Relevance of the Indian Air Force in a future war

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Col. Rajinder Singh Kushwaha (Retd.)
Col. Rajinder Singh Kushwaha (Retd.)
An ex-NDA, Col. Rajinder Singh Kushwaha, is an author and Defence and Strategic Affairs analyst, and ex Commanding Officer of 3 Bihar Regiment. He led the regiment in insurgency environs in Assam in 1990-93. He has vast experience in CI Ops from Northeast to Punjab and J&K. He has authored the book, ‘Kashmir: A Different Perspective’. His second book on Assam is scheduled for release soon. He has held prestigious appointments in the army, including as an instructor at a premier army institute, Col GS, Col Adm of an Infantry Division, and Col "Q" works at a Command HQ. * Views are personal.

“ The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions“ — Leonardo Da Vinci

There are emotional outbursts, by veterans, mostly from the Indian Air Force (IAF), on one loose statement of CDS General Bipin Rawat. As on date, one might see the devil in it, when he talked of the IAF being a supporting Arm of the Army, like Engineers and the Artillery. But, it seems, he might not be entirely wrong. To put it more succinctly, he might be much ahead of his time.

In the immediate present context, he might be wrong. However, when one talks of future war, one also thinks of a timeline of 5-10 years. Besides, one does not think of “military unequal”,  like Hamas and Israel, but “military equals”, as in the context of the USA and China or even in the case of India and China.

Military Equals would not allow intruding aircraft to enter their “air space” whether they were 5th generation or sixth generation flying machines. War today is technology – driven. It has transformed itself from “Brute Force” use to “Brain Force” use of weaponry and equipment.

Accordingly, military polemics have entered the era of “ Smart wars” with “Smart weapons” by “Smart Soldiers”. In other words, as technology developed, the war in the past century had transformed itself from “Close contact “ to “ Indirect Contact”  as was enunciated by Captain Liddell Hart, a brilliant British military thinker of the last century.

“Indirect Approach” of Liddell Hart was upgraded to “ No Contact wars” as “UAV” or Drones appeared in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq in the first decade of the 21st Century. Technology is developing so fast that it is a Herculean task to keep with it. Azerbaijan and Armenian conflict,  in 2020,  showed that unmanned vehicles, loaded with smart weapons, can play bloody hell with the enemy. This is the final qualifying hour of “ No Contact War”.

On 14 September 2019, the Yemen rebel drone attack on Saudi Arabia’s ARAMCO Oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais was another demonstration of the “No Contact “ dimension of the modern war. The Houthi rebels of Yemen had laid claim to this attack. The rebel claimed that they had used 10 drones for this attack. This was in response to Saudi Arabia intervention in the Yemen Civil war. The attack had caused extensive damage to facilities, resulting in a rise in oil prices. Such drone technology available to Militant groups can play havoc with  India too. Drone attack on Jammu Airport’s air force facilities, on 27 June 2021, is the curtain raiser on the shape of future war in the Indian context.

However, as “No Contact Wars” are reaching their zenith, anti air- weapon systems have also begun to appear. They are capable of not only denying intrusion to the enemy’s manned and unmanned aircraft, but also be capable of destroying them much before they play havoc with the target. Its effectiveness was first seen in the second Gulf war, when US predator missiles knocked down Saddam Hussain’s Scud missiles. Its inventory today includes Russian S-300 and S-400 . Israel has its own IRON DOME, which has shown its effectiveness against recent conflict with Hamas. South Korea is developing its own protective shields against missiles, aircraft, and drones.

As recent reports suggest, India too is developing its own Anti – Air/ drone defence system. In the interim period, it has sought two or three S-400 from Russia to protect its sensitive assets. However, India’s own Anti -Air denial system, called “Indrajaal” has been developed by a private firm from Hyderabad.

INDRAJAL is a wide area drone defence created by Grene Robotics, an Indian Company, from Hyderabad. It can cover an area up to 1000-2000 sq Kms. Half a dozen INDRAJAL can cover the entire Western border. The company claims that within 90-120 days it can create a system with 100 -250 sq Kms and to cover an area of 1000-2000 Sq KMs, it would need four month. The company is waiting for a green signal from the Defence Ministry.

Indrajaal is capable of identifying, assessing, deciding, acting and evolving autonomously in real-time, round the clock. Whether the threat is single or multiple or a combination of UAVs, loitering munitions and such, the system is capable of countering all such threats. It can be integrated with the current weapons infrastructure.

It is pertinent to note that with such Air denial systems, both for manned and unmanned aerial vehicles, profiling the advent of a future war, where is the scope for IAF, in manned machines, to claim to perform such tasks as Counter Air operations (CAO); Interdiction, strategic bombing of enemy assets and air defence of own space? In such a pen picture of a future war, IAF, in its present structural shape and size,  is irrelevant to the future war, though, in the interregnum, it can perform such tasks envisaged. But the time span of the interregnum is not more than 10 years.  

The IAF of today, ought to reorient itself. It has to reincarnate as part of the “ Space and Strategic” Force. It has to equip itself with super long BVR (Beyond Visual Range) weapon systems, along with effective Counter Cybersystems, invisible laser beams, counter EMP radiation guns. It has to start thinking of India’s stratosphere and man the satellites and space ships. The war in space is beckoning it.

Meanwhile, as weapon technology further develops and “Bioweapons” make headway on the military war front, the war is seemingly graduating to “Invisible” mode. This is a new Challenge to militarise all over the world. The “Rear” and “Front” of the combat zones have disappeared. Missiles with ranges over 5-10000 miles can deliver nuclear, Bio, Chemical and conventional warheads can deliver a death blow anywhere in the world. Wide Area defence and denial systems, are incorporating Satellite spying systems over areas that can be used as platforms for delivery of such lethal warheads. Space would become a key battle zone of the future. This is where IAF must seek its relevance.

The IAF must, therefore, concentrate on its own relevance in the future than being critical of the “Theatrisation” of Commands. At best,  the IAF can perform a transportation role for switching forces from one theatre to another theatre. To do so, it can be integrated with the Army than being a separate force. Genuinely speaking, IAF has no role in border skirmishes, whether it was Kargil -99 or even in Galwan -2020. To say the least, it has never been used in internal conflicts too.

It should, therefore, delink itself from “theatrisation” and concentrate on donning the role of “Space and Strategic Force”. To fulfil that role, it must seek those capabilities which would allow it to operate effectively. Shed its present assets to Army and Navy.

Being critical of CDS, whatever his other faults, IAF and her veterans were skirting the main issue of the future relevance of the force. It is a diversionary tactic to preserve itself and its identity, though time is against it. A Peep into the future, should tell all these critics that CDS might not be right, but his statement is a wake up call to the air force to seek its future relevance. Ducking the issue is endangering its existence. Do not be obsessed with the goodness of the past. Its irrelevance of today must be genuinely brainstormed.


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