Simmering differences over India’s military reform burst into the open on July 2. Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat called the Indian Air Force (IAF) a ‘support arm’. “The air force is required to provide support to the ground forces,” General Rawat said, speaking at a webinar organised by the Global Counter Terrorism Council. This came as a rude shock to the IAF whose 2012 doctrine prioritises destroying the enemy’s air assets over hitting targets on the ground. It lists counter air campaign and counter surface force campaigns, in that order, as two of its strategic aims. Counter air means destroying the enemy’s fighter aircraft and counter surface includes, among other tasks, flying bombing missions in support of the army.

IAF chief Air Chief Marshal RKS. Bhadauria wisely refrained from joining the issue with the CDS saying the IAF had an important role. Both the CDS and the air chief repeated their statements in interviews to India Today television later in the day. “Do not forget that the IAF continues to remain a supporting arm just as artillery support or engineers support the combatant arm in the army. They will be a supporting arm,” General Bipin Rawat told India Today.

General Rawat’s statement has triggered off dismay in the IAF which enters the 90th year of its creation this October. The IAF has always feared becoming the army’s air artillery, tethered to ground support duties. The CDS is worried that the IAF’s obduracy may delay the creation of the theatre commands. ‘Differing perceptions about (air power) are old as air power itself. But the place to discuss it is the elegant teak-panelled Chiefs of Staff Committee room in South Block. Not in TV studios,” the former navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash tweeted on July 3.

In ‘Defence from the Skies’, his 2007 book on the IAF, one of the service’s foremost minds, the late Air Commodore Jasjit Singh explained the IAF’s solitary nature. It is, he explains, ‘based on the reality that air power can interfere with and affect the functioning and operations of land and naval forces. The nature of the medium is such that the reverse is not true.’

The IAF’s headquarters at the Vayu Sena Bhavan epitomises this standalone nature. It sits 400 metres away from South Block, which houses the CDS and the two other service chiefs. The IAF’s independence could run at variance with the government’s plan to set up military theatres by 2023. The government plans to pare down the existing 17 single-service commands to just four or five military theatres where all the three services will train and fight together. For the IAF, sharing turf with the army and the navy in theatre commands, or worse, losing its precious fighters to them, is anathema. But the anger over General Rawat’s statement bubbled over in WhatsApp groups, IAF veterans worried over what lay in store after August 15, 2021, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to announce the creation of an integrated air defence command (IADC) and an integrated maritime theatre command (IMTC). The IADC will be headed by an IAF three-star officer when it is established on or around August 15, 2022, and the IMTC by a three-star naval officer. The bigger battle lies ahead in the creation of the western and eastern theatre commands by 2023. These two land-centric commands will subsume a bulk of the IAF’s four combat commands. This will require the defence ministry to handle the IAF’s concerns, some of them justified, with greater sensitivity.

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh needs to intervene and bring the air force on board with the reform. The last thing the country needs is a sulking service.

This is especially necessary because India’s military reforms are being driven by the political executive. Left to themselves, it can be safely said, the services would never integrate with each other. This is true of any democracy that has attempted military integration. The US political class, after decades of debate, enshrined its reform in the landmark Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986. India has chosen the executive decision route. India’s historic military reforms are commendable, especially because they have zero political appeal and the reason why politicians have been content to let the military do its own thing. The result is that the three services have operated in silos where each trains and plans to fight and win wars independently and has built a powerful raison d’etre. Building a consensus, hence, can be elusive. As late as 2018, the IAF had shot down the idea of theatre commands. The three services could only agree on a weaker but more acceptable permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee rather than a CDS. The government’s 2019 decision to appoint a powerful CDS with a sweeping mandate was hence a surprise even for the services.