Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat (left) with Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhaduria

India’s wars show that its air force has exerted a decisive edge on the outcome of land battles whenever it was deployed by the political executive

Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat’s July 2 statement terming the Indian Air Force (IAF) a ‘support arm’ has triggered a controversy. For the IAF, which prides itself as a distinct strategic service, it is a realisation of its worst fears—it will be swallowed by the dominant army when the first two land-based theatre commands are set up by 2023.

The army’s point is that air power must be used in support of land operations and cannot operate independently. A bombing campaign by itself cannot win a war. It has to be conducted in concert with ground operations by the army, which ultimately captures and holds territory. This is true globally, which is why Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s regime has survived a decade of bombings and Israel’s air force has been unable to completely neutralise the militant group Hamas operating out of Gaza.

The debate over whether air or land power is supreme might be as old as air power itself. However, it is an academic debate in most major world militaries that have got their services to train, plan and operate jointly in theatre commands. China was one of the last countries to formalise theatre commands, integrating air and ground forces in 2016. India will be the last major military to restructure itself. Nearly 75 years after independence, the Indian armed forces, especially the army and air force, train, operate and fight separately. There is no concept of joint operations and planning, which has had debilitating consequences on the conduct of military campaigns.

India’s military history shows that the IAF exerted a decisive role on the outcome of land battles whenever it was effectively used—in 1947, 1971 and 1999. When IAF fighters and bombers were kept out of the battle—as they were by the political executive during the 1962 Indo-China war—the Indian Army suffered a humiliating defeat. This was an astonishing lapse because the IAF operated a force of over 500 fighter jets, one of the largest in Asia. The role of the political executive in understanding military power in all its dimensions, therefore, cannot be understated.