The appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and creation of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) have been positive and welcome steps taken by the government, to bring in comprehensive defence reforms. While the CDS is expected to promote jointness and synergy among the Armed Forces, the formation of the DMA, as a department of the MoD, would address various issues that have affected the civil-military relations in India.
The two transformational steps give an opportunity for the Armed Forces to significantly enhance their integrated military capability and achieve savings through optimal utilisation of resources. As the focus is towards enhancing jointness by integrating the fundamental warfighting structures i.e. the Commands of the three services, it is imperative that all decisions should be well considered, and implemented after detailed studies, discussion, and debate.
In the above backdrop, the announcement by the CDS to establish a Joint Air Defence Command (JADC), soon after assuming office, took many by surprise. It was supposedly the first step towards the establishment of joint/theatre commands. It was evident that the announcement pre-dated any formal discussion on the subject.
A committee headed by the Vice Chief of Air Staff (VCAS) was thereafter set up to work out the roadmap towards setting up a joint Air Defence Command, indicating that its formation was a fait accompli. Under these circumstances, two critical questions that remain unanswered are, what were the issues, if any, that prompted the need to restructure the present Air Defence (AD) organisation and how the Air Defence Command would make the Air Defence organisation more efficient.
Absence of logical answers to the two questions would create a perception that the decision is either flawed or is a step in the eventual establishment of joint/theatre Commands, wherein the IAF would be excluded from heading a joint/theatre Command and be reduced to a functional Command, like the Air Defence Command.
The cavalier manner, in which the establishment of the Air Defence Command was described as a low hanging fruit, and then directing a joint committee to work out, how to make it happen, supports both the perceptions. The decision to form the Air Defence Command has grave operational risks and its consequences could lead to an irreversible fracture of the very integrity of air operations of the IAF. Since the subject is esoteric, a brief explanation of the concept of Air Defence and the Air Defence organisation would be in order before the merits of an Air Defence Command can be discussed.
Concept of Air Defence (AD)
The air defence philosophy of the IAF has undergone a huge change from a point, to limited, to a layered area defence, which envisages engagements even before the enemy aircraft enter our airspace during hostilities. This has been enabled by technology through enhanced ranges of the sensors, communications and weapon systems. Hence, AD is now a subset of Defensive Counter Air (DCA), which is a much broader AD term. Joint AD is essentially an integration concept and not a command, to net all the AD-related ground to air sensors, communications, and weapon systems into the overall AD to permit effective operations for all users of the tactical airspace and avoid fratricide.
As with all defensive operations, air defence is essentially reactive in nature. It requires constant vigilance and quick reactions from the machinery. AD requires the fulfilment of four functions, namely detection, identification, interception and destruction of any platform or weapon, manned or unmanned that enters sovereign airspace and which is identified, as a threat or hostile. Within the sovereign airspace of the country, AD is the primary role of the IAF.
While for the Airforce and Navy, AD is an integral function under operations, the same is a support function towards operations for the Army. The Army and the Navy contribute to ‘detection’ by sharing their radar data, as also ‘destruction’ through their own organic surface-to-air weapons as they defend themselves against an air attack. However, identification, including AD authorisation of every single civil or military flight originating in or transiting through Indian airspace, and interception are the sole responsibilities of the IAF.
Air Defence (AD) System
To fulfil the AD functions there is a need for a ground and airborne sensors, a networked command and control system, fighter aircraft/helicopters for the interception, and aircraft and surface-to-air weapons for destruction. The system needs to be fast reacting so that in the limited time available, it can assess the threat, and respond with the appropriate response to the correct degree.
Issues of AD at Air HQ are dealt with by the AD directorate under the Operations branch led by the VCAS. The AD directorate is headed by the Assistant Chief of Air Staff (ACAS AD). The AD directorate deals with AD policy issues, training, organisation, resourcing and inter-service AD aspects. The operational commands of the IAF, plan and control air defence operations, from the Air Defence Control Centres (ADCCs) through their respective AD Commanders, who are delegated the authority by the Air Officer Commanding-in-Chiefs (AOC-in-Cs) functioning as the regional Air Space Authorities (ASAs). At the field level, the Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCS) nodes conduct the operations.
The AD system of the Army is integrated through Joint Air Defence Centres (JADCs). The entire AD system is digitally networked and rides on the Air Force Net (AFNET) and Integrated Air Command and Control System (IACCSs). The existing net-centric AD structure provides the ability to monitor the fused picture of the air situation in the area of interest at various levels for enhanced situational awareness, and optimal application of the centrally planned resources in an effective and decentralised manner.
Need to Restructure
So, is there a need to restructure the AD organisation, and is a pan-India ADC a good idea? Not at all. It could be substantiated through operational, organisational, empirical, and doctrinal standpoints.
One of the reasons for the erosion of our overall military capability has been the duplication of roles and functions within the three services, leading to suboptimal effort due to overlaps on one hand and voids on the other. As if that were not enough, the establishment of an ADC would now further functionally split the primary functions of the IAF into offensive and defensive roles, with a mistaken belief that the offensive assets assigned to the joint/theatre commands, as and when formed, could be employed solely in a segregated manner towards close support roles. It needs to be understood that the air assets cannot be divided into defensive and offensive roles.
Many of the air defence assets, such as fighters, AWACS, FRA are also needed for the conduct of offensive operations. Just like a submarine may be tasked for defensive deployment off own coast, or an offensive mid-ocean or off enemy coast deployment, and a corps tasked with defensive operations may well be re-tasked for a limited offensive role, so also with aircraft. Except that in case of aircraft, this can take place ‘on-the-fly’ in a matter of seconds with just a couple of orders passed over the radio.
Aircraft (Fighters, AWACS, FRA) returning from a strike mission inside enemy territory may well be re-tasked to take on an air defence role on return, subject to fuel and weapons. If anything, this would be complicated even further by induction of systems like the S-400, which, with greatly extended ranges, can conduct operations against enemy planes flying well within his territory in support of own offensive operations.
For both offensive and defensive air operations to be re-balanced on a continuous and dynamic basis as per the developing situation, there is a requirement for both to be under one Commander. Placing any of these under a Commander exclusively for defensive operations would lead to sub-optimal utilisation. Either they would be underutilised, and hence reduce the weight of attack for offensive operations, or they would be insufficient, and hence ineffective in thwarting enemy attacks.
This flexibility further assumes importance due to the present reduced strength of the air assets and the need to ensure their optimal employment. In the present structure, it is the AOC-in-C of the Air Command who controls both the defensive and offensive operations. As joint/theatre Commands take shape, the control would be exercised by the joint/theatre Commander through the Air Component Commanders.
AD is thus, a fundamental warfighting function of the air force much like defensive land operations or defensive sea operations are to land and naval forces. And just like placing a defensive corps, holding corps and the strike corps under different GOC-in-C’s is unthinkable, so also is divorcing the entire function of AD from offensive air operations and replacing them with a different commander.
Another important operational aspect to be borne in mind is that future wars would be in the form of skirmishes that would be short, intense, and swift. A formidable AD that can cause unacceptable damage to an adversary air riposte, would not only help in controlling the escalation but also serve as a potent deterrent. This is only possible when air operations are unified under a single regional Commander. Operationally, therefore, there is a strong case not to form an ADC as it would severely degrade the conduct of full-spectrum, fast-moving and effective air operations.
Organisationally, two agencies of the IAF enable AD operations. Air Headquarters provides the direction and facilitation, and Command Headquarters ensure employment and execution. Additionally, the AD operations are intricately intertwined with airspace management functions, not only with the Air Traffic Services of the IAF but also with civil aviation. A regional air command gives a single point control, and hence civil-military coordination becomes smooth.
Splitting air defence under JADC and air traffic service under the regional command would create huge difficulties in coordination by splitting the military authority. This would affect both civil and military flying operations and test the concept of Flexi- Use of Airspace (FUA) something sorely needed by the ailing airline sector. Near misses between civil and military aircraft do occur, but rarely. With another organisational wall of the Air Defence Command to penetrate, the chances of these occurring will only increase.
The command and control of the entire air operations are exercised through CHOCs and the IACCS nodes by the operational commands. This precludes the establishment of the ADC. At best, the ADC commander, even if Air Defence Command is formed and headed by the IAF, would only serve as an empowered ACAS AD at Air HQ with no role during the war. To force-fit, an operational role on the Air Defence Command would be counterproductive. Similarly, in any future joint/integrated command, adhering to the principle of unity of command, the regional offensive and defensive assets of the IAF would always be under the control of an Air Force Component Commander who would be subordinate to the Integrated Commander.
Organisationally, therefore, there is no pressing reason to form an Air Defence Command extending through geographical commands or theatres. If anything, the existing organisation would be disrupted, command and control lines crisscrossed, organisational bottlenecks created, and the flow of information and decision making slowed down as assets change hands, and control passes from one commander to another. In air defence, where speed is of the essence and every second matter, this will be disastrous.
The existing AD setup has been working efficiently and has stood the test of time. The high states of AD alert are reflected in the downing of the Pakistan Navy Atlantique in 1999, despite the brief violation. The fact that the existing setup was able to thwart the PAF attacks during Op Swift Retort in February 2019 speaks well for the system. All the eleven bombs dropped by the PAF aircraft missed their targets as their attack profiles were effectively disrupted by the IAF aircraft.
Admittedly, there was the unfortunate fratricide of a Mi-17 helicopter due to noncompliance of standard operating procedures. The incident, however, had no bearing on the AD organisation. Adding another organisational ‘wall’ by imposing an Air Defence Command will result in further slowing the flow of information and increasing chances of recurrence. Conversely, PAF despite having an AD command was unable to stop IAF aircraft from conducting a successful attack at Balakot. Nor was PAF in a position to stop the Abbottabad raid and other numerous strikes conducted by the Western powers in the FATA region.
Doctrine sometimes seems unnecessarily academic and inconveniently theoretical to an outsider but merits careful evaluation before fundamental changes are made. Establishing a pan-India Air Defence Command cutting across operational theatre boundaries represents the army doctrinal stand of AD as a support function, on the lines of training or logistics. However, as we have seen, AD requires unity of command.
The inherent versatility of air assets also imposes indivisibility as a cardinal tenet of airpower planning. An Air Defence Command on the face of it seems to promote the first tenet, but in reality, works against both, fragmenting needlessly, the most offensive component of military power and diminishing its potency as well as speed of reaction. It would be like depriving a warrior of his shield and asking him to duel with only a sword. Earmarking of AD assets separately also depicts a defensive mindset and is inherently not in tune with the offensive nature of airpower.
A case for the negation of the Air Defence Command does not mean that there are no inter-service issues in the extant AD setup. These issues, however, are not insurmountable and relate to interoperability, integration, and commonality of training. The interoperability issues pertaining to the handshakes between the communication protocols of the AD systems of the three services. These need to be overcome technologically. As regards integration, a reconciliation is required between the net-enabled and tiered area defence philosophy of the IAF and the legacy point defence concepts of the Army.
This is a mindset issue and relates more to a propensity to own and autonomously operate service specific systems. The commonality of training for similar weapon systems could be ensured by merging the training institutions. To resolve the issues, mechanisms are available in the form of Joint Staff Study Groups (JSSGs) set up for Control and Reporting (C&R) and Ground-Based Air Defence Weapon Systems (GBADWS). There is a need to empower these JSSGs to address the contentious issues and bring in greater
integration. Also, the joint AD structures in the Commands need to be strengthened under the ASA to promote greater synergy. The unity of command at the joint/theatre Command level, as and when established, would also give the necessary fillip to efforts to iron out interoperability and information sharing issues between the services.
To conclude, the establishment of the Air Defence Command is a misstep as it is disruptive. It is a force fit solution on a problem that is yet to be identified. Formation of the Air Defence Command would not only go against the operational, organisational and doctrinal wisdom but would also needlessly add an organisation with its attendant costs and going against one of the key objectives of integration, namely, savings. To make the system work, would be an overly complex activity and affect command and control linkages. A major portion of the effort would go in making the new structure work rather than enhancing the operational efficiency of the existing system.
Additionally, it could lead to jockeying for senior positions, turf protection and cadre preservation among the services. Whatever benefits that would accrue from common training and logistics from Air Defence Command could also be achieved in the present setup, with a little more coordination, which in any case is now far easier with the office of CDS having been established, and joint/theatre commands on the way. The establishment of the Air Defence Command would result in an additional command, which is functionally not different from the present AD directorate and would have no operational role in the war. Hence, there is a need to have a rethink on the decision for the establishment of the Air Defence Command.