Debate on Chief of Defence Staff: Stop projecting IAF as a villain

August 22, 2019 2:19 PM

Recently, during his speech on Independence Day, the Indian Prime Minister has announced the decision of his government about the creation of the post of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).

Having a single-point military advisor to the government is a need of the hour, particularly in the 21st century when the nature of warfare is rapidly changing (Express Photo/Representational)

By Dr Ajey Lele

Recently, during his speech on Independence Day, the Indian Prime Minister has announced the decision of his government about the creation of the post of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). This has been a long-pending demand associated with bringing in the reforms in the defence establishment. Having a single-point military advisor to the government is a need of the hour, particularly in the 21st century when the nature of warfare is rapidly changing. Today, India armed forces are required to remain prepared to address various forms of warfare from conventional to nuclear to asymmetric to cyber to space.

Interestingly, some political/defence analysts are found using this opportunity to paint the Indian Air Force (IAF) negatively. Many of them are holding IAF responsible for stalling the integration of the three services and not agreeing with the idea of CDS. They argue that there is a rivalry between the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force. Also, IAF has been told that they do not understand which aircraft they should fly and what should be their operational structures. The age-old allegation that the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme has suffered significantly owing to the attitude of IAF has surfaced again. Surprisingly, it has been also argued to the effect that the country suffered during to the Kargil conflict owing to IAF fighting its own war! Another charge is that IAF was against Indian Army flying the helicopters (actually, Army Aviation Corps established on November 1, 1986). Broadly, short of saying that IAF is an anti-national service almost all rest has been said.

Since independence, all three services of Indian Armed Forces have earned a reputation for their professionalism. They are trained both for individual services duties as well as for joint war-fighting. All these three services are involved in the process of integrated defence planning and conduct of operations. Since independence, India has fought four and a half wars and have won three and a half only because three services have fought jointly. (I am refraining from making tongue in cheek comment that the IAF was not adequately tasked during 1962 war!) In addition, Indian armed forces are expected to come to the “aid of civil authorities”. Along with other forces, IAF has also played to manage various natural disasters.

However, in spite of having a great track record both during wartime and peacetime today, few are calling names to IAF. It is a known fact that the IAF had a particular view of the establishment of CDS. However, there is nothing wrong to have a professional opinion and express it during peacetime. It would be naïve to view this as inter-service wars. Indian political dispensation is democratic in nature and has a specific system of governance. As one of the stakeholders in the country’s defence architecture, various arms of Indian armed forces could express their opinion at the appropriate forums. In this setup, it is the Prime Minister who is supposed to take the final decision. Now the decision has been taken and it is but obvious that all services and other related agencies would abide by this decision. At this stage, it is totally infelicitous to say that IAF has delayed the establishment of CDS. It was the political leadership which was supposed to take a final call and now finally the call has been taken.

Unfortunately, bigoted analysis and counter analysis is unnecessarily painting IAF as an anti-hero. This is not the first time that the commitment of the Indian armed forces has been questioned. In recent times, during 2012 the reported movement of two army units in the direction of the capital was dubbed as a coup preparation by few!

One of the possible reasons that why air force gets identified as a service whose opinion does not sink with the mainstream military thinking is possible because airpower is more like rocket science, difficult for non-professionals to comprehend. Winston Churchill once suggested, ‘Airpower is the most difficult of all forms of military force to measure, or even express in precise terms.’ The basic idea of airpower could have identical meaning globally. However, the employment of airpower relates to the character of the user state and to nature and stage in which it is used.’ Airpower is a capital intensive force and hence every mission undertaken has to have a wider purpose. There always would be issues in regards to the army’s demand for air support and IAF may not have been able to fulfil them totally. This essentially happens because IAF has a smaller number of assets and a greater number of requests.

Aerial platforms are ‘not an end in itself’, but at the same time are the most-preferred military-strategic tools. IAF projects the requirements for the flight platforms based on the threat perceptions. They are bound to ask for the best. At the same time, all three services fully understand that import dependence is not healthy. However, the question is, ‘should the armed forces compromise on operational military readiness, at the planning level itself and not even project what is best suited to achieve their task’? It is for the policymakers to take a call based on their assessment, that what country can afford. IAF would present their need based on professional calculations. It is for the policymakers to take a call, on whether they want to compromise on quality to safeguard the process of indigenisation. It is their job to find a balance between defence forces’ legitimate requirements and developing India’s defence industry.

Today, public opinion about IAF is unnecessarily getting shaped by confused and noisy outbursts of a minority group of armchair analysts. This is a dangerous trend.

(Author is Senior Fellow IDSA. Views expressed are personal)

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