Through the prism of air power

Standing on parade alongside the commanding officer of 30 Squadron of the Indian Air Force (IAF) as the President of India presented colours to the accomplished Su-30 MKI squadron on November 10 at Air Force Station Ambala, one could not but reflect on the multiple competencies that the IAF has to offer to practitioners of statecraft. It is a no-brainer to suggest that there have been momentous changes in the nature of warfare over the last couple of decades — hybrid warfare, sub-conventional warfare and proxy war are the flavour of the day and armed forces across the world have struggled to keep pace with these changes. It is quite evident that the West has all but written off large-scale conventional conflict between nation states, barring the possibility of a confrontation between an existing and emerging superpower in the years ahead, and restructured their armed forces accordingly.

India has no such luxury considering that it has “live and active borders and seas” on multiple fronts. All three arms of its armed forces have adapted to these changes in different ways by building diverse capabilities at the lower end of the spectrum of conflict while retaining adequate conventional capability. Over the last few years, the IAF has extensively articulated what it calls full-spectrum capability by optimising roles and missions and platforms to concurrently suit the requirements of war fighting and statecraft.

A transformation with flexibility

In order to further understand the IAF through the prism of air power, it is important to dispel a few myths that have crept into the Indian discourse on air power. The four most widely propagated ones are that air power is only associated with offensive air action; that it is always escalatory; that it is most effective only in conventional warfare; and lastly, that it seeks to influence the environment on its own and operate in isolation. Nothing can be further from the truth as calibrated use of offensive air power in recent decades has often had a de-escalatory impact, particularly in our own neighbourhood and at levels of joint operations well below conventional levels. The Kargil war of 1999 is a classic example of air power acting as a critical de-escalatory and conflict termination tool. Similarly, the war on the Islamic State and al-Qaeda has been rather effectively led by air power; albeit with an increasingly clear understanding that air power has to be followed with “boots on ground” for any chances of conflict termination and resolution, and recognition that collateral is a distinct possibility. Most important from an Indian perspective is that the IAF has transformed itself in recent years as a vital cog in joint operations with the capability to influence, enable, and support multispectral operations on land, in the air, at sea and increasingly, in space. It is this flexibility that has made the IAF among the few air forces that has the ability to act as a critical tool and enabler of statecraft and it must be increasingly seen as so.

Let us look at this multispectral capability through the prism of some of the key platforms in the IAF. Within the ambit of a six to eight hour period, sustained by aerial refuelling and enabled by airborne warning and control system and robust data links, the Su-30 can attack strategic targets deep inside enemy territory, shape the tactical battle area to enable smooth-flowing armoured operations on the ground, and then protect critical airspace, all in the span of one mission. It can replicate such missions over the ocean too. In low spectrum operations, it has the capability to conduct both intrusive and non-intrusive surgical strikes against low visibility targets independently or in conjunction with special forces and supported by remotely piloted aircraft; it has the capability to discriminate and take out targets in an urban environment, if supported by real-time intelligence, and much more. The Su-30 has operational reconnaissance capability and has even been used in disaster relief situations in terms of looking for aircraft wreckage in inaccessible jungle terrain with its synthetic aperture radar.

Capability across the spectrum

What about the game changers of recent times, the IAF’s heavy lift C-17 aircraft, the versatile Mi-17 V5 helicopters, and the ubiquitous C-130 J aircraft that have given teeth to India’s special operations capability? One of the biggest challenges for the IAF’s transport and helicopter fleets in recent times was the sustenance of the Indian Army in Siachen, Ladakh and vast tracts of Arunachal Pradesh and other insurgency affected areas of the North East. With the induction of the C-17s and Mi-17 V5s, not only have all records of air maintenance been broken in the current year but there is adequate residual capacity to take on much more including humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions anywhere in India’s areas of influence and interest. All these capabilities will further be enhanced in the years ahead with the induction of the Rafale, Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, the Chinook heavy lift and multipurpose helicopters and the lethal Apache attack helicopters.

From a statecraft point of view, the IAF, with its flexibility and versatility, has varied options to offer policymakers ranging from coercion, deterrence, signalling, extending influence and providing succour and relief. It is committed to joint operations, creating synergies and offering its competencies to all stakeholders, and all that is needed to leverage its capabilities is a clear understanding of what it can and cannot do; in peace, in “no peace-no war” situations, in hybrid and proxy wars and during calamities; pretty much across the spectrum of statecraft, and not just the “spectrum of conflict”.

Air Vice-Marshal Arjun Subramaniam is Commodore Commandant of No. 30 Squadron IAF, faculty member at the National Defence College and author of ‘India’s Wars: A Military History, 1947-1971’.

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Printable version | Feb 25, 2021 9:00:41 PM |

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