RIGHT ANGLE – Beyond Service Parochialism
The government is reportedly going to appoint a national maritime security coordinator (NMSC) to advise on matters relating to the maritime security domain. It is a welcome measure, given the importance of the seas in India’s projection of power and promotion of its vital economic interests.
Admittedly, the Modi government has made some notable changes in India’s military sphere. It has taken steps such as creating the post of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and encouraging the private sector to enter the field of arms-production.
In today’s global geopolitics that is marked by competitions over technology, connectivity and trade on the one hand and globalisation or inter-dependence among nations on the other, India’s security-landscape looks very different than what was in the past. Apart from the importance of the US, Russia and China in our traditional strategic calculus, there are now new developments such as the rediscovery of Europe; reassertion of Japan; rise of the Indo-Pacific nations like Australia, Japan, South Korea and ASEAN countries; and increasing relevance of Africa, South America, Central Asia and West Asia. The global commons is now more in disputation. Even climate change is a factor. In short, change is upon us as never before.
Against this background, the scale and intensity of India’s global engagement is going to be vastly different than what it was before. We, therefore, have to take hard and pragmatic decisions so that while ensuring our territorial integrity, we will also project the “Indian power” outside.
The creation of the CDS or the plans to have integrated theatre commands or the decision to have a NMSC need to be seen the above context. But all this will show results when our senior military personnel change their traditional mindsets and do not think in terms of the ethos of their respective services. But sadly that is not happening.
The open row that broke out on July 2 during an online seminar in Delhi between Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen Bipin Rawat and Air Chief Marshal (ACM) R.K.S. Bhadauria over the role of the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the planned theaterisation of joint commands was clearly avoidable.
Apparently, while explaining how IAF was not just responsible for air defence, the CDS said: “Do not forget that the Air Force continues to remain a supporting arm (emphasis added) to the armed forces just as the artillery or engineer supports the combatant arms in the Army. They will be a supporting arm and they have air defence charter and supporting the ground forces in times of war. This is a basic charter that they will have to understand”.
If anything, this exposed General Rawat’s inadequate understanding of the nature of the modern Air Force.
ACM Bhadauria was right when he said that “Air power has a huge role to play in any of the integrated battle areas. It is not an issue of support alone. And there are a whole lot of things that go into any air plan that is made.”
Has CDS Rawat’s Army background clouded his judgment on the role of the IAF? After all, the military mindset in India has been dominated by the idea that the Army is the paramount military force of the country. Nothing can be farther from the truth.
Globally speaking, the Army-centric mindset started changing after the spectacular success of the US Air Force in what was called Operation DESERT STORM in 1991. It was watershed moment in thinking about air power everywhere in the world, including India. The IAF brought out its first “Air Power Doctrine” in 1995, dealing with “the the theory of war, characteristics of air power and its relationship with strategy, various air campaigns, combat support operations and aspects related to prosecuting an air war”. Its latest version was published in 2012.
This doctrine makes it obvious that the IAF cannot be limited to its prowess in only safeguarding the Indian skies. Its “vision” is “to acquire strategic reach and capabilities across the spectrum of conflict that serve the ends of military diplomacy, nation building and enable force projection within India’s strategic area of influence”.
Obviously, the IAF aims at being potent enough to manifest power outside the borders of India, which is a strategic goal, distinct from the operational or tactical roles of defending the nation from the enemies along with the Army and Navy.
The doctrine makes a clear difference between being the Air “force” to assert India’s airpower and Air “Arm” of the Army, Navy or for that matter the paramilitary forces. Exercising Air Power is a strategic choice that India can make when the IAF has the ability to create strategic outcomes without transiting territories on ground. Air power can also decisively interfere with enemy land and sea operations without the reverse being true.
This happened, for instance, during the Balakot-strikes in 2019 wherein the IAF hit the targets within Pakistan without reciprocal damage.
What is equally noteworthy is that the IAF doctrine repeatedly mentions of “air and space power”. The doctrine is not talking of “air power” in isolation of “space power”. To quote it, “Air power, in a classic sense is defined as the total ability of a nation to assert its will through the medium of air. It includes both civil and military aviation, existing and potential. In the modern sense, air power which has evolved into aerospace power is defined as the product of aerospace capability and aerospace doctrine…. Aviation related research and development as also industrial capabilities have a force multiplier effect. Space capabilities further add to the above to enhance the aerospace power of the nation”.
The doctrine talks of new areas of warfare following the ever going revolution in military affairs (RMA) such as electronic warfare, information warfare and cyber warfare. It says that thanks to the “evolutionary revolution”, the air power of a country is no longer seen in isolation; it now is reflected in the combination of “Air, Space, and Cyber Power Capabilities”.
Thus, at a time when the concept of air power has been continually, at times rapidly, evolving to an extent that some analysts have coined a term, ‘evolutionary revolution’, to reduce IAF’s role to be a supporting arm of the Army, something CDS Rawat said obviously hurts the sense of pride among the IAF officials.
This “vision-differences” among our three services explain perhaps why the planned theatresisation is proving problematic. This is something that the CDS alone cannot solve and needs political intervention form the Defence Minister and the Prime Minister.