistan Air Force, although numerically inferior, has the assurance of Chinese support. The PLA Air Force not only outnumbers the IAF, but has the advantage of an advanced technological base.

Hence, in our calculations, we cannot afford to rely on any specific advantage, establishing “air dominance” over Pakistan or Tibet.

Potent questions

Questions that military leaders will need to address, jointly, are:

  • Should attainment of air dominance be an end in itself, superseding military and maritime strategies
  • Should air power be seen as merely an instrumentality to gain operational objectives on land, sea and air?
  • Is there a via-media which will maximize the synergy and combat effectiveness of all three services, perhaps by modifying the IAF’s 2012 doctrine?

There should be a free and frank discussion on the demarcation of air power roles and missions.

On joint commands

  • First, it must be ensured that allocation of air power is not made piece-meal, but flows from an integrated, tri-service plan.
  • Second, operational deployment of the command’s aviation resources must be managed on behalf of the C-in-C, by his 2/3-star IAF component commander.
  • Third, the government must clarify that most high-level posts will, eventually, be tenable by officers of all three services.
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