Let me start by being the devil’s advocate and making two points to this audience. One: that this seminar is about “Aerospace Power” and not “Air Force Power”. The army and the navy, therefore too, have a stake in it, even though it may be a relatively small one.
History has repeatedly confirmed that air power is decisive in conflict, and there can be little doubt that “aerospace power” will certainly dominate the battlefield. However, by itself, airpower has not been able to prevail in any conflict. Look at WW II, Vietnam, Gulf Wars I and II, Afghanistan and lately in Lebanon. A major limitation of air power is that it is inherently transient; you can operate “through” the medium of air but not “from” it. Therefore, in a conflict, you cannot do without what the army calls “boots on the ground” and the navy refers to as “forward presence”. We all, therefore, need to move together participatively or jointly.
While the Arab-Israeli wars and the conflicts on our own subcontinent contributed a great deal to the repository of air warfare knowledge and experience, it is the deployments of air power in the Balkans and the Persian Gulf that opened a radically new chapter in air power.
We cannot look at the world through monochromatic lenses, because each nation and each region is faced by its own set of challenges. And just as there is no single panacea for all problems, we need to define a future for aerospace power that is relevant to our conditions and environment.
Aircraft were used in offence for the very first time in 1911, when the Italians bombed the Turks in Tripoli from the air. And WW I was only three weeks old when the first aerial combat took place over France.
This war was to be the first and last major conflict of the 20th century in which infantry made horrendous sacrifices for gaining or losing a few yards of territory; the total casualties of this war, to machine gun fire, poison gas and barbed wire, exceeding those in all previous conflicts put together. Although extensively deployed, aircraft played a generally defensive and not very crucial role in the outcome of war, perhaps due to lack of doctrine and experience.
All too often in history, the conclusion of each conflict has served as a prelude to the next one, and so it was with WW I. The script of WW II was said to have been written in June 1919, in the peace Treaty of Versailles, and the inter-war years were spent by strategists working out ways to fight future wars with minimum casualties. And of course, air power offered the greatest promise in this area.
Few events in the history of air power, which can be termed as defining moments because of the momentous impact they had on the course of aerial warfare; World War I and its aftermath are:-
- The merger of the RFC and RNAS in 1918 produced the world’s first force, independent of army or navy command for the conduct of air operations; the RAF.
- Naval air power became an established reality, with the first aircraft carrier being completed in 1918, thus giving impetus to a new branch of air warfare with profound implications in the years to come.
- Air power captured the imagination of military theorists like Guilio Douhet, Billy Mitchell and Hugh Trenchard, who staunchly advocated strategic bombing of the enemy heartland to shatter his morale, cripple his war fighting ability: and thus obtain early victory, with the least casualties.
Asymmetric wars involving terrorism, low intensity conflict, and insurrections are going to be far more frequent than conventional wars between nation states. A major challenge for air forces will, therefore, be to adapt some of the advanced capabilities at their disposal to sub-conventional applications
Between the Great wars there were many wars. The French, Italians and the British experimented with air power to put down insurrections in their colonies. Interestingly, as far back as 1922, the RAF was practicing a concept called “air control” in Iraq to avoid committing ground troops against the local tribes. The Spanish Civil War and the Sino-Japanese wars were the proving grounds for new flying machines as well as new aerial tactics.
All this was a useful prelude to WW II. Three different events during World War II which were to have far reaching implications with regard to employment of air power are:-
- The first one, which heralded the opening campaign of WW II, was the German concept of Blitzkrieg or lightning war. Fast moving armoured columns on the ground, supported by furious air assault by the Luftwaffe resulted in the swift conquest of half of Europe in a few months, and set the bar for future army-air cooperation.
- The second was the commencement of a new phase in 1940, of strategic bombing in the hope of breaking the enemy’s will to fight and bringing the war to an early conclusion. While the bomber offensive certainly caused immense damage to life and property, and also to German morale, whether its impact was enough to shorten the war remains a hotly debated issue.
- The third was the two atomic bomb detonations over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Both bombs were delivered by a single B-29, and their destructive power was enough to result in instant capitulation by the Japanese. This heralded a terrifying new capability of air power, and ensured a place for the manned bomber in the armoury of nuclear powers for many decades to come.
The Vietnam War constituted a watershed for deployment of air power in the 20th century and beyond. It saw a decade and a half of slowly escalating conflict, in which huge air assets were committed and the US lost over 8500 aircraft and helicopters. Smart weapons were tried out for the first time, and tactics evolved for jet fighters, bombers and attack helicopters, which were to transform air warfare.
While the Arab-Israeli wars and the conflicts on our own subcontinent contributed a great deal to the repository of air warfare knowledge and experience, it is the deployments of air power in the Balkans and the Persian Gulf that opened a radically new chapter in air power, as far as stealth, precision weaponry, information dominance and C4ISR are concerned. In fact, the future can be said to have started in the last decade of the 20th century.
The defining moments that have been highlighted were significant in that they contained seminal lessons, both positive and negative, and were instrumental in the formulation of air power doctrines and strategies, and in shaping its future. Most of these lessons were learnt and internalised by practitioners of air power, but humans are imperfect; and there are probably still many mistakes, which get repeated, and many lessons that are re-learnt again and again.
The army and the navy presume that air power is just an extension of their artillery, and the air force, should therefore be the handmaiden of land and maritime forces.
The Kosovo operations and the recent Israeli campaign against the Hezbollah in Lebanon, with the subsequent resignation of the Chief of Defence Staff Lt Gen Dan Halutz would possibly throw up their own lessons.
Closer home, the growth of our own air force has remained intimately linked with India’s evolution as a nation state, and her slow but steady graduation from somewhat utopian ideologies in the early years after independence, to the harsh world of realpolitik today.