Air Defence Command A Counter-Productive Move

"The ideal solution will be integration while assets are administered and maintained by the respective service and integrated under an Integrated Force Commander in times of need."

Air Defence Command
A Counter-Productive Move

The CAS mentioned that the idea of Air Defence Command is counter-productive to the employment of Air Power in future wars at a seminar organised by Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS). There have been many commentaries on what he said. Not one professional Air Warrior has commented with an opposing view to that of the Air Chief. There is substance in what he has said. However, we read a lot that has been written by veteran Generals and others from the Army recommending the formation of the Air Defence Command or how the Air Force should be structured to manage Air Defence of the country. I wonder what the real intent of such commentaries are? Is there an ulterior motive? What is the “Hidden Agenda”?

I would like to suggest that some of our Army counterparts do not understand the operational aspects of how the Air Force executes the defence of the country through the medium of air, before writing on the subject and clearing all doubts of their ignorance. However, it is intriguing to notice that no veteran Air Warrior is suggesting how the Army or Navy should be structured or how the defence of the nation should be executed if attacked through land or sea! Water covers 70% of the globe and Land 30%, whereas Air covers 100%. So, the joint syllabus for an Air Force student is much larger than either the Army or the Navy as Air Force has to integrate with the Army and Navy in all Joint Service institutions. The Air Warrior is not ignorant of what happens on land or sea. I have been a DS at three Joint Services institutions. I was also nominated for the prestigious Higher Command Course with the Army which I declined. I am definitely privy to the methodology of how operations of the Army and Navy are conducted at higher levels. I am afraid that I cannot say the same of either Army or Navy DSs at these institutions as well as other officers from the Army and Navy. However, I refrain from commenting on any such issues for other services have plenty of domain experts from those services.

To enlighten those who do not understand how the IAF operated in the 70s and as an extension, now, I would like to describe it, in as simple a way as possible. The IAF warfighting assets were based on a logic. The offensive operations elements were located far away from the borders in safe heavens. The inherent distance made it difficult for the enemy aircraft to attack these assets as aircraft are most vulnerable while on ground. The aircraft which contributed to offensive air power, Deep Penetration Strike Aircraft, were thus based at Agra, Gorakhpur and Pune. The aircraft with lesser range were dispersed in the other areas with adequate protection in blast-pens. These are peace time locations. The units at these locations are known as “Lodger” units as they are lodged there for administrative support. They can be moved out at any time to any other location. The operational locations are classified “Secret” and these aircraft move to pre-planned operational locations on instructions from the AOsC-in-C. Even at these op locations the parent AOC-in-C issues mission orders to Squadron Commanders bypassing the Wings (Air Force Stations), unless changed by Air HQ. The squadrons execute missions and respond with mission reports to the Command HQ. The necessary operational support is tied up by the staff officers at Command HQ level where as administrative support is provided by the receiving AF Stations, pre-planned as per war plans. The philosophy is “Centralised Control and Decentralised Execution”.

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The CAS orchestrates the air war through AOs-C-in-C. In the 71 war the CAS ordered fighter assets to fall back to bases in the hinterland on 2 Dec. The pilots who were raring to go into attack were aghast. CAS appreciated that the pre-emptive strike by PAF would be on the night of 02/03 Dec, being a full moon night. While the PAF attacked empty air bases at that time with no damage, our aircraft were being refuelled and rearmed for the retaliatory strike at the rear bases, just when the PAF ac were most vulnerable while landing or being serviced for their next mission.

Initially the deployment of the air assets was divided between the West and East. The operational Commands are divided geographically and functional commands are on all India basis. So AOR of EAC included East Pakistan and AOR of WAC included West Pakistan. All the deep penetration strike assets were based in AOR of CAC. These aircraft took off from bases in CAC, refuelled in bases in WAC and destroyed targets in West Pakistan (AOR of WAC) on orders of AOC-in-C CAC. Similar was the case in the East. After we achieved air supremacy in the East, the air assets of the East were switched to the West in one night. This is flexibility at it’s best. The notion that the assets are anyway divided among Air Commands so the Theatre Commanders can manage it as well, stated by the CDS at IIC in Sept/Oct 2021, displays lack of understanding of air operations.

Flexibility is a core tenet that is drilled into an Air Warrior mainly because of the speed his aircraft flies at and distances that he covers. It takes a lot of time in the IAF to be groomed. Restricting an omni role aircraft to just one role (Air Defence) is anathema to any Air Warrior of substance and violates such a tenet. The Army moves at 2 Knots, Navy at 20 Kts, I have flown at 2000 Kts. This speed impacts the decision taking ability. Procrastination has fatal consequences. The closest that an Army officer comes to that level of flexibility in the mindset is an Armoured Corps officer. How do we force fit a Theatre Commander from another service who has never used the tenets of employment of air power before, into this system of operation? He may have advisors but they will not have “Command” powers. Such a Theatre Commander would prove to be an obstacle in the conduct of the air war as was demonstrated by Pakistan during the 71 war. Their Air Chief was an Air Mshl (3 star) and the Army Chief was a Gen (4 star). The orders to the PAF by the Army Chief was, to conserve resources after the first pre-emptive strike (“Counter Air bahut ho gaya”), for the planned armoured thrust by Gen Tikka Khan into India, which never happened. PAF had to lump it and get relegated to become a side arm of the Army. PAF was not even informed of what the Pakistan Army intended to do in Kargil prompting AVM Abid Rao of PAF to comment “We are heading for a Court Martial or Martial Law”

Among the three services IAF is the first to respond for actual war or political signalling. In 1987, during mobilisation, the Sqns received instructions to move to operational locations from the AOC-in-C. A Squadron at Bareilly (CAC) was required to deploy at two operational locations one in WAC and the other in present day SWAC. The CO was on leave. The aircraft of the Squadron at the time of receipt of the order were airborne. They had to be recovered, readied for op deployment, ferry to op locations and refuel. The aircrew bid farewell to their spouses if they were at home, rushed back to the Sqn, got briefed, likely mission was worked upon, aircraft were ferried to the op locations and refuelled. The Officiating CO got the Squadron deployed as per plans in three and a half hours and sent a signal to CAC that the Sqn is ready for the first mission, subsequent missions need ground crew support. For his exemplary performance he got his next promotion in the first look. That is the speed of response to the need.

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When The CAS says that it is the Indian Air Force, the theatre is India. It will be swifter now a days as we have omni role and longer-range aircraft, air to air refuelling etc. It is truly a regional force to reckon with which can project military power from the straits of Hormuz to the straits of Malacca without any support bases in other countries. WE intervened in Maldives long ago before we had such assets. The Balakot air strike took place with aircraft from different commands integrating to achieve the task. Will a Theatre Commander of a different service be able to cope up with the Air Force culture and this pace? Will he accept aircraft to stage through his bases to attack a target in his AOR where a Theatre Cdr of a different theatre is giving the mission orders? In the IAF, the Station Commanders were nicknamed Station Masters, a simile from the Railways, as he does not know where the train is coming from or where it is going and for what purpose! Will the Theatre Commander accept such a role? The operational control of Armed Forces by the CDS is but an order away. Will the CDS from a different service be able to conduct the air war at a more frenetic pace than in 71?

IAF has managed the air defences well. Not a single aircraft intrusion has gone unchallenged. The Pakistan Navy Atlantique which tried was shot down, the AN 26 which dropped arms at Purulia was forced to land at Mumbai, and may be many more. It has an IACCS which is integrated all over the country with sensors (radars), communications and interceptors including SAGW. The Air Warriors don’t have a problem with how it is functioning now. What are the perceived advantages for creating the Air Defence Command (ADC) especially after the fiasco by the Egyptian ADC, which shot down more than 50 of its own aircraft in one of the Arab-Israeli wars? Why are Army veterans so keen on creating an ADC? Please let the professional Air Warriors decide what they want as far as Air Defence of the Nation is concerned. The next on the table may be AMC or Air Mobility Command. That may not be to the liking of the Army as all transport aircraft and helicopter assets will be under command of an Air Force C-in-C.  All such aircraft will be tasked by the AMC. Creation of the ADC is as preposterous as an idea of the Army having a Ground Defence Command with offensive action to be taken by a different entity?

There needs to be a doctrinal base for these kinds of organisational restructuring backed by legislation. A suggested organisational design for such restructuring is at The ideal solution will be integration while assets are administered and maintained by the respective service and integrated under an Integrated Force Commander in times of need. We could have the Integrated Force HQ without troops under command, just like the American regional commands. Forces can be deployed in times of need.

The control of air assets has been a contentious issue all over the world. The saving grace is that the IAF is not alone.

Gp Capt. Johnson Chacko (Retd) was Commissioned into the IAF in the Offensive Ops stream in 1975 as a fighter pilot. He landed a bomber on its belly with very limited experience, for which he was cited for a Kirti Chakra.

(Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Mission Victory India)

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