The cutting-edge elements of the IAF are fraying. The operational strategy has to be anchored in what is going to be available; calling it aerospace is aspirational for now.
The third iteration of the Indian Air Force doctrine was released on 4 February 2023; the first two were introduced in 2012 and 1995. The new doctrine has been expanded in length, scope, and detail, and mirrors the blooming potential of air and space as key mediums in which the Indian military can find greater expression and effectiveness. It isn’t surprising that the doctrine has officially rechristened the IAF as an aerospace power — a need that has been highlighted by the Indian leadership for several decades.
Political backing for change has been forthcoming and inheres in Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s exhortation to the senior IAF leadership in May 2022: “Indian Air Force should become an Aerospace Force and be ready to protect the country from ever-evolving threats.” The real challenge now lies in translating the IAF’s expanded vision into capabilities and capacities to meet the growing threats that pervade air and space. A process that the doctrine identifies as requiring the strengthening of aerospace power’s exclusive attributes of reach, mobility, responsiveness, flexibility, offensive lethality, and trans-domain operational capability. Organic equipment, firepower, and workforce are identified as crucial to create the Aerospace Force.
The IAF has always felt that political leadership has not utilised its potential in most of the wars, except perhaps in the 1971 India-Pakistan war. This has also been accompanied by a belief that other Services do not sufficiently comprehend the role that the IAF can play in national security. The doctrine, therefore, was also expected to provide knowledge to include decision makers across political, strategic, military, scientific, academic, and other varied groups. However, this role of the doctrine ushers in the document several explanatory and illustrative diversions that overshadow the core beliefs it should have as its focus. The doctrine reads like a precis that is attempting to educate instead of being the receptacle of overarching guidance based on belief systems derived from experience.
A West-inspired doctrine
Brevity is certainly not the strong point of the doctrine. The reader’s difficulty lies in discerning the core belief systems that animate the doctrine. Perhaps due to the focus on explanations and thinking processes, strategy overshadows the content. In particular, it misses out on the belief systems that emanate from the reality of our adversaries being nuclear powers. A reality that overshadows the entire spectrum from ‘peace’, ‘no war, no peace’ to ‘war’. Notably, escalation potential as a political restraint does not find a place. It should have perhaps helped to flag the point that air strategy has to be cognisant of escalation, though drawing the lines of restraint is a politico-military process.
Having assumed the mantle of being an aerospace power, there is more than a veneer of ‘ownership’ of the domain, even though the doctrine identifies other stakeholders like the air arm of the Navy and Army, civil air resources, and space-based assets that it describes as being a multi-user domain of growing significance. While flagging jointness, it concedes that aerospace power may not win a war on its own but asserts that no war can be won without it. One can only say that we need to ask Americans about the validity of such a sweeping statement. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam are examples. What it reveals is that the IAF is unwilling to concede that power is a relational variable. As a result, jointness should be based on the notion of temporary custodians that can shift between different lead agencies operating in the same space, which includes a host of stakeholders. Such a posture does not bode well for establishing the theatre command system.
The doctrine is weighted with liberal use of American buzzwords such as network-centric warfare and multi-domain warfare. It is also obvious that in terms of perspective, the doctrine is West-inspired. There is perhaps a case for looking at Atmanirbharta and adopting phrases that are closer to the Indian outlook.
This version of the doctrine is certainly a reflection of the intellectual capacity of the IAF to articulate its belief systems based on knowledge, experience, and rational imagination. All the same, its core purpose should have been confined to a doctrinal framework that identifies the attributes it seeks to strengthen. The way to strengthen them lies in the realm of policy and strategy. The document strays too much into strategy, which becomes hot air, uninformed by the means that the nation is willing to invest.
It is no secret that the cutting-edge elements of the IAF, like its fighter squadrons, are fraying in quantity and quality. While the document can provide guidance on prioritisation of acquisition, its operational strategy and tactics have to be anchored in the wherewithal that is going to be available. Therefore the change of nomenclature to aerospace, though justified, is for the present an aspirational one. Moreover, the path ahead is potholed with geopolitical challenges in the background of the political leadership continuing to decrease the defence budget in real terms. A situation that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.
Need to flag some issues
It would seem that the military can’t produce a document without invoking Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The IAF doctrine is no exception. It invokes his speeches in two paragraphs of the text to suggest his recognition of the importance of aerospace power in the national security matrix. However, such proclivity by the military leadership raises the issue of the armed forces’ apolitical nature. Perhaps, from a nation-building perspective, there is no greater threat to India’s democratic framework than the military weakening its apolitical nature. It is time that the armed forces themselves commit to stating the importance they place on their apolitical values.
The document is silent on the avoidance of damage to civilian lives and property. That has been the reality of the West’s use of air power in Iraq and Afghanistan; and now in the Ukraine war. We should certainly have a doctrinal position on it.
Overall, the doctrine has attempted to achieve too much by attempting to educate, inform, and advertise the potential of aerospace power. That should be a separate and continuous effort. But it should not have been allowed to overshadow the prime achievement of attributes identified.