Asia — Critical Role Of Air Power In Limited Wars

Lim­i­ta­tions in such con­flicts can be in terms of: 

  • Lim­i­ta­tions in Space (local­i­sa­tion of conflict).
  • Lim­i­ta­tions in Time (these are very much like­ly in our context).
  • Lim­i­ta­tions in terms of Weapon Usage. The first of these is non-use of nuclear weapons. In many con­flicts (e.g. Viet­nam 1979) the Chi­nese made a virtue of neces­si­ty by not using their Air Force.
  • Lim­i­ta­tions in War Aims.

By 1978 the Chi­nese para­mount leader Deng Xiaop­ing had come to the clear cut con­clu­sion that Gen­er­al Wars (like World War I and II) were a thing of the past. The future decades would wit­ness only Local or Lim­it­ed Wars and accord­ing­ly the Chi­nese armed forces would pre­pare to fight them. This con­trasts sharply with our treat­ment of Lim­it­ed War as a less­er con­tin­gency rather than the norm in a nuclear set­ting. The Indi­an MoD con­tin­ues to insist that our armed forces must pre­pare to fight a full fledged war and such prepa­ra­tion can take care of any less­er contingency. 

The revival

The Sovi­et Union suf­fered an eco­nom­ic col­lapse in 1990. There­after the Amer­i­cans exploit­ed the Aero­space gen­er­at­ed RMA to resume deci­sive Con­ven­tion­al Con­flicts. These were Lim­it­ed but Intense Con­flicts localised in space. They used air pow­er to vir­tu­al­ly destroy the ene­my and all the ground forces had to do was to mop up in the wake of the air offen­sive. In Yugoslavia and recent­ly in Libya, air pow­er by itself proved ade­quate to cause a coun­try to capit­u­late. Swift and deci­sive cam­paigns that led to a march on the ene­my cap­i­tal and regime change were made pos­si­ble by gen­er­at­ing a com­plete asym­me­try in Aero­space pow­er. The Libyan mod­el has emu­lat­ed the ear­li­er Afghan mod­el of 2001 where­in Spe­cial Forces embed­ded with local mili­tias, vec­tored accu­rate Air Strikes. How­ev­er the trag­ic les­son from Afghanistan has been the need for boots on the ground to con­trol and retain the areas won by the appli­ca­tion of air pow­er. The pri­ma­ry req­ui­site for vic­to­ry in sur­face oper­a­tions is Air supe­ri­or­i­ty bor­der­ing on air suprema­cy. To gen­er­ate this we have to field over­match­ing forces — espe­cial­ly in terms of air power. 

India will have to evolve and enun­ci­ate a Lim­it­ed War Doc­trine that exploits the cur­rent RMA by giv­ing pri­ma­cy to Air Pow­er to be the first respon­ders and if need­ed, set the stage for a wider Air-Land Bat­tle designed to sharply esca­late costs for the ene­my. There was con­sid­er­able dis­cus­sion on the con­cept of Lim­it­ed War in the wake of the Kargil oper­a­tions. This debate was ini­ti­at­ed by Air Cmde Jasjit Singh (then the Direc­tor IDSA). Sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions were made by the then Army Chief Gen Ved Malik and the then Rak­sha Mantri Mr George Fer­nan­dez. Sur­pris­ing­ly with­in three years this debate had died out alto­geth­er and this very wel­come ini­tia­tive was not tak­en for­ward

Air pow­er in India

Post the 1962 war with Chi­na a need was felt for a 64 Squadron Air Force to deal with a two front threat. This was nev­er actu­alised. We reached at best a 45 squadron lev­el. With the intro­duc­tion of PGMs and Third and Fourth Gen­er­a­tion fight­ers it was felt that a less­er num­ber of air­craft would now be need­ed to car­ry out tasks for­mer­ly exe­cut­ed by much larg­er num­ber of air­craft. A sin­gle Su-30 today can car­ry almost as much ord­nance as a Mig-21 squadron. It does not work out that way in prac­tice how­ev­er. Giv­en the vast size of our coun­try — the­atre spe­cif­ic forces have to be deployed to deal with a two-front threat. We now need a com­bi­na­tion of qual­i­ty with quan­ti­ty to achieve over­match­ing capa­bil­i­ties and gen­er­ate a marked asym­me­try of air pow­er. Today the IAF has grad­u­at­ed from a Sec­ord Gen­er­a­tion Air Force to one which has a ris­ing com­po­nent of Third and Fourth Gen­er­a­tion fight­ers. It has AWACS and Aerostats for over the hori­zon sur­veil­lance and tar­get acqui­si­tion. It has Beyond Visu­al Range (BVR) mis­siles and has per­fect­ed their employ­ment tac­tics in numer­ous exer­cis­es with Front Line West­ern Air Forces. It has force mul­ti­pli­ers like AWACS and midair refu­elling to enhance range and reach and PGMs to enhance lethal­i­ty manifold.

We need to switch now entire­ly to a com­bat fleet of 4th and 5th Gen­er­a­tion Air­craft. These must be induct­ed rapid­ly to bal­ance the rise of Chi­nese and Pak­istani Aero­space capa­bil­i­ties and strive for a vis­i­ble edge in deploy­able forces even over such a com­bi­na­tion. We must retain our qual­i­ta­tive advan­tage over the PLAAF even as we are not able to match it quan­ti­ta­tive­ly. High Alti­tude Air­fields in Tibet impose a take­off load penal­ty on the Chi­nese Air Force. We can gen­er­ate viable options for Lim­it­ed War only if we can assure air supe­ri­or­i­ty over the The­atre of oper­a­tions (and not just a favourable air sit­u­a­tion). To do this we must speed up induc­tion of MMRCA and LCA as also our Fifth Gen­er­a­tion fight­er. It is now a race against time (because Chi­na has a head start of almost two decades in eco­nom­ic and mil­i­tary modernisation).

Air pow­er in lim­it­ed war

  • Air pow­er is far more respon­sive and flex­i­ble than land power.
  • Hence any response to asym­met­ric provo­ca­tion — espe­cial­ly in terms of mass casu­al­ty ter­ror­ist strikes must be ini­ti­at­ed by air power.
  • We must care­ful­ly ascer­tain the groups which have ini­ti­at­ed the strike and tar­get them in a pre­cise and focused manner.
  • Par­tial mobil­i­sa­tion would be essen­tial pri­or to such a response to cater for ene­my reactions.
  • Should the ene­my choose to esca­late we must seek to destroy his air pow­er and there­by set the stage for the employ­ment of sur­face forces.
  • Sur­face action could go up the esca­la­tion lad­der in terms of grad­u­at­ed attacks pos­si­bly in the moun­tains — extend­ing to the plains and semi-deserts depend­ing upon how the adver­sary responds.
  • Air pow­er must set the stage for a puni­tive air-land bat­tle to raise the costs for the aggres­sor and seri­ous­ly degrade his oper­a­tional and strate­gic reserve.
  • The ter­ror infra­struc­ture of the ISI and train­ing camps must be specif­i­cal­ly tar­get­ed in such a cam­paign for impos­ing salu­tary attrition.
  • Pre­cise esca­la­tion lad­ders must be drawn up and war gamed. We must cater for a series of esca­la­tion plateaus to retain esca­la­tion dom­i­nance and pro­vide scope to the polit­i­cal author­i­ty to esca­late ver­ti­cal­ly or hor­i­zon­tal­ly or even de-esca­late depend­ing upon the situation.
  • Lim­it­ed wars need not mean just tac­ti­cal lev­el engage­ment. The Chi­nese con­cept of Local Wars, as seen in Korea and Viet­nam, encom­pass­es the lev­el of oper­a­tional area and may well envis­age the employ­ment of 20–30 divi­sions or more.
  • To inflict mean­ing­ful pun­ish­ment air-land bat­tles will have to be orches­trat­ed to this level.
  • Air Pow­er will have to lead the way, ini­ti­ate our response and set the stage, if need­ed, for a Lim­it­ed War designed to sig­nif­i­cant­ly raise the costs for the aggressor.

About the Author:


Maj Gen (Dr) G D Bak­shi SM, VSM (retd)
The writer is a com­bat vet­er­an of many skir­mish­es on the Line of Con­trol and counter-ter­ror­ist oper­a­tions in Jam­mu and Kash­mir and Pun­jab. He sub­se­quent­ly com­mand­ed the reput­ed Romeo Force dur­ing inten­sive counter-ter­ror­ist oper­a­tions in the Rajouri-Poonch dis­tricts. He has served two tenures at the high­ly pres­ti­gious Direc­torate Gen­er­al of Mil­i­tary Oper­a­tions. He is a pro­lif­ic writer on mat­ters mil­i­tary and non-mil­i­tary and has pub­lished 24 books and over 100 papers in many pres­ti­gious research jour­nals. He is also Exec­u­tive Edi­tor of Defence and Secu­ri­ty Alert (DSA) magazine. 

Defence and Secu­ri­ty Alert (DSA)
Defence and Secu­ri­ty Alert (DSA) mag­a­zine is the only ISO 9001:2008 cer­ti­fied, pre­mier world class, new wave month­ly mag­a­zine which fea­tures par­a­digm chang­ing in-depth analy­ses on defence, secu­ri­ty, safe­ty and sur­veil­lance, focus­ing on devel­op­ing and strate­gic future sce­nar­ios in India and around the world.

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