The vital role on air power in conflicts

Published on Oct 16, 2022 12:01 AM IST

The article has been authored by Tara Kartha, strategic and security expert, formerly at the National Security Council Secretariat.

Russian air force or even the tiny Ukrainian one had little role to play. Russia watchers had predicted a swift decapitating strike on Ukraine’s air defences and then free rein to Russian operations.(Reuters)
Russian air force or even the tiny Ukrainian one had little role to play. Russia watchers had predicted a swift decapitating strike on Ukraine’s air defences and then free rein to Russian operations.(Reuters)
ByHindustan Times

The concern in the corridors of government in recent times is not just about the impact of the Ukraine war on India. Planners also consider the intriguing question of just why the mighty Russian air force or even the tiny Ukrainian one had little role to play. Russia watchers had predicted a swift decapitating strike on Ukraine’s air defences and then free rein to Russian operations. Nothing of the sort happened. Instead, everyone was quite literally bogged down in the mud. The reasons for that must interest all those Indians uneasily eyeing our massive and not so massive neighbour to the east and west, and the role of air power in possible conflict. Though a lot remains unclear, due to a near total lack of information from the Russian side, some facts are beginning to emerge on the role of air power in such conflicts.

To start with, the Russians conducted exercises aimed at sending notice to western air forces that any aircraft intruding would be peremptorily shot down, and the intent to establish total air superiority. Along with this was the deployment of T-22 nuclear capable bombers over Belarus, combined with persistent nuclear sabre rattling by President Vladimir Putin. The US responded by moving its personnel and troops out of Ukraine, declared that no United States (US) personnel would fight in Ukraine, sent 2,000 men to Europe, and puts 8,500 on alert back in the US. But it did send air assets to its alliance members Poland and Romania, while setting up a Baltic air policing mission. Its ‘strategic’ assets like B-52’s it sent to the United Kingdom. In other words, a definite ‘air line’ was drawn in the sand, that incidentally was respected by Russia, which while it did plenty of flying in the Baltic and Black Sea areas, at no time transgressed or even came close to the borders of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries. Lesson? That there are lines stated and unstated between nuclear powers; this even while the US did not take the bait on a nuclear crisis being thrust on it by Putin, and refused to change its nuclear alert. In other words, it refused a nuclear card even while respecting boundaries.

In the opening salvo, Russia reportedly launched approximately one hundred cruise and ballistic missiles and employed seventy-five bombers against critical governmental and military targets throughout the country, including command and control nodes. The forecast of complete air superiority, was erroneous. Airfields targeted were not permanently damaged, and worst of all Ukrainian air defence remained largely intact. With US warnings of a Russian attack apparent since November 2021, Kyiv seems to have dispersed its assets. Meanwhile, the Russians used guided munitions and cruise missiles against airfields including those as far away as Lutsk and Ivano-Frankivsk in an attempt to cripple the Ukrainian air force. It didn’t, and that’s not entirely surprising. Studies of Russian air power in support of the Syrian regime while effective, showed reluctance to invest in precision-guided munitions, underdeveloped targeting and penetrating intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance as major future liabilities. This showed up hugely as the conflict dragged on. But in all fairness, defence suppression is no easy task. In 1991 the US flew what was till then, the largest ever air effort against Iraq’s over 16,000 SAM's and 7,000 artillery guns, in what was touted as an example of huge success in attaining air superiority. But the fact was that the Iraqi system collapsed because it had one centralised node. And second, the air ‘success’ – particularly against Iraqi Scud’s was due heavily to special forces operating behind enemy lines. In other words, different domains, air and land operating closely together. Another lesson. Centralised nodes in such times can be disastrous. And multidomain operations pay when there are other air capabilities such as surveillance and its first cousin intelligence.

The real nature of the war soon became obvious as western neighbours rushed in 25,000 anti aircraft weaponry within two months of the war, including the Stinger missiles that had once wrecked havoc on Soviet helicopters in Afghanistan. Technology steadily increased as US and European assistance shifted away from Soviet era weapons – which the Ukrainians were familiar with – to systems like the highly precise High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems HIMARS. Russia warned of immediate retaliation against “new targets’ if these were used against Russian cities. It even used a rare air strikes against Lviv on the border, seen as an entry point for western assistance. In the event, attacks of all kinds were restricted to Ukrainian territory, including against Russian logistics lines. To many, the ‘revolutionary’ aspect was Ukraine’s drone ‘mosquito air force’. While both used drones, the value addition was far more for Ukraine, becoming key to intel gathering for both targeting and information warfare. How well Russia benefitted is yet unknown. It is however important to note that drone use is far from ‘revolutionising’ warfare. First, it has been in use for years in counter terror operations, and second, it is not a standalone weapons system that can completely change the way wars are fought. The ‘revolutionary’ tinge comes from how imaginatively it is used, and whether it evolves into becoming a totally autonomous tool. For Ukraine, it was a boon, since it to the extent possible replicated some aspects of regular aircraft, even while it would clearly have been impossible to train and launch pilots on entirely new aircraft even if they had been provided.

That points towards another interesting aspect of air power in this war. Poland offered its MiG-29's to Ukraine. That was firmly repulsed by the US, who clearly saw this as escalatory, and would widen the war since Poland was a NATO member. Neither did it seem that the US and its allies were prepared to scout around for Soviet era aircraft from any other country, and the Pentagon said that all that was provided was spares. In addition, neither did US aircraft used for intel gathering like the MQ-9 “Reaper” drones, Boeing RC-135 or the E-3 Sentry “AWACS used to eavesdrop on communications and collecting imagery intelligence, go beyond the border. No pleas by President Zelensky has so far changed this determination. Clearly there was a sense that using aircraft would be escalatory. That was a notion shared by Indian planners as well during Kargil, when the then Vajpayee government barred aircraft from crossing the Line of Control. The present government chose to send aircraft well into Pakistan in the Balakot strikes, but escalation was avoided by a very conservative counter strike by Pakistan, and no further retaliation. In a future war, such maturity may not always be apparent.

This is a curious war, limited in one sense, since much of the fighting was in one fifth of Ukrainian territory or about 119,000 square kilometres, or a total Ukrainian state of 603,500 square kilometres. Consider that Uttar Pradesh is 243,286 sq km, and you get the picture. The Kargil war front was about 600 sq km. Now consider the nature of the war, which us a ‘proxy war plus plus’; rather like an Afghanistan on steroids. In such a situation there are few options for carpet bombing, especially when you want to annex an area, or ‘dog fights’ when one side is operating quite literally under the radar. In South Asia, attempts to grab disputed territory are highly likely, even in a nuclearised environment. Such a conflict is likely to be fought on the margins, where traditional fighters operations though vital may be limited, even while other aspects of air power such as those which provide critical and continuous intelligence, will become important to be fed into operations by all other arms including cyber and information warfare. In sum, such a war will be ‘won’ by those commanders who can think across domains to achieve an objective, and using all available means including land, sea and space to achieve it. The loser will be one who hangs on to his turf.

It’s as well to remember that air power encompasses much more than just an air force and its fighters. Air as a medium is the envelope of atmosphere surrounding the entire earth; power can be described as the ability or capacity to perform effectively in this medium. That might seem simplistic. It isn’t. Few understand its immense capacity for exploitation during war, instead getting tied down in roles and missions.

The article has been authored by Tara Kartha, strategic and security expert, formerly at the National Security Council Secretariat.

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