| Not aiming high enough
The recently concluded joint India-US air force exercise at Kalaikunda air base in West Bengal drew public attention not for its far-reaching tactical and strategic implications but for the rather farcical opposition to it by none other than a dispensation that supports the government at the Centre. It is another matter that television footage showed protesters actually dumping their banners and rushing to relish the spectacle of the world's most advanced and potent airborne weapon systems. In some ways this reflects the dilemma that envelops our approach to national security: whether to remain steadfast with old thoughts and structures or change with technology and times to face emerging security challenges.
Learning from lessons of recent conflicts, Western militaries are now agreed that air power with its qualities of speed, mobility and flexibility provides far greater strategic options than any other form of military power. With rapid worldwide deployability that air forces afford, airpower has come to be accepted as the instrument chosen to be the leading force at the commencement of an operation. Establishing its presence after deployment is, however, contingent on infrastructural support on the ground in the form of airfields and consumables like fuel. It is in such areas as well as in operational procedures, tactics and inter-operability of communication and other systems that air forces aspiring to evolve a joint capability need to synergize. It is along this path that the Indian and American air forces are moving with their progression of joint exercises. The vice-commander of the US Pacific Forces commented on cessation of the exercise that it was not the US against India, but an exercise on how to operate together.
It is commonplace today to read about the so-called 'revolution in military affairs', which implies the innovative application of technologies alongside new operational concepts and doctrines to change the character and conduct of war. Implicit in this change are aspects of how the entire military command and control structure is reorganized, how information flow is organized up and down this chain of command, how well integrated are the three wings of the armed forces, at what levels operational authority rests and how the integrated battle is planned and executed.
These factors assume even greater significance since India is now a nuclear weapons power and any war, howsoever limited it may be, will be under the shadow of a nuclear overhang. This, in turn, compels escalation to be both controlled and measured in a manner that takes into account perceptions of the adversary, which may or may not be rational in our way of thinking. In some ways, even the local battlefield is now no more divorced from the highest echelons of national security decision-making. That is why, this time around the USAF contingent was accompanied by its Airborne Early Warning and Control Aircraft E3A Sentry, which to some degree centralizes command and control of the tactical air space while relaying the tactical air situation to higher command levels. In a war scenario, this will be just one element of the information network feeding into the overall command and control matrix.
So far the Indian army, navy and air force have been exercising with their American counterparts separately, in order to streamline procedures and tactics and to understand each other's military cultures and ethos. As the scope of such exercises widens and begins to involve the other services within an integrated operational framework, one wonders how the vastly differing approaches of the two sides to organizational structures and command and control will be bridged. It is then that one or the other side will need to review their basic organizations and doctrines. Since the Indian armed forces have steadfastly remained glued to doctrines of the pre-information technology era, there are no prizes for guessing which side will need to change!
In the recent Gulf wars, air power produced devastating results because of a combination of precision-guided weapons integrated with space, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technologies and a carefully integrated command and control philosophy which was enforced in spite of internal inter- service differences and problems. In a similar vein, there was recognition in the United States of America that space is now an integral part of modern warfare and was becoming victim to inter-service turf wars at the cost of larger national interests. The US congress intervened and, after due assessment, designated the US air force as the executive agent for space within the defence department with a separate budget. Clearly, there is no hesitation on the part of the US decision makers at the executive and legislative levels to formulate policies overriding parochial concerns or interests. Our approach is one of procrastination.
It is in large measure due to RMA that militaries can today plan for network-centric warfare, where data from networked sensors creates a shared knowledge base of the entire battle area. With such a composite picture, commanders can engage targets by weapon systems far removed from the battlefield. It is no more a fantasy to imagine a higher command operations centre located miles away from the battle area, monitoring and controlling events in real time. In such a scenario, success will come to those willing to innovate and evolve doctrines in keeping with new technological realities. Western countries opting for modern-day technologies have recognized the need for change and hence their growing emphasis on integrated organizations and air power operations. China is following these developments and preparing for 'high- tech limited warfare'. Its defence paper 2004 accordingly gives priority to air, space and maritime forces.
In the midst of this international change, there appears tranquillity within our armed forces, born out of the desire to maintain status quo. That is why while paying lip service to jointmanship, we have still not come to grips with any concept of integrated or even joint operations. Instead, one still reads about inter-service turf battles over roles and missions ' issues that belong in the past. More recently, one has read press reports of each service indicating individual concepts for network-centric warfare. To those who can visualize the true potential of network-centric warfare, the contradictions are glaring.
There are many ways in which national security institutions derive the knowledge and wisdom to learn. The wiser ones learn from the mistakes of others while the braver ones learn through a baptism of fire. Our model of making mistakes and refusing to learn is, however, unique. What other conclusion can one draw from the nation's inability to put in place a chief of defence staff whose necessity had been accepted and announced by no less an authority than a cabinet committee on security' That too as a result of the lessons emerging from the Kargil conflict. Why are our lawmakers so indifferent to such gross neglect of our national security institution making' These and many other questions will remain unanswered because we as a nation display neither the professional integrity nor the political will to do what we must to ensure the security of our nation.
Today, the nation sits astride two nuclear-armed neighbours with whom there are unsettled border disputes. One quite openly promotes a proxy war. Another has the patience to wait. A third neighbour has no hesitation in hurling insults and sheltering insurgents. Military capabilities can only be built painstakingly over time while intentions of neighbours can change overnight. It is time that national security planners and law makers looked seriously at changes that are crying out to be made in respect of our archaic national security institutions, so when the crunch comes, at least our security is not compromised.
If such a pessimistic scenario fails to make us change then let us hope that when we graduate to joint military exercises with the US and other strategic partners. We will then face protesters against change, who are under foreign pressure. Mercifully, our military bases will be spared as the location shifts to Delhi. All this while the nation's potential adversaries will chuckle with delight.