The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) categorised the Indian Air Force as a supporting force “just like the artillery and engineers,” in a television interview on July 2. Being the authority charged with accentuating jointness amongst the services and bringing about theaterisation, the comment has stirred the proverbial hornet’s nest as it goes against the basic grain of this particular remit. Here, a few truths need to be discussed.
‘Horses for courses’ goes a popular idiom—it also, in a way, forms one important pillar of jointness in the armed forces. When the terrorists struck at Pulwama in 2019, a ‘message’ had to be sent across; and it was fairly and squarely done when IAF fighters struck far-away Balakot in mainland Pakistan, not Pakistan- occupied Kashmir. Earlier in 2016, when terrorists just across the border were to be addressed after the Uri attack, it was the Indian Army’s Special Forces that did the job. And in the Doklam stand-off, it was the Indian Navy’s P-8I aircraft that did special ISR (surveillance and reconnaissance) missions, as they had the equipment best suited for the job.
A wise commander, irrespective of the service he belongs to, chooses a tool that best delivers the desired results; this, is the essence of jointmanship, where a service becomes the spearhead one day and performs a supporting role on another. Type casting a service in rigid boxes as a fighting arm or a supporting force is bad form.
What Air Power Brings to the Table
The Royal Air Force was carved out from the British Army in 1918, when it was realised that an independent air arm was necessary to exploit all the attributes of an emerging fighting arm. The US Air Force had to wait another three decades before becoming an independent arm. The Indian Air Force, born as a tactical air force to support British troops on ground in the North West Frontier Province, graduated quickly to performing independent missions when the situation so required; so, deep interdiction missions were conducted in the 1965 and ’71 wars (on both fronts) that accelerated the final outcomes; and, when the Indian Army troops needed close support, this happened too. Was it possible everytime? Well, while the jawan on the ground would always want to see his own fighter overhead, the joint planners at the rear have the bigger picture and bring to bear air power where necessary. This, is what jointness aims at— utilising attributes of a service in space and time such that it helps win wars.
What does air power bring to the table? Air power helps us do things in an area from ‘without’, with the intervening land and sea not being an impediment; it has, in a way, a ‘virtual’ presence far removed from where it is based, unlike the other two services. Thus, it can influence happenings in the neighbourhood and project deterrence, compellence, coercion, dissuasion, persuasion et al by its ‘virtual’ presence. So, a nation’s defence and diplomacy get a boost with air power in the vanguard. Does that make it superior to the Army or the Navy? Certainly not, as each service has a core competency that needs careful husbanding—careful husbanding starts with an acknowledgement of this fact (of core competency), a point that is drilled down in all joint service teaching academies. There is no gain saying the fact that such an approach is sine qua non when attempting theaterisation where individual service attributes need to be subsumed in a melting pot to get a product greater than the individual sums. But for that to happen one needs to be aware of what a service can do or cannot do. Unfortunately, the jointness and theaterisation drive just got a rude shock by the CDS interview.
Jointmanship: A Military ‘State of Mind’
Talking about how theatres would be formed, the CDS said that while Western and Eastern theatre commands would be set up, the present Army Northern Command would not be touched as it was deeply involved in counter-insurgency and had two active borders. Frankly, if that be the case, the Northern Command should be the first to be theaterised to further operational synchronisation. Does this statement point to events being rushed just to meet artificially set deadlines, not based on professional logic?
It appears so because just an hour later the Air Chief was interviewed and he said that “the Air Force is all for theaterisation but we should get it right; we should be able to synergise.” When pressed to comment on what the CDS had said about the Air Force, the Air Chief was categoric in stating that the IAF is not a support arm and that the views of the force had been conveyed to the government. He, diplomatically, closed the topic by saying that he would not discuss the issue in a public forum and once the decision is taken it would come out in the media.That is how it should be, as inspired leaks to select journalists, and now the ‘announcement’ by the CDS of decisions yet to be approved by the government, are indicative of an attempt to paint a service into a corner. This, in no way, is jointmanship.
Jointmanship is not a dictionary word! Yes, it’s not! Try locating it! Jointmanship is a military ‘state of mind’ that nudges its proponent to acknowledge the strong points and shortcomings of a service, including his own, and act in the best interests of the nation. What we have seen, read and heard in the recent past does not augur well and needs amelioration. Having been in the uniform for the better part of almost four decades, this writer is confident that professional sense would prevail.