Yes, the Indian Air Force needs a new doctrine

There is a deafening crescendo around the pitch for aatmanirbharta in the field of the defence inventory and not a day passes without the media featuring stories on some breakthrough or the other about indigenisation. Things have improved vastly but what is debatable is whether these events are being guided by some long-term institutionalised thinking and planning — another term for which is doctrinal guidance.

A layman’s definition of doctrine is that it is ‘the best way of doing a thing’. It is developed with many inputs, the important ones being ideas influenced by past experience, present capability and capacity of technological research and development and manufacturing, human resource availability and an organisational environment that encourages free thinking and a deliberation of fresh ideas. An aatmanirbharta campaign that is not based on a foundation of doctrinal thought is on a shaky wicket. And as we debate (unfortunately) whether air power is a support force (an abominable thought), some recent writings have tended to downplay its vital importance in any future conflict.

It is time that the doctrine of the Indian Air Force (IAF) — it is of 2012 vintage — is reviewed and made public to guide the future development and application of India’s air power. Doctrine drives technology and given the ongoing advancements, the IAF doctrine would have to spell out the following to meet the challenges of the mid-century.

Technology has progressed exponentially. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are being refined to mimic human cognitive abilities and intuition. Their incorporation, despite monies remaining elusive for another decade or so, would be a challenge that needs doctrinal analysis.

The domain of space

The roles and missions of the IAF would have to be re-assessed since space will be a major, if not a central, player in future conflicts. The weaponisation of space must be accepted, the Outer Space Treaty notwithstanding. Conflicts down centuries have shown the advantage that accrues to the force that occupies the ‘high ground.’ Hence, an emphasis on unmanned platforms and space assets, including a capability for satellites on call would be necessary. That this would be an inter-ministerial endeavour is indeed true, but this has to be institutionalised through a published doctrine. The loss of air superiority has, and will, spell doom for a nation that chooses to neglect it; the IAF’s doctrine must expound on this aspect as an imperative despite the high financial commitment required.

A call on how air power, with its niche strike, Airborne Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and precision attack capabilities would be merged in the drive towards jointness would be an imperative. While the Department of Military Affairs and institution of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) are new, the IAF’s future ‘flight plan’ would need a doctrinal foundation; this should not be confused with the ongoing clamour for theaterisation.

Given the two-front threat (China and Pakistan) that India faces, would we be forced into a coalition? While this would be a political call, ‘joint operations with friendly nations’ could certainly be addressed, including commitments in partnerships such as the Quad.

It is a fact of history that when a nation’s economy improves, it has to look for raw materials beyond its borders to fuel its advancement, putting it in an adversarial mode against other powers which would be doing the same. This means that a doctrinal alignment for expeditionary movements must find a place in the document.

New technology, stress and human resource

The world has already graduated to multi-domain operations where cyber, space, electromagnetic spectrum, influence operations et al. have been activated together or in stages to get a whole of government approach towards meeting national objectives. The IAF will be just one, albeit an important, cog in the multi-domain power synchronisation for which doctrinal guidance would be a must.

For acceleration of fresh thought, personnel have to feel secure — they have to have the psychological high ground in order to be vocal with their ideas. The IAF’s new doctrine must accept this, even as it acknowledges that new technology would result in an information overload which actually accentuates stress in human resource.

Keep out the political prism

America’s nuclear asymmetry, post the Second World War was lost when the USSR was on a par. To counter this, the U.S. brought in the Revolution in Military Affairs, seen so vividly in the 1990-91 Gulf War. This turnaround took dedicated research teams under programmes that had continuity from 1965, and political backing under different Presidential administrations. The IAF doctrine must underscore that ‘national defence’ is a national endeavour and should not be filtered through a prism of the political dispensation at the helm. This is vital.

An air force is not about fighter aircraft alone. Combat enablers such as aerial refuellers, Airborne Warning and Control System, transport and helicopter fleets, radars, communication systems, etc. are vital in operations. Their obsolescence in the coming years would land them in the same state as the fighter aircraft inventory now (30 squadrons). With India trying to cement its place as a regional power of reckoning, these combat support assets are also vital for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief that are important cogs in military diplomacy and foreign policy. Neglecting them would be to India’s disadvantage, more so because they are critical too in sustaining kinetic power. The new IAF doctrine must cater to these aspects for the guidance of policymakers.

Indian air power is at the crossroads. Considering the challenging security environment and the issue of scarce finance, the IAF needs a revised doctrine to help it navigate ahead.

The views expressed are personal

Faced with a challenging security environment, the advent of new technologies and the issue of scarce finance, the IAF needs a revised guiding document to help it navigate ahead smoothly