Military & Aerospace

Air Wars: Evolution and Application in The Indian Context
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Issue Vol. 36.4, Oct-Dec 2021 | Date : 13 Dec , 2021

Pic Credit: Paintings by Gp Capt Deb Gohain (Retd) depicting a part of aerial action by
IAF in the 1971 war.

Combat airpower came into being in the 20th century and soon gained such importance that domination of the air became essential for victory on land or sea. With nations exploiting the air dimension in different ways, many lessons emerged. Those who used their resources judiciously won brilliant victories while others with even larger forces were disappointed. This brought out a fundamental lesson yet again, that while building up large forces was one thing, using them skillfully in war, was another, be it with the Indian Army, Indian Navy or the Indian Air Force.

It is, therefore, essential to evolve a doctrine for optimum employment of all three services in war. While land and sea wars have been well analysed over centuries, air wars have not received adequate attention, especially by those in the Indian Army. This article is written to briefly study all major air wars in the last century and then focus attention on Indian Air Wars, before listing important findings and recommendations.

The World Wars

Airplanes were first used for reconnaissance (recce) and direction of artillery fire in World War I (WW I). Then came the fighter aircraft to dominate the air space and to escort vulnerable aircraft. The idea of strategic bombing developed during this War, to impede enemy war production and to crush civilian morale. Though military aviation did not determine the outcome of WW I, control of the airspace became essential for victory. The aeroplane established its significance in support of the ground war. After WW I, while some German Generals developed the concept of Blitzkrieg and used it to great advantage. Western strategists gave greater importance to mass bombing to try and win wars by use of air power alone.

“Theory and wishful thinking after the Great War focused on strategic aviation and nearly drove the lessons of tactical aerial importance and success from the minds of post war observers. The devastating fire raids of 1943 – 1945 cost the Bomber Command and German civilians horrendous casualties without ending the war as the theorists had claimed. Victory in 1939-1945 required tactical air power to support ground and naval forces and more precise targeting of key strategic industrial and transportation sites,”1 Prof John Marrow, USA.

Air warriors, who often cite the Battle of Britain to highlight the importance of air dominance, forget the lesson learnt by the Germans that aerial bombing by itself cannot overcome the will of the opponents. That lesson emerged time and again when the Allies bombed Germany, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. Prof Williamson Murray, a veteran of the USAF, elucidates, “Unfortunately, conceptions that air power can do it all alone, have remained popular among air warriors to the present day, despite the fact that history has consistently shown that air power has rendered its greatest contribution, when combined with efforts on the ground and at sea.”2

Had the IAF procured more transport aircraft to drop supplies to the Skardu garrison which was besieged from February to August 1948, the area East of Skardu would have been with India today…

While Germany and the USSR concentrated on operational air warfare in collaboration with frontline armies, “Britain and the US opted for air power in all its ramifications because neither was directly threatened with invasion after 1941… The success of allied air power was primarily on account of its vast numerical superiority despite high quality of German aircraft,”3 Prof Richard Overy, UK.

Against Japan, while air power played a central role, the ex-PM of Japan, General Tojo, ascribed three reasons for their defeat; “Island hopping campaign by General Douglas Macarthur, the fast operations of the US carrier-based task forces and the submarine campaign against Japan’s merchant shipping which prevented raw material reaching Japan.”4

The US contention that the use of atom bombs was essential to destroy Japanese cities to force Japan to surrender unconditionally, is not true since Japan was already planning to surrender and would have done so very soon,5 says Prof Richard Muller. It is widely believed that the use of the nuclear devices was more to establish the US supremacy in the post-war world, rather than to simply end the war against Japan.

Post World War II

In the Korean War, fought from 1950 to 1953, the immense air power of the UN Forces, mainly the US failed to win them a victory. In Vietnam, the USAF flew three million sorties and dropped nearly eight million tonne of bombs, which was four times the tonnage dropped during World War II, but this failed to defeat the Vietnamese. The US withdrew from Vietnam in 1975. However, the USAF and the air cavalry provided excellent and intimate support to the army in South Vietnam. Lt. Gen Harold Moore commanded 1/7 Cavalry in La Drang valley in November 1966. His vivid accounts of the battles at X Ray and Albany highlight how the battalions were supported by the USAF and the air cavalry.6 Even as the war raged on in Vietnam, Arab Israel wars were fought in West Asia, where air war proved decisive for victory.

The Six Day War in June 1967

In May 1967, Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping thus blockading their Eastern port of Eilat. This was an act of war. In the following days, they learnt of an Arab plan to annihilate Israel, which was confirmed by a massive build up across the borders. On June 04, 1967, Israel seized the initiative and destroyed the Arab air forces on the ground and in the air. Thereafter, they assisted the Army to destroy the Arab armies sequentially, within six days. However, when a similar situation developed in 1973, the strategy was different.

The Yom Kippur War in October 1973

Throughout the Yom Kippur War, the priority of the Israeli AF was air defence over Israel and destruction of Arab ground forces.7 Elimination of SAM batteries and attacks on a few Arab airbases were next, but in the latter, they were mostly challenged by interceptors before they could bomb the airfields. In the air battles, the Israeli Phantom aircraft held the advantage even though the Arabs had 1,000 combat aircraft against 470 of the Israeli Air Force. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) also executed a number of special heli-borne tasks deep inside the Arab states. Attacks on targets of economic importance, naval facilities and a few population centres, were executed only after the Syrians were driven out from Golan and Egyptian armies had been halted in Sinai. With their 470 aircraft, the Israelis flew about 16,000 sorties during the war and not only saved Israel, but helped the army to advance deep into Syria, and cross the Suez Canal to completely isolate the Egyptian Third Army in Sinai.

Against Pakistan’s offensive in the Khem Karan Sector, the IAF was conspicuous by its absence…


After withdrawal from Vietnam, the US armed forces carried out deep introspection. A veteran of the USAF writes, “The US Army and the USAF led a campaign to integrate America’s military forces into a joint force. The Army believed that a true joint force incorporating the capabilities of all the services would represent a more effective fighting force. The Air Force, on the other hand, seems to have been more narrowly focused on obtaining control of air campaigns and ensuring that the air assets of the Marine Corps and the Navy were fully integrated into its plans for any given effort.”8

Operation Desert Storm – January to February 1991

In 1990, when Iraq occupied Kuwait, US CENTCOM was deployed as part of a UN coalition force, to liberate Kuwait. Massive air power was used for the first time after World War II in Operation Desert Storm. “Commencing 17 January 1991, 2700 combat aircraft of the UN Coalition forces flew over 1,16,000 sorties over Iraq primarily to destroy their armed forces, in particular the Republican Guard and to liberate Kuwait. Two thirds of the strikes were against the Iraqi land forces.”9 “The Coalition forces dropped 23,430 bombs on the Iraqi frontline formations.”10

Flying an average of over 2,760 sorties per day, the coalition forces inflicted considerable damage for 38 days yet they had no effect on the Iraqi leader or its people. Iraq even launched a couple of offensives into Saudi Arabia during this period, perhaps more in defiance than for anything substantial. “It turned out that air power was unable to complete the job so that the actual liberation of Kuwait had to be carried out by land forces,”11 – Prof Martin van Creveld. As soon as the ground offensive commenced on February 24, 1991, Saddam Hussein ordered the immediate withdrawal from Kuwait. He ordered the Republican Guard to deploy two armoured and two mechanised divisions to fight the allied forces, which was done. One of the armoured brigades still had 90 tanks serviceable out its original 10812, which raises doubts about the claims made regarding the destruction of Iraqi forces. Even interdiction by the coalition air forces was ineffective as Iraq successfully withdrew bulk of its forces intact from the theatre.

Lack of coordination between the Air Cavalry and the USAF on the night of February 27 -28, resulted in a large number of Iraqi forces withdrawing from Kuwait. Nevertheless, CENTCOM succeeded in liberating Kuwait by February 28, though some US leaders considered the job incomplete, with Iraqi forces not destroyed and Saddam Hussein still in power.

Despite the IAF’s best efforts to gain favourable air situation, PAF attacked Indian targets at will, every single day of the war…

Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003

When the USA decided to launch Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the USAF once again wanted a long period of air strikes preceding the ground offensive. This time it was rightly overruled by the Secretary of Defense, who directed simultaneous commencement of operations.13 A day before the launch, on March 19, 2003, the USAF launched a mission to drop four smart precision bombs at a location called Dora Farms where Saddam Hussein was reported to be. The strike was augmented by 40 cruise missiles launched from naval vessels. The massive strike was a waste because not only did the ‘smart’ bombs miss the target, but Saddam Hussein too was not there. This brought out an important lesson that without precise, accurate intelligence, smart weapons are no more effective than ‘dumb’ munitions.14

The ground offensive into Iraq was launched on the night of March 20, and though the conventional war lasted up to May 01, 2003, Baghdad was captured in three weeks. The US ground offensive was by 1 Marine Division and 3 Infantry Division, fully supported by the Air Cavalry and the USAF. Though the USAF dominated the airspace throughout, air superiority was achieved by April 06, in 18 days. There were a few air strikes on other targets, but these had little effect on the outcome of the war.

Indian Air Wars

Having seen the conduct of major air wars in the world, let us see the broad conduct of operations by the Indian Air Force (IAF), after Independence.

Indo-Pak War 1947 – 1948

The IAF dominated the skies over J&K as there was no opposition. They transported troops and supplies. Though the system of close air support was primitive, the air warriors led by Air Commodore Mehar Singh, attacked the raiders wherever possible. Had the IAF procured more transport aircraft to drop supplies to the Skardu garrison which was besieged from February to August 1948, the area East of Skardu would have been with India today, separating POK from China for all time to come. Unfortunately for India, the senior leadership, which included the PM, the RM and the Chiefs of the Army and the AF lacked strategic vision to appreciate this point.

India’s China War – 1962

The IAF provided intimate transport and helicopter support but was not tasked to use the combat aircraft during the war. The senior leadership in India, both civil and military, let the nation down, once again!

Indo-Pak War of 1965

By 1965, the IAF was a large air force with 30 squadrons of combat aircraft of which 16 squadrons had Hunters, Gnats, Canberras and a few MiG 21s, along with 14 squadrons of other aircraft, most useful for ground attack. Opposite them, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) had only ten squadrons of F 86 Sabres, one of F 104 Starfighters and some Canberra bombers. In August 1965, IAF helicopters helped counter the Pakistani infiltrators in J&K. Air war commenced over Chhamb on September 01, when IAF Vampires attacked Pakistani armour but thereafter, support to the ground war was unsatisfactory. When the Indian Army launched Operation Riddle on September 06, there was neither air cover nor air support, because of which PAF aircraft attacked Indian troops throughout the day and troops who were on the outskirts of Lahore had to be called back across the Ichhugil Canal. Against Pakistan’s offensive in the Khem Karan Sector, the IAF was conspicuous by its absence.

The senior leadership in the Indian Army was as much to blame for failing to arrange proper air support for the ground forces…

Major General Syed Ali Hamid of the Pakistan Army writes, “By now, it was bright daylight and the congestion of a variety of vehicles attempting to get across presented a very lucrative target for the IAF. Three Mystère aircraft made a low pass, but they were received by a hail of fire from heavy and medium machineguns and one was shot down. Thereafter, the IAF kept well away.”15 Despite the IAF’s best efforts to gain favourable air situation, PAF attacked Indian targets at will, every single day of the war. Over East Pakistan, an aimless war was initiated by the IAF, resulting in heavy attrition without any strategic or tactical gain.16 To justify their lacklustre performance, the IAF blamed the quality of their aircraft which was not true since the IAF had 16 squadrons of modern aircraft against 11 in the PAF. In any case, it was for the IAF to remain well equipped and fit for war.

The senior leadership in the Indian Army was as much to blame for failing to arrange proper air support for the ground forces. This blatant omission limited Indian military achievements in war and increased army casualties. 3,375 Indian casualties was a very high figure keeping in mind the number of formations involved in the actual fighting. In addition, opportunities to annihilate the Pakistani aggressors were missed due to ineptitude of the senior military leadership.

Indo-Pak War of 1971

With a superiority of about 12 to 1 combat aircraft over the PAF, the IAF achieved air supremacy over East Pakistan within two days. Despite that, the war lasted 14 days till the Indian Army units physically reached Dacca. Though the air and ground situations were ideal for vertical envelopment, this capability was grossly under-utilised during the campaign. Of the 80 utility helicopters with the IAF, only 12 were used for airlifting troops across obstacles. The other 68 helicopters were not used even when the threat of US intervention seemed imminent. Their employment was not even considered. The IAF needs to explain how the remaining helicopters were utilised during the war. The helicopters would have been used gainfully in the campaign, had these been with the Army.

On the Western front, the IAF enjoyed a superiority of about three to two combat aircraft over the PAF. The IAF flew maximum sorties for counter air operations and air defence. Yet the PAF continued to fly and attack Indian troops and airfields till the last day. Flying Officer NJS Sekhon earned his PVC during one such Pakistani raid over Srinagar airbase as late as on December 14. Close air support was prompt and effective at Longewala, where the PAF made no appearance. On the other hand, it was inadequate over Chhamb where the Pakistanis launched their main offensive. On December 06, a request from the Indian Director of Military Operations to increase close air support for Chhamb, was turned down by the Air HQ. The matter was then raised to the Prime Minister who ordered e the Air Chief to increase the air effort, which was then done.17 The following words of ACM PC Lal, reflect on the IAF’s apathy towards provision of close air support, “Some Army commanders tend to use the Air Force as a whipping boy if the Army fails to do its job.”18 With such an Air Chief, what synergy could be expected? It appears that the IAF followed a mathematical approach for allotment of air effort. As a result, air effort was surplus in one sector and woefully short in another. In the existing system, the IAF does not indicate the number of sorties allotted to formations. The IAF insists that the ground formations merely indicate targets to the IAF, which decides how each target is to be hit, if at all. This bureaucratic system needs to change.

The IAF flew a large number of interdiction missions ostensibly to support the land war. Since these were planned and executed without consulting the land forces, these had negligible effect on the outcome of war and were therefore largely wasted. The American corps commanders voiced similar misgivings after Operation Desert Storm.19 Interdiction must be planned jointly at Division/Brigade level and coordinated at higher levels. IAF recce aircraft could not locate the Pakistani strategic reserves due to which the ground force commanders fought blind. The Western Army Commander kept powerful forces idle, expecting an offensive by Pakistani 2 Corps, which never came. It is hoped that satellites and Army’s own UAVs will provide accurate and timely Intelligence in future.

The combined strikes of the IAF and the IN over Karachi were most effective. In the 14 days of war, the 600 aircraft of the IAF flew only about 6,000 sorties, which was less than one sortie per aircraft per day, on an average. We had tremendous air power, but were not able to use it to full advantage. With better close air support we would have probably suffered less than 3,836 fatal casualties that we actually did. There is a need for the IAF to learn lessons from the air wars fought in the West.

Kargil 1999 and Surgical Strike in 2019

Synergy was again inadequate during the Kargil War, which led the Kargil Review Committee to recommend creation of a CDS. After a surgical air strike deep inside Pakistan in February 2019, a Pakistani retaliatory action was expected. Yet when it came, the nation was disappointed with the IAF’s inability to shoot down all the intruding aircraft. This needs deep introspection.

In comparison the Army Aviation, which was earlier Air OP, deserves full credit for complete and intimate support to the army formations in every war, and in ‘No War No Peace’ conditions.

Findings and Recommendations

Some important lessons that emerge from a study of all major air wars in the last century are given in the succeeding paras. Though air dominance has been essential for victory, no war has ever been won by air action alone. Wars have been won only after winning land or sea campaigns. While creation of large forces is important, using them optimally in war needs mature and highly competent leadership, which needs to be developed. The IAF is a separate Service and should remain so because integration has to be of minds; integration cannot be enforced by law. Senior officers of each Service must have better knowledge about the other two Services including the latter’s concerns. At present, the knowledge is superficial. This is a serious lacuna and calls for immediate review of joint syllabus at all institutions. There is also a need for cross posting of officers who have the potential to be promoted to flag ranks. While inter-service rivalry is common world-wide, the finest examples of integrated fighting are found in the German and Israeli Defence Forces. American and British forces have also fought together, especially formations like the US Air Cavalry Division. The Indian record is disappointing in comparison.

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Joint training is essential for meaningful integration of forces. Where units of the IAF operated in conjunction with the Indian Army, the bonding proved invaluable during war, such as in 4 Corps in 1971. Despite the best efforts by the Army, if the IAF leadership still has reservations about meeting the Army’s requirements, the latter must make its own arrangements. The number of fatal Indian casualties in various wars have been 3,375 in 1965 and 3,836 in 1971, which are much higher than Israeli casualties – in 1956 (231); 1967 (776); and in 1973 (2656). The Americans lost 149 soldiers in the Gulf War of 1991. The Indian Government needs to be told that army personnel are not cannon fodder who have to depend on whims of senior IAF officers for air support. With increasing availability of SSMs, UAVs, RPVs, satellites for remote sensing, and hypersonic missiles launched from space, the role of the manned aircraft will diminish, and so will the role of the IAF. More and more of these systems must be handled by Army and Navy personnel, for intimate and prompt support, without having to approach the Government of India. The IAF can then exclusively exploit Space for its operations.

The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has been appointed primarily to create synergy in the three services. Whether this will be achieved by merely re-organising the existing forces in theatres and writing a joint doctrine remains to be seen but recent statements by some senior officers are disconcerting. If synergy does not develop, those responsible may be replaced including the present CDS who seems to be more concerned with trivial AG’s Branch matters. Taking a cue from personalities who were supreme commanders in different theatres during World War II (e.g. Gen Eisenhower, Vice Admiral Mountbatten), the Government must consider suitability above all other factors, when selecting a CDS. Thereafter, the Government needs to monitor the progress and intervene if required. This is more so because inability to bring in synergy will reflect adversely on the political leadership in power. It is hoped that the senior leadership in the three Services, civil officials, the Raksha Mantri and the Prime Minister will realise the crying need for synergy for maximum effectiveness in war. Attempts by anyone to ‘divide and rule’ or delay integration, should be exposed and dealt with.


  1. Prof John H Morrow, jr, The First World War, A History of Air Warfare, Potomac Books Inc, Dulles, Virginia, 2010, pp 24-25. Marrow is a professor who specialises in the history of modern Europe, warfare and society. He has authored many books on Air Power.
  2. Prof William Murray, a veteran of the USAF, Operation Iraqi Freedom, A History of Air Warfare, p 279. Murray has taught at the Air War College and authored many books on air wars.
  3. Prof Richard Overy, Air War in Europe 1939 – 1945. A History of Air Warfare, p 51. He has been a professor at King’s College London, a specialist in air power history and history of the second world war. He has authored many books on the Luftwaffe.
  4. Richard R Muller, The Air War in the Pacific 1941 – 1945, A History of Air Warfare p 77. Muller is a professor of military history at the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies
  5. ibid, p 78.
  6. Lt Gen Harold G Moore, We were Soldiers Once and Young. The book highlights how the AF and air cavalry formed a ‘ring of steel’ around the Americans to save them from annihilation. Once, on a SOS call of “Broken Arrow” from the FAC, all American aircraft flying over South Vietnam came over X Ray and flew at 1,000 ft intervals awaiting their turn to attack the North Vietnamese.
  7. Major Martin L. Musella, USMC, Air Operations During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War and the Implications for Marine Aviation.
  8. Murray, p 280
  9. Lt Col (Prof) John Andreas Olsen. A History of Air Warfare, p 193. Olsen is the dean of Norwegian Defence University, a graduate of the German command and staff college (2005).
  10. Lambeth, the Transformation of American Air Power, p 130 Olsen. p 194
  11. Prof Martin van Creveld, The Rise and Fall of Air Power, A History of Air Warfare, p 363. A professor in the Hebrew University, one of world’s leading experts on military history and strategy. He has authored 20 books on war.
  12. Brig Gen Robert H Scales Jr, Certain Victory, The US Army in the Gulf War Roger Cohen & Claudio Gatti, In the Eye of the Storm.
  13. Murray, p 282
  14. ibid, p 287
  15. Major General Syed Ali Hamid, Tank Battle at Khem Karan. Pakistan’s critical armoured clashes with Indian forces.
  16. 1971-war-a-tri-service-perspective/
  17. ACM PC Lal, My Years with IAF: p 233 Maj Gen AJS Sandhu, Battleground Chhamb: The Indo-Pakistan War of 1971, Manohar Publications, New Delhi, pp 254-255.
  18. Lal, p 234
  19. Scales and Roger Cohen & Claudio Gatti
  20. Creveld, p 370
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Gen KK Khanna, PVSM, AVSM** (Retd)

has been the BGS of a strike corps and commanded an infantry division (RAPID) in another strike corps. He was MGGS and COS of HQ Northern Command, Commandant of the Indian Military Academy and Colonel of the Jat Regt.

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8 thoughts on “Air Wars: Evolution and Application in The Indian Context

  1. Excellent efforts put in by the Author to explain the importance of first Understanding and than Implementation of SYNERGY at the top level of the Defense forces of our country.
    Although the level of Synergy is much more at junior level but it tends to get diluted as it moves towards the higher echelons in the forces.The learned author has used certain harsh words to give examples may be to highlights the” NO LESSONS LEARNT” attitude in spite of India having fought number of Wars since Independence.
    I still wonder if the Veterans can contribute usefully and meaningfully on the important fact keeping in mind that its the Need of the Day.

  2. Very logically analysed and clearly articulated. Excellent lessons derived from past wars. Our senior military leadership needs to consider these lessons without prejudice and ensure synergy among the services

  3. Lt-Gen KK Khanna, you have brilliantly traced the history of military aviation over a century, and very successfully related it to various land campaigns, both during and after the Second World War. You have very persuasively argued in favour of greater synergy between the Air Force and the other two Services ,particularly the Army .While drawing pertinent lessons from various campaigns on the serious flaws noticed, you have struck a strictly non-partisan and objective note unaffected by any Service bias. In view of the reported discussions on the reorganization of various commands under the three armed services, with a view to introducing “jointness” in operations, your article is timely in that it has given both context and perspective to these deliberations. My heartiest congratulations — Ramesh Narayanaswami IAS (Retd), 37th NDC.

  4. Good analysis of the utility and limitations of air power. Integration of forces is essential. Unfortunately protecting one’s turf is a hindrance. This hindrance will likely inhibit effective use of new technologies of drones and tactical missiles.

    The author has rightly brought out that integration has to be in the mind. Perhaps a think tank comprising experts of the 3 services along with psychologists and experts in in organizations and management may shed some light on how to go about it.

  5. A Brilliant Article that has described the role played by the Airforce in all Major Wars.
    The Deductions are based purely on Analysis and are, refreshingly,free of any bias towards any Service of the Armed Forces.
    Keeping the National Interests Supreme, to an open mind, the deductions are clearly evident..

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