Role of Indian Air Force In The Future

The statement by the CDS regarding the role of the IAF being merely to support operations by the Indian Army, has been somewhat disconcerting for personnel across the spectrum in the IAF

Issue: 07-2021By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By ADA
The Author is Former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Training Command, IAF


With progressive enhancement of capability and reach of aerial platforms, Air Power has become a primary component of military operations and not confined to merely a supporting role


In an interview of General Bipin Rawat, the incumbent Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) that was broadcast on India Today television channel on July 2 this year, one of the issues that was discussed was pertaining to the restructuring of the Indian Armed Forces by setting up of Integrated Theatre Commands (ITCs). The exercise currently under way pertains to a major reform in the Indian Military, perhaps the biggest in the post-independence era and is planned to commence with the setting up of India’s first two integrated ITCs namely an Integrated Maritime Theatre Command based in Karwar and an Integrated Air Defence Command based in Allahabad. This is one of the major tasks that is being handled by General Bipin Rawat in his present tenure as the CDS. During the interview, while elaborating on the process of the formation of Integrated Theatre Commands that is planned to include all the three services, General Bipin Rawat described the role of the Indian Air Force (IAF) as being merely a “supporting arm” for the land forces and equating it with the Regiments of the Artillery or Engineers that are a part of the Indian Army. To quote General Bipin Rawat, he stated, “Do not forget that Air Force continues to remain a supporting arm to the Armed Forces, just as artillery or the engineer support the combatant arms in the Army.”

The rumours that had been going round for some time appeared to have created a general impression, largely through the media prior to the interview referred to above, was that the IAF was not in favour of the concept of the creation of ITCs. The IAF thus was perceived in some quarters, to be playing spoilsport in the creation of ITCs as it did not wish to part with and hand over control of its assets.

In the two World Wars, Air Power became a primary component of military operations and did not remain confined to merely a supporting role

The statement by the CDS regarding the role of the IAF being to support operations by the Indian Army, has been somewhat disconcerting for personnel across the spectrum in the IAF. Even though, soon after the disturbing comment by the CDS General Bipin Rawat, Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria, Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), IAF, appeared on the same television channel and spoke at length about the capabilities and the role of the IAF. The CAS came forward and appeared in the media immediately after the controversial statement by General Bipin Rawat in order to obviate the possibility of any misperceptions that could spread amongst the rank and file especially in the IAF on account the somewhat inappropriate statement made by the CDS regarding the role of the IAF being merely to support operations by the land forces. Speaking to media, Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria said, “It is not a supporting role alone. Air Power has a huge role to play. In any of the integrated battle areas, it is not an issue of support alone. A whole lot of things go into any air plan that is made. And those are the issues that are under discussion.”


Declaring the fourth largest Air Force in the world as a mere supporting arm for operations by the Indian Army, reveals a disturbing lack of understanding of the capability of not only the IAF, but that of Air Power in general. Compared to the land and naval forces, emergence of military aviation that signifies the Air Power of a nation, is a more recent phenomenon. The birth of Air Power can be traced back to the early part of the 20th century when Wilbur and Orville Wright, the two American inventors who were also referred to as the Wright Brothers, proved to be true pioneers in aviation. In 1903, the Wright Brothers achieved the first powered, sustained and controlled flight by an airplane designed, developed and manufactured by them. After this historic achievement by the Wright Brothers, technology related to powered flight made rapid advances thereafter paving the way for aviation to transgress into the domain of the military thus leading to the advent of military aviation. Employment of Air Power in military operations is thus a gift of the 20th century to the world and in the two World Wars, Air Power became a primary component of military operations and did not remain confined to merely a supporting role.


As military aviation in the developed world was still in its nascent stage, Air Power did not determine the outcome of the First World War. However, it did have some influence in changing the character of war during the conflict. In fact, doctrines related to modern air warfare have their origins in the First World War. Even though it was in the early stages of development, Air Power proved to be a vital element of the emergence of the combined arms doctrine in the British and French armies that led to their victory in 1918. Without Air Power, their victory could perhaps have been more difficult. Since 1918, the impact of Air Power on the conduct and final outcome of wars that has been fought since then, has been a major issue for the militaries of the world.


During the Second World War, the world witnessed a quantum leap in the capability and utilisation of Air Power as advances in technology, led to the development of more complex and capable combat platforms. Air Power was employed in a variety of roles and proved to be capable of playing a decisive role in war independently in a number of military campaigns that were not in support of operations by the ground forces. In the early years of the Second World War, the German Air Force, also referred to as the Luftwaffe, dominated the skies and facilitated the advance of the German Army across Western Europe. The Royal Air Force of Britain eventually turned the tables on the German Air Force ultimately enabling the nation to emerge victorious. But the most devastating use of Air Power was displayed by the United States Air Force (USAF) against Japan. Bomber aircraft of the USAF targeted two major cities in Japan namely Hiroshima and Nagasaki, on August 06 and 09, 1945 respectively, with nuclear bombs. Both the major cities of Japan were devastated and there was heavy loss of life. These two missions executed by Air Power of the USAF alone, resulted in the surrender by Japan just a week later. This is one example in the history of military aviation where as a part of air operations of the Air Force of a nation had carried out the missions independent of ground operations and undoubtedly had achieved dramatic results.


With progressive enhancement of capability and reach of aerial platforms extending even into space, Air Power has now emerged as Aerospace Power. Future generations of aerial combat platforms referred to as Future Combat Air System (FCAS), will definitely be focused more on unmanned operations. This prognostication has been reinforced by a recent success on June 4, 2021 in refuelling in flight of an F/A-18E-F Super Hornet, a manned aircraft of the US Navy by an unmanned flight refuelling aircraft, an MQ-25 Stingray designed, developed and manufactured by US aerospace major Boeing. Aerospace Power of the future will thus be dominated by Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) that will operate autonomously as Drone Swarms. The battlefield of the future will be dominated by network centric Drone Swarms that will be capable of sustained autonomous multi-role operations in the entire spectrum of air warfare. The scope of operations by the Military Aviation segment of a nation will be far wider than being just limited to mere air support to land forces.