There is a need for taking it slow and not plunging into a hastily set up arrangement just because the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) wants it done within his tenure. Possibly, a national security strategy could be propounded ahead of operationalising the Air Defence Command (ADC). The Strategic Forces Command (SFC), which exercises control over India’s nuclear triad, is a functional, fully integrated command and should provide a template for ADC integration endeavours albeit the SFC’s role and inventory are minuscule in contrast to the proposed ADC. The ADC is a challenge and an opportunity for India’s military. How it accosts the challenges outlined above will also set the tone for the other theatre commands, yet to be placed on the anvil.
Soon after taking over as India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) on January 01, 2020, in a surprise move, General Bipin Rawat announced, his plan to set up a joint, integrated Air Defence Command (ADC), issuing instructions to prepare its roadmap within six months i.e., by June 30,2020. The announcement did not seem to have been the result of any formal discussion or assessment involving the Indian Air Force (IAF) and a committee headed by the Vice Chief of Air Staff (VCAS) was quickly formed thereafter. In August, there were reports that the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) had said that the ADC would be announced by the second week of October, possibly on October 08, which was Air Force Day. However, in an interview on Air Force Day, Chief of Air the Staff (CAS) responded thus to a question about the ADC, “The study for setting up the Command is in the advanced stage.” Current unattributed statements indicate that the ADC may come up in Allahabad in April 2021. It is apparent that aspects related to authority, command, control, integration, and budgetary allocations are engaging the committee and the DMA thereby delaying the process. When he took over, the CDS had declared that all the theatre commands would be in place before his tenure of three years ended but the ADC has already taken 14 months and may come up in another two months. Possibly, the challenges in setting up an ADC were not given full attention before the decision was taken to establish it.
The Indian Context
The creation of the Corps of Army Air Defence (AAD) in 1994 from within the Army’s Artillery regiment, recognised the need for the Indian Army to have its own AD assets but the Union War Book, which had earlier made a distinction between ground-based and aerial systems, was not given a clear mandate of change. The revised book had stated, “The responsibility of providing AD of Indian Air Space rests with the Indian Air Force.” With the Indian Army and the Indian Navy having acquired their own AD assets over the years in response to their needs, such a statement is no longer unconditional. Nonetheless, the IAF is still mandated to be the principal AD provider and the announcement by the CDS of putting into place an integrated ADC, defers to that mandate by designating the IAF as the service that will head the ADC. This mandate encompasses India’s expansive land territory, its oceanic territorial waters including island territories and all the air space above them. The task is undoubtedly enormous.
AD needs to be devised in relation to perceived air threat which, due to the advancements in technology, has become more deadly, variegated and includes highly stealthy (fixed and rotary wing) aircraft, stand-off weapons, cruise and ballistic missiles, drones (including drone swarms) and space-based threats. China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and Pakistan Air Force (PAF) are immediate threats to our national defence. At a rough estimate, 300 fighters and 70 bombers of the PLAAF could be tasked against India from the airports under the Western Theatre Command. China has developed a large number of dual use airports in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR). However, due to the location of all these airports at high altitude, fighters with better performance (Su-27, J-10, J-11/ J-11B) may be expected to put forth middling combat potential, while other lower capability aircraft, could be severely restricted in operations.
The J-20 and FC-31 fifth generation, multi-role, stealth aircraft could add substantial fire power to the PLAAF in the future. A new long range bomber (H-20) with nuclear capability is under development but is not expected to complement China’s nuclear triad before 2025. The PAF has battle experience and is well trained for combat. It currently has around 24 combat squadrons but is acquiring more with Chinese assistance. The possibility of a two-front war cannot be ruled out as the PLAAF and the PAF have been conducting Ex Shaheen, a joint exercise since 2011. An all-out, two-front war is unlikely but AD threats from the two air forces in collaboration cannot be ruled out. The threat could be in the form of aircraft, helicopters, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), cruise missiles or ballistic missiles. While the ADC would exercise direct control over strategic AD weapon systems, control over tactical weapons would have to be delegated to each service. The change from the previous dispensation is that there would be a need to homogenise the assets and thought processes of each service. There would also be the need to keep in mind the Indian Coast Guard (ICG) whose aerial capabilities are steadily increasing in quantity and quality.
Challenges for ADC
It may be apt to start with the discordant note that no other major military in the world has a national ADC in place currently. Not that no nation attempted to, but their experiments with ADCs were short-lived. The United States (US) established an Aerospace Defence Command in 1968, but grew disenchanted with the concept rapidly and abandoned the idea in 1980. In the Soviet Union, the Soviet Air Defence Force was a separate branch of the military until it was merged with and brought under the Air Force in 1998. Subsequently, in 2011, an Aerospace Defence Forces Branch was set up which replaced the Russian Space Force and was tasked to defend against air and space attacks. In 2015, this AD force was also merged with the Russian Air Force. Thus, the AD against aerial threats became the responsibility of the Air Force while those from outer space were entrusted to a new Russian Aerospace Force.
Closer home, the PLAAF has 29 air divisions with over 200 squadrons and an area of AD interest larger than India’s but there is no ADC under PLAAF. The mindboggling speeds at which AD processes occur and the plethora of platforms that represent AD threats have forced doctrine away from attempts to centralise AD infrastructure and C4I. Thus, the foremost challenge that may accost our ADC is the peril of centralising AD of such a vast geographical land and sea domain with the limited air assets the nation has.
The IAF has always had reservations about the appointment of CDS and formation of theatre commands. Many of those relate to basic principles of employment of air power, and are being reiterated in the context of the ADC whose creation would nudge the IAF towards splitting its primary functions into offensive and defensive roles. Flexibility of air power, an oft repeated refrain of the IAF, relates to the shortfall of aircraft that torments IAF currently. Against a sanctioned strength of 42 combat squadrons, it has only around 30 and the current trend is a downward one! Considering the fact that many of these are multi-role aircraft, dedicating them to ADC would mean they are unavailable for other possibly more important tasks thus detracting from flexibility in their use.
Having enough aircraft to meet ADC and other requirements can be ruled out for at least another three decades, given the arithmetic that, taking into account withdrawal from service of old aircraft, the IAF needs at least 450 aircraft to just come up to the desired 42 squadrons by a projected date of around 2040. The same logic applies to force multipliers i.e. Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) and Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA). With the modest inventories the IAF has, it is not possible to allocate any number, howsoever small, for the sole use of ADC. Nonetheless, these assets are needed for the AD tasks that ADC is entrusted with. So are these assets going to be time-shared between ADC and other tasks (strategic objectives, air superiority/dominance)? Or is it possible to have an arrangement that they switch from the ADC back to the IAF for different phases of operations? The IAF’s cognitive bias is justified and will pose a challenge to the availability of dedicated air effort to the ADC.
The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies defines a modern Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) as the structure, equipment, personnel, procedures and weapons used to counter the enemy’s airborne penetration of one’s own claimed territory. Its essential elements are Air Surveillance, Battle Management and Weapons Control. Air surveillance includes five specific sub-functions: detect, initiate (designate tracks), identify (friend, foe, or unknown), correlate, and maintain (continuous monitoring of tracks). The battle management part includes threat evaluation, engagement decision, weapon selection and engagement authority. Thereafter, the selected weapon system performs weapons pairing, acquisition, tracking, guidance, hard kill and assessment functions. Air surveillance and battle management tasks continue to occur during the weapons control phase, but with specific reference to the weapon in use. The IADS as a system is networked through complex Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence (C4I) systems. The above glimpse of the requirements of an integrated air defence setup, underscores the complex task of amalgamating elements if they belong to different services, own variegated types of equipment, employ differing SOPs and have operators who use dissimilar jargon. The task of integrating all these is not impossible to achieve but is certainly daunting and will require time and patience to fully integrate.
The IAF’s AD philosophy is premised on layered area defence with potential for engagement of enemy aircraft even before they enter India’s airspace. Thus, air superiority fighters equipped with air-to-air missiles form the first layer of ADC with Surface-to-Air Guided Weapons (SAGW) being the second; the inner AD cover is provided by close-in weapon systems and anti-aircraft artillery guns. The Indian Army and the Indian Navy have sizeable assets for defending combat assets against aerial threats. All Indian naval (and ICG) ships are equipped with one or more types of weapons systems to thwart an aerial attack. Besides, the Carrier Battle Group (CBG) has combat aircraft to defend the assets from an aerial attack. Will the AD of naval assets at sea be with ADC or with IN? The challenge lies in achieving enhanced operational efficiency of AD for all three services otherwise, the establishment of an ADC would be a retrograde step.
At a philosophical level, despite liberal lip service towards promoting jointmanship, the three services have evolved different thought processes. In an interview, the CDS had opined, “Wars are fought for ensuring territorial integrity; hence the Army is supported by other services to ensure victory on land.” Most certainly, this iteration would be distasteful to the other two services and leaves a doubt about whether the ADC will be placed under the CDS or whether the CAS will be responsible for its operations. This is just one symptom of the problem. Indeed, Lt Gen Satish Dua who headed the HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) in the past, deplored the lack of jointmanship between the services and very famously awarded it four points on a scale of ten.
Integration has been impeded by doctrinal issues as well. Each service has had its own philosophy about war fighting albeit it may not have termed it as its doctrine. The IAF came out with an Air Power Doctrine in the late 1990s, (followed by other services), but it did not wholly satisfy the needs of the other services while attempts at drafting a tri-service joint doctrine were largely unsuccessful due to the vast differences in perception amongst them. The IDS propounded a ‘Joint Doctrine Indian Armed Forces’ in 2017 which can be accessed at https://www.ids.nic.in/IDSAdmin/upload_images/doctrine/JointDoctrineIndianArmedForces2017.pdf. The fact that it got officially published is a laudable achievement but whether it commands each service’s unequivocal veneration is a bit doubtful. Erecting the ADC will put some of the single service beliefs under strain, to put it mildly. The primacy of the IAF as the apex service could pose a problem in the process of integration.
While on the issue of integration, although the services have been conducting joint exercises, there has been no focus on commonality of logistics/equipment, communication equipment/ networks, operations, maintenance, transport, training and support services. Each service has employed its own wisdom to these areas and to now integrate them would be a major challenge. At some pain points, interoperability may be attainable as a retrofit, but in others, one or the other service would have to scrap existing equipment or process in quest of finding commonality with the other. Additional expenditure would be necessitated but may not be readily available.
Communications is an area that needs to be focused on. The IAF has an Air Force Net (AFNET) and an Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) which has an automated AD Command & Control Centre designed for controlling and monitoring flight operations throughout the country. Systems such as radars and IAACS are required not only for AD, but also for offensive sweeps and strike missions. On the other hand, the Indian Army has its Command Information Decision Support System (CIDSS) for digitisation and the Indian Navy focuses on Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) with its National Communication Command & Control and Intelligence (NC3I) network which links naval and coast guard stations. Currently these do not communicate with each other at all levels, but if their inputs are to be fed into the ADC’s C4I system, they would have to be engineered to do so.
AD ordains intertwining military air traffic services with civil aviation requirements. Currently, every flight originating in or transiting through Indian airspace is authorised by the IAF’s AD organisation and assigned an Air Defence Clearance number without which a flight cannot takeoff from an Indian base or transit through Indian airspace. The ADC would need to keep the current spirit of Flexible Use of Airspace intact so that there is minimal disruption to civil aviation as a result of a new AD dispensation being erected.
The Indian Army is equipped with mobile SAGW systems to guard combat forces on the move or in the Tactical Battle Area (TBA). The challenge is to integrate all these and orchestrate their sequential utilisation as a threat progresses closer and closer. Also problematic would be integrating the supporting AD radars, sensors and Electronic Warfare (EW) systems so that they talk to adjacent other-service systems. If the mobile AD elements protecting mobile combat elements are placed under ADC, the challenge would be for ADC to integrate its operations with the force commander of mobile elements. The issue of AD of mobile formations of the Indian Army would also need to be addressed as a challenge to integration as IAF aircraft on non-AD missions could transit through AD envelopes devised by these formations using their organic assets. How they would inter-operate with existing, ground-based AD systems, especially when they are on the move, is something that needs to be tackled. Fratricide is an unpalatable but inevitable corollary of the fog of war. On February 27, 2019, a Mi-17 V5 on a routine flight was shot down by an IAF missile. While the causes of the accident are not as important as the fact that it underscores the fratricide risk. In this case, it was an IAF missile that shot down an IAF helicopter, the problem would be exacerbated by the presence of systems from more than one service adjacent to each other. The manner in which integration accrues within the disparate elements comprising the ADC will need to eliminate or reduce, but certainly not enhance, the risk of fratricide. This is a formidable challenge.
From an administrative point of view, some complications are self-evident. Each service is ruled by a different Act specific to that service and efforts to legislate a tri-service Armed Forces Act, first conceptualised in 1967, are yet to bear fruit – largely because of disagreement between the services. The differences are not impassable, but there is an urgent need for them to be thrashed out with some compromises made by each service in the interest of finding common ground. Other administrative impediments like differing accounting procedures, promotion policies and rank structures, will continue to haunt integration efforts and need to be tackled urgently.
China has a formidable ballistic missile inventory while Pakistan has a modest but potent missile holding, something the ADC would have to take that into account. India’s Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) Programme is a multi-layered system to protect the nation from ballistic missile attacks. India has the Prithvi Air Defence (PAD) and Advanced Air Defence (AAD) missiles for high and low altitude interceptions respectively, and is amongst a handful of nations to possess one. India is also in the process of procuring five regiments of Russian S-400 Triumf system with a range of almost 400 km. This is said to be the most advanced AD system available in the world. The US has been pressurising India to shelve the deal and has approved the sale of an Integrated Air Defence Weapon System (IADWS) called National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System 2 (NASAMS 2), a medium-to-long-range AD system with the first surface-based application for the AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM). Moving ahead, the ADC would have to keep BMD in mind and include all Indian territory under its umbrella as and when possible. In the near future, the BMD assets are likely to be frugal and inadequate for this umbrella and the three services could have differing convictions about deployment, posing a challenge to the process of erecting the ADC.
UAVs are posing a new challenge to AD as validated in the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict wherein the inability of Armenian AD to hunt them down led to a disproportionate degree of success for the Azerbaijan UAVs. There are programmes on to find solutions to the problem of detecting and tracking small UAVs; US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is at the forefront with its Aerial Dragnet development programme which is primarily aimed to be a military one. Swarming drones, an emerging technology, are a military challenge to AD with ‘swarm intelligence’ promising to provide connectivity and autonomy to drone swarms. The former facilitates the seamless coming together of drones permitting them to intelligently ‘aggregate’ and ‘disaggregate’. However, in a drone swarm, each drone has only partial information of the operating environment and the other drones immediately around it. Therefore, communication between the component drones of a swarm is critical to the swarm’s mission. Jamming their communication may be the AD solution to ridding airspace of interest from attacking swarms and hence, the ADC would need to incorporate anti-swarm systems and SOPs.
As some analysts have opined, the ADC is a disruptive solution for an as-yet unidentified problem. The challenges outlined above are some of the operational, organisational, doctrinal, administrative and C4I-related ones that are self-evident and extant. However, the establishment of an ADC appears to be a fait accompli and so, it would make sense to endeavour wholeheartedly to render it a success not only from point of achieving integration between elements of the single services, but also by achieving an enhanced level of operational efficiency. Possibly, the former would require more motivation and more effort.
There is a need for taking it slow and not plunge into a hastily set up arrangement just because the CDS wants it done within his tenure. Possibly a national security strategy could be propounded ahead of operationalising the ADC. The Strategic Forces Command (SFC), which exercises control over India’s nuclear triad, is a functional, fully integrated command and should provide a template for ADC integration endeavours albeit the SFC’s role and inventory are minuscule in contrast to the proposed ADC. The ADC is a challenge and an opportunity for India’s military. How it accosts the challenges outlined above will also set the tone for the other theatre commands yet to be placed on the anvil.