Future warfare will assume many forms and will be unpredictable. Coping with the changing security environment is the challenge before the IAF.
India’s regional security environment has remained unstable and afflicted with periodic violence since the 1960s. However, subtle changes have been manifest in the last decade which would impinge on India’s security calculus for the future. These would also dictate the future size and structure of the Indian Air Force (IAF) since aerospace power continues to evolve as an immensely potent instrument of national power.
The first important consideration is that all military action against the two major adversaries, China and Pakistan, would be taken under the shadow of proclaimed nuclear capabilities. Secondly, the operating environment and manoeuvre space for the armed forces will be increasingly restricted due to various factors, such as need to minimise collateral damage, legal and international issues and media glare. Last, but not the least, would be the increased relevance of technological dominance in the conduct of operations, irrespective of the level of conflict.
Impact of Nuclear Weapons
Complications arising from the possession and threat of use of nuclear weapons are well known. There is, however, one aspect which has directly impacted the course of events in our region: it is only after Pakistan covertly tested its nuclear device with the help of China in 1998 that low intensity conflicts (LICO), proxy war and terrorism rose significantly in the Indian sub-continent. Going overt with its nuclear weapon capability in 1998 probably emboldened Pakistan to orchestrate the Kargil misadventure.
The other aspect is the mistaken perception that space for a conventional conflict does not exist within the shadow of nuclear weapons. Irrespective of the debate on the nebulous nuclear threshold, a credible conventional deterrence is absolutely necessary even in a nuclear neighbourhood. Conventional hot war situations, with mass movement of armour, guns and troops seem remote in the South Asian context in the immediate or foreseeable future. Future conflicts will be localised in nature and will be confined to finite limits of space, time and objectives.
Challenges for the IAF
It is an established fact that there will always be some kind of stress along the Indo-Pak border. As is apparent for some time now, Pakistan will continue to resort to sub-conventional and low intensity options to foment unrest and keep the Indian armed forces engaged in low-intensity, counter-terrorism operations.
China in all probability does not seek direct confrontation even though it has considerable superiority in almost all aspects of national capability. Beijing’s intentions have always remained inscrutable and one can only speculate. The rapid modernisation of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force with very capable platforms, development of infrastructure and the targeting of its ballistic missiles, all indicate that it definitely desires to maintain and project superiority over India, so that it can always bargain from a position of strength.
Evidently, India will continue to face threats spanning the full spectrum of conflict—from low intensity to nuclear. It is equally apparent that it would have to create a credible and demonstrable deterrence to cater for all scenarios affecting its security. Current trends show that for a variety of geo-political and economic reasons, future conflicts would tend to shift towards the lower end of the spectrum. The way the recent events have played out reinforces the above analysis. Terrorism, random destruction, targeting of ordinary people in urban terrain and localised border skirmishes has become the new face of conflict.
Broadly speaking, the emerging regional and global security environment will impact operational doctrines, equipment profiles, training and, consequently, the organisational structures and mindsets of the Indian armed forces in consonance with India’s overall security calculus. The IAF would be no exception. The IAF must shift towards attaining a set of ‘capabilities’ which could be effectively applied to the vast range of possible scenarios, in concert with the established tenets of the flexibility of Air Power. The IAF must provide its national leadership with a set of options which could be prosecuted in accordance with the demands of the situation. The advantage ‘Aerospace Power’ has in reacting to emergent situations is well known. Its unique capability of transcending all forms of boundaries and obstacles to deliver aerospace power in the manner required is also acknowledged. In keeping with this changed environment and new employment philosophies, the IAF must continue to acquire capabilities of precision strike, strategic reach, air dominance, persistence, responsiveness, flexible employment, mobility and transparency in intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR).