Immediately after the Prime Minister had announced the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff in 2019, we at BharatShakti.in had published three articles by RAdm Sudarshan Shrikhande (Retd) looking ahead at what shape the higher defence reform process could take. Nearly two years down the line, these thoughts remain relevant and provide food for thought. Here’s the third of the three-part series we are reposting.
This article is the third in a series after the August 2019 announcement creating a CDS and joint commands. It makes a stout case for an Air Force Command that comprehensively uses airpower for much more than air defence as currently seems to be the intent. However, the arguments it makes are somewhat different from those that are doing the rounds. One could begin by saying that a statement, “I believe in theatre command-India is one theatre” (the epigraph of a paper with an equally catchy title “Achieving Jointness in War: One Theatre, One Strategy”) needs careful examination because it comes from a former Service Chief.
India’s Geo-Strategic Environment is Not Unique
Our need for theaterisation, driven by the inescapable efficiencies via integration as input and jointness as a war-fighting output, maybe different in detail but is in no way fundamentally unique. There have been -and there still are – several nations with a geostrategic environment principally similar to India’s. These similarities deal with internal lines and strategic-operational geography; two or multiple-front concerns and complications; several bordering/ neighbouring nations; access to the sea, etc. In almost all cases, there are additional “fronts,” not territorially contiguous, but across the seas. For some, there may be internal security issues that are virtually fronts by themselves, requiring their own strategic planning, execution and jointness. Relatively recent examples are Germany in both World Wars; Israel since 1948; USSR from 1937-1945 (Japan in Manchuria; Finland and of course, Nazi Germany); Vietnam from 1978-end 1980s (Cambodia and China); and, China from 1949 at least.
All these nations have had multiple theatres that required different strategies and in turn, the need to further organise themselves into several commands. The notion that a nation was one theatre that needed one strategy (even for the use of airpower) would seem illogical to them. Even a country as small as Israel and with serious problems of lack of geostrategic depth thinks otherwise. In its current reorganization/modernization/ enhanced jointness efforts under the ‘Gideon’ and ‘IDF 2030’ and a more recent update of the ‘Tanova’ Plans. (To quote the essence: ‘It calls for the IDF to be “prepared and ready to rapidly deploy its forces from the air, sea, ground and cyber domains against any adversary, and to be preeminent in all modes of conflict and decisive in war.”’)
China’s geo-strategic environment is today the closest to our own. It has several neighbours. Among them are large, continental adversaries like India, a former adversary but current friend and likely future foe, Russia; a few friends who remain chary; a maritime front with an unfriendly first and second island chain; and very wary maritime neighbours like Japan and Taiwan. Then there is the US which is a treaty ally of a few neighbours, has problems of its own with China and someone Beijing hopes to displace from its eminence. Two of its adversaries have nuclear weapons (US and India) as do its partners in proliferation, North Korea and Pakistan. There also is Russia: a major nuclear power and current friend.
In short, it is as complex a strategic tapestry as is for India. The Chinese transition to jointness and its theaterisation needs more careful study in India. The US model of theatres across the globe since WW2 is less suitable because of different geostrategic dimensions and command and control framework that continued into NATO, CENTO as well as in the Pacific.
Yet, the further point of this discussion is that a country as small as Israel – or a geographically larger and in its days, a great power such as Germany in both World Wars, the Soviet Union in WW 2, and China today – all have multi-front, multi-theatre problems. These require some kind of central, integrated command and control for the armed forces as a combined instrument of state and an arrangement of joint combat and functional commands for warfighting.
India’s situation is simply not unique. Therefore, forced comparisons that show how small India’s relative strategic geographies are compared to the WW2 China-Burma-India Theatre as have been made in the One Theatre, One Strategy paper or today’s US Indo-Pacific Command, do not strategically or historically negate the need for India to consider multiple theatres with different strategies. In fact, over-simplification – no matter how catchy – will ill-serve what is a strong case for an airpower command.
Air Power is Much More than Air Defence (or Manned Fighters)
Media has reported that the Chief of Defence Staff announced the intention of creating a so-called Peninsula Command as well as a joint Air-Defence (AD) Command. Readers may recall suggestions on the framework, nomenclature and functions of a maritime-oriented “Southern” Command in the second article. Purportedly, the AD Command would be tri-service with missiles of the Army and the Indian Navy part of the scheme. Several useful and a few clichéd arguments have been made saying that an AD Command would be a self-limiting and sub-optimal use of the IAF. It may not quite unfold that way because air power would be used offensively at theatre levels. But, there are more important issues here and learning from others’ experience might be a good thing.
In 1941, just after the Nazi invasion of the USSR, the Russian high command (the Stavka) created a few expanded air defence commands which were separate from the bomber (long-range) and “frontal” air forces. In 1949 it became an almost independent service known in Russian as “PVO Strany” or Air Defence Forces of the Nation. In 1954, they finally created an independent service at par with the others in what was called the Red Army (similar to the PLA) under its own Marshal. An IAF veteran and internationally known authority on air power wrote, that by 1962 the PVO Strany had over 4000 fighter aircraft and 1200 SAM sites of its own. By 1977, all fighters were absorbed into the Soviet Air Force leaving it with just SAMs including BMD assets. The formal merger of the Air Defence Forces with the Air Force happened on 1 January 1999 and as this veteran observed in his doctoral thesis: “The integration… was a complex and time-consuming process…because of differences in the command and control structure…The unification however eliminated a number of overlapping systems and streamlined the air–defence command and control structure thereby optimising efficiency…This move was also a result of close scrutiny of operations in the Gulf War.” (p 286)
Another country that set up an AD Command and a separate AD Force was Egypt. It happened after the 1967 war in which they lost a lot of aircraft on the ground. “As they prepared for the Oct 1973 war…they realized that they had to find an effective answer to Israeli air supremacy: otherwise, there would be no point in launching a war.” (Herzog, 307). The Soviets helped create an elaborate layered network of SAMs and AD Arty that claimed several Israeli strike aircraft in the initial stages. Where the rigidity of the system became a problem was in the flexibility it lacked to provide battlefield air defence for the considerable advance made by their army in the first few days and then to defend them against the resurgent Israeli Defence Forces- (Chaim Herzog; The Arab-Israeli Wars, 301-314).
It brings us to two, somewhat contradictory, aspects. One, that centralised resources bring advantages but also militate against the rapidity of decision-making and tactical agility required. In a sense, the concentration of resources (as in an Indian AD Command) is not the same as the principles of concentration of force, the economy of effort, and flexibility. Two, the creation of an AD Command is not a great idea and we do not have to put ourselves through the travails of discovering this anew. That ground has been trodden.
This is not to say that national air defence is not important. It is and remains the IAF’s overall responsibility. Battlefield AD is very crucial at the level of engaged forces as well as the larger protection of VAs (Valuable Areas and Assets) not only along the fronts but in the hinterland as well. What is far more necessary for national AD that includes ballistic missile defences (BMD) is the way in which the nation-wide networks are designed, controlled in a coordinated manner. Yet, command that rapidly allocates vectors to targets and executes AD could be decentralized. To emphasise, the networks are more important than a national functional AD Command.
What of jointness? As the primary provider of national AD cover, the IAF’s inputs provide joint outputs to other services and commands, where required, including for naval operations closer to coasts. However, there is little meaning in symbolic jointness as seems to have been conveyed in media. How can the Indian Navy’s AD (i.e., SAMs and guns on ships) really be integrated with that of the IAF or the Indian Army’s except in a very perfunctory way?
A final thought on the proposed AD Command. Is it one way of ensuring that the IAF “gets” one theatre command, albeit a functional ‘theatre” like the AD Command? It is possible that it might be an unstated consideration and if so, clearly not the best way to do it in the face of more compelling rationale. It seems that some other proposals for theaterisation do not envisage an IAF theatre commander or even the need for an AD Command. It may be of interest for readers to know that in the US distribution of multiple theatre and functional commands, the USAF has generally averaged higher percentages of such leadership. Here is a table that explains it:
There are a few interesting inferences that could be drawn from a reading of the article carrying the table:
- Turf issues underlined much of the decision making. The US Navy maneuvered to keep the US Marine Corps out of such CINC and command positions until the Goldwater-Nicholls Act 1986 kicked in.
- The slow induction of CINCs from USMC impacted to some extent the Army percentages being seen as a second ground and expeditionary force.
- The USAF’s leadership contribution remained on the higher side through all the periods that the author trifurcates his data, eclipsed only when the Sea-Services, i.e., USN and USMC are considered together. (An interesting aside is that these two services contributed more than twice the number of astronauts compared to the USAF. Neil Armstrong was a naval aviator!)
Airpower and the IAF have so much actually going for it. One would suggest that a changed rationale would help, not harm, the centrality of airpower to much of India’s joint strategic consideration. For this, the hyperbole of this or that fighter being a “game-changer” may be reconsidered. Other services also often have similar issues with the “next acquisition” pushed as the true game-changer. Rarely are platforms, weapons or sensors game-changers by themselves. If they are disruptively leveraged jointly with other instruments, doctrines for usage, ranged imaginatively and as part of strategies worked out as carefully as possible, they could sometimes be game-changers. New and modernised acquisitions perhaps help one side play yesterday’s game much better or today’s game a little better.
Two questions, if considered professionally, could provide answers to each Service singly or the forces jointly for future force planning and restructuring that might be the actual game-changers. First, is it possible to define what the current game is? How is a particular platform-system going to change the “rules” of the game instead of merely playing it better within the current “rules”? A third question is, would adversaries and friends be thinking and acting faster on changing the game in such a way that the other side plays to a new set of rules while we play by the old “rules”?
By over-emphasising fighter acquisition issues and the 42 combat squadrons target, the IAF has probably short-sold itself (at least in the public perception). A changed narrative of the way air warfare is evolving with a thrust on ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Recce), airlift, air- to- air refuelling and above all what unmanned capabilities across a range of important functions, including BAI and BAS, will slowly but surely bring to the arsenal, that is airpower. Some strategic thinkers like the late Colin Gray (Airpower for Strategic Effect, Maxwell) have logically conveyed these attributes of airpower while cautioning about the ultimate disadvantages of hyperbole.
Lastly, using jaded examples like the 1971 Tangail para drop or to argue along the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” positions should be rested. All Services need to look ahead rather than astern. Airpower is vital, but airpower ought to change at a pace that creates “discomfort” to ourselves and consequently to adversaries if it is to change the rules of the game. Airpower ought to be a central instrument.
How About an Airpower Command?
Thus, a central recommendation that should be considered is to create a Central Command for airpower instead of a restrictive AD Command. The rationale for nomenclature is in line with the anodyne and flexible suggestion for the Peninsula/ Maritime/Oceanic Command as the simpler Southern Command made earlier. In thinking about this proposal, a few aspects may be significant for the framework:
- There is much sense to the need for the indivisibility of airpower but not to the extent some have argued. A small number of combat and logistics assets could conceivably be assigned to other theatre commanders which might be so actively engaged nearly 24/7, or whose capabilities might limit their swing roles to other theatres. After all, crew training and briefings do require constant theatre familiarity and operations. That the IAF has for decades assigned assets to its own geographic CINCs for administration, maintenance and operations are based on these realities. The ability to swing is important enough without the need for over-stating it. In any case, all services have swing roles; it’s just that the speed of executing the “swing” differs. This is not a facetious argument.
- On its part, the Army needs to better distinguish between the pressure for ownership of assets and the nuances of command and control. Ownership is an attribute of lesser significance, and while command and control may often be said in the same breath, they are not the same or joined at the hip.
- Airpower, or sea power or any other dimension of power is never axiomatically “strategic” or “offensive.” Any instrument is strategic only in so far as its actions at the tactical and operational levels help achieve the objectives of the strategy, usually in concert with – and often as a consequence of – other instruments aiding in these attainments.
Finally, a few thoughts on broader points that have been mentioned in my earlier submissions and which I may elaborate in subsequent articles, are enumerated here along with some additional issues that are under discussion these days:
- The CDS should evolve into Chief of Defence Force (CDF) not in name necessarily but in function. He remains the principal (and not the ‘single-point’) military adviser to the Defence Minister and the political leadership. The other Service Chiefs remain advisers and part of the important COSC with indirect roles and say in the execution of strategies in conflict.
- The Service Chiefs transform into the vital roles of “Raise, Train and Sustain” for their single service for joint outcomes.
- The CDS is assisted by a VCDS (presently CISC) and VCDF. The VCDS could be de jure Secretary of the Department of Military Affairs in due course.
- Keeping in mind the purposes of reorganisation and readjustments of several existing geographic and functional commands, the new theatre CINCs ought to be four-star officers. With the pool of four-star service chiefs, they could form the base from which to appoint a CDS as was suggested earlier.
- Work on the framework for these theatres as well as functional commands could proceed concurrently while avoiding symbolic or shallow jointness and keeping in mind that single- service professionalism and the benefits of single-service cultures matter greatly. It is good to think of jointness as output and integration as an input.
- At any time, it is quite likely that more than one theatre may be engaged in conflict as would be several, if not all functional commands. The notion that is sometimes termed, “one adversary: one theatre” is again no more logical than is the idea of India as one theatre with just one strategy for conflict, or one strategy for using airpower itself.
- As far as can be interpreted, the government’s mandate on joint commands to be facilitated in a three years period not necessarily implying that they need to be up and running in that time. It can be done, of course, but taking a little longer might be better to have the Joint theatre and functional commands in place and running at the end of the second CDS’ tenure, i.e., a six years period (as suggested in the first article on the issues we are now studying).
In conclusion, it would be quite beneficial to reorganise and employ airpower in fulfilment of varying theatre strategies by forging a Central (Air Power) Command instead of an Air Defence Command according to the outline proposed above.
Rear Admiral Sudarshan Y Shrikhande, IN (Retd)
This article first appeared on 10 August, 2020, at bharatshakti.in