As one of the less than half a dozen air forces of the world which have remained independent from the very birth, the Indian Air Force has rendered a yeoman service in the defence of the country over the past seventy-five years, both in war as well as in peace. It was created as an army co-operation force for support to the ground forces, and that too largely in the role of visual reconnaissance and limited close air support to the ground columns against tribals in the North West Frontier Province of India, where its breakaway entity–Pakistan Air Force — continues to use its modern aircrafts for a similar purpose, though against the jihadi fighters that its army had created.
We need to see the challenge of declining force levels not only as a challenge of restoring it, but also as an opportunity to shape the IAF for the coming decades and its operational challenges.
As part of the imperial policy of the British, the main and “strategic” role was retained with the twenty squadrons of the Royal Air Force equipped with bombers, fighters and transport aircrafts. Time and again the young leaders of the fledgling air force would break out of the role and mission straitjacket.
The most remarkable demonstration of the role expansion that came very early in the history of the Air Force was the bombing of the Japanese (army and navy) air force on 3rd February, 1942. No. 1 AC Squadron (the “AC” stood for army cooperation) was moved right across the country from Peshawar in the West, all the way to the eastern border of Burma (now Myanmar). Soon after it landed at Tongou airfield, Japanese bombers came over to hit the airfield, but did not achieve any damage. No. 1 Squadron, led by young Squadron Leader “Jumbo” Majumdar responded by bombing the Japanese air force at their base in Thailand: an operation that was strategic in concept and execution, and far beyond the designated role of the solitary squadron of the IAF at that time.
From then onward started the doctrinal/conceptual dualities that have stayed with the Air Force till recently. But inspite of a strategic role repeatedly played by the Air Force, the dominant thinking, largely under the influence of the ground forces, perceived the role of the Air Force as “tactical”. We even undertook a large number of unnecessary support missions costly in lives and aircraft during the 1971 war in support of the support thesis.
The combat role of air power very early on had settled down to defining it across the world by the type of platform: Bombers carried out the strategic role, while fighter (and later fighter-bombers which acquired the capabilities to drop small payload of bombs) aircrafts were considered to play a tactical role. But we have known that even transport aircraft have created strategic effects. For example, if the IAF Dakotas transport aircraft had not landed the army troops in Srinagar on the morning of 27th October, 1947, the history of J&K and the sub-continent may well have been different.
Similarly, Air Commodore Mehar Singh’s famous landing of troops on a makeshift landing ground at Leh with troops across uncharted mountains on 24th May, 1948 altered the war. The IL-76 landing of troops in the Maldives in support of the government threatened by terrorists in 1988 is another example among many over the past six decades.
“¦air defence of India is the unambiguous responsibility of the Indian Air Force. The Army did not have much difficulty with this role since it would hopefully provide protection from aerial attacks by a hostile air force.
Ground forces have historically seen their role as the primary expression of a nation’s military power (the only exception perhaps was the army in the UK where the Navy was the senior service), and hence the function of every other military component was one that “supported” the war winning role of the ground forces. The introduction of nuclear armed bombers only reinforced the prevailing belief. And since we did not possess nuclear bombers, it was assumed that the main role of the IAF was tactical, and essentially for close air support of the army within sight of the ground troops.
At the same time it was clearly understood that the air defence of India is the unambiguous responsibility of the Indian Air Force. The Army did not have much difficulty with this role since it would hopefully provide protection from aerial attacks by a hostile air force. But there are three aspects of air defence that started to influence the thinking about the Air Force: (i) it soon resulted in ground-based terminal defence as the main means of air defence, (ii) the concern that we did not have adequate capability to defend our cities against the threat of Chinese bombing in 1962 resulted in a decision by default not to employ the combat component of the IAF in the war, and (iii) with the introduction of man-portable surface to air guided missiles in large quantities with the Army, the ground forces acquired a very substantive capability for ground-based terminal defence.
It is not surprising that, under these circumstances, an influential section of the Air Force leadership did not wish to pursue aerial refuelling and/or airborne early warning systems (with preference accorded to ground-based radars)! But even greater changes are to be expected in the coming years and decades. But it is useful to recall a seminal RAND study on the IAF in early 1990s that concluded that:1
“At least from the outside, it appears that the air force did not take the initiative in pushing concepts of air power or in preparing an air plan for the defence of India.”
The Air Force did bring out its doctrine; but it dealt more with the attributes of air power and the employment in air campaigns rather than deal with the core issue: the theory of air power and the purpose of the Indian Air Force. But a lot of things have changed since then, in particular what I have referred to as the real RMA: the Revolution in Military Aviation (more of it later). In just a decade after the doctrine was published, while there is greater articulation of “strategic reach”, it is not yet clear what would be the purpose the Air Force sought to achieve through its strategic reach? This goes back into the theory of air power as it has to be applied to our context, and the re-examination of the very purpose of the Air Force.