Aerospace Power: IAF’s Doctrinal Overview – Analysis


By Diptendu Choudhury

The biggest challenge faced by air power across the world is its complexity and the consequent difficulty in understanding it. Churchill’s observation over eight decades ago “Air Power is the most difficult of military force to measure or even express in precise terms” holds especially true in the Indian context. While powerful militaries the world over have long accepted the salience of air power in their respective military and national strategies, India’s surface-centric security focus, even today misperceives air power as a mere support service, adjunct to the service-specific operational strategies of the continental and maritime domains.

This is exacerbated by a long history of restrained use of air power in all of India’s wars, except for its sole unfettered exploitation in the 1971 war with Pakistan. Disconcertingly, it tends to limit the nation’s security strategies and choices in its response matrix, especially considering that both China and Pakistan, our inimical neighbours, have strong air forces which will play an important role in any future conflict. Also, given India’s growth trajectory, and Asia as the locus of future geopolitics, the review of the IAF doctrine is timely and pertinent. The opening words of the Chief of Air Staff in the recently revised Doctrine of the Indian Air Force “The IAF has, over the years, transformed into a modern aerospace power that is capable of controlling and exploiting air and space environments in order to achieve India’s national and security objectives” serves to herald the present status of the nation’s aerospace power and its inexorable future relevance.

The document begins with the IAF’s transition to an aerospace power due to the air and space continuum, the extensive and inexorable space dependency of the service, and the need for robust security of the nation’s space-based and space-related assets in the future. It explains how the technology-transformed core characteristics of reach, flexibility and versatility, mobility, responsiveness, offensive lethality, and trans-domain capabilities also blend and transform the very principles of war. It also provides conceptual clarity on the close intertwining of national security with the key contemporary and future premises of aerospace power, which also underpin the evolution process of the doctrine, and the articulation of objectives of the service. A novel inclusion is a chapter on air strategy, which covers its doctrinal and structural engagement with the nations’ joint military strategy, as well as the land and maritime strategies, across the entire spectrum and levels of conflict. While sovereignty protection, deterrence, air diplomacy, and nation building constitute its peacetime strategy, in a first no-war-no-peace strategy, covers the interregnum between peace and war is also laid down. Geopolitical and regional security realities, state-sponsored terror, the continuous simmering on India’s hostile borders and internal security challenges serve as the basis for the employment of aerospace power in information dominance, shaping operations, and external and internal security operations.

The wartime strategy has considered the defining aspects of past, contemporary and likely future precepts in the employment of aerospace power in the unique multi-domain-multi-spectrum Indian security context. The critical doctrinal imperative of control of air for the holistic application of combat power of all three services has been underscored in the ongoing Russo-Ukraine war. The underpinning of IAF’s historically demonstrated commitment to joint operations is clearly evident in the structural connection between IAF’s combat-enabling, enhancing, and sustaining operations with the overall application of joint combat power. Equally importantly, the wartime air strategy underscores the distinction between coordinated air operations with the other services, and the independent critical strategic air operations of the IAF. These will carry the national resolve and the fury of war deep into the adversary’s territory to strike its military and strategic centres of gravity, like it uniquely did deep inside West Pakistan, in the 1971 war.

These include targets that will weaken the adversary’s capacity to wage war, affect its long-term national capacity, and exert pressure on its political will. All future conflicts will be impacted directly and significantly by the capabilities of IAF’s conjoined twins of air power – offensive air operations and air defence operations. Given that India’s future battle spaces will be highly contested, the two factora will play a defining role in the surface operations in the tactical battle frontages which are likely to be of limited depth; the logistics nodes, lines of communications, and deployed military assets in the intermediate depths; the depth strategic targeting. The doctrine also elaborates how capabilities of battle-space transparency, combat networking, cyber and information warfare, electronic warfare, techno-logistics, administration and human resource management, and training, all come together for multi-domain operations in the expanded battle spaces of future conflicts.

IAF’s clear understanding of the relevance of space in its future capabilities and the close interconnect of research with the development of civil-military industrial capabilities are highlighted. Also remarkable, is the nuanced and mature approach taken in articulating that space is a larger national common and serves as a larger national interest. Future roles beyond the national security construct, enabled by the wide spectrum of choices which kinetic hard power and the immense non-kinetic soft power capabilities aerospace power provides, are elaborated in the closing chapters. It includes the furtherance of nation-building, assisting statecraft and foreign policy, regional security and stability in the IOR and Indo-Pacific, and other larger national interests. The technology-agile character of the service and its ability to swiftly adapt its tactics doctrines and strategies allows for service-specific and joint future capability and capacity accretion by fostering niche indigenous technology development.

By articulating the IAF’s character, ethos, objectives, roles, and capabilities, and very importantly by laying down what it can and cannot do, the doctrine seeks to overcome the past inadequacy in the wider knowledge and leveraging of air power in India’s national security and interests. It is also timely given the efforts underway in the security establishment to evolve national defence and security strategies for the future.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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