IAF is a Strategic force today and has been so, for many decades. It started as a small force – a Flight of four aircraft on 1 Apr 1933, in a tactical role of supporting the Army. The role of tactical support continued till the independence. Subsequently, the IAF started transforming itself into a strategic force, slowly but surely. The restoration of 16 Liberator bombers from amongst hundred or so destroyed by the British to deny the Indians a bomber and later the induction of Canberra bomber can be considered as the start of the process.1
We therefore need to answer and explain whether the IAF is a strategic force and if so, how did it evolve from tactical air force? This paper explains the transformation in simple terms minus the esoteric war fighting lexicon.
During World War II it took 1000 bombers, with 9000 aircrew, dropping nearly 2000 t of bombs to destroy a target. During Gulf War 91, one F-117 carrying 2 t bombs could destroy a target with greater assurance in one sortie.
Let us first understand the meaning of war between two states. Ultimately war can be said to be a contest of WILL of people of opposing states. A nation tries to impose its WILL on the other. The means chosen for imposing own WILL has been the use of armies and navies since time immemorial. Typically an army marches towards the hostile state, where it is opposed by the adversary’s army. This could be either over land or over seas with the naval help for transportation and subsequent fire fight. When the two opposing armies meet, clash of arms results. After an inevitable war of attrition, one army triumphs over the other. Then it imposes the WILL of its leadership on the losing side.
This form of warfare underwent a revolutionary change as the emerging capabilities of newly invented aeroplane gave rise to Air Forces. An aeroplane has three dimensional freedom compared to only two dimensional freedom of the armies and navies. An army, travelling over land could only move in two dimensions in its march towards enemy. Similar was the case with naval ships. The hostile army could be opposed by opposing army at a place of its choice. This mostly resulted in liner defences; seige warfare, both resulting in wars of attrition. Aeroplane changed all this overnight.
An aeroplane could over fly the fielded defences, reach across all defensive lines and fortifications, and unleash its bombs over enemy cities; industry including the war fighting industry or for that matter could drop its bombs directly over the enemy population and leadership. It promised to affect the outcome of war exclusively by changing the nature of war into a Total War. Wars were no more a clash between armies and navies. Now it involved the entire nation.
Thus, as the 20th Century witnessed constant and rapid evolution of airpower capabilities, there were two major schools of airpower doctrine that matured. The first and the more conventional school saw in the aeroplane, one more instrument of classical war making albeit a highly effective one. Like the earlier weapons of war fighting, starting from a bow and an arrow, the rifle, the machine gun, the heavier artillery cannons, the aeroplane too was considered another weapon to hurl destructive explosive power on enemy’s fielded forces. And also to gather intelligence from its vantage point high above, on enemy’s disposition and movement, a task which was most difficult earlier. But, the airpower remained only one of the many weapons in army’s arsenal for dealing with hostile army.
The other school of thought was a revolutionary one. It was founded on the ideas of maverick army officers who could foresee the remarkable potential of aeroplanes. This school was led by the likes of Major General Giulio Douhet of Italian Army, General Trenchard of the Royal Army, Brigadier General Billy Mitchell of the US Army and many more. They visualised in the aeroplane an ability to make the warfare ‘Total’. That is, war was no more a mere clash of arms of opposing armies and navies at the selected battlefield or along the defensive lines – so characteristic of the First World War. A war need not be an affair of immense attrition for gain of territory measured merely in meters and yards.
After all, along the 500 miles of Trench Warfare in the heart of Europe, 20 million lives were lost between 1914 to 1918 and yet no side made advance beyond a few miles. These miles, won after tremendous price in human lives would once again be lost again in yet another battle. They saw in the evolving aeroplane, an ability to fly over the fielded forces, the minefields, the poison gas attacks and the murderous artillery fire no matter how strong, and deliver the aerial fire power directly at the enemy’s cities, its population, its war making industry or for that matter the enemy leadership itself. This was considered enough to break the Enemy’s WILL to fight on.
Douhet argued that in the face of emerging air power, successful offensive by surface forces alone was no longer possible. The advantage of speed and elevation in the three dimensional battle space (note change from the two dimensional battlefield to three dimensional battle space) of air war had made it impossible to take defensive measures against an offensive aerial strategy. An air offensive could not be stopped by surface defences; its high speed will make its reach far; initiative in choosing targets spread far apart would thin the defences making the defences further weak. In addition to the physical effect of bombing, the psychological impact – of civil population so far spared from warfare-now being threatened by aerial bombing, will also have an important contribution. Therefore, Command of Air would be quintessential in winning future wars.
Nations following the first doctrine — the employment of airpower predominantly in tactical role — Germany, Japan, Italy, erstwhile USSR lost in World War II. Whereas USA, UK using airpower in strategic role won the war outright. Thereafter they have been winning wars with fewer and fewer casualties to own forces.
The experiences of wars in 20th and 21st century have proved that it is the second school of thought – the strategic impact of air power – that is more predominant. Nations following the first doctrine – the employment of airpower predominantly in tactical role – Germany, Japan, Italy, erstwhile USSR lost in World War II. Whereas USA, UK using airpower in strategic role won the war outright. Thereafter they have been winning wars with fewer and fewer casualties to own forces. Now the advances in technology have made modern air power extremely accurate and far reaching- with global reach for the mighty.
Let us for a moment explore the meaning of often used word ‘Strategic’? But we must keep in mind the context in which it is used. Initially during 1920s-1940s ‘Strategic’ in air doctrine meant pure offensive of the Bomber against enemy’s heartland to achieve quick, swift victory which avoided the carnage of defensive trench warfare. Post World War II as the world got divided in the two blocks led by two Super Powers, ‘Strategic’ mostly meant bombers with inter-continental range and carrying nuclear weapons. Ballistic missiles with nuclear warhead also came in this category from 1950s onwards. So ‘Strategic’ referred to ranges of 5000 km plus and nuclear weapons in large KT or MT capacities.
Vietnam War saw B-52 strategic bombers unleashing up to 30 t bombs in each sortie for support of troops in close air support, i.e. in tactical role. In 1982 eight Israeli F-16s attacked Osrik nuclear reactor near Baghdad with 1000 Kg bombs each and totally destroyed this facility. It set back Iraq’s quest for nukes at least by a decade. So while Cold War bombers were being used for tactical air support, the tactical aircraft, using tactical weapons achieved results that were totally strategic in nature. During World War II it took 1000 bombers, with 9000 aircrew, dropping nearly 2000 t of bombs to destroy a target. During Gulf War 91, one F-117 carrying 2 t bombs could destroy a target with greater assurance in one sortie.2 Thus a tactical aircraft, with tactical weapons was achieving effect far more than 1000 bomber raid of World War II.
This has blurred the earlier distinction between ‘Strategic’ and ‘Tactical’. What is the future like? Today one B-2 Bomber of USAF carries 80 bombs of 500 lb calibre. It can attack 80 separate targets, each with extreme precision, achieving desired effect. In few years its capacity will be 200 Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) able to attack 200 targets in one sortie. This 135 kg SDB, filled with much better explosives will give same effect as an earlier 500 kg bomb. What about the SU-30 in IAF? It could easily carry 32 precision bombs in each sortie and attack 32 separate targets with great precision! So in today’s warfare, strategic connotation is no more related either to very long range of bombers or nukes as weapons, but to the effects that are produced at the target end. Aircraft type and the size of bomb is no more a primary consideration.
In trying to understand IAF and the manner it differs from Army and Navy – we need to work out is its effect at the target end. Let us consider few criteria for comparison. What is the ‘reach’ of each arm? Army’s reach is limited by speed of Infantry and Armour, in turn supported by it’s self propelled artillery. Infantry moves at walking pace. Armour’s fastest move, during World War II was an average of 30-40 km/day. It was faster during GW-91. But if it is not supported by self propelled artillery, it is not considered tactically prudent. Self propelled artillery generally is slower. What about Navy? Average speeds of ships vary between 15-30 kts i.e. 27-54 km per hour. This is much faster than the land force. And it may not face as much opposition during these moves as an Army would. What about an air force?
Average speeds of combat aircraft are a km in four seconds or 900 kms per hour. Maximum speeds can go up to 3000kms per hour plus. Similarly enemy air’s opposition, in comparison will be more diluted. Notice the difference in speed of movement! This rapidity gives the air force the ability to strike wide and far; a number of times each day.
Today one B-2 Bomber of USAF carries 80 bombs of 500 lb calibre. It can attack 80 separate targets, each with extreme precision, achieving desired effect. In few years its capacity will be 200 Small Diameter Bomb (SDB) able to attack 200 targets in one sortie.
A SU-30 supported by air refueling can strike at many targets located wide and far in one sortie in few hours. This is as far as the reach and rapidity with which the target can be struck. When we factor in the amount of explosives – which a bullet, an artillery shell, a heavy canon shell and bombs dropped from an aircraft can bring to bear at target end – it is again the aircraft which wins outright. Add to this the precision by which each can be dropped at target end – and the answer again is overwhelmingly in favour of aircraft. In terms of effect each arm can produce at target end, there is no doubt that the Air Force has maximum strategic impact.
Next let us consider ‘flexibility’ available to each arm. Let us consider the tank. In one go, a tank can travel few hundreds kms in any direction. But when moving towards enemy its advance is checked repeatedly by anti tank weapons of infantry, minefield, hostile artillery, hostile armour and worst of all hostile air power. When this happens it can fight its way through with available organic fire power, using the tank’s gun – (105 to 155mm), limited by the quantity of onboard ammunition, each round weighing around 20 kg with an explosive element of about 5 Kgs. That is its destructive power.
A naval ship of war is not much different. Its speed is same though reach is much more. Its offensive armament can be onboard missiles, and heavy cannons. Of course, an aircraft carrier also has combat aircraft, however even the mighty carriers of USN which carry around 80 plus aircraft have only 24 aircraft devoted to strike role. Rest of the aircraft are essential for fleet air defence and support functions.