Military & Aerospace

IAF – Strategic Air Power Doctrine
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 07 Feb , 2023

IAF Rafale.

Indian Air Force is a critical part of India’s War Fighting Machinery. Although some sources rank IAF as the third most powerful air force in the world, but in reality, it is faced with a very serious challenge of shortage of combat aircraft, commensurate with the opposition it is likely to face in future war.

It is woefully short of the 45 combat Squadrons its inventory, thus perforce has number of squadrons flying very old vintage aircraft past their planned life.

IAF’s Strategic Air Power Doctrine

The important role played by air power in the1991 Gulf War and the effect of “Shock and Awe” air campaign, took the world by storm. Similar strategy was followed in KOSOVO 1998 i.e. dependence on sustained use of air power as the opening phase, rather than slow land invasion. 

It was natural for the Indian Air Force, to evaluate strategies and tactics used in these wars. As a result, IAF came up with the doctrine of STRATEGIC USE OF AIR POWER, rather than play supporting  role for operations on the ground and at sea.

IAF started to believe that it could break or seriously dent the WILL of the enemy to carry on war and more or less win India’s future wars by itself. The Army would then have to just march in and or be airlifted, against very light opposition. 

Accordingly, the IAF wants the Air Chief to have complete control and autonomy, who will carry out the operational planning and decide where, when and how to use Air Resources, as only an Air Chief understands the Strategic use of Air Power!

To achieve this, the IAF will carry out Counter Air Operations and strive for Air Superiority in the initial phase of war. All other requirements for air support etc will have to wait.

As a consequence, this became one of the main reason for the IAF to oppose creation of Theatre Commands and assigning Single Point Operational responsibility to the CDS, who may not be from the Air Force and hence not likely to understand exploitation of air power in strategic role.

However, while adopting such a doctrine some very important  aspects of use of air power in the Gulf War and KOSOVO,  as also the War Scenario IAF is going to face, do not seem to have been given due consideration:-

•  In these wars, the air power used comprised of combined elements of air forces of a number of countries, which gave them overwhelming air resources.

•  The air forces of opposing country were much weaker and hardly a match. 

•  In the Gulf War, the Coalition Forces had available about 2540 latest planes against 900 or so with Iraq.

•  The War in KOSOVO was waged by NATO. They had about 1000 latest aircraft from different countries, which faced very little opposition in the air.

•  Also very importantly, the air campaigns in these wars were sustained, lasting a number of weeks (Gulf War – 43 days and War in KOSOVO -78 days). 

•  In the Gulf War, nearly 100,000 missions were flown and in KOSOVO 38,000 sorties – 10,484 of them strike sorties; figures which IAF cannot ever think of!

There was an Overall Commander in each of the war under whom Air Component Commanders worked and they happened to be US Army General; In the Gulf War Gen Norman Schwarzkop and KOSOVO Gen Wesley Clark.

Since overwhelming air resources were available and the adversaries were having much inferior air assets, an initial sustained air campaign was the preferred strategy. It was therefore adopted as part of the Master Plan of the Overall Commander. In no case the Air Force Component Commander planned and conducted the Air War on his own!

The Indian scenario is so different.  It needs to be realized that IAF is faced with formidable Chinese Air Force, which is about 2.5-3 times the IAF, equipped with modern aircraft. It has over 2,000 battle aircraft, as against 700 odd with IAF.

 IAF also has to cater for the possibility of collusion between the PLAAF and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). PAF has about 450 combat aircraft, and has provided quite a challenge to IAF in all our past wars.

IAF will therefore be outnumbered and the airspace will be heavily contested in a two front war scenario.

This is notwithstanding the statements made by senior IAF officers that IAF is well poised for a two front war. Its superior tactics, flying skills and high altitude of PLAAF airfields in Tibet are some of the points mentioned to support this contention.

Lessons from Ukraine War

In the initial stages of invasion of Ukraine, Russia used manned aircraft for Counter Air Operations and to support the ground forces. However, shoulder fired and other antiaircraft missiles with the Ukrainian Forces, have pushed the Russian Air Force back into its own air space. It is now mostly using missiles and bombs from Standoff Distances.

To hit strategic and tactical ground targets in Ukraine, there is instead overwhelming use of UAVs and missiles rather than manned aircraft; a much cheaper but effective option indeed. As far as Ukraine is concerned, it has had to adopt a doctrine of AIR DENIAL, which has been quite effective. Being weaker in the air, this was the best option!

In conclusion, it will not be prudent for the IAF to adopt a Doctrine, primarily based on what USA and its Allies were able to achieve in the Gulf and KOSOVO Wars fought in the last century, using massive resources and having superiority in the air, while facing much weaker air powers. IAF just does not have and nor likely to have required resources in the foreseeable future against formidable enemy air powers it will be facing!

Lessons being learnt from Ukraine War also need to be given due consideration.

It is therefore imperative to reassess the current IAF Doctrine of First and Foremost, Playing A Strategic Role.  Doctrine of Air Denial may be worth considering as well!

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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 Harbhajan Singh

Former Signal Officer-in-Chief

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2 thoughts on “IAF – Strategic Air Power Doctrine

  1. The author does not have adequate knowledge of the principles of employment of air power to write on it using the template of Army in force superiority and conclude that IAF does not have adequate numbers. The Israeli Air Fore never had adequate numbers against Arabs, but they won wars.

    He is apparently confused between doctrine and strategy. While doctrine is a set of beliefs gleaned out of military history and employment of air power, modified by current technological developments to be used in the future, strategy is essentially a course of action designed to overcome a situation borne out of a scenario which is current.

    It would be too simplistic to assume that air power will be used in a sequential manner of counter air, air superiority, followed by close air support etc. An air warrior would use all of them in a simultaneous manner across tactical, operational and strategic levels, unlike the Army.

    When one strays out of hid domain expertise, such articles should not be taken seriously.

  2. Why setting examplary operational success of Gulf war?

    While, forgetting to mention the greatest success story of 1971, India ?? Pakistan ?? War!
    It happened because of FM SAM MANEKSHAW MC.
    THE COMMANDER OF THREE UNITS: INDIAN ARMY, INDIAN AIRFORCE & INDIAN NAVY.

    The Decisive victory of Sam Bahadur in just 13 days, occurred because of his Greatest Military Strategy by giving:
    #CAS, #CNS “FREE WILL TO ACT”!

    Indeed!
    Sam Bahadur, set an exemplary success & becoming a Real Theatre Command of the Three Units!

    “INDIA IN 10 CENTURIES, FOR THE FIRST TIME, WON THE WAR WITH HER ENEMY “! Indian Military History.

    THE GREATEST MILITARY COMMANDER THAT THE MILITARY WORLD HAD EVER SEEN BEFORE.

    Jai Hind

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