The clamour to obtain their own air assets has increasingly become more strident among the surface forces and there is no gainsaying or guessing as to the reason for this clamour. Ever since the advent of airpower and it’s utilisation in military warfare, it became obvious that victory could only be certain if surface forces were effectively protected by airpower. One may go so far as to state that victory on the ground or at sea would not be possible without adequate protection of the airspace above.
Increasing speeds of aircraft, their ability to span vast areas and the sheer lethality of the evolving weapon systems made the “dynamic, high mobility, rapidly changing battlefield” and the “rapid response carrier battle groups at sea” seem virtually static, in perspective. The vulnerability of surface elements is eminently obvious and therein lies the reason for the Army and Navy to ask for their own air assets.
The issue at hand is not to debate whether they are justified in their demands or whether the status quo is the better option. Rather, it would be pertinent to gather our thoughts and take a look at how much the spectrum of operations in the third dimension has grown to not only straddle the entire gamut of warfare but also have far-reaching effects which do not allow its assets to be fettered in small (relative) theatres of operation.
The earlier wars of attrition, the two world wars, the Korean and Vietnam wars, while proving the efficacy and lethality of the use of airpower, did not truly reflect the capitulating effect it could have if it so desired. The 1991 Gulf was the catalyst that finally changed the (not so receptive) mindset of surface commanders. One has to accept the reality pill, however difficult it may be to swallow and how the heavier than air machine overcame Newton’s hold (!) on objects, one can only marvel at the vastness of the canvas the aeroplane was covered in a little over a century.
Variations in platform design for multifarious purposes/ roles, engine design and development in an ever-increasing pursuit to achieve efficiency and conserve energy, weaponisation to achieve lethality and progressively, over the years, to curtail collateral damage, have followed an exponential path. Of course, the biggest boon to mankind, the transportability factor, shrinking the globe so much faster than Christopher Columbus, Hannibal, Erik the Red (Viking) or Genghis Khan could have imagined, in their quest for far-off lands or territory. The aerospace industry, with its many verticals, is colossal, to say the least airpower, its features of versatility and flexibility are possibly its biggest promoters. Some of the easily discernible features are:-
- Multi-Role/ Swing-Role capability of fighters.
- Operations from unprepared/ semi-prepared surfaces for transport aircraft.
- Short field capability for heavy transport aircraft.
- Leap-frogging capability for all types of aircraft/ helicopters.
- The multifarious capability of the helicopter.
- Air-to-air refuelling to extend the range and straddle the area of influence and interest and offensive capability.
- Precision targeting capability to minimise collateral damage.
- Rapid intra-theatre or inter-theatre deployment capability.
- Hot refuelling and arming have further reduced time on the ground and increased operational efficacy.
- Developing ground infrastructure which caters to civil and military patronage simultaneously.
- Maintenance architecture of airborne platforms in a modular concept design where a quick change of LRUs ensures rapid availability of these platforms.
- A progressive expansion of the Integrated Op Logistics system with the means to maintain a short teeth-to-tail ratio.
- The ability of airpower to target and hit strategic centres of gravity is not in doubt.
- The growing importance of the UAV and its progressive utilisation in diverse tasks. Is this a portent of airpower of the future?
The dynamics of warfare have long gone past the days of “Boots on the ground” and “Flotillas of warships converging on enemy shores”. The future expects quick results in a rapidly changing environment. It is the versatility and flexibility of airpower that will dictate and dominate warfare.