The recent controversy over the marginalisation of the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the proposed 'Theaterisation' of the national security landscape has led to needless acrimony at the higher echelons of military leadership and exposed the hollowness of 'jointness' within India's armed forces

by Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam (Retd)

The recent controversy over the marginalisation of the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the proposed 'Theaterisation' of the national security landscape has led to needless acrimony at the higher echelons of military leadership and exposed the hollowness of 'jointness' within India's armed forces.

From a historical perspective, the continued claims from within the Indian military that jointness is firm since officers from all the three services have grown in service through joint institutions such as National Defence Academy, Defence Services Staff College and National Defence College faces an acid test.

This author has often defended the trajectory of 'jointmanship' within India's armed forces in the face of pointed criticism from home and abroad, but finds it impossible now not to point out the emerging fissures and cracks before they cause irreparable damage.

Rather than transfer the blame onto the bureaucracy or the political establishment for not understanding the armed forces well enough, it is time to recognise the 'enemy within' -- a knowledge deficit within senior leadership that has led to a breakdown of trust. This serious knowledge deficit within the senior leadership on what the other service brings to the table and a reluctance to address hard and contentious issues till it boils over into the public domain has the potential to completely derail the process of integration, which is an inescapable imperative in a post-Covid global order.

Having written extensively about war and conflict in contemporary India from a joint perspective, the author has had a vantage position of delving deep into the thoughts of senior leadership from all the three services even while engaging in teaching and mentoring roles at all levels of Professional Military Education (PME).

The Indian Army remains the big gorilla in the room that is finding it difficult to make the transition from a manpower intensive 'boots on ground' and 'counterinsurgency' mind-set to a force that recognises the imperatives of a 'limited and high intensity' technology-dominated conflict milieu.

Political objectives in today's rapidly changing geopolitical environment will always look at the military as an instrument of force that can offer speedy military solutions to a national security challenge. In such a milieu, mass and friction will play second fiddle to speed, surprise, shock and the ability to cause disproportionate combat attrition not only in the tactical battle area, but also in intermediate depth. This will determine the trajectory of strategic negotiations that unfold in the shadow of war. It is a no brainer that specialised air power that is built on assiduous development of core competencies offers the best solutions for coercive deterrence and inflicting punishment without putting boots on ground.

The IAF is among the oldest air forces in the world; it has evolved through the years into a highly competent and professional force with a distinct ethos of its own that is acknowledged as among the best in the world in both the kinetic and non-kinetic domains. It has a compact and tightly worded doctrine that has been assiduously converted into capability even amidst the severe erosion of resources.

Most importantly, in recent years, it has emerged as a critical tool of statecraft. The power of the IAF stems from almost a century of accumulated air power wisdom and the ability of IAF practitioners to absorb best practices from across the world. There is a sense of pride and ethos that needs to be leveraged and not dissipated and deflated by demoting it to that of a supporting arm.

The adage that those who ignore the lessons from history will be condemned to repeat the follies of the past holds good in the current context. After the 1971 war, Air Chief Marshal P.C. Lal, the IAF's most cerebral chief so far pushed back against the concept of CDS because he felt that the IAF had done enough and more to secure a place at the high table for the IAF, a thought that was shared by the Indian Navy which had similarly done spectacularly well in combat but refrained from being combative about integration as it has always been sanguine about the ownership of the maritime space.

While there is little doubt that the Indian Navy has played a constructive role in the past by agreeing to a Tri-Service Andaman Nicobar Command, there was never any doubt about who would call the shots in case of a need to respond to security challenges in the maritime domain. It is unfortunate that the ongoing controversy over two issues - the very status and DNA of the IAF and the dismantling of several tried and trusted principles in the employment of air power - seems to have pushed the IAF into a corner.

The IAF chief having to offer his views rather strongly after having been fairly accommodating about the process of integration during his tenure which ends shortly, does not augur well and this is where there is a shortage of military knowledge and wisdom within India's strategic community that has exposed chinks in India's security armour.

Specialised air power will have a significant role in any future conflict even in battle spaces like the LAC, LoC and the deep maritime spaces of the IOR and Indo-Pacific, which till now were considered fertile fighting ground only for the Indian Army and Indian Navy. There is little more that the IAF can do to demonstrate its commitment to jointmanship and the larger issues of statecraft. It has leveraged every asset at its disposal in recent times and risen to the occasion repeatedly during crises whenever called upon to do so, be it at Balakot, or the counter-coercive build up in Ladakh, or the war against Covid-19.

It is for that reason and more that the IAF must be a fair stakeholder in any set of integrated structures that come up, and that demands sagacity, generosity and wisdom from the senior service. Whether it is an opportunity to command a large theatre on the Western Front, or the flexibility to retain control over limited air assets with a recalibration of operational focus to cater to the needs of theatre commands, there are accommodating options that must be thought about to stave off a possible crisis.