A Century of Air Power: Lessons and Pointers

Kapil Kak, Former Deputy Director, IDSA



For nearly a century since its inception, air power has played a dominant role in the generation and successful enforcement of favourable asymmetry. A look at the conflict paradigm of the future suggests that air power will make an even greater impact. The unique attributes of combat aircraft along with calibrated escalation and disengagement control makes air power an ideal weapon for deterrence by denial or punishment. The article examines the concept of air power as it has evolved over the last century and extrapolates on its likely role in modern warfare. Its ability to achieve air superiority, strategic application of force and counter surface campaign is highlighted.


In the nearly hundred years since the revolutionary new dimension began to lift off the surface of the earth, air power has played a crucial role in warfare. It is defined as a nation's "capacity to impose its will through the medium of air or aerospace and includes the employment of all its aviation resources, civil and military, public and private, potential and existing". Attributes of high speed, long reach, quick response, and termination, technological intensity, precision fire power and shock-effect—without regard to frontiers and coastlines—have made air power a formidable component of national military power. Many zealots have been wont to claim that air power could win a war by itself—these assertions may be driven by hyperbole. But the foremost lesson of the twentieth century is that no war can be prosecuted successfully without air power and that it would doubtless be lost without befitting application of air power.

It need hardly be underscored that warfare primarily involves generation and successful enforcement of favourable asymmetry. This is a role air power has historically performed with a great deal of success. In evolutionary terms, air power progressed rapidly from its infancy of being a peripheral component during the First World War to its pervasive contribution in World War II. The German Blitzkrieg, Battle of Britain, Battle of Atlantic, Pearl Harbour, strategic bombing offensive and allied offensive in Europe constitute some of the clinching successes air power notched up. In the numerous wars since then in East-Southeast Asia, South Asia and West Asia air power achieved decisive results. At the same time disregard of fundamental air doctrines, lack of political support and well-known environmental constraints have often hampered its exploitation. The air power pendulum in the figure that follows explains the multifarious dimensions of its application. Looking at the conflict paradigm for the next couple of decades, it is possible that air power will make a greater impact on warfare in its second century than it did in the first.

This centennial appraisal of air power aims to examine the concepts of air power germane to the air campaigns of modern warfare. Related lessons, mega-trends and pointers that are likely to impact application of air power in future will also be briefly addressed.

Nature of War

The twentieth century thinking of air power has been conditioned by the environment of total war. The two world wars of this century could be termed total wars, as these have indeed been the bloodiest in human history. Twentieth century thinking of air power has been conditioned by the environment of total war in which unrestricted submarine warfare, unlimited bombing and devastating land campaign caused millions of casualties, and total victory or defeat were at stake.1 Following the defining moments of nuclearisation of the US and later the Soviet Union and other countries, the wars fought by superpowers during the Cold War period were all 'limited'. The imperative has been to stay below the threshold of nuclear escalation to avoid the catastrophe of a mutual assured destruction. Today nuclear weapons have imposed severe limitations on the aim, scope and nature of inter-state warfare among nations including India, China and Pakistan in the Southern Asian context. " From Central Europe to Kashmir, and from the Middle East to Korea, nuclear weapons are making it impossible for large territorial units or states to fight each other in earnest without running the risk of mutual suicide".2

Another dimension that merits consideration is that the industrially advanced nations as also developing countries, perhaps the former more than the latter, are perceived as being increasingly vulnerable to the extensive damage that today's conventional wars can wreak. Civil societies in democratic countries are increasingly recognising the futility of war as an instrument to achieve politico-strategic objectives. Non-governmental organisations, peace-activists, environmental lobbyists and social activists also serve to exert pressures on Governments in this regard. Thus, "if nuclear war and total global war are no longer viable propositions as an extension of politics by other means, the only choice available to states to use destructive force for political purposes is through limited conventional war, subconventional war with military weapons and the use of coercive military force without resulting in war".3 It does appear that inter-state war in the Clausewitzian mould is unlikely to remain an instrument of politics in the 21st century.

One other development in the conflict spectrum relates to the efforts of the Cold War victors to undertake military actions in pursuit of their national/regional interests in flagrant violation of Chapter 2 of the United Nations Charter. These so-called humanitarian interventions in Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo are beginning to set a new trend of conflict.

Deterrence and Coercive Power

India's strategic doctrine of war prevention adopted ever since our independence to subserve the foremost national objective of socio-economic growth and human development has served our national interests admirably. Such a policy places a high value on deterrence in the war prevention strategy and compels creation of sufficient military power—in quality and technology—to deter and dissuade our likely adversaries. But in the event conventional deterrence breaks down, war will be short, sharp and swift, with the winning side being the one which has favourable asymmetry in overall capability, quality and technology.

While joint combat power can provide deterrence through denial, in the punishment quotient there are major variations. In the 'denial' mode, land power is overwhelmingly superior, but it has very limited capacity to deter through punishment except by destruction of the adversary's land forces which is a risky proposition in a situation of nuclear overhang. Disengagement and escalation control is also beset with problems. On the other hand, naval power can provide substantive capabilities for deterrence both for denial and punishment but its capabilities are confined to the maritime environment that may be precluded by a conflict on our Northern/Eastern land borders. In contrast, combat air power inherently possesses attributes, which invest it with capabilities for deterrence through denial as also punishment.

Aircraft can fly across national boundaries and geographical barriers to hit targets deep inside enemy territory. Highly calibrated escalation as well as disengagement control is feasible with air power and in a limited war this is a great asset to a defence planner. But this potent option for war prevention does not come cheap just as there is a distinct global trend towards prioritisation for air and naval power. China is the foremost example. The necessity, therefore, to arrest the decade-long trend of vastly reduced funding for modernisation of combat power thus becomes pressing. High technology weapon system assets, airborne warning and control systems (AWACS), in-flight refuellers, advanced sensor technologies (space and airborne platform based) for reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition (RSTA), C4I2 systems, precision guided munitions (PGMs) and long range strike capabilities would need to be inducted by us without further delay. This capability-enhancement would improve effectiveness of India's air power and enable it to serve as the primary instrument for conventional deterrence as well as for finely calibrated punitive strikes. This is particularly important because coercive and deterrent diplomacy are likely to assume greater importance in the coming decades.

Air Superiority and the Counter Air Campaign

Command of the air or air superiority, the raison d'être of the counter air campaign has often not only generated inter- service controversy but as a key doctrinal component remained little appreciated. The overall strategy is to seize the initiative, carry the war into enemy territory, neutralise air power, and establish control of the air to provide freedom of action for our surface forces. Such an air offensive is aimed not only to further land, maritime and other operations, but also for the very successful pursuit of overall war aims and defence strategy.

Historically, lessons on the critical importance of air superiority abound. In World War II, command of the air became an essential element of Blitzkrieg; it determined the outcome of the Battle of Britain in which the Luftwaffe's offensive counter air campaign was badly misdirected; it decided the outcome of war at sea in the Pacific; it protected the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944; it enabled the Allies' own successful air ground campaigns in North Africa and North Western Europe and, finally, when the Luftwaffe's air defences were irreparably overcome in 1944, it enabled the destruction of the German industrial base. Conversely, when control of the air was lost to enemy air forces by Russia in July 1941, by the US over Pearl Harbour, by Britain in Southeast Asia, by Rommel in North Africa and again in North Western Europe, armies and navies met with disaster.4

The most successful counter air power campaign in recent history of air power was the Israeli attack on Arab airfields in the 1967 war when 415 aircraft were destroyed by the second day and 19 airfields put out of action on the very first day. In contrast it was the absence of favourable air situation during the first few days of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 that led to many Israeli aircraft losses and the lesson that air superiority cannot be attained by defensive measures alone. It would not be mere speculation to raise the question whether the Israeli Air Force—always quick to learn from others—had not imbibed a lesson from the Indian experience. The loss of a large number of our aircraft parked in the open at Pathankot and Kalaikunda to the Pakistan Air Force during the 1965 Indo-Pak war may well have served as a pointer for what was achievable on a larger scale in the Israeli locale. The Indian Air Force (IAF) too evolved the concept of hardened aircraft shelters at forward airfields on a large scale from this professionally chastising experience. For decades now the Israeli Air Force has maintained a single-minded dedication to the philosophy of strategic combat air power with predictable performance. During the 1982 Bekaa Valley operations, it successfully wrested control of the skies through employment of AWACS, electronic warfare, unmanned aircraft and sensors. The Syrian Air Force was not routed by technological surprise alone, but by the shock inducing manner in which disparate elements of air power were thrown at them in combinations which were as unexpected as these were lethal; 86 Syrian aircraft, 88 armoured vehicles and 20 SAM sites were destroyed in just four days. Not surprisingly, years later, during the Gulf War, the coalition forces, even when pitched against a relatively less well-equipped and less-willing Iraqi Air Force, seriously went about ensuring total air superiority as the success of the remainder of air, maritime and land operations was likely to hinge on it.

An unambiguous lesson from the history of air power is that the imperative for the counter air campaign to achieve the necessary degree of air superiority or favourable air situation through offensive action is unquestionable. RSTA, intelligence and an effective air defence (AD) would be vital components in the fight for air dominance. The level of control of the air sought would decide the objective: command of the air when the adversary is unable to access the medium of air at all to air superiority or favourable air situation or a condition in which favourable air situation is obtained in a specific area restricted by time and space. The key point to underscore is that the campaign must precede a major offensive operation on land or at sea and cannot run concurrently if such forces have to be immunised against interference by the adversary's air forces.

For over half a century since India's independence, the primacy of air superiority has continued to be questioned by some on the plea that the sine qua non of air power is the air land battle. The origins of the IAF as a dedicated Army-cooperation body, its achievements in this role in Burma (Second World War) and in independent India's first war in J&K (1947-48) have gone to nurture such thinking and doctrine which in turn shaped the force structure of the IAF. The professional ethos and culture of the post- Independence Air Force leadership, which was relatively inexperienced, developed on this foundation. A fact not often underscored is that even in J&K (1947-48), it is air power that saved the Kashmir Valley and Ladakh. Specifically, it is the prevalence of air superiority (by default, due to complete Pakistan Air Force inaction) that permitted great successes in emergency induction of troops, year long air support for Army actions and the air operations at Leh and Poonch in extremely challenging professional circumstances. Air superiority also prevailed in the 1962 India-China War when both the Air Forces chose not to join battle even as the IAF undertook extensive air transport operations. During the 1965 Indo-Pak War, the relative levels of air superiority obtained by the IAF and PAF, notably in the Indian counter-offensive on Lahore, continue to be shrouded in controversy. PAF claims having attained air superiority with their 'superior combat aircraft'. The official history of that war has not helped to clarify matters either. In the Indo-Pak war of 1971, it is the attainment of air superiority by the IAF in the Eastern sector that imparted the urgently sought momentum to the land battle and led to the eventual fall of Dhaka. But it is the resounding victory at Longewalla in the Western sector that raises some questions. Could the success be ascribed to India's air superiority in the sector or was it a case of the Pakistan leadership not realising the fundamental necessity of providing air cover for an armoured offensive? What if F104s had been tasked for this purpose? During the Kargil conflict, the decision not to cross the LoC ensured air superiority but the fact that the IAF provided air defence escort or top cover to nearly all its strike missions indicates its degree of commitment to the imperatives of air superiority.

Since offensive counter air cannot possibly guarantee total immunity from enemy action, it must necessarily be backed up with defensive counter air or air defence. While offensive action undoubtedly pays rich dividends and contributes to victory in war, protection of the nation's air space and its vital industrial—economic—technological centres against the enemy's air offensives cannot be neglected. Air defence of the nation is the responsibility of the Air Force, a task made increasingly complex by technological developments in air launched cruise missiles and stand-off delivery with PGMs. On the other hand stand the qualitative improvements in the capabilities of air defence and in its infrastructure, including AWACS, in-flight refuelling, radars, communications and quick reaction missiles. Significantly, the air defence effort, constituted approximately forty five per cent of the combat air power employed during the 1971 Indo-Pak War. It constituted a substantial chunk of the combat operations during the conflict in Kargil as well.

One pointed lesson from contemporary history of air defence operations is the imperative to conform to indivisibility. Some analysts have opined that "Air Defence must remain indivisible under the Air Force. As it is integrating helicopters, whether belonging to the Army or Air Force, operating in the TBA in the overall air defence plan poses serious practical problems. With BVR missiles now in the inventory of the IAF, clearly very close control is needed".5 The challenge of air space management in the context of SAMs and a plethora of other weapons in the TBA thus becomes an onerous one which has to be met jointly with sincerity, understanding and a professional commitment to the overall aim.

Strategic Air Campaign

The post-Second World War era has been similar to the Eighteenth Century in many ways. Conflicts have been limited once again and highly influenced by socio-political and economic considerations. Despite the contentious nature of the strategic bombing campaign in World War II, the United States Bombing Survey in September 1945 concluded that it had achieved decisive results, particularly during the last 18 months of the war and brought the German economy to a critical collapse. In the course of the Cold War, strategic air power became synonymous with nuclear deterrence. It was the Korean War which helped crystallise thought to indicate that indiscriminate or unlimited use of air power would not be included as part of limited war. The Gulf War revalidated many lessons of the overriding importance of the strategic air offensive. Key military targets and many crucial command and control centres, selected power generation plants and oil refineries were struck in a massed and central focussed manner. Iraqi rulers were driven underground. Within three days of the commencement of strikes on oil, the country's refined oil production was down to fifty per cent of its pre war level, to ten per cent within five days and to zero five days later. Iraq's Air Force was made so impotent that on the tenth day 118 aircraft escaped to Iran. Significantly, even during the Iraq-Iran War, in a scenario of equally matched adversaries, the Iranians were in one instance reportedly able to knock out a quarter of Iraq's power generation capability.

Comparisons of bombing criteria from World War II, Vietnam and the Gulf make for some interesting trends. The one by General Michael Dugan, former Chief of Staff, US Air Force, was of "4,500 B-17, 95 F-105 and one F 117 sortie to achieve an equivalent target destruction. A US DOD summary compared the accuracy probability figures of the B17: 3,300 ft, the F-105: 400 ft, the F16: 200 ft, and the F 117: less than 10 ft." To achieve the results of 568 strategic bombing missions, undertaken over one year by the Allies in World War II, today just four advanced fighter aircraft would achieve equivalent damage. The reduced aircraft requirement and increased effectiveness drive cost savings beyond aircraft and weapon numbers back into procurement, training, personnel, maintenance, fuel, logistics, married quarters and even pensions: all aspects of air force structure and support6. This crucial difference in air power capabilities, in fact, is what points towards the need for review of some of the air power doctrines accepted as part of the conventional wisdom since World War II7. What are the other lessons to be drawn from the strategic air operations of the recent past? What are the pointers for the future? In the Gulf War, Iraq was up against massive air opposition and the coalition forces had six months to build up assets. In any event it seems too small and unrepresentative a base from which to develop concepts for a strategic air campaign for the future. Since the strategic air campaign would show results generally in the long term, in the context of the short duration wars which could involve India, the classific 'strategic' is determined not as a function of range, platform type or weaponry but by the direct relationship of the target to a political objective. Thus the air attack on Osirak, the Iraqi nuclear installation in 1981, US attack on Colonel Gaddafi's headquarters in 1986 following allegations of Libyan complicity in anti-US terrorism and the September 1995 bombing of Bosnian Serb weapon stocks were all in the strategic genre even when the aircraft were tactical.8

Also, as stated earlier, the unique attributes of combat aircraft along with calibrated escalation and disengagement control that its operating envelope offers makes it an ideal weapon for deterrence by punishment and coercion. The essence would lie in identifying the adversary's critical centres of gravity and targeting the same. Targeting is indeed the key to the campaign for which an elaborate vulnerability analysis based on accurate intelligence would be mandatory. During crises, the threat or the use of conventional air strike would equip the government with a flexible and responsive tool for crisis management. In a hot war, air interdiction against strategic targets such as power grids, communication networks and their key nodal points would require multi node aircraft with PGMs or ALCMs for long-range precision strikes. India's air power cannot afford not to have such a capability.

Counter Surface Force Campaign

Employment of air power in coordination with friendly surface forces to deter, contain or defeat the enemy's land or maritime forces has evolved as a dominant role. The operations include interdiction, battlefield air strike (formerly close air support), tactical reconnaissance, maritime air operations and joint operations in the low intensity conflict environment. The aim is to deprive an enemy of his military power needed to occupy territory or exploit sea space and the central question is the quantum of battlefield air strike that would be required by ground forces, and how best and cost-effectively it can be provided. The paramount need undoubtedly is that without achieving air superiority "the attrition suffered by friendly aircraft will neutralise their contribution to the land battle and leave friendly ground forces vulnerable not only to the opposing armies but to their air power as well".9 It is perhaps not without reason that in 1945 the US Army Air Force manual listed three priorities for tactical air forces: the first is "to gain the necessary degree of air superiority, the second may be summarised in current terms as interdiction, the third as close air support." There is immutability about this prioritisation even after 55 years; if anything, the urgency is far greater. There is the view that over many decades "air superiority has not been contested in conjunction with a land campaign, either because an opponent lacked the capability or, as in the Israeli examples of 1967 and 1982, opposing air forces were annihilated at the outset of a conflict".10 On the other hand it could be said that in the Indo-Pak Wars of 1965 and 1971, both the Air Forces contested air superiority, Pakistan much less so in the Eastern sector in the latter conflict.

So what is the nature of future conventional battlefield for counter surface force action? The greatest challenge would be management of change in the war paradigm. Land conflict will be characterised by increased violence, lethality and destruction, with the battle being prosecuted with enhanced firepower, greater mobility, high tempo and manoeuvres by mechanised forces. Ground forces will be smaller with a consequent reduction in ability to mount a large-scale offensive or to concentrate defensive forces in depth. In the battlefield of high fluidity with no distinctive fronts, flanks and rear the focus would be on joint application of air and land combat power. The concept emphasises a central role for interdiction, surveillance, recce and target information with fire being harmonised to operate within the enemy's decision cycle for neutralisation of his centres of gravity. Establishment of air superiority conditions over the battle area would remain an inviolable and fundamental prerequisite.

Armies and air forces traditionally have differing perspectives on the nature and effectiveness of battlefield air strike (BAS) – attacks on enemy ground forces actually engaged in combat with own ground forces— and, battlefield air interdiction (BAI)—attacks on enemy forces closing to join the ground battle in the immediate future. BAI operations have always been value-loaded as well as more extensive in scope than BAS. The latter is an in extremis air support and its use typically reflects more desperate or peculiar circumstances. At the same time interdiction of any sort is unlikely to be productive if the opponents' ground forces are not compelled either to consume resources or manoeuvre—the greater the dependence on momentum, the greater the impact of delay. Conversely, the greater the dependence of defensive forces on reinforcement, the greater the impact of both delay and destruction.11

It may be useful to ask what makes air to ground strikes so effective? One could say the final effect is obtained through the neutralisation of the target, its destruction, damage or immobilisation through physical collapse. While this certainly carries its own impact, there are other elements which do not get emphasised. The most important of these is the shock effect: with its two dimensions, the psychological and the dynamic.12

Development of the attack helicopter, quick reaction missile, especially the shoulder-launched Stinger variety, the remotely piloted vehicle and the precision guided cruise missile have had a profound impact on the evolution and employment of battlefield air support. Density of the tactical battle area, varieties of sources of fire, including AD guns and artillery, problems of air space management and blue-on-blue engagements/fratricide all place severe limitations on BAS as an option. The task could be left to attack helicopters once the requisite level of air superiority has been achieved. But these platforms have also become increasingly vulnerable to shoulder launched Stinger-type SAMs. In the event both adversaries have AWACS, even low-level single pass attacks would pose problems. "During the Kosovo campaign the NATO air forces attempted to neutralise Serb armour by attacking it from medium altitudes. While that may have reduced their vulnerability but it cost them dear in sorties and precision weapons. A total of 14000 sorties were flown and some 5000 PGMs fired".13

The natural desire of a battlefield commander to control his own firepower has led to too many controversies clouded by vested interests of resource allocation and force structure. For the effectiveness of counter surface force campaign the answer lies in having increasingly close coordination between army and air staff to achieve the convergence of joint operations. It applies equally if not more to the higher direction of defence. The record of India's armed forces in this respect has been far from laudable. For example, why the garrison in the geostrategically important area of Skardu was allowed to surrender to a small Pakistani force for want of reinforcements by air in the 1947-48 Indo-Pak war has not emerged clearly.14

In the 1962 India-China War, had combat air power been employed, the ground battle may well have tilted in India's favour in some sectors. There was poor coordination during the 1965 Indo-Pak War; the Army decided not to include the IAF in its plans and thinking for the counter offensive in the Lahore sector. Yet the can-do spirit shown by the ground attack pilots in undertaking high risk multiple passes reflected in many ways a commitment to a joint cause. The rationale for the decision to stop air strikes in East Pakistan has also not been fully explained. Although there was far greater effort towards joint planning in the 1971 operations, many creases in coordination continued to show up. In that sense the Kargil conflict was a fine example of joint approach to war fighting after the problems in the run up to the IAF joining the fray had been resolved at the political level. The pointer here is that joint operations have to dominate the war-fighting psyche and ethos of the Indian armed forces.


Analysis of the conflicts since India's independence appears to suggest that in most of these our armed forces were subjected to a surprise. Incursion in J&K (1947), China's lightning attack (1962), Pakistan's Rann of Kutch offensive and subsequent infiltration in the Kashmir Valley (1965) and the intrusions in Kargil (1999) were all a manifestation of "inability to look at the other side of the hill". Given the time and space dimension, information on the enemy is a critical need. As the Kargil air operations clearly demonstrated, an elaborate air recce campaign had to be mounted for details of target locations before strikes could be undertaken.

Technologies in radars, electro-optical sensors, electronic intelligence and imagery and information distribution in real time are revolutionising recce capabilites in information dominance. Improvements in surveillance technologies would make surface forces in concentration areas very easy to detect and therefore extremely vulnerable. Our information management capacity will leverage our ability to pinpoint the adversary's centres of gravity. Therefore, the criticality of information dominance or cyber war which could provide one side the capability to control and monitor the flow of information to the adversary. An effective recce force would have to include UAVs, fixed-wing aircraft and satellite systems.

Satellites in the Gulf War also demonstrated their current and potential contribution to the application of air power.The application of GPS to aircraft navigation and weapon guidance could confer all weather capabilities on PGMs, but a distinction should be made in the second air century between hopes and promises in all aspects of military technology. Satellite surveillance by optical, infra-red and radar technology will continue to provide strategic intelligence with associated constraints of weather, orbital frequency and positioning. Communications too will be facilitated in all aspects of warfare. In all cases, however, satellite activities will support and enhance traditional air operations, not replace them.15

A well-coordinated joint recce plan, including battle damage assessment, serves to provide a range of options. Even during the Gulf War, despite massive recce of the range of Iraqi military capabilities, the will o' the wisp Scud missile sites, launchers and storage depots—that were to create major embarrassments to the coalition forces later—were left out altogether. A not so well known fact of the Gulf War is the massive battle damage assessment recce effort that was mounted to ascertain the level of collapse of Iraqi forces (desirable level envisaged 50 per cent) before ground forces could begin the offense.

Maritime Air Power

Over time, four major roles have evolved for maritime air power: recce, anti-submarine warfare, attack of surface targets and fleet air defence. The first three are discharged by shore-and ship based aircraft, the last by carrier-borne aircraft alone, except when operating in air space controlled by friendly shore based fighters. The allocation of resources and maritime roles between air forces and navies has often prompted strenuous and acrimonious debate. In some countries like the US and the former USSR, the navy has largely discharged both land-and sea-based maritime air operations. In others, such as the UK and Australia, land-based missions are the responsibility of the air force while the navy operates all ship-borne rotary and fixed wing aircraft.16 In India, maritime recce is the task of the navy while shore-based maritime strikes are undertaken by the air force.

In the early years, faced with vast oceanic areas of operation and lacking island bases capable of supporting large land and air forces, the United States and Japan were the first countries to have developed and deployed carrier-based air power. Since the military forces are severely limited if air power does not control the sky, what about the sea? The carrier has to come to fulfil this task very effectively through shaping of the operational environment, conduct of offensive operations, providing the desired intelligence and recce and ensuring air defence for the fleet outside range of shore-based aircraft.

Retaining a great deal of flexibility, these operations can be effectively performed without regard to overflight considerations and diplomatic and political concerns as would apply to a land-air scenario. The trend has been towards big carriers (90, 000 ton class) providing large volumes of fire-power needed for amphibious operations. Middle powers generally make do with mid-size carriers (20-30, 000 ton class) whose sine qua non is air defence of the fleet. Interestingly, it was Lord Mountbatten assisted by PMS Blackett, a Nobel Laureate, who convinced Jawahar Lal Nehru about the importance of carriers and that their acquisition would make India a powerful naval force to reckon with.17 And this was done when India was spending 1.69 per cent of its GDP on defence.

Operationally the carrier task force has a high degree of vulnerability to anti-ship missiles of the sea-skimming variety as also the new generation ALCMs. Anti-ship missiles can be air or submarine launched. The sinking of HMS Sheffield, a Type 42 destroyer, by an aircraft with a sea-skimmer missile during the Falklands conflict started a controversial debate on this important issue. As the speeds of these missiles attain supersonic range, the problems of defence aggravate. Reliance on multi-layered defences incorporating fighters for interception before missile- launch, multiple range anti-missile systems and gun defences and related electronic warfare systems alone reduces the carrier's high-risk vulnerability.

Maritime aviation roles, like all others, are increasingly being affected by the changed operational environment of the 21st century. One can perceive little prospect in the foreseeable future of large- scale blue water confrontation between navies. There is, however, a potentially significant factor influencing the future evolution of maritime aviation roles. It is the increasing involvement of carrier-borne aviation in overland operations—a development, which is inducing a degree of role convergence between shore and sea-based maritime air operations.


Another dimension in the application of air power at both the strategic and tactical levels is the concept of mobility. It facilitates concentration of fire-power rather than force and in the process removes the Clausewitzian friction. This becomes a critical factor when dealing with a surprise attack. In the context of our Himalayan terrain, mobility overcomes land friction and distance while simultaneously enhancing speed of movement.

Its other distinctive element is air mobility. Wars have, over the years, heavily depended on airlift for rapid and responsive movement within and outside a theatre. From June 1948 to September 1949, British, American and French aircraft flew 2.32 million tons of supplies into the beleaguered city of Berlin. During the Gulf War, over 117,000 people out of a total population of approximately 3,00,000 Indians were airlifted home by civil and Indian Air Force aircraft in what became the second largest such operation after the Berlin airlift. During the 1971 War, the contribution of the air drop at Tangail towards the advance to Dhaka was substantial. Highly successful special heliborne operations were also a feature of the operations in the East, primarily due to the near prevalence of total air superiority in that sector. In Algeria, the French achieved a military victory over their opponents by extensive and imaginative use of helicopters and fixed wing aircraft for tactical mobility, recce, harassment and sanctuary denial. In the Indian context, the Air Force has been undertaking peace time air maintenance for our forces in the Northern and Eastern forward areas for decades and this task post -Kargil has, if anything, increased manifold. Disaster relief and aid to civil power constitute other elements of peace-time mobility.

It needs to be underscored that airborne assault, special heliborne operations and air landed operations are, however, all vulnerable to attack from the air or ground. Proliferation of SAMs, particularly the Stinger variety is pointing towards a trend that may compel provision of self-protection suites for transport aircraft and helicopters. On the other hand is the trend of far greater accuracies in air mobility operations made possible by rapid technological change: operations in Bosnia in February 1993 provide an example. Air drop of humanitarian aid to some of the besieged enclaves, involved dozens of sorties every day. The loads were dropped from 10,000 ft but an unexpected high level of accuracy, usually about 40 metres, was achieved by the use of Global Positioning System data to fix the aircraft's position and by computerised ballistics data on the cargo being dropped.


For nearly a century since its inception, air power has played a dominant role in the generation and successful enforcement of favourable asymmetry. Increasing vulnerability of civil societies to the extensive destructive potential of conventional war and the related nuclear overhang—where applicable—have precluded regular inter-state war as an instrument of politics in the Clausewitzian mould. In deterrence and coercive deployment of power, the unique attributes of combat aircraft, along with the calibrated escalation and disengagement control, makes air power an ideal weapon for deterrence by denial as also punishment and coercion. An unambiguous lesson from the history of air power is the imperative to achieve air superiority over the adversary. The counter air campaign would need to precede a major offensive operation on land or at sea and not run concurrently. This is the lesson of history.

The Gulf War has revalidated the overriding importance of strategic air offensive. In the context of short duration wars, the classific 'strategic' is determined not as a function of range, platform, or weaponry but by the direct relation of the target to a political objective. In the counter surface campaign, battlefield air interdiction as against battlefield air strike or close air support offer more extensive scope and operational cost benefit. For achieving the requisite convergence in this campaign, the answer lies in having increasingly close institutional coordination between the combat power of the three services. Continued improvements in reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities, including extension of the envelope to greater satellite access and employment of unmanned aerial vehicles, would militate against surprise attacks of the kind India has faced in the past.

Mobility as a factor in concentration of firepower and in overcoming land friction, is expected to endure. Trend of far greater accuracies in air mobility operations would substantively enhance operational impact even as self-protection suites for transport aircraft and helicopters in a severe air defence environment becomes the norm. In the application of maritime air power, there is little prospect in the foreseeable future of large-scale blue water confrontation between navies. However, carrier-based air power is expected to play a major role in shaping the operational environment and in inducing a measure of role conversion between shore and sea-based maritime air operations.

In the generation and enforcement of favourable asymmetry, air power remains unparalleled. Air superiority, strategic application of force and counter surface campaign would be its overriding roles. Looking at the conflict paradigm about two decades ahead, air power will doubtless make a greater impact on warfare and its avoidance in the 21st Century than it did in the one that is coming to a close.



1. Air Vice Marshal Tony Mason, The Aerospace Revolution: Role Revision and Technology – An Overview (London: Brassey's, 1998) p. 2.

2. For a comprehensive analysis and prognostication of war in the decades ahead see Jasjit Singh, "Strategic Framework for Defence Planners: Air Power in the 21st Century", Strategic Analysis, March 1999 pp 1808-1816. The quote is ascribed to Martin van Creveld, On Future War, (London: Brassey's, 1991), p. 194.

3. Jasjit Singh, "Dynamics of Limited War", Strategic Analysis, October 2000.

4. Air Vice Marshal Tony Mason, see n. 1, p. 27.

5. Air Marshal BD Jayal, "Air Warfare: Trends and Prospects", paper presented at the seminar on "The Challenge of Limited War: Parameters and Options" organised by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses in New Delhi on January 5-6, 2000.

6. Air Vice Marshal Tony Mason, Air Power: A Centennial Appraisal (London: Brassey's, 1994), p 154.

7. Jasjit Singh, Air Power in Modern Warfare (New Delhi: Lancer, 1988 ) p157.

8. See Tony Mason n.1. These examples have been culled from the Chapter, "Offensive Operations", p. 111.

9. Richard P Hallion, Strike from the Sky: The History of Battlefield Air Attack (1911-1945), (Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press), p xiv.

10. Ibid., p. xiv.

11. Ibid., p. xv.

12. See Jasjit Singh, n. 7, p.177.

13. Air Commodore R.V. Phadke, "Air Warfare in Limited War: Roles and Missions", paper presented at the seminar on "The Challenge of Limited War: Parameters and Options", organised by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi on January 5-6, 2000.

14. In his book My Years with the IAF (New Delhi: Lancer, 1986 ) Air Chief Marshal PC Lal avers that Air Commodore Meher Singh did not think it advisable to accept the Skardu commitment due to performance limitation of Dakota MKIII for operating at this high level airstrip (ht.9500 ft). Yet, just then, the same aircraft was operated at a still higher level airstrip at Leh (ht.10, 500 ft).

15. See Tony Mason n.6, pp.276-277.

16. Tony Mason, n. 1, p.176.

17. Subimal Mookerjee, "Aircraft Carriers for the Indian Navy: The Case for and Against", Vayu, vol. IV, 1995, pp.19-28.