Strategic Framework for Defence Planners: Air Power in the 21st Century

Jasjit Singh, Director, IDSA


Air power has completed a century of its existence and impact on military power and its application in a vast range of situations varying from the delivery of nuclear weapons to casualty evacuation and disaster relief.1 When trying to assess the role and scope of air power in the next century, or at least in its early decades, it would be useful to start by devoting some thought to at least some of the key elements and consequences of air power so far. Such an evaluation in a paper of this nature by definition has to be selective rather than exhaustive.

A Century of Air Power: Intensified Asymmetry in War

Few will argue that air power came to play a crucial if not dominant role in 20th century warfare. There is little doubt today that many of the early prophets were ahead of time and technology. But there is little doubt that while air power may not be able to win a war by itself, no war can be won without it, and would certainly be lost without its appropriate application. It is amusing to watch many proponents of land and sea power argue that air power still only plays a support role to their primary role, and some air power practitioners in the developing world accepting such formulations unquestioningly.

To start with, there is the question of asymmetry. Perhaps the most telling lesson of the 20th century is that warfare, in essence, is the generation and successful application of favourable asymmetry of force whether in time or space. Air power has come to provide the most significant of capabilities that, if employed correctly, contribute almost dramatically to the generation and employment of asymmetry. This central role of air power is likely to grow in the coming decades.

Historically, successful exploitation of asymmetry has almost inevitably led to victory in warfare. In fact, starting from deterrence through combatant force structures to employment of military power, it is essentially asymmetry (and its exploitation) which holds the key to success. A closer scrutiny of some of the widely accepted cardinal principles of war (surprise, concentration of force, etc) would reveal that they primarily seek to establish a situation of favourable asymmetry. The classical doctrines of warfighting, whether based on attrition, manoeuvre, or the theory of the indirect approach, all seek ways and means of creating a favourable asymmetry through the state of the human mind, morale and will. The classical concept of numerical superiority in certain force ratios as an essential prerequisite for success in offensive action is predicated on similar values.

In earlier wars, the primary means of achieving decisive asymmetries were essentially based on human courage (and skill) of the fighting man, and operational (tactical and strategic) surprise. In warfare involving well trained military forces, tactical surprise to achieve asymmetry became an almost prime factor of success; and hence the importance and value of the "art" of Generalship. However, the industrial and scientific revolution has had a profound impact on the prime means of achieving asymmetry. Starting with the grooved rifle and connoidal bullet in the mid-19th century, technological growth has been accelerating the pace of war. But even more important are the basic changes that have taken place in the means of achieving asymmetry. Air power in this century has represented the essence of the capabilities that have provided the means and methods, if applied correctly, of achieving a favourable asymmetry.

Air power operates at a technological level normally higher than that obtaining in other components of military power leave alone civil sectors. Superior technology has been a major factor in providing battlefield dominance. And this does not operate on a linear paradigm. For example, a 10 percent greater lethal range of weapon does not imply a mere 10 percent superiority, but provides 100 percent superiority over the adversary. Experience of warfare in the 20th century has proved again and again that technological superiority is a tremendous force multiplier. The 1991 Gulf War demonstrated the importance of high technology and most countries have sought to prepare themselves for the future based on a search for high technology weapon systems. But the experience of war in this century has also shown that it is not enough to merely possess higher technology systems. It is also the way technology has been employed (and the asymmetry created by the way the adversary employs it) that has, more often than not, provided the crucial and deciding edge. Iraq's weapon systems were not of the type that would normally be classified as low technology. It is also not correct to assume that the US-led coalition employed military power in a way that was dramatically different from earlier wars. In fact, for anyone who had cared to watch (and the defence establishment should be doing so as a priority occupation), the 1982 Beq'a Valley operations by Israel provided the essence of how dominance in the air, and hence on the ground could be achieved. The 1991 Gulf War, for all that the "CNN factor" produced, was still an expanded version of the 1982 war.2 The synergy created by the interface of doctrine and technology, therefore, holds the key to success in modern warfare.

Given the nature of changes taking place in technology, technological, more than tactical surprise will increasingly hold the key to achieving asymmetry of military capabilities and operational results. The ingredients of technological surprise must, of course, be applied and exploited tactically to achieve the end result. But technological capabilities have the intrinsic potential to help neutralise tactical surprises. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the information-decision-action cycle of war and air power which accelerates this as well as incorporates technological asymmetries in its capabilities. Information of hostile capabilities, moves and even intentions can be available to much greater extent and scope than was ever possible before and air power capabilities provide significant assets for this purpose. And this single factor alone would have far-reaching effects on the paradigms of asymmetry and conventional traditional approach to assessing military balances and employment of force. The autonomous momentum of technological growth promises to increase the importance of technological asymmetries in future. The impact of higher technology of weapons systems in an operational environment otherwise involving lower levels of military technology can be crucial; at times, leading to results totally disproportionate to the absolute quality of such weapon systems. The most vivid example perhaps is the dropping of the nuclear bomb from an aircraft in 1945. At the extreme level, the application of combat air power against an adversary that has no such capabilities provides unprecedented advantage to the side that is able to do so. And the effect is symbolised by the use of the airborne early warning and control system (AWACS) by one side only which creates an asymmetry similar to a man with all possible tools fighting another who is blind.

Warfare during the 20th century clearly moved toward increasing degree of mobility and mechanisation. The factor of momentum was also added to the traditional elements of mass and firepower. Air power, by its very nature has a greater impact on manoeuvre warfare as compared to static wars. Air power is relatively far more inefficient in bombing out foot soldiers than it is in knocking out mechanised elements. Mechanisation of warfare made it far more vulnerable to air attacks since mobility could be adversely affected by both the level of destruction that could be brought down on such forces, as well as the disruption of the momentum of move that could be caused. Mechanised forces are heavily dependent on extensive logistics support which itself starts to get vulnerable to destruction and disruption from the air, raising the requirement of logistic support further. Increasing reliance on manoeuvre warfare and mechanisation of the battlefield, therefore, has further enhanced the impact of air power, in both offence and defence.

The key element determining the success or failure of application of military power has always been the ability to disengage and the degree of control that can be exercised on this process. More often than not, this ability also determines the costs and benefits of applying military force. Throughout the century, air power has offered a range of policy choices for application of force for political purposes. This is because air power, by its very nature, offers tremendous capabilities for offensive strike. Technology had advanced sufficiently by World War II to take air power to the level of all weather operations in air-to-air warfare. But air-to-surface warfare essentially remained limited to line of sight operations because of the need to visually acquire and engage the target. Nearly (five decades would elapse before air power could be applied in poor visibility and night conditions in air- to-surface operations. As we approach the end of this century, we also stand witness to the phenomenon of increasing ability to acquire, engage and destroy surface targets from the air, beyond visual range and visibility conditions.

War in the 21st Century

The nature of war has been undergoing some basic changes during recent decades, and this provides the pointer to the nature of war in the 21st century. Territorial wars in the past were fought for resources (human and mineral) where the industrially superior states (mostly of Europe) controlled military technology and this also helped them to control populations. The decolonisation process starting in the middle of the 20th century also ensured that populations could no longer be kept under control against their will. Advances in technology also made the earlier necessity of human and natural resources less critical since the locus of power shifted in favour of trade, technology and financial control. The only resource base which might trigger armed conflict at the level of an inter-state war is that of oil and gas. In fact, this was the central reason for the territorial war in 1990-91, which may well be the last regular inter-state war for a long time.

Nuclear weapons have limited the aim, scope and extent of war among states that possess such capabilities because of the tremendously destructive potential of such weapons.* As Martin Creveld writes, "From Central Europe to Kashmir, and from the Middle East to Korea, nuclear weapons are making it impossible for large sovereign territorial units, or states, to fight each other in earnest without running the risk of mutual suicide."3 Total and unlimited conventional war has been relegated to the backyard of history because the age of imperial colonies which was a major factor making war a global phenomenon has long passed away. States simply do not have the means to conduct a total war, unless they use nuclear weapons. And this would result in mutual assured destruction, nullifying any possible political goal for which it might have been started.

But modern states are also increasingly vulnerable even to conventional war. Conventional weapons' attack on nuclear power stations, for example, could result in a hundred Chernobyls in Europe. It may be recalled that the accident in the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal (which resulted in 3,000 dead and over 5,000 injured in December 1984) could be replicated by a 500-kg conventional high explosive warhead. The potential damage of conventional war may be judged from the fact that nearly two million tons of chemicals are abroad in transit or storage at any one time in Europe. While fire-bombing caused much of the damage during bombing of cities in World War II, asphyxiation is likely to be the major cause of casualties of the conventional attacks of tomorrow in a society that relies so extensively on synthetics.

Modern precision guided weapons make it possible to execute damage of the scale carried out during the strategic bombing campaign in World War II with a fraction of the earlier air effort. It is not merely that the highly organised industrially developed states would be so vulnerable to conventional warfare. The developing states are even more vulnerable because of the few high value assets they possess which have been acquired through investment of scarce resources. The case of Iraq, where development has been set back perhaps more than three decades first, by Iranian air attacks and, later, by the US-led coalition air campaign is a prime example.

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, sub-conventional war with military type weapons, and the use of coercive military force without necessarily resulting in war. The overall result has been a reducing potential of war down to limited wars, and from that point, an expansion of opportunities for limited wars, sub-conventional wars and use of force without war as shown in Fig. 1.

Some Trends in Military Power

The end of the Cold War has marked a new era where the dimensions of conventional thinking on military power and its application are undergoing some profound changes because of many objective factors, partially due to the fundamentally altered global strategic environment. Global defence spending has come down by more than one-third from the peak of $1,285 billion in 1988. India cut back its defence spending by 37 percent to a level of 2.4 percent of GDP in 1997, Pakistan reduced its defence spending by over 15 percent since 1993, and Japan, has maintained its spending level. But almost all other countries of Asia have recorded significant increase in the allocation of national resources to military capability. Going by its official data, China, which is the largest military power in Asia, tripled its defence spending since 1988 in spite of a 30 percent cut back in force levels. East Asia's defence (in current US dollars) increased by 62 per cent during the five years since 1990. While some of the rise in defence spending is due to modernisation (as indeed was that of India in the mid-1980s), this is already generating images of a new armaments race in Asia. It is sobering to recall that the military build up that started with Iran's arms acquisitions in the early 1970s led to a chain reaction and finally wars in the Persian Gulf region.

The important issue is not merely the levels of defence spending and arms acquisition, but the politico-strategic doctrines for the employment of military power. The countries of Asia, as a general trend, are not formally articulating their strategic doctrines. This generates its own dynamics of uncertainty and problems of assessments. The shift toward higher-technology weapons and equipment, especially reliance on long range strikes as the preferred option of their efficient utilisation, would tend to push strategic doctrines toward an offensive orientation. Concurrently with the global reduction in defence spending, military power has also witnessed retrenchment worldwide. From a total military manpower of nearly 29 million troops in the militaries of the world in 1988, by 1997 the figure had come down to less than 23 million. Further reductions may be expected in the coming years. The smaller size of military forces also has its own implications on the use and usability of military power.

The reduction in global defence spending and force levels has led to procurement budgets being reduced, and dramatically in some cases like Russia which has seen reduction by 90 percent with little prospect of restoration to earlier figures. Retrenchment of defence industry has led to increasing cost of weapon systems (the effect somewhat reduced temporarily due to upgrade programmes) and collaborations/mergers (the latter amounting to $53 billion worth last year alone). The defence industry has entered an invigorated phase of interdependency.

As it is, the increasing sophistication, complexities, costs, budgetary deficits and stagnation of developed economies, and drastically reducing production runs have been leading the global defence industry since World War II to increasing mergers and collaborative programmes. Compared to 42 major arms producers in West Europe and North America in 1950, which had come down through mergers to 21 in the early 1980s, the number dropped sharply to 11 in 1996. US arms manufacturers were reportedly operating at 35 to 45 percent of their capacity; and more mergers/closures are on the cards. The industry has had to lay off hundreds of thousands of workers. These industries will need to collaborate further in future, especially in regions like Asia where the basic costs of manpower, infrastructure, and production are lower.

The Soviet Union was the only country (besides China) to maintain a costly self-sufficient defence industrial system with consequent high costs which had been kept down by the larger production runs and an incremental approach to design and development. From the early 1980s, a qualitative jump in military technology commenced, imposing a similar dynamics on the industry as applicable in the West. By 1992, Russia employed nearly 4 million people in 200 production and 600 research/design centres. With the drastic drop (of over 90 per cent) in procurement funding and arms exports (which came down from an estimated $23 billion in 1987 to a mere $1.6 billion in 1992, and stayed at $1.8 billion even in 1994 and 1995), the Russian defence industry simply cannot sustain itself as an autonomous self-contained industry dealing with all its weapon needs. The Russian defence industry, in fact, is at the crossroads of collapse or revival.

Russia will find it increasingly difficult to sustain its defence industry without collaborative programmes and co-production arrangements with industries abroad. It made a few arrangements with West European defence industry, but these have already reached a saturation level. The only real choices for Russia lie in collaboration with China or India (or both) which have extensive infrastructure, where the costs will be low, and where there is a significant domestic demand and substantive compatibility with Russian design philosophy and industrial capabilities. India lacks the capital, but China has a favourable trade balance from which to fund acquisition of Russian military technology. The agreement for licensed manufacture of Su-27 multi-role combat aircraft in China is symptomatic. Russia and China have been moving toward increasing levels of cooperation which, as the recent Sino-Russian agreements indicate, is described as a "strategic partnership", a framework not very different from that of the early 1950s. The growth of Chinese military capabilities has its own dynamics for peace and stability in Asia; and the rapid progress in its strategic partnership adds another dimension. In addition, modernisation of the Chinese military will enhance the attractiveness of Chinese produced military systems to developing countries and also have a corresponding effect in diffusion of higher technology systems to recipients of Chinese arms. China's economic strength will increasingly allow it to offer attractive terms for arms transfers. Already, the arc of countries stretching from Syria to Myanmar (with the exception of India) is substantively equipped with weapons supplied by China.

Military forces worldwide are shifting toward greater professionalism, which are also high technology, high-cost (for creating, sustaining and replacement of capabilities), and significantly less usable. National support for carrying the costs of military power, therefore, is eroding, especially as society experiences extending periods of peace and concerns of conflict casualties expand. Paradoxically, prolonged periods without war have resulted in trends toward the search for alternative roles for the military forces, mostly for peace-keeping and internal security. Technological advances promise greater effectiveness of military power. Force multipliers offer attractive solutions to many problems. However, force divides also exist along with force multipliers. In a continuing contest of arms between two military forces (unlike that in cases of long range coercive use of force without war), quantity and numbers are likely to continue playing a crucial role; and force multipliers are not a substitute for force.

It may be hypothesised, therefore, that regular inter-state war, in the classical Clausewitzian concept, is unlikely to remain a viable instrument of politics in the 21st century. On the other hand, because of the increasing vulnerability of modern states, the effectiveness of modern military technology, and due to the higher stakes inherent in smaller but more effective professional military forces in future, if and when a regular war at the higher levels of intensity takes place, its impact will be far greater than a similar war in the past.

Use of military power for political purposes, however, is likely to remain an important tool in the hands of states. But use of force for political goals is more likely in circumstances that do not necessarily result in wars (defined here as continuing armed conflict). Long range strike capabilities of certain components of military power are particularly suited for such coercive use of force for political purposes.

Given this scenario, not only is the prospect of war reducing, but the ability of countries to cope with sudden and surprise attack will also reduce in spite of significantly enhanced surveillance capabilities. Defence, therefore, will need to be able to respond more rapidly and with great flexibility. Only air power has the basic attributes to be able to perform this function with a degree of efficiency. At the same time, it needs to be noted that surveillance itself depends heavily on air power systems and capabilities, as do most of the force multiplication capabilities. Reliance on air power, therefore, will increase in the coming decades.

Future Wars and Air Power

Given the increasing vulnerabilities of modern states, whether developed or developing, to even conventional war and the limitations intrinsic to small professional high-cost forces, it is inevitable that states will seek to adopt doctrines and strategies for prevention of war rather than seek war as an instrument of politics. Deterrence, therefore, is likely to assume greater importance in the coming decades.

As discussed earlier, war in the traditional and classical sense will be less viable in the 21st century as an instrument of politics since states are increasingly vulnerable to the effects of even conventional wars. Combined with technological and cost imperatives, this is shifting the locus of armed conflict from traditional regular war to the use of military power on the pattern of modern "gunboat" coercive diplomacy. Long-range strike capabilities, reinforced as they have been by advances in sensor technologies and precision guided munitions, now make it possible to attack targets across long distances which earlier would have required close combat. The era of wars of occupation has long passed into history. Even traditional territorial wars are already a phenomenon of the past, except possibly armed clashes where energy resource base still makes control of territory important. This does not necessarily mean that regular wars have become obsolete. What it implies is that highly professionalised high-cost militaries, serious difficulties of re-supply and replenishment, deepening vulnerabilities of modern states and society (to even conventional war), and the fear of losing parts or the whole of precious military capability combine to reduce the probability of conventional war. But if and when it does take place, war will be sharp and swift, and rely much more on superior technology, while the impact of its outcome will be far more crucial than what is generally believed.

In essence, countries will increasingly seek to avoid war as we have seen it; and rely even more than before on deterrence. The most significant characteristic of the changing nature of war is the growing accuracy of weapon systems and the ability to strike at long range with great precision almost independent of weather. Increase in accuracy and range has historically increased the risk of pre-emption. Surprise may appear an even more attractive option because of the smaller size of military forces. Land forces have inherent friction in war that operates limits on their flexibility especially to surprise attacks. Air power, on the other hand, possesses intrinsic attributes to respond rapidly across a vast range of contingencies spanning large distances. The quantum of firepower per unit of air power assets has been increasing. Air power is also at its best in achieving effective results when faced with mobile forces--a scenario almost inevitable in a hostile surprise attack seeking a breakthrough.

Warfare since World War II has been increasingly shifting towards greater mobility and firepower. Air power, by its nature, is more effective in a manoeuvre warfare situation rather than in situations of static warfare. This is largely due to its ability to disrupt and destabilise the momentum of manoeuvre besides its ability to impose kinetic shock. Mechanised warfare creates the conditions for air power to maximise its effect, and mechanised warfare is also the form of fighting most vulnerable to air power. Reduction in the size of military forces will tend to shift force structures more toward mechanisation in the coming decades. Mechanised warfare is also heavily dependent on mobile and large logistic assets without which mobility is deeply affected, nullifying the very utility of mechanisation. This opens up additional areas of opportunities for air power to influence the course of warfare on the ground.

The time-space dimension of warfare has been undergoing some marked shifts during the 20th century. Earlier, wars were compressed in space and spread out in time. Technology has been reversing this equation. Increasingly, future wars are likely to be expanded in space and compressed in time. This fundamental change in the time-space paradigm of warfare places a heavy premium on the information-action cycle. Increasing pace of warfare in the years ahead implies a greater rate of change in the military situation (in air and sea warfare), and, consequently, greater challenges arising therefrom, thus, demanding an accelerating speed in response. It has been argued that the real revolution in military affairs now taking place is not so much a revolution in information warfare as conventional wisdom would have us believe, but that in the control and management of time.4 Air power is the only component of military force that is capable of meeting the challenge of accelerating speed of response needed if destructive power has to be applied effectively on the inside of the enemy's information-decision-action cycle.

The future of deterrence and successful warfighting rests heavily on accurate long-range strike capabilities, whether conventional and/or nuclear armed. At the same time, the preferred method of employing military power for political purposes will centre on the use of force that does not lead to continued armed conflict. This, coincidentally, requires similar capabilities: high-technology long-range, "surgical" accurate strikes, which are best undertaken by (and in many cases, only by) air power. The very nature of these capabilities is such that defence against them will need to rely on similar capabilities for deterrence in future. Strategically, air power will assume increasing importance in the coming years. During the Cold War, air power was the primary vehicle for strategic nuclear deterrence to avert war. In the years ahead, air (and missile) power will be the central tool for conventional deterrence, as well as controlled punitive strikes for coercive diplomacy.5 Naval power in this regard, would come a close second.

It is, therefore, not surprising that Asian countries from Israel to Japan are already placing greater emphasis on stronger air forces (including missile capabilities) and naval forces. China's military modernisation and arms acquisition programme relies heavily on upgrading its air and naval capabilities, besides long-range nuclear delivery systems. In spite of a substantive cut back in defence posture worldwide, the US decided to create a new naval fleet (whose primary role would be to apply its powerful integral combat air power) after the end of the Cold War. In the process, power projection dynamics are changing from the traditional means and goals related to territorial wars to functional power projection with capabilities that can strike accurately at long distances, even if staying power remains limited. Sensor technologies provide an important additional dimension in enhancing reconnaissance surveillance, and target acquisition capabilities while precision guidance of striking power adds greater accuracy and lethality at long ranges.

Air Power and Coercive Diplomacy

Recorded history of the use of armed forces as a political instrument without actually engaging in armed conflict goes back to the days of the Roman Empire. In an earlier era, Sun Tzu had eulogised it: "For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill"6 However, in earlier times, coercive politics had remained closer to deterrence in the threat of use of force. Few means were available till this century to project power and force beyond the national frontiers without getting engaged in war. The main instrument of force has primarily been the land forces. For a state to apply direct pressure on the centre of power of another state with the use of Armies, it first had to contend with and even defeat the Armies of the target state. As long as sovereigns and states maintained Armies, they could be interposed between themselves and those applying force to impose their will. Thus, a military victory, in fact, became important in the conduct of war because it became the prelude in most cases to the imposition of the victor's will on the vanquished.

Naval forces offered greater flexibility and options. The industrial powers which managed to establish extensive colonial empires were inevitably strong maritime powers, perhaps because sea power gave them flexibility and freedom of action. They could select the points of application of force in a geo-strategic framework to exploit local vulnerabilities and weaknesses while applying pressure in a manner and place where the maritime power was strongest. Sea power also provided the capacity for disengagement where the situation turned unfavourable. Continental powers like Russia were unable to expand their empires beyond the limits of their land conquests; and the intrinsic vulnerability of such powers to maritime powers is still noticeable in their security perceptions. India's neglect of its maritime security was largely responsible for the intrusive establishment and expansion of European powers to establish their colonial rule on the subcontinent. This is why, in fact, sea power assumed special importance; and the earlier phenomenon of use of force without war accordingly was termed "gunboat diplomacy". Till the advent of air power changed the dimensions of application of force, only sea power, (especially after the invention of the steamship because of the speed and freedom of action it gave to sea power), permitted discrete application of force via the high seas and on the shores of the target country. This was possible for two reasons: firstly, sea power could be applied without necessarily having to first defeat the military forces of the target country. Thus, it was not inevitable for the use of force in pursuance of perceived national interests to result in war, as was (and still is) the case with land forces. Secondly, sea power provided the discretion of an option to select disengagement at will. Thus, surgical and discrete application of force could be resorted to without running into the problems normally associated with war termination.

World War II saw the emergence of a combination of naval and air power in the shape of the aircraft carrier. This provided the two complementary capabilities: great freedom of action and offensive power to naval forces, and greater staying power to air forces at long distances from the homeland. And advances in science and technology have finally resulted in the aircraft carrier battle groups becoming the symbol of one complete military system deriving its heightened value from the strength of each of the three major elements of military power: land, sea and air. It is, therefore, not surprising that naval-air military forces, especially those centred on aircraft carriers, have constituted the preferred option in the use of force without war.

Employment of naval-air (especially air) forces for coercive politics reduces the risks of war because escalation can be better controlled, and provides superior disengagement control. For, while war serves as an instrument of policy in international politics, its failure to achieve its poitical objectives is mostly created by the lack of favourable control on war termination. The interminable Iran-Iraq War seems to be a typical example. The use by the People's Republic of China of war as an instrument of policy has been mostly successful (after the initial partial failure in the Korean War) largely because of the excellent control China has retained on war termination. Use of force without war, especially with naval air forces, provides the capabilities of application of force while retaining control over disengagement. And better escalation control is assured because the onus of retaliation lies with the target country.

The Coming Revolution

There is a growing belief since the 1991 Gulf War that a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) is sweeping across the world although it is affecting different countries differently. The issues related to RMA and its implications for warfare will be debated for a long time to come. Much of this revolution will rely extensively on air and space power capabilities. But there are also specific technological developments that promise to create a revolution in aerospace power.

Space-based systems are becoming a critical factor in the evolution of warfare on land and an even greater factor in warfare at sea. Previously, controlling the oceans required the ability to defeat the enemy's Navy at sea or control the sea-lanes of communication. This can be carried out increasingly more effectively by stand-off weaponry, especially like the anti-ship cruise missile. Sea-based or air-launched land-attack missiles of the type repeatedly used against Iraq and more recently against Afghanistan and Sudan also require exploitation of space. As the range of such cruise missiles increases, these must rely increasingly on space-based assets. Control of patterns of trade is also consequently likely to be increasingly dependent on space capabilities.7

The operational environment in future, therefore, would be air power critical and characterised by a central role for air power which would have a predominant influence on the environment and the course of battles at sea and on land. Air operations, however, will need to be deeply integrated with land and sea operations. The vital issue which defence establishments throughout the world will need to resolve relates to the means and method of this integration: the resolution, in fact, of the essential conflict and contradiction between increasing specialisation (and its concomitant costs and benefits) on the one hand, and the needs of integration between diverse and disparate military systems (with intrinsic risk of duplication and diffusion of expertise) on the other. Control and exploitation of space assumes importance in this respect.

Historically, there is a height band above the surface of the earth ranging between about 25-125 km altitude that has not been exploited fully except for transit. Aircraft like the SR-71 and MiG-25 did touch the edges of this envelope although experimental aircraft went up higher. Space launch vehicles and satellites have used altitudes higher than this band for practical operational manoeuvres. However, we seem to be now approaching an era where exploitation of this critical altitude band will be possible. This is likely with trans-atmospheric hyper-velocity vehicles which could be launched from normal airfields and thus even evade the space-based early-warning system put in place over the decades by the industrially advanced countries. The National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) expects to launch a practical vehicle by the end of 1999. What such a capability implies is that the operating envelope of air power will finally merge with that of the lower end of outer space. At the same time, unmanned aerial vehicles technology is reaching practical shape to provide a high altitude (lower space) solar powered flight that will reduce the necessity for satellite launch and use for a variety of tasks. The range of potential capabilities of future space planes and unmanned aerial vehicles, both trans-atmospheric and upper atmospheric will fill the gap in aerospace power that has existed through the 20th century. At some not too distant future, it is not difficult to visualise trans-atmospheric vehicles able to fly at great speeds and perform combat in ways which the present day air defence systems (with the possible exception of ballistic missile defence systems) are totally incapable of dealing with. The important point is that except for ballistic missile defence technologies, existing air defence capabilities will become almost redundant against such capabilities. The net result will be an expansion of the third dimension which will generate substantive asymmetry of military power.

Air power, by its ability to operate in the third dimension, transcending national frontiers and natural obstacles, has an attribute wherein there is application of force in a manner more selective, surgical and discrete than was possible with sea power. However, unlike the other two components of military force, air power cannot hold territory and thus may be seen to lack staying power unless it is through repeated application. Notwithstanding this limitation, which is more important in the case of war, air power has great utility for application of force without war in pursuance of coercive politics. With the development of the trans-atmospheric vehicles or hypersonic cruise missiles, the options and capabilities of air (and aerospace) power for its employment in support of coercive politics will increase tremendously.

In conclusion, it is clear that in the early decades of the 21st century, military power will become smaller in size, technologically more advanced, more costly, and less usable for frontal war except for applications for political purposes without necessarily leading to war. Above all, it is likely to become more dependent on air and space power. Exploitation of the boundaries of the upper atmosphere and lower space will have special significance symbolising the nature of the new revolution in the making. Aerospace power will continue to be central to the use of nuclear weapons. Its impact in conventional wars will increase because of the increasing sensitivity of modern surface warfare to influence and interference from the air. Sub-conventional wars, which already appear to be the dominant trend, may be less amenable to influence from the air in spite of some dramatic results achieved by Israel. The real shift in the application of force is toward the long-range strike, mostly of the "surgical" type, which does not lead to full scale war. This is likely to be the primary 21st century version of the 19th century "gunboat diplomacy" to achieve political results. It is here that air power provides a range of options, especially of engagement and escalation control which other forms of military power do not. And this is why air power will assume greater importance in the coming decades.



1. One of the best assessments of a century of air power is by Air Vice Marshal Tony Mason, Air Power: A Centennial Appraisal (London: Brassey's, 1994).

2. The lessons of 1982 were extensively explored in Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, Air Power in Modern Warfare (New Delhi: Lancer International, 1985).

3. Martin van Creveld, On Future War, (London: Brassey's 1991) p. 194.

4. Ajay Singh, "Time: The New Dimension in War," Joint Force Quarterly, Winter 1995-96.

5. For a study on the role of conventional air power in deterrence, see Jasjit Singh, "Toward Deterrence: Conventional Air Power in the 1990s," Indian Defence Review, vol. 1.1, January 1986, pp. 45-60.

6. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, Translated with an introduction by Samuel Griffith, (Oxford, 1963), p. 77.

7. George and Meredith Friedman, The Future of War: Power Technology, and American World Dominance in the 21st Century, (New York: Crown Publishers Inc, 1996).