The nature of warfare and consequently, the conduct of air warfare, are undergoing significant and rapid transformation as a result of the munificence of emerging technologies. The Indian Air Force (IAF) is mindful of these changes and is continually adapting its philosophy to accommodate new weapon systems and platforms. Indeed, the theme of the last Air Force Day Parade was ‘IAF Transforming for the Future’ and the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari, mentioned the emerging trends during his speech at the Parade, highlighting the crucial significance of sustaining and enhancing the combat potential of the IAF. A significant element of his address was the announcement that the government had approved a new branch for officers in the IAF called the Weapon System (WS) Branch as a part of the initiatives being taken towards recalibrating the IAF and transforming it to prepare for future conflicts.
In a way, this announcement acknowledges the increasing importance of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) referred to in the Indian military context as Remotely Piloted Aircraft or RPAs in the conduct of variegated roles and tasks in aerial operations as also of the proliferate acquisition of several types of missile systems. The sophistication levels of RPAs and missiles have been soaring and their operations demand specialised and niche skill sets and knowledge base among personnel assigned to operate them. The CAS made a special mention of the fact that this was the first time since India gained independence that a new operational branch was being created. This article looks at the prominent facets of the new branch and prognosticates on the change management and the short and long term repercussions of the policy change.
The WS branch is the tenth branch of the IAF which, nine decades ago, started with just one branch – the General Duties (Pilot) or GD (P) branch. Although the IAF was declared established on October 08, 1932, the first flying unit was formed on April 01, 1933, and the first six pilots were officers placed in the GD (P) branch in the same pattern as the Royal Air Force (RAF). There was no other branch in the IAF for officers to join and all the other tasks in support of the unit’s flying effort were carried out by 19 Hawai Sepoys who were airmen i.e. personnel below officer rank. There were no Indians in higher ranks and all headquarters, air bases and other management centres were commanded and controlled by the RAF.
World War II, which came soon after the formation of the IAF, necessitated some changes in the structure and in 1939, the Chatfield Committee recommended that the RAF squadrons based in India be re-equipped. It also authorised an IAF Voluntary Reserve into which officers were commissioned in the General Duties (Observers) and General Duties (Air Gunners) branches too. Those who applied for GD (P) branch but did not make the grade for GD (P) or any of the flying sub-branches were offered Equipment Branch or Administration & Special Duties (A&SD) Branch. As the Second World War progressed and the IAF expanded, new branches were progressively set up. These were Education, Accounts, Meteorology, Balloon, Signals, Armament, Radar, Electrical and Engineering.
This restructuring paid good dividends during World War II and the IAF executed its tasks exceedingly well despite having aircraft of much older vintage and type than the RAF. In recognition of its performance during World War II, the IAF was bestowed with the prefix “Royal” in 1945. Once the War was over and the need for balloons disappeared almost entirely, the Balloon branch was scrapped. In 1946, the General Duties (Navigator) branch was introduced and General Duties (Observers) was done away with as was the Radar branch in 1947.
As war clouds loomed over the IAF in 1971, a need was felt to rationalise its structure. Consequently, its fourteen branches were re-organised into nine on September 01, 1971, with new nomenclature: Flying (Pilot)/Flying (Navigator) (i.e. F(P) / F (N)), Administration (ADM), Logistics, Aeronautical Engineering (Mechanical), Aeronautical Engineering (Electronics), Meteorological, Education, Accounts and Medical. This system with only one operational branch namely Flying with its two sub branches, Pilot and Navigator, continued for the next five decades with no change until the WS branch was announced.
The Need for Weapon Systems Branch
India has a vast and variegated stable of Surface-to-Surface Missiles (SSMs) and over the years, their ownership has evolved such that the IAF currently operates the Prithvi-II Short Range Ballistic Missile (SRBM) and one regiment of land-based BrahMos cruise missile. It also operates the Air Launched BrahMos Cruise missile. Both the missiles are state-of-the-art systems requiring high levels of technical acumen, knowledge and understanding of the systems and skill sets for safe and efficient operation.
The IAF is responsible for the air defence of Indian territory including maritime and island territories. For this purpose, it has several layers of Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) systems on its inventory. It operates the Pechora, Osa-AK, Igla-1, Akash and SPYDER SAMs for area and point air defence. A more modern system with an enhanced range of over 400 km, the Russian S-400, is on order. Five squadrons of S-400 have been ordered and two are already in service at the time of writing this article. In an inventive and pioneering initiative, the IAF is converting two obsolete AAMs of Russian origin – R-27 and R-73 into SAMs. These were on display at the DefExpo 2022 as ‘SAMAR Air Defence System’. The increasing sophistication levels of successive inductions demand dedicated and focussed training and skill sets for their maximum utilisation.
As far as RPAs are concerned, India is making efforts to develop and produce indigenous models, but success has been mediocre so far. As far as indigenous RPAs go, the IAF has the Lakshya on its inventory and the Rustom II is under trial and development. Meanwhile, the IAF has been acquiring foreign systems and currently has on its inventory the Searcher II, Heron and Harpy while an armed version of the US MQ-9B Predator is in the final stages of acquisition. The IAF is expected to get ten of the total 30 being negotiated for. RPAs are being hailed as the future of military aviation and a great deal of technological inventiveness is concentrated on the vast variety of RPA platforms. Thus, there is a need for operators to have niche and differentiated knowledge and skills for RPA operations.
Another area where ‘weapon systems’ have become so advanced and complex that there was a need for specialists trained for them is the on board avionics and weapon control systems in a modern combat aircraft. There are at least four sixth-generation combat aircraft development programmes underway across the globe. While India is nowhere near that leading edge of technology, it already has the Rafale, a 4.5 generation fighter on its inventory while the Tejas Mk2, whose induction is still some years into the future, is also a 4.5 generation aircraft. Also in the hazy future, India hopes to get a fifth generation fighter – the Advanced Multi-role Combat Aircraft or AMCA from its indigenous aerospace industry.
Fourth generation combat aircraft needed a Weapon System Operator (WSO) onboard as it was difficult for a single pilot to fly as also manage the weapon and other onboard system; the workload was too much for one pilot’s attention span. Typically, the WSO was another pilot trained on that type of aircraft who was capable of not just operating the weapon systems but also of bringing back the aircraft safely in case of the captain being disabled or injured in flight. Fifth generation fighters have a substantial Artificial Intelligence (AI) incorporated into onboard avionics and weapon systems while the sixth generation is expected to have such levels of AI that they could fly autonomously and thus one of the essential features of a sixth generation fighter is that it be optionally manned i.e. it could fly autonomously without a pilot in the cockpit, if required for operational reasons or in case of pilot incapacitation during operations.
India’s fighter squadron strength is at an alarming low and the IAF is hoping to induct 200 to 300 new aircraft over the next two decades to build up to a sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons. These expected additions to IAF’s indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) and Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) and a yet to be finalised Multi role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) from a foreign OEM, are all likely to be two-crew combat aircraft. This was also the case with the Su-30 MKI of which the IAF has 260 and of which more may be added to its inventory. Since 2002, the WSO in Su-30 MKIs has been a navigator trained for WSO duties. Future requirements for WSOs would also require either pilots or navigators unless another solution, which the WS branch promises to be. The training of WS branch officers to become WSOs could be largely classroom and simulator-based and would be far less costly as the cost of ab initio pilot or navigator training.
In the case of SSMs, SAMs and RPAs, operational manning has been by Flying (Pilot) branch officers with their Commanding Officers and second in command (Flight Commanders, Senior Operations Officers) being pilots. This arrangement poses a big problem as the F(P) branch of the IAF is already short of pilots. Currently, the IAF has a shortfall of nearly 600 officers of which more than 400 are pilots. Moreover, pilot training is enormously expensive; indeed, it is far more expensive than the training for other branches.
Thus, it is evident that replacing pilots with Weapon Systems branch officers in combat aircraft WSO slots and operational slots in SSM, SAMs and RPAs, would lead to huge savings. According to the CAS, “Creation of this branch would result in savings of over Rs 3,400 crore due to reduced expenditure on flying training.”
The Mechanics of the New Branch
On this Air Force Day, even as the CAS was announcing the authorisation of the WS branch as part of his address, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) gave out a press release approving the creation the new branch to “entail unification of all weapon systems operators under one branch dedicated to the operational deployment of all ground-based and specialist airborne weapon systems” encompassing four specialised streams: SSMs, SAMs, RPAs and WSOs in twin/multi-crew aircraft. The press release ended with the optimistic note that “The branch will contribute immensely by enhancing the war fighting capability of the IAF”.
There were some speculative reports suggesting that the inadvertent misfiring of a BrahMos missile and the shooting down of a Mi-17V5 over Srinagar may have prompted the genesis of the new branch. However, while these incidents may have helped expedite the final announcement, the actual staff work that would culminate in a decision of such import and scale could not have been consummated in a couple of months and must have been in the pipeline for much longer. After all, the IAF has had dual-seat fighters, SSMs, SAMs and RPAS on its inventory for many years and the need for specialised officers for operating these must have been felt for long, especially as the last three were being manned by pilots, badly needed for the task they are primarily trained, needed and paid for.
Pilots Manning Weapon Systems
Before the new branch officers become effective, the operational posts in SSM/SAM/RPA squadrons are being tenanted by the F(P) branch officers, a state of affairs that will continue for a long time until officers commissioned into the new branch are available. An F(P) officer spends one or two tenures lasting three to five years in SSM/SAM/RPA squadrons before returning to his own stream. He now has the uphill task of competing with his course mates in his branch. He has not only lost out up to five years worth of flying experience and flying hours in his log book, but also possibly career-related opportunities like tenures as Initiating Officer (IO) and Reviewing Officer (RO) stints which involve assessing subordinates and are essential to career progression. He would also probably miss the chance to command a flying squadron, again which is a critical element to career progression. Of course, a temporarily medically downgraded F(P) officer, unfit for flying duties, could be utilised gainfully in SSM/SAM/RPA tenures. However, fully fit F(P) officers would find such a tenure undesirable as there was nothing to gain from such a tenure and a lot to lose. Thus, one can safely assume that no pilot would willingly volunteer to go into SSM/SAM/RPA streams under normal circumstances unless he had a compassionate ground family reason to be posted in a particular place where such a squadron was located.
This arrangement is also not beneficial to the SSM/SAM/RPA squadrons as, in all probability, the officers who get side-stepped into these streams are the ones located in the lower ranges of assessments by their superiors during recent years. Thus, these streams are not getting the cream of the F(P) branch officers. The IAF thus stands to benefit hugely by way of willing, professional and dedicated officers from an organic branch devoted to these streams in contrast to F(P) officers who see no career progression in these streams.
Administration Branch Officers
In addition to F(P) officers, some Administration (ADM) branch officers are also being sent to RPA streams for operational duties and a similar career damper occurs for them too as, after RPA tenures they return to their parent branch duties some day to compete with their course mates/compatriots in their primary branch duties. During the initial years after induction of RPAs more than a decade ago, the ADM officers could theoretically command RPA units. However, later changes in policy stipulated that only F(P) officers could command an RPA unit or be a Flight Commander (second in command) thus removing Adm officers from contention. Until the output of WS branch officers from training establishments is adequate, some Adm branch officers will continue to work in the RPA stream.
The issue of inter se career progression within the four sub-branches and within the bifurcated RPA sub-branch is one of disparate and unequal job descriptions with dissimilar career progressions and disparate levels of rewards.
An even more important issue is that the branch is being hailed as an ‘operational branch’ and so there is a question about whether its officers would be treated at par with those of the Flying branch – the other operational branch. If so, they would expect that they rise up the operational ladder, their command tenures of SSM/SAM/RPA squadrons are treated at par with command of operational flying squadrons and they are allowed to command operational stations including, by dint of their being operational officers, flying stations with fighters based on them. In the context of the IAF, this appears a bit farfetched as it has never been able to accept even its transport and helicopter stream pilots as fit to command fighter bases, a state of affairs considered unfair by many besides this situation being a loss to the IAF.
There is another issue too of whether an Air Marshal of the WS branch which is planned to be headed by an Air Marshal, would be considered operational enough to be an Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of an operational command and maybe become the CAS some day. It may be mentioned here that only one non-fighter pilot has been the Chief of Air Staff in the IAF’s history.
There is also a similar interrogation mark over lower ranks than an Air Marshal. If the WS organisation has one Air Marshal, it would be reasonable to assume that there would be at least three Air Vice Marshals, nine Air Commodores and a proportionate number of officers down the pyramidical chain. Would personnel policies of the IAF be tailored to consider them suitable for command of prestigious fighter bases? While the SSM/SAM fleets would probably never acquire a very high status, the WSO and the RPA streams could, especially if the RPA force moves on from mere surveillance and recce roles to acquire new platforms with offensive roles such as the MQ-9B currently in the pipeline. With passage of time, the branch may approach parity with the F(P) branch.
F(P) officers side stepped to SSM/SAM/RPA streams are entitled to flying pay as part of their compensation package, even during their non-flying tenures. As and when WS branch officers start replacing them, this could become a point to ponder over. It would be now an expectation of the WS branch officers that they too get a similar allowance especially as there is evident risk in the jobs, high stress levels associated with it and high cost of error as was evident in the BrahMos misfiring and the Mi-17V5 getting shot down. Indeed, a case could be made out for a monetary compensation for all officers of the branch because of these reasons.
While the CAS address and the MOD press release listed the four streams or sub-branches of the WS branch, there are some grey areas. It is not clear as to whether an officer of the WS branch will be trained in all streams or be super specialist in one of the streams. Or would he train initially for one sub-branch only but later, at some stage undergo cross training for other sub-branches if his career is to progress in the WS branch? It is understood that the RPA stream is going to have two sub-streams as planned: WS (I) for Imagery Analysts and WS (R) for Mission Command. While the latter job description is ‘operational’ and the WS (R) officers could aspire to be IOs/ROs and hold command positions, the former are destined to remain a little less among equals.
Introduction of the new branch appears to have been well received by serving and retired IAF officers, but there would, no doubt, be some teething troubles. It will take around two decades more for home grown WS branch officers to ascend to all the incumbencies envisaged for it. The tangible benefits from the introduction of the new branch are evident. Trained pilots from operational squadrons are being loaned out for long tenures of three to five years to SSMs/ SAMs/ RPAs. As they know they are in non-flying tenures only temporarily, for many of them, interest in those tenures is less than whole hearted. Also, on return to their flying duties, they would take some more time to get current with their flying jobs. Moreover, the training they have been given for the WS branch tasks would be forgotten during the next few years. Through the simple process of WS branch officers coming in, all these problems are set to disappear over the next few years. The pilots being produced by the IAF’s training machinery would now be available to feed into the squadrons and the shortfall of pilots of around 400 currently, would slowly be remedied in the future.
No doubt there will be some problems related to changed management as the introduction of a new branch is a giant step. However, the IAF has shown great strength and resilience in managing other changes in the past and will most certainly harness this change to prepare itself better for future conflicts.