Military & Aerospace

Evolution of Air Power Thought in India
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Issue Book Excerpt: Indian Air Force in Wars | Date : 20 Feb , 2016

Strength reinforced by stratagem will surely do much. What, indeed, cannot be accomplished by a combination of my physical strength, Krishna’s wisdom and Arjun’s dexterity?   — Bhima in the Mahabharat 

Understanding Air Power in India can be best appreciated if we review the IAF’s evolution, especially in the earlier decades and its resultant impact on the intellectual thought process on the IAF leadership, as well as the civil decision makers. The primary role of the IAF was ‘Army Co-operation’ and it was placed under the command of the C-in-C of India, invariably an Army man. Army
co-operation entailed mainly visual reconnaissance, message dropping to forward troops and providing fire support to the ground troops, if and when asked for. Dedicated fire support was provided by the RAF Squadrons most of the time. The IAF Squadrons commanded by the RAF officers also provided fire support.

The IAF’s roles remained the same during the Burma Campaign in World War II. Winning of control of air, Interdiction of enemy’s war waging potential and infrastructure, air defence of own important areas and the air transport support roles remained the exclusive preserve of the RAF and the 10th USAAF operating in India. At the peak of the Burma Campaign, the RAF and the USAAF had a combined strength of 116 Squadrons of all types. Whereas, the IAF had around 4–5 Squadrons in Burma at a time.

The first batch of Indian officers in the IAF at the end of World War II had reached the ranks of Sqn Ldrs. In the 1947–48 J&K operations, once again the IAF was used only in recce and support roles and limited transport operations. The transport operations under the exceptional leadership of the dauntless Mehar Singh quickly evolved and expanded in demanding roles, which also included bombing by the Dakotas. There was no battle for the control of air. Interdiction in true sense was not permitted. As the nation state of India evolved gradually after World War II, the political leadership exerted a dampening influence on the intellectual growth of Indian military officers. With the withdrawal of most RAF officers in senior positions, the IAF officers were hurriedly promoted to the senior ranks of the IAF hierarchy.

The utopian and idealistic ideas of the political leaders were far from the realities of pragmatic power play. The perpetual contemptuous attitude of Krishna Menon, the Defence Minister, towards senior military officers was a major obstacle to the intellectual growth of the military officers. The supercilious attitude of Nehru and Krishna Menon and their misplaced overconfidence in their ability to tackle China politically alone, left the military leadership in a quandary. This despite the warning by the military leadership about the Chinese intentions well in time and pleading to the government to structure the military force suitably.

In such an environment, the military officers, including the air force leaders, did not find many opportunities to blossom intellectually. However, having evolved from a very narrow and limited role from amongst the wide spectrum of air power capabilities, these leaders needed to be encouraged. These lacunae had its inevitable impact on the growth of the IAF thinking. Air defence concept and its evolution suffered. To make matters even worse, the vast size of India in relation to the minuscule size of the IAF and the detection equipment (radars) available, made even the thought of conceptualizing needed air defence an impossible task. At times, air defence, particularly in relation to Delhi, the capital, was taken to a ridiculous extent. As the Goa operations were launched over 2000 km away from Delhi, the IAF mounted sorties for the air defence of Delhi! No 10 Squadron trained in night air defence, mounted pre-dawn and dusk patrols. No 20 Squadron on Hunters provided Combat Air Patrols by day for Delhi.1

This would come to haunt the Prime Minister during the 1962 War with China, when the phobia of Chinese bombers over Indian cities compelled him and, therefore, the Nation to forgo the use of combat air force. Even though mentally accepting the loss of Assam to the advancing Chinese, the PM would refuse to use the IAF in combat role. It is only post the 1962 debacle that the IAF would be exposed to the requirements of a modern air defence system by the USAF and the RAF in an air defence exercise named “Shiksha” (Learning).

This would lead to the establishment of an air defence system covering few vital areas since the resource crunch would continue to plague the IAF in the decades ahead. This is not to suggest that the IAF had no ideas and plans for air defence in the 1950s. It had, but in bits and pieces lacking coherence as well as any meaningful cover. The IAF had the contemporary air defence fighters. Vampires of No 10 Squadron had airborne intercept radar called A-10 and it was effective for night intercepts. But the ground radar cover being patchy, the directional guidance for the Vampires was poor. Moreover, as an aircraft, the Vampire which had been developed towards the end of World War II was much too slow to catch up with bombers like the Canberra.2

Even after the wars of 1965 and 1971, the evolution of air defence concepts and strategy is debatable. It seems to lack comprehensive solutions to many problems peculiar to the vast and varied terrain of India. Let us for a moment suppose total absence of problems relating to resource provisioning for air defence. Then should the IAF cover the entire air space of India by ground-based radars? Should the IAF deploy radars in the mountaineous terrain, extending along atleast 4500 km of the border in the north and northeast? Can we deploy radars effectively in the middle of thick tropical forests? Can we deploy radars in the marshes and swamps of Kutch, in unbearably hot deserts and over vast areas of Exclusive Economic Zones encompassing 2.2 million sq km of high seas? It would appear that proper cost-benefit analysis in a holistic manner has evaded solutions to air defence requirements for much too long! As India aspires to its area of influence and her interests grow into regional and later global arena and she looks towards Air Expeditionary concept — an undeniable requirement for the future — its policy makers would need to evaluate the air defence issue in a holistic manner.

The problem was deliberated at some length to explain an important point. It has almost been the same with the evolution in the thought processes regarding Interdiction of the enemy; strategic bombing as a main avenue to war winning and a holistic approach to intelligence via air and space reconnaissance. What is paradoxical is that while the PAF operates under the Army Chief, it was given full freedom for professional growth unfettered. On the other hand, while the IAF has been an independent service, the IA tended to view it as under their control and meant only for direct army co-operation role as was the case in past.

One reason attributable for the lack of proper doctrinal development on use of air power was the near absence of any professional courses with more advanced air forces or even within the IAF. Moolgavkar was lucky to be the first officer for Day Fighter Leaders course with the RAF in 1950 — this being an exception. The IAF stopped sending officers for courses abroad. As far as flying operations, the IAF was more of a fair weather air force. The PAF on the other hand benefited immensely with its association with the USAF, a result of Pakistan aligning with USA.

As the years rolled by after the end of the Second World War, the lessons of warfighting learnt with gore and blood were forgotten. In looking back at the events now, it would appear that the leadership in the Army was more responsible for deterioration in integrated use of Army and Air force. For one, the Army Chief Gen Chaudhury, was around ten years senior to Air Chief Arjan Singh. Seniority implies added responsibility along with perks and privileges. Gen Chaudhury and probably many others looked upon the Indian Air Force as a mere appendage to the Indian Army. They considered air strikes as a bonus, hence it was seldom factored in Army plans ab-initio. Planning for the Hyderabad Ops, Goa Ops and the War of 1965 are proof of this (mis)perception.

Gen Chaudhury believed that these above operations were primarily a ground show. He would let the Air Chief know if air force was required. Gen Chaudhury’s younger brother, Hem Chaudhury was in the IAF and had fought in the Burma Campaign as Sqn Ldr. Gen Chaudhury used to fly Auster, an Air OP observation plane. This air exposure and exposure with his younger brother probably made him consider himself a master of air power theory and practice. In the initial period, Jumbo Majumdar and Meher Singh were exceptional leaders in air warfare. However, Majumdar died in an air crash in 1945, and Mehar Singh left the IAF in September 1948. The IAF had few of their stature in the department of doctrinal development and its implementation.

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If 1965 was a learning process for the IAF, though a costly one at that, the 1971 War can be considered a rapid flowering of the IAF to fulfil the demands of that war. In the last 44 years since the 1971 War, technological advancements have enhanced air power capability by leaps and bounds. But this is so only in the air forces that have matched doctrinal development with technological breakthroughs in the demanding school of realistic training and refinement. That the erstwhile Soviet air power failed to live up to its super power reputation in Afghanistan and in Chechnya is a clear indication of the lack of doctrinal development.

While the IAF advances along the path of actualization of air power potential, it constantly needs to remember the wide spectrum of conflict against which it must apply itself. Influencing counter insurgency operations, countering the proxy war in J&K are as important, if not more, than being ready to face conventional threats. While the size of the target in future diminishes, the target identity gets diffused and its precise location fluid due to mobility, the IAF must learn to harness all agencies — from Humint on ground to exotic space assets and others — all in a holistic manner, matched like the pieces of an arranged jig-saw puzzle. This will be the challenge to its doctrinal development.

“The only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get an old one out.”   — Liddell Hart


1. Vayu 11/94 – “Facets of the IAF” – Air Mshl Shiv Dev Singh pp 29-32.

2. Interview with Air Chief Marshal (Retd) H Moolgavkar.

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