Military & Aerospace

Rethinking the Politics of Airpower
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Issue Vol. 37.4, Oct-Dec 2022 | Date : 11 Jan , 2023

Airpower is the most difficult of military force to measure or even express in precise terms. — Winston Churchill

General Norman Schwarzkopf, the CENTCOM Commander during the Persian Gulf War of 1991 wrote after the war, “At bottom, neither (Gen Colin) Powell nor I wanted a ground war.”1 General Schwarzkopf employed airpower to hammer the hapless Iraqi ground forces, making the allied ground offensive that followed a walkover. General Wesley Clark employed only air power against Serbia in 1998 achieving the aim of Serbian capitulation. Similarly, General Tommy Franks provided very effective air support to the opposing forces to topple the Taliban regime in Op Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.2 Surprisingly, all three Army generals relied on airpower to achieve their objectives. They must have been aware of the numerous controversial issues that have bedeviled the relationship between the air forces and the land and sea forces.

However, they must be credited for their maturity and professionalism that such controversies were not permitted to colour their perception on airpower being the best option in the given context. Contentious issues between air forces and land and sea forces have persisted in most militaries, including India. Inter-service rivalry in the Indian military, while known, remained confined to the corridors of power. It came into media glare when the late General Bipin Rawat, the first Chief of Defence Staff, on live TV called the Indian Air Force a supporting arm, akin to artillery and engineers. The Air Chief demurred in a dignified rebuttal, but the differences were out in the open. Recently, the current Air Chief placed on record the IAF’s reservations about the creation of an Air Defence Command, the first step in pursuance of theaterisation of the Indian military.

What are these contentious issues which are hindering a cordial relationship between the land, sea and air forces regarding employment of airpower? There is an urgent need to understand these issues in totality in the Indian context, to enable the process of jointness to be enhanced. This article discusses some of these issues without judging the appropriateness or otherwise of different views; the aim being to appreciate the fears and reservations of each of the services. Indulgence of readers would be needed when some views contradict commonly held beliefs. This should not be construed as criticism but an attempt to project a well-rounded view on the issues involved. The favoured option for integration of the three services appears to point towards theatre commands. It may, therefore, be worthwhile to understand if the US military managed to resolve some of the contentious issues as it adopted the theatre command structure.

As per US Air Force folklore, the best way for airpower to facilitate land operations was proven way back in 1943 in Operation Torch. This was the US and British forces’ invasion of Algeria, aiming to link up with the British Eighth Army moving westward. The US air arm was then controlled by the ground force commander, who parceled it out among the ground units. This approach proved disastrous, as scattering the air effort resulted in the German air force prevailing and taking a heavy toll of the US air and ground forces. The priority then changed to air superiority with centralised control of air forces. This centralised control dented German air attacks, which over time reduced by over 80 percent and enabled allied air forces to attack German rear echelons, resulting in the surrender of over two lakh axis soldiers. This 1943 operation led to formulation of Field Manual FM 100-20, which vested centralised control of air assets under an air force commander. It went on to list air superiority as the first priority of tactical aviation, followed by interdiction and the third task of direct support to forward troops or Close Air Support (CAS). The best part is that while the Field Manual FM 100-20 of 1943 had the approval of the Army Chief, the rank and file of the Army apparently did not subscribe to it. These issues of control and prioritization have, therefore, remained contentious despite the Field Manual and continue to dog the US military even today.3

In the next major doctrinal shift, the air-land battle doctrine of 1983 was embraced by the US Air Force as well as NATO. This recognised that the war in Europe could not be won at the point of contact, but needed ‘Follow-On-Forces-Attack’ to destroy enemy’s rear echelons. The Air Force called these attacks as battlefield interdiction, the Army considered these as attacks in its extended battlefield with the land force commander controlling all assets, air and ground up to the Fire Support Coordination Line (FSCL). Overtime with new weapons, the Army commanders drew the FSCL hundreds of kilometres ahead of own forces, thereby wanting control over air operations. Within the Army’s Airland Battle construct, airpower had a supporting role. The Air Force rejected that paradigm.4

This tussle led to major disagreements during the Persian Gulf War of 1991. The CENTCOM Commander, Gen. Schwarzkopf did not adhere to the Air, Land Battle doctrine, but chalked out a 38-day air campaign which rendered Iraqi forces ineffective. The Army harshly criticised the air campaign and its report included the lesson that, “the lack of commonly understood joint fire support doctrine and the parochial interpretation of fire support coordination measures caused significant problems in fire support coordination.” Due to such differences, the air-land battle concept was abandoned by the US Air Force in 1993.5

The above details indicate that despite all the changes brought about in the US military, contentious issues persist. The senior land force commanders look at the bigger picture and accept airpower as decisive and achievement of air superiority as apriority. But for the rank and file, it is a life and death struggle that it is here and now, and cannot wait till air superiority is achieved. For them, it is a cultural and emotive issue. It is quite obvious that differences are unlikely to be resolved with rational arguments or even references to historical precedents.

Since similar issues dog the Indian military also, it may be worthwhile to identify major contentious issues relating to air operations and the many strands such issues encompass. In the discussions that follow, we may discover that many of the emotive legacies may be rendered irrelevant due to recent technological changes. The issues relate mainly to the branding of airpower as a supporting arm of land forces, the air force’s focus on air superiority, close air support and control of air operations.

Is Airpower a Support Arm of Land Forces?

Where and how did the idea that airpower is a supporting arm originate? Do these ideas have some bases or are these preconceived notions that persist regardless of evidence to the contrary? One of the main reasons why armies across the world seek primacy is because we humans are terrestrial beings and most of our fights and wars relate to land. Operations – whether at sea, in the air, space or cyber have to ultimately lead to land, where in most cases victory or defeat is decided. As per this logic, since the Army is the one that occupies contested land, actions by others are in support of this last step. That is why even artillery and engineers are called support arms. This leads to the misconception that all other forces are subordinate to the requirements of land forces and would remain support elements. Let us take this logical misconception and extend it to the popular ‘Dahi-Handi’, a competitive team sport played during the Janmashtmi festival. The Handi, placed at a height, is broken by the tiniest member of the team, who reaches the top of the human pyramid by climbing on the shoulders of his strong and hefty team mates. Can the tiny team member corner all the credit? Should one then consider the strong hefty members who form the pyramid to enable the tiny member to climb on their backs and break the Handi, as secondary or support elements? Can the tiny member break the Handi by himself? Obviously not! Similarly, the Infantry occupying contested territory maybe the last step facilitated by attacks or actions by air or naval forces. The last step of the infantry may prove impossible unless aided and facilitated by other services, especially during high intensity conventional conflicts.

Another source of this misconception arises because of the Indian Army’s decades old involvement in counter-insurgency or low intensity operations in the North and the East. In other regions of the world also, the focus has been on similar low intensity operations such as the US Army’s involvement in Afghanistan, the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and Syria. In such operations, airpower plays a limited or a supporting role to the land forces. Extrapolating this, many in the defence community believe that a similar trend of airpower playing a secondary role would continue even in high intensity conventional wars.

This line of thought ignores the importance of context in warfare. Warfare is all about who is fighting whom, when, where, how and for what. No two contexts are similar, let alone identical. The objectives, resources, capabilities all vary from conflict to conflict and lessons cannot be taken out of context. As brought out above, land forces accustomed to fighting insurgencies or sub-conventional conflicts should not extrapolate and assume that airpower will play a secondary role in other contexts. This is what Hew Strachan termed ‘astrategic thinking’ – an assumption that tactical and operational aspects would be successful irrespective of the strategic context.6 The roles and objectives of land, air and sea forces emerge from the political context and strategic objectives and cannot be prejudged as primary or secondary.

Believing that a sister service as a supporting arm may not be quite appropriate. Take the case of Kosovo in 1998. NATO decided not touse land forces to avoid bloodshed. Airpower was used in Operation Allied Force to target Serbian forces for 78 days till their capitulation. In the instant case, the land forces played a supporting role to airpower. Can this instance be extrapolated to other contexts? Or let’s take Op Cactus, the joint operation undertaken to defeat the 1988 Maldives coup d’état attempt. In this operation, the IL-76 aircraft of the IAF flew the Parachute Brigade’s regiments from Agra and landed at the Malé International Airport at night, with limited intelligence about the rebels. Would the IAF effort be termed as secondary? Would the operation have been possible without the IAF’s effort?

There are many cases of airpower being decisive in wars. By ‘decisive’ one does not imply that airpower achieved victory by itself, but that it may not have been possible to achieve victory without airpower.7 In recent times, one cannot identify any conventional war in which land or sea forces achieved victory without airpower. Some major cases of decisive contribution of airpower are:–

    • The Battle of Britain was a landmark event which highlighted the air war for control of the air. The RAF was able to dominate the skies over Britain, thereby preventing an invasion by Germany.
    • The turning point in the Pacific theatre of World War II was the Battle of Midway, in which airpower from all services attacked the Japanese fleet which lost four aircraft carriers. This engagement dominated by airpower turned the tide of the war in the Pacific.
    • The daring air raid by Israel on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor stopped Iraqi nuclear weapon program in its tracks, thereby maintaining a balance between nations in the Middle East. It was a strategic master stroke employing air power.
    • Erstwhile Yugoslavia saw decisive employment of airpower on two occasions during its implosion after the death of Joseph Tito. In the first instance airpower was used in 1995 in Operation Deliberate Force to bring warring factions to the negotiating table at Dayton, Ohio. The second was in Kosovo, where the use of airpower resulted in capitulation.
    • Then there is Operation Desert Storm in Iraq in 1991, a watershed event, demonstrating decisive results obtained by airpower.
    • The above events demonstrate that airpower has produced decisive outcomes when political and military objectives demanded. Leave alone a supporting role airpower has, at times, played a dominating role. Terming airpower as a supporting arm of land forces may need reconsideration.

Why Air Superiority?

Air superiority is the ultimate expression of military power. — Winston Churchill

One issue which Air Forces have not been able to make sister services appreciate and which the land and sea forces seem to consider as chasing glamour, is the fight for air superiority. Many in the army, including senior officials, besides the leading infantry and armour elements, feel that the Air Force must focus on Close Air Support from day one, instead of fighting what they term, ‘a private air war with the enemy air force’. This belief was also surprisingly voiced by a naval aviator of repute as, “…. should attainment of air dominance be an end in itself, superseding military and maritime strategies”.8 All individual service strategies emerge from the political objectives and the ensuing military strategy. The air strategy of achieving air dominance or superiority does not supersede land or sea strategy but reinforces them. This belief that the air force fights its own private war, which is separate from the country’s war strategy, is the biggest fallacy of all in view of the long historical evidence that air superiority is a war winning attribute.

The Indian Air Force fights for establishing air superiority, a state when own air force can be employed effectively and in full measure for supporting the land or sea forces, while preventing the adversary from employing air assets to support his forces. As William Momyer explains: ‘The most precious thing an air force can provide to an army or navy is air superiority, since this gives to surface forces the ability to carry out their own plan of action without interference from an enemy air force.’9

History reveals that there is striking relationship between air superiority and decisive battle outcomes in conventional wars. A quantitative test to assess correlation of air superiority and battlefield outcomes for engagements between 1932 and 2003 revealed that approximately 79 percent of decisive battle wins had air superiority. The table below provides details of an analysis of air superiority and decisive battle outcomes between 1932 and 2003. At least on the modern battlefield, air superiority and not power in general is the key to victory.

Table: Air Superiority and Decisive Battle Outcomes: 1932 to 200310

  Loss Wins
No Air Superiority 49
Air Superiority 2
Note: Cell entries are observed frequency followed by expected frequency in parentheses. Chi2 : 58.0, p < 0.001. Air parity is coded as no air superiority for either side. Unit of analysis: battle-country-participant.

The above study found evidence to support the view that air superiority improves the performance of own forces quite significantly, while reducing own casualties as compared to the adversary.

Another way to understand how air superiority impacts war is to ask the question, “What if..?” What would have happened in a particular battle if the adversary had air superiority? In this context, let us examine the well-publicised battle of Longewala of 1971 War. A Pakistani brigade-level armour thrust near Jaisalmer caught the Indian forces by surprise with only a company position of Punjab regiment opposing it. A successful break through would have threatened India’s rear areas. The Punjab regiment company managed to delay the armoured thrust for the night. The next morning IAF Hunters from Jaisalmer attacked the Pak forces and over two days destroyed nearly 37 tanks and supporting vehicles. There was no Pakistani air opposition and an SOS message sent by Pak forces stated (translated) to the effect that, “The enemy air force was making life miserable. Forty of our equipment destroyed. Let alone advance further, even retreat has become difficult”.11 By the evening of December 06, nearly thirty-seven tanks lay burning/damaged in this belt of the Thar Desert. The Battle of Longewala was, in fact, over.12 If PAF had air superiority, the IAF aircraft would not have been able to attack without interference and the Pak armoured thrust may well have succeeded in penetrating Indian defences.

A number of other examples highlight the need to achieve air superiority. The British managed to defeat Argentineans in the Falklands because they controlled the skies. Similarly, the 1973 Arab Israeli war underscores the importance of air superiority. When the Egyptian armour was operating under the ground-based air defences, Israeli air power had little effect, and in the initial counter-attack Israeli forces lost nearly half of the170 tanks. But when Israel regained control of the skies, the Egyptian and Syrian forces were literally on the run and the .tide of the battle turned in Israel’s favour.13 Indian experience in 1971 in the East highlighted the impact of control of the skies. The Indian Army’s rapid advance was facilitated by the air operations which not only included operations to achieve air superiority, but extensive close air support, interdiction, a brigade-level paradrop at Tangail and the heli-borne operations or the air bridge across river Meghna. All these operations played a crucial role in the Indian Army reaching Dacca in short time, taking the Pakistani establishment completely by surprise. Such extensive support to the land forces would not have been possible without India enjoying air dominance.

History and analysis of past conflicts clearly indicate that air superiority appears to be a prerequisite for successful battle outcomes. However, for the troops engaged in battle, the air war is distant and their need for air support is a life and death issue. This battle for air superiority is unlikely to get thumbs up from the soldier in battle unless adequate air effort is devoted to their needs. This issue is thus best left to the commander to decide, based on appreciation of priorities.

The Vexed Close Air Support Debate!

Rule No 36 is going gets tough, the tough call for close air support. No other issue has bedeviled the relationship between armies and air forces than Close Air Support (CAS). Since the time control of air operations was centralised with an Air Force commander, CAS has become a source of discord. The central issue is Army’s criticism of the inadequacy and delay in the CAS provided by air forces. Surprisingly, such criticism is not limited to a specific conflict but surfaces regularly across countries. The Indian Army has also expressed similar views on a number of occasions.

Air Forces were given an independent status based on a strategic vision that airpower can create strategic impact or effect beyond support to the land or sea forces. This strategic orientation tends to lower the priority of tactical operations such as CAS. Additionally, airpower theory and experience indicate that interdiction aids land forces and is far more efficacious than CAS. On the other hand, the Indian Army demands that its requirement for CAS must have priority over all other missions and resources must be earmarked exclusively for this role. Many view the Army’s criticism about CAS as an attempt to seek control over air operations in the battlefield. The extension of this being Army seeking its own CAS air assets. The Air Forces have always been sensitive about this issue and have in turn taken steps to retain control over this role. This tussle continues in one form or the other.

Added to this is the Air Force’s propensity to overlook the need for an aircraft suitable only for CAS. The US Air Force was forced to do so by the Congress and designed the A-10, Thunderbolt. Air Forces are always demanding aircraft for air superiority or deep strikes, but disregard the need for a dedicated CAS aircraft. Surprisingly, the attack helicopter assets under control of the Army possess as much firepower as most fixed wing aircraft used for CAS. But the attack helicopters tend to be considered as organic elements and not as part of aviation assets to be employed for CAS.

The discord however, may have little relevance today. This is because there is a new elephant in the room. Drones or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) have the capability of roiling the CAS debate. The impact of UAS was evident during the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war and the earlier Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. But before we discuss this aspect, let us look at what the expectations of land forces are as far as CAS is considered? A marine infantry officer summarised the views on CAS as:–

The US Marines look towards CAS aircraft as a Guardian Angel, with on station persistence capability stretching to as long as a day or more, should securely communicate and provide real-time imagery about the enemy, carry variety of PGMs to attack targets within 15 metres of own troops, detect and attack enemy drones, avoid man-portable air defence threats and operate from expeditionary airfields.14

Aircraft which can meet the above demands is not even on the drawing board. In exercises apparently, the MQ-9 (UAS) provided persistent Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) and served as a guardian angel to prevent enemy reinforcements.15 It appears that drones may meet the CAS requirements of the man on the frontline. It may not be out of place to mention that the Marines are equipped with integral aviation in the form of the top of the line, F-35s for CAS. With the latest drones more than meeting the CAS requirements, the future of the expensive F 35s may be questionable?

A variety of UAS are available in the market from small (less than 20 pounds), medium (less than 1320 pounds) to the bigger ones such as the MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper.16 The loiter time and altitude vary but can be designed to meet specific requirements. There are also the loitering munitions and drones such as the Kamikaze Switchblade and the Turkish Baytraktur TB-2, which have played havoc with enemy armour and forces. India is focusing on producing UAS for a variety of roles and in the near future should be able to field these on the battlefield. Drones thus hold a promise to provide support to land forces which was earlier part of CAS. The capabilities of the drones are such that the frontline units or regiments can control the small / medium sized, while the larger or high-altitude ones may be controlled at the operational level. Drones or UAS may well resolve the vexed issue of CAS. More importantly, the land forces would be in control of these drones.

While the above option seems to remove a major irritant between the land and air forces, it also creates attendant problems of control of aviation assets in the battlefield and the need for countering enemy UAS. The battle airspace promises to be crowded with drones and attack helicopters of both sides and fixed wing fighters transiting the airspace for their missions. This crowded space bristles with AD weapons: shoulder fired and the more sophisticated radar guided ones. Control would be a nightmare requiring procedural means supplemented by IFF systems. Similarly, responsibilities and procedures would require to be implemented to counter enemy drones interfering with own operations. This role would be an extension of the Air Force campaign for air superiority. Both these problems associated with introduction of drones are being studied jointly by the land and air forces across the world and India would also need to find solutions to the above problems.


The discussion on airpower reveals that some of the issues which create discord among air forces and other services on aviation related matters are visceral and cultural in nature. Facing the heat of battle and confronting life and death situations leaves little room for thinking philosophically on the prioritization of roles. It is hindsight which provides the leisure to discuss issues rationally. It appears that the most controversial issue between air and land forces, CAS: is being transformed with the introduction of UAS or drones. The next few years would reveal the manner in which CAS role would be met and how the attendant issues of control of airspace and enemy drones would be tackled. Other issues such as airpower performing a supporting role or otherwise and the prioritisation of the air superiority role would continue to bedevil relations between the services. These issues of prioritisation and which of the forces would lead the battle are best left to the genius of the commander. As observed in the case of the US military, the commanders in the field have always risen above controversies and opted for the ideal force combination to achieve the military objectives. Let us look beyond the controversies and rethink the politics surrounding airpower.


  1. As quoted in Bruce Pirnie, Chapter Eight: Preparing the Army For Joint Operations, page 164 of“The US Army and the New National Security Strategy”, Rand Corporation, 2003,
  2. Ibid
  3. Correll John T, The Ups and Downs of Close Air Support, Dec 1, 2019,
  4. Kent Laughbaum, Lt Col, USAF, Synchronizing Airpower and Firepower in the Deep Battle, Air University Press Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama 36112-6610. Jan 1999, page 55,
  5. Correll John T, The Ups and Downs of Close Air Support, Dec 1, 2019,
  6. Dr Chris Tuck, Hybrid War: The Perfect Enemy
  7. Phillip S Mellinger, A Short History of “Decisiveness”, Air Force Magazine September 2010, pp 98-101,
  8. Arun Prakash Admiral, Arriving at a Consensus, Indian Express, Column, August 12, 2021,
  9. William A. Momyer, Airpower in Three Wars, Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2003 (reprint), p. 178.
  10. Richard Saunders and Mark Souva, Air Superiority and Battlefield Victory, Research and Politics, October-December 2020, 1-8,,air%20superiority%20and%20battlefield%20outcomes
  11. DiptenduChoudhury, Eagle Unleashed IAF Strategy and Operations, IDSA, Journal of Defence Studies, page 149,
  12. Ian Cardozo, 1971: Stories of Grit and Glory from the Indo-Pak War, Penguin Random House India, 2021, p. 127.
  13. Richard Saunders and Mark Souva, Air Superiority and Battlefield Victory, Research and Politics, Oct-Dec 2020, 1-8,,air%20superiority%20and%20battlefield%20outcomes
  14. Scott Cuomo, Secretary Mattis’ “Guardian Angel” And How Marine Corps Aviation Can Get Back On Target, 20 July 2017,
  15. Ibid.
  16. Trevor Phillips-Levine, Dylan Phillips-Levine, Walker Mills, Unmanned, Lethal, And Organic: The Future Of Air Support For Ground Combat Forces, Modern War Institute, 07 January 2020,
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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

Gp Capt PK Mulay

is a Test Pilot and has Commanded an Attack Helicopter Squadron.  He is a PhD in Defence Studies.

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4 thoughts on “Rethinking the Politics of Airpower

  1. Wow! Sir, such a complex, confused and much debated subject, explained so easily and eloquently. I still remember the day when on a monday mass briefing you took to the rostrum and spoke on principles management, extempore. The same ease and simple language is visible here too. Kudos Sir ? ? ?

  2. Sir

    Very well explained historical aspects, nature and significance of air power, air superiority, philosophy & employment of AirPower & differences in perceptions on air power

    I look forward to your views on why’s of Politics of AirPower.
    I understand Air Power has to take into account national interest, resource constraints & other challenges However, I fail to understand as to Why is it difficult to make stakeholders & other Services understand logic, which appears simple in your article?

    I also look forward to your views on another critical issue of technology ownership in AirPower, which is becoming critical in view of aspiring technologically advancing & belligerent adversaries & economic limitations

    • The era into which the rapidly evolving disruptive warfare technologies are leading the world into is going to be quite complex. Neither can the conventional warfare weapons be shed nor can wars be fought effectively without newer arsenal like AI laden drones and missiles for the next 20 years at least. This is simply going to continue to increase the burden of defence budgets of the nations exorbitantly. As the AI evolves the role of the humans in warfare will progressively reduce.

      We have seen the ineffectiveness or rather the limitation of fighter aircraft in the last two wars, the nagorno karabakh conflict and the ongoing Russo-Ukranian war, where due to dense air defence weapons deployment very few successful missions have been undertaken. Whereas usage of drones and missile is increasingly becoming effective. In the present and future scenarios, unless heavy electronic warfare is employed to overwhelm the enemy’s air defences, fighter aircraft usage is likely to be very limited due to proliferation of various types of AD weapons in numbers as well as technology.

      Another moot point is that there are going to be a huge number of entities in the air during warfare including various types of aircraft, drones(for isr, attack drones, sacrificial drones) missiles(surface to surface, air to surface and surface to air) at the same time and similar from the side of the enemy. The air defence coordination is going to be a big challenge unless all these resources both air defence as well as are placed under a unified commands. Something like the missileforce and AD command. Not doing so could lead to unacceptable losses especially in the fog of war situation.

      I think some radical changes need to be brought about in prevailing warfare concepts in the light of the rapidly changing disruptive technologies. Also these warfare technologie are going to have a short life (i mean period of effectiveness) due to the pace of evolution. It should be understood by forces/ govts

  3. Well said and written, sir. Though wish you had elaborated on ‘which’ commander ( Army/Aur Force or even Theatre Commander) at the last para before ‘the vexed close air…..’
    But, commanders generally see the battlefield through the prisms of their own service….even a CDS perhaps at this nascent stage!

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