| From air to ground
Nothing could have painted a clearer security picture of our neighbourhood than three prominent news items on the same day in one national daily ' 'Osama plotted to nuke US with AQ help', 'India surrounded by failed states', and 'In Tripura militancy is a cottage industry'. If these were not enough food for thought for our security planners one more was added ' 'IAF in dogfight with Army over helicopters'. The irony is stark. Sitting in a dangerous security environment with the probable mix of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, our armed forces have the luxury to indulge in their own turf battles, our defence ministry humours them and our legislature has no grander horizon than scoring partisan debating points.
Differences within the armed forces, especially in relation to respective roles and missions, should theoretically have been silenced after Kargil. This has not happened because there is neither continuity in our national security policymaking nor any legislative authority directing the framework within which the three services must function. Not surprisingly, one of the most crucial recommendations of the group of ministers, pertaining to appointment of a chief of defence staff, still remains unimplemented due to lack of political will.
Army aviation is as good a subject as any to understand the dynamics of inter-service turf battles. The army's justification for aerial platforms originated with the need to improve the accuracy of their long-range artillery fire. Hence the need to put artillery officers on elevated platforms. Initially, their officers flying Indian Air Force helicopters achieved this operational need. Soon the desire to own the helicopters gained ground and in the mid-Eighties, the army won the battle with the IAF and the Air Observation Post helicopters were transferred to them.
Having got its own air arm, the army continued encroaching into IAF mission areas of communication, casualty evacuation, tactical reconnaissance, attack and so on, even as modern technology had rendered the old concept of artillery observation obsolete. The Kargil review committee report brought out that the army was carrying out tactical reconnaissance from helicopters with hand-held cameras. The KRC is silent on why the army chose this archaic method instead of asking the IAF, whose legitimate responsibility this was. So while state-of-the-art reconnaissance capability was idling at IAF bases, it was shepherds who alerted the army. This rivalry resulted in a war costing us some five hundred lives.
Today the army wants to expand its aviation to encompass attack helicopters, mobility, communications, heavy lift, reconnaissance and surveillance. Indeed an article in a respected aerospace journal authored by a senior retired general makes a case for the army taking over the close air support role from the IAF. Taken to its conclusion, such logic would imply that the army should take over responsibility of the battlefield air space, all the heavy troop airlift requirements and the many other tasks for which it depends on the IAF. This mindset rewinds the debate back to the history of airpower. The debate into whether air power should constitute a separate arm was conclusively settled because of the recognition that air power was unique and needed an independent status through a formal organizational change. It is strange that while world militaries have today graduated from the concept of integrated warfare to a higher plane of interdependent warfare, our militaries want to march back into history.
The army's concerns do not stand operational scrutiny. During the Indian Peace-Keeping Force operations, the army and IAF operated in some of the most trying conditions in a non-conventional war. While IAF aircraft ferried troops, the IAF helicopters were integral to the ground operations including providing fire support. This writer, in charge of operations in Air HQ at the time, visited the operational areas and could see that, given a free hand at the tactical level, commanders faced with common military objectives were instinctively evolving the best command, control and operational solutions. Two decades later, after the recent Gulf wars, Western analysts are dubbing a similar concept 'effect based operations' where the higher levels determine the effect to be created leaving the 'how' to the lower formations.
Yet this major lesson has not been imbibed in our doctrines and war colleges. By not recognizing its value we have failed to put IAF helicopters to effective use in the decade and a half of low intensity conflict in Jammu and Kashmir.
It speaks poorly of inter-service cooperation and the understanding of air power that the army has failed to understand the need to neutralize enemy air power to enable unhindered surface operations by surface forces. The army continues to view this as the IAF fighting its own war. While one can understand the frustration of an infantry soldier in a bunker, not getting air support the moment he needs it, commanders at higher levels are expected to think out of the bunker.
It is now known that in 1971, the three services planned jointly for the Bangladesh operations. The plan ensured that the IAF was given the time and opportunity to neutralize the Pakistan Air Force in the initial stages, thus allowing the army complete freedom to operate in the most difficult of terrains. The IAF was then available to support the ground forces. True to this lesson, the two Gulf wars were pre-planned in a way that allowed air power to soften the enemy so that it virtually handed victory on a platter to the surface forces. It is ironical that in this and the IPKF case, Western militaries are now revalidating lessons that we learnt decades ago and should have institutionalized.
According to analysts, what the Gulf wars have validated is not that air power in itself is supreme (and this the IAF must also note), but that within the spirit of jointness it is the integrator through which synergy can be achieved. This is the lesson that the Indian security-planners need to understand. To be fair to the IAF, it has always been deeply conscious of the concept of jointness. It has always maintained an element of its respective operational command headquarters with each of its sister army and navy command HQs. These advanced HQs under 'two star' ranks facilitate availability of air power inputs for integrated planning to army and navy commanders. Regrettably, at least in this writer's experience, their usefulness to the host commands was limited primarily to golfing foursomes and ceremonials.
This is sad when the nation is faced with security crises of unknown dimensions. The Indian security establishment cannot close its eyes to modern warfare as it is evolving and the primacy of air power within it. Today the Indian army has under its operational control surface-to-surface missiles at one end of the strategic spectrum, and the Rashtriya and Assam Rifles dealing with counter-insurgency and urban operations on the other. It further wants to take on roles that for reasons of professionalism and efficiency are best left to the IAF. Already it is reeling under diverse pressures and can at best perform in a mediocre fashion. In our present security scenario, mediocrity is not an option.
Earlier in these columns, in the context of the acquisition of more fighters by the IAF, this writer had suggested applying tools of operational research and analysis rather than subjectivity before arriving at operational and acquisition solutions. A similar exercise needs to be applied to the total concept of army aviation. Having spent more than ten years in planning within the air force, this writer believes that the costs of maintaining a relatively small force of even 200-300 helicopters separately (with their huge supporting and infrastructure costs) in our economic climate cannot be justified except on operational considerations ' and prima facie these are missing. Only scientific and analytical studies can bring out the pros and cons of various options.
Let such crucial decisions be subjected to these studies as the nation has a right to expect the best operational and affordable solutions shorn of partisanship. If the exercise validates the army's claims, only then must it be supported.
The nation is facing security challenges of not only a greater magnitude, but of a variety not thought of a few years ago. Technology, weapon systems and information are revolutionizing the way wars are being fought. Within this dynamic environment, inter-service turf wars, which are a part of history, will remain and it is no use pretending that these will go away. Recognizing these challenges, the US legislated the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, which became the framework for future joint integration within the US armed forces.
It is time our legislature stepped in and introduced a law mandating roles and missions of the three armed forces and institutionalizing jointmanship. Such a landmark legislation will permit the services to plan and train for the huge security challenges that confront us without having to look over their shoulders for the petty enmities within. Sitting, as we are, astride nuclear weapon states and within the ambit of international terrorism, anything less will be abdicating legislative responsibility.