The recent disaster relief operations in Uttarakhand mounted by helicopters of the Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Army assisted by the C-130 Super Hercules aircraft, demonstrated the flexibility and versatility of air power in roles such as stability operations and nation building. Called Operation Rahat by the IAF, the aerial relief involved over 2,500 sorties by varied aircraft. Over 20,000 pilgrims were rescued and 400 tonnes of relief material dropped in various areas over a three-week period.
No longer was air power seen in India as merely a weapon of war; it was finally acknowledged by the common citizen after years of similar exploits as a tool in the hands of the State to alleviate suffering and reach out to distressed citizens in times of natural disaster and calamities. In the 81st year of the IAF, it is important to reflect on the importance of air power as a critical element of ‘Full Spectrum Operations’ and statecraft and how it has evolved in the last few decades.
For very long, the world had got used to the stereotyped image of air power as a decisive element of war fighting — a war-winning option with its ability to strike deep and erode an adversary’s war-waging capacity. Operation Desert Storm in 1991 brought the pyrotechnics of precision attacks into our homes thanks to real time and high-quality TV reporting. It won the war for the US-led coalition forces and evicted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. A few years later in 1999 it dragged Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb dictator, to the negotiating table and partially ended the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.
Closer home, the employment of air power in the Kargil conflict, albeit limited in scope and prosecuted with restraint, proved to be a decisive coercive and deescalatory element of joint war fighting. Free flowing offensive air power decimated the conventional military capability of the Taliban and al Qaeda in the mountains of Afghanistan after 9/11, and Donald Rumsfeld’s shockand-awe campaign, which combined lethal airpower and mechanised warfare, overthrew Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. Those were the ‘high days’ when air power could do no wrong, but not for very long!
From 2006-2010, air power went through a rough patch that commenced with an attempt by Israel to win the war against the Hezbollah from the air, and the employment of widespread kinetic or offensive air power in the counterinsurgency battles, which raged in Iraq and Afghanistan. The consequent public discourse that emerged suddenly painted air power as a tool that caused unnecessary collateral damage and needed to be reined in. While there certainly was an element of over reach among practitioners of air power, poor perception management also led to the erosion of faith in the ability of air power to adapt to the changing paradigms of modern warfare in which the non-State actor had emerged as the state’s principal opponent in ill-defined battle-spaces.
However, all this was mainly applicable to the West as the spectre of the Cold War faded. For India and the IAF what it did was to merely expand the spectrum of conflict and place fresh challenges in terms of building capability and adapting to the demands of ‘Full Spectrum Conflict’. It meant that unlike the West, India did not have the luxury of letting up on air power as a vehicle for nuclear deterrence as long as it continued to exist in a region of ‘nuclear instability’; it meant that as long as it faced conventional threats along two borders, it could ill-afford to ignore the requirements of conventional joint war fighting; and it also meant that like the West it needed to develop capabilities to combat non-State actors of different hues — from terrorists to proxy actors and indigenous insurgents — a daunting task indeed. Exercise Iron Fist, the impressive Fire Power-cum-Capability Demonstration conducted by the IAF in March was testimony to the development of such competencies.
As an air power analyst, I would assert that air power has bounced back over the last few years as not only a powerful element of calibrated war fighting, but also as a critical element of statecraft and nation building. The aerial strikes by the Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) against the LTTE, contributed much to the ultimate defeat of the group.
Similarly, despite the negative impact of collateral damage, drone strikes in Af-Pak from 2009 onwards have significantly eroded al Qaeda and the Taliban leadership. Notwithstanding what sceptics may say, the strategic impact of the use of calibrated air power in Libya and Mali are there for everyone to see. Libya is on its way to normalcy and al Qaeda-backed rebels failed to overthrow the ruling government in Mali because of timely intervention by French air power. The spectacularly stealthy employment of air power in conjunction with Special Forces to eliminate Osama bin Laden was a classic example of synergy and surprise. While current Indian air power philosophy against non-State actors does not subscribe to the use of offensive air power, within its geographical confines, selective lessons from the above campaigns must be learnt.
Where Indian air power has progressed spectacularly in recent times has been in its ability to exploit the nonkinetic dimension of humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and casualty evacuation capabilities. No proud Indian can quickly forget the Herculean effort by the IAF transport and helicopter fleet, the Indian Army helicopter fleet and some civil helicopters in the recent rescue operation in Uttarakhand. Operation Rahat was a supreme example of nation building — it is this capability that will also emerge in the years to come as a critical tool of statecraft along with the IAF’s proven offensive capability.
Full Spectrum Capability will not be easy to acquire and sustain as it would require significant budgetary support and an enhanced knowledge of the critical competencies of air power by all the stakeholders of national security. Only then can air power be fully exploited in the years to come as a tool of deterrence, war fighting and nation building. Arjun Subramaniam is a serving Air Vice Marshal.
The views expressed are personal