In Defence of Air Power

The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) recently said, “…the Air Force continues to remain a supporting arm, just as Artillery or Engineers support the combatants within the Army…”

I retired from the IAF full 18 years ago, and to borrow from Harry Belafonte, “No one wants my opinion anywhere, any time, on any subject, about nothing.”

But one kid sent me a screenshot asking what the brouhaha was all about. He has long been keen to join the Air Force, but was now thinking of joining the Army and becoming the CDS someday.

Here’s to you, kid. I’ll keep it brief, and simple.

Every army through history has always wanted to know the strength and spread of the enemy forces, hence the quest for a hill, or a ‘high ground’, (which is different from intellectual high ground in question!) to see farther. When airplanes became available, naturally, they were first used as ‘scouts’ to see and report the enemy deployments in World War I.

Wasn’t long before the ground forces turned their guns upwards, but they didn’t hit much, because airplanes were so fast and nimble.

Then, opposing airplanes began to shoot at each other. Why? To achieve ‘control of the air,’ because ‘he who controls the air, controls everything else below.’

Soon, airplanes began to be used as an addition to the artillery. But an airplane could go far deeper into the enemy’s homeland.

The airplanes of those times, light and fragile as they were, could carry little bomb load, and the damage they caused was negligible. Yet, it mattered a lot to public perception, creating anger and frustration far beyond the physical damage. That’s because, for the first time, this new weapon could take the war directly to enemy’s home, far away from the frontlines, affecting public opinion and more importantly, the morale of the people.

And there’s more.

In World War II, Hitler’s army, after occupying Western Europe, halted at the English Channel, because they could not dare try and cross a thin strip of water without air cover. That was not possible unless the German Air Force (Luftwaffe) could first defeat the Royal Air Force in the air, which they couldn’t, and that altered the history of the war and the world.

In a fitting tribute to the young fighter pilots who defended the British Isles, Winston Churchill famously said, “Never in the history of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”

The mighty navies of the time, that ruled the seas and spread empires around the globe, were vulnerable to a well-aimed bomb from a single airplane. Many famous ‘Naval’ battles in World War II were won without the opposing fleets coming within sighting distance, with only their airplanes destroying the opposing ships.

A major factor in winning that war was the Allied bombing of the German military production, so their Army could no longer be supplied. That included bursting the dams that generated power for the factories.

When USA dropped nuclear weapons on Japan in 1945, the sheer scale of destruction forced the Japanese to surrender, before a single soldier set foot on the Japanese mainland.

In 1971, the Indian Air Force had complete control of the air over East Pakistan, which allowed the Army and the Navy to move freely, resulting in the creation of Bangladesh.

Our 2019 strike in Balakot not only destroyed a terrorist training camp but also sent a message, which was way louder than those exploding bombs.

So, you see, an Air Force does much more than merely ‘support’ the Army.

It helps the nation achieve its aims through the medium of air.

In any case, the days of mass-produced, low-cost aircraft closely supporting the Army in a battlefield are long gone, because not even the rich nations can afford to lose a multirole fighter, costing millions, to the cheap shoulder fired missiles of the enemy.

In World War 1, the airplanes were a part of the Army, as Royal Flying Corps, (pronounced as ‘core’ and does not mean ‘corpse’) but they realised that unlike the Artillery Corps or the Corps of Engineers, this new arm required specialist knowledge and skills to use effectively, hence they created the Royal Air Force in 1917.

Similarly, United States Army Air Force, USAAF, was turned into the independent United States Air Force, USAF, in 1947.

Even our own Indian Air Force was born in 1932 with No 1 Army Co-operation Squadron, before it eventually turned into the world’s fourth-largest Air Force.

Therefore, I can understand your surprise at the decades of worldwide wisdom being negated in one statement. And, as the screenshot you sent shows, even the Pakis were shocked!

And that reminds me of the first line of a Bollywood song, Dushman na kare dost ne joh kaam kiya hai; (My friend has done what even my enemies shouldn’t.)

I hope they get some real experts together and resolve the matter, before we’re forced to sing the second line, Umra bhar ka ghum hamen inaam diya hai. (My friend has gifted me lifelong sorrow.)

It’s not a ‘turf war’ between the Air Force and the Army as some people are calling it. It’s a question of understanding and using the Air Force to its full potential, rather than frittering it away in ineffective ways.

The Army typically takes weeks to deploy, the Navy needs days and the Air Force, mere minutes. The Army marches to a battleground, which must be in the neighbourhood. In the Navy, they say, ‘Anyone with a coast is a neighbour.’
Then, for the Air Force, everyone is a neighbour and a potential target.

To quote Winston Churchill again, “Air power is the most difficult of all forms of military force to measure, or even to express in precise terms…”

If even Churchill couldn’t understand it, how can we blame the Army Commanders, experts in their own field no doubt, to grasp the full potential of the Air Force?

You wouldn’t try to shave with a sharp sword, because you’ll only hurt yourself.

Nor would you ask an ENT specialist to operate on your heart only because the heart and the throat happen to be nearby.

This is why, let’s leave it to the people who have spent their lifetimes flying, and studying air power, because any other way would be costly – very costly for our country.

So, kid, I hope it was simple enough for you – and everyone, I mean, everyone – to understand.

©Avinash Chikte

https://www.facebook.com/AvinashChikte/


93 thoughts on “In Defence of Air Power

  1. Olden days war and the modern ones are completely different. Rather Air Force will win the war and Army will only claim the land under cover by Air Force. Who is in supporting role?

  2. Excellent article Avinash. So wonderfully and simply explained. I hope BiRa also reads it. It might just help him understand what the Air Force is all about.

  3. Excellent expression, very simple, clear and absolutely to the point. The ignorant may well take some cues from your article to understand the gamut of Air Operations.

  4. Simply Put the concept of air power and its tenacity well explained hope the kiddo and OGs understand it now atleast.

  5. Very well penned Avi. Simple and easy to understand for any layman or children including CDS. A big thumbs up 👍👍👍

  6. …you narrated employment of airpower in past events of wars very eloquently. However, mention of commanders, who all planned such employment of air assets with ARCHITECTURAL perspective to shape a campaign, not like a BRICKLAYER to shape an engagement…would have made the point more effective…I thank you…

  7. Sir, simple diagnosis. It’s a case of arrested development & stunted (mental) growth. It stopped at Company Commander level. Let’s hope an Air Chief Marshal becomes the CDS very soon!

  8. I am a Naval Veteran who is still enamoured of the naval aviators. I know how critical air element has become to naval ops. But we naval guys are clear that the air element is not an island but is in support of Naval Aim, which mostly is about maintaining Sea Lines of Communication, especially for oil. Similarly, no one doubts the importance of air element in Land warfare. Without air superiority (always transient), conventional army cannot move an inch ahead. But how and when does a conventional war end, especially for India? Always by either gaining or losing land. Isn’t then IAF supportive of Army towards this end? These are semantics, but let us put our parochial pride aside and get to the most basics of Indian warfare. I have done amphibious warfare, and I am clear that IN is in supportive role of IA which is finally required to establish a beach head (one of the most violent conflict) and then move in. In the end boots on grounds matter most in our context. You may like to read this interesting piece in Marathi in today’s Loksatta which says the same thing but in bolder manner. https://epaper.loksatta.com/c/61659476

  9. Avinash, read it twice! It was so simple & precise to go through. Really times have changed where initially Army played a major part in wars, thereafter Navy and after World War 2, the Air Force. Further Balakot action is an example of how to keep a check over irrational/unwarranted activities of nations around the world. Really nicely put forth, expecting more such simple quotes & books from you. Congratulations.

      1. Great job Chikte. Simple and clear. Hope the CDS and the nation can benefit.

  10. Very Well said Sir… and quite conclusive.. Air Force will always be the “Winning Force”..

  11. You brought out the role of Air Power very well. Add to this the strategic role of Air Force to control the Air Space by destroying the enemy’s strategic targets, cutting off logistics, dropping paratroops deep inside as tactical support which falls in an offensive role. In 1965 Indo-Pak war our Surface to Air missiles were such a deterrent that the enemy did not dare to peep into our territory in Punjab and western India. I recollect the day of 10th October 1965 with great pride, when I fired the first SAM II missile on Pakistani aircraft. After that, our Air Bases remained safe through the war due to missile deployment.

    Needless to say that united control of three services by a single person will be desaster. Air chief has very rightly expressed his dislike to the idea.

    Wg Cdr S P Shukla (7090) (Pilot Officer in 1965)
    Guidance Officer
    No 60 squadron Indian Air Force

    1. In JAWC the actual argument was about close air support to the troops on ground, that I agree is not a priority for the airforce, they have other tasks which must take priority.
      As for supporting the army in a war I do believe the CDS is right. Does an army capture territory , yes, can an army capture territory without control of the skies, unlikely. It stands to reason that in a war the airforce supports the army in its aim, the airforce does not work in a vacuum.

  12. Avi sir nicely explained but will CDS read it and benefit us !

  13. Hi Chiks. A primer on air power for the uneducated. Very well explained and simple enough to penetrate the thick skulls of numskulls. However, as the saying goes, none so blind as those who do not wish to see. I wish you luck in this enterprise, though I am not optimistic. It may well be that future generations will say that the battle for theatre commands was lost in the NDA drill square.

  14. Well written ….but age old topic of army vs Airforce!! Capt the world war2 is almost 80+years ago… the world and technology has since evolved radically ! In future if you want to dominate the sky one would use drones, satellites and electronic warfare!
    The recently attacks in Ambala and Jammu shows the vulnerability of stationary aircrafts

    1. It reminds me of a story told by a Drill Ustad in NDA. Here it goes…
      Once there was grumbling in the barracks of a battalion that food in the mess, particularly the breakfast, was bad. But no one dared open his mouth in front of the CO. Slowly the grumbling increased and CO decided to take stock of the situation. He asked the Subedar Major Saab to line up a few men to have a direct answer from the horse’s mouth. Now the Subedar Saab was in a fix.
      In those days, the men who reported sick were given ‘halawa’ in breakfast to recover faster. So the Subedar Saab lined up three such soldiers who had reported sick and were advised rest by the medical officer.
      Here goes the conversation.
      CO – Jawan.
      Jawan – Saab.
      CO – Aapne breakfast kiya?
      Jawan – Ji Saab.
      CO – Breakfast me kya tha?
      Jawan – Halawa that janab.
      CO – What the hell! Even after eating halawa the troops are not happy?

      This case appears to be heading a similar way.
      The incident is purely for fun and no meaning may be derived out of it!

  15. A well written & crisp response, Capt Chikte.
    With decades of technological evolution in military aviation, especially the stealth capabilities & UAVs in recent times, it’s apparent the Air Power has a near 100% reconnaissance +strike capability within minutes as against Ground or Sea borne forces.. As you have brilliantly highlighted in this article.

  16. Excellent.
    Master piece of complex but precise professional deliberation put across so simply.
    Hope it reaches the right echelons so as to make correct decision in the interest of the Nation.
    Well done Avinash. Am sharing it onwards.

  17. Very simplistically and well explained. After hearing what the CDS said was tempted to change my name to HAWAI SUBEDAR… 😀

  18. Hi Avinash
    very well put across in simple terms.
    Hope better sense prevails and all nuances of Airospace Power are understood by the decision making body at the highest level. Will be sharing it.

  19. “Airpower is like Oxygen. When you have enough, you don’t have to think about it. When you don’t have enough, that’s all you can think about.”
    – General Frank Gorenc.

    Incredible article sir.
    Beautifully explained.

  20. Beautifully explained for the children as well as the ignorant people at large. If you do write further on the subject, I’d say it would help if you can articulate in simple words the disastrous effects of “Straightjacketing the flexibility, Limiting the reach and underutilising the potential”.

  21. Hats off to Brigadier Ratnaparkhi ….sir I pray the CDS gets ur msg 👍😜🤫👏👏😊🙏🏻🇮🇳🙏🏻

  22. Firstly, true to you Avi Sir, an extremely well written article. Need to make reading your blog a habit.
    On the ARM front, are we fighting a war of supremacy between Army IAF & IN or are we fighting the enemy Didn’t he give a stick to the Pakis to hit us with & make fun (read look us like fools)
    If this is what a CDS does, then the powers in past were justified in not having a humour (read tumour) in uniform lead the three forces
    Jai Hind Jai Hind ki Sena

  23. Great job. I have read many articles since CDS put his foot in the mouth, but none so simple,clear and conveying the facts. I wish he could understand it, but then it has to be in Gorkhali/ Kumaoni. Arab/Israeli wars, Gulf War, Falkland etc..also prove the same point as brought out by you. In my opinion RAWAT is not the problem, he is transitory, he is a yes man and will face his horrible end, the real problem is how many in the Army heigharchy think the same way, I hope very few. But, he has presented a opportunity to the IAF,which we should grab with both hands and present leadership deftly using all the tricks in the book by involving the Govt/RM or whatever solve this perception once for all. Time for pussy footing is over. I don’t envy the present Chief and the Vice chief, they have a tough battle at hand but if they are able to resolve it with the national interest intact, they would make history.
    On a lighter note, I m getting abuse as I was his CSM in NDA and I am being accused of not kicking adequate ass.

    1. Very aptly put all the points,,,, जब बंदर के हाथ में हो उस्तरा, तो यह सब तो होना ही है,,,,,

  24. Well said Chiks
    We should not conceptually turn the clock back and degrade the strategic reach of Air Power—not only can it win a war by itself;Without it no major war can be won.
    Happy landings 😊😊

  25. Well written sir. I am sure the kid won’t find a simpler explanation elucidating the facts as they are.

    Sharing something I wrote on the subject ..

    When it was victory,”the cavalier claimed it outright, the gunner boasted of his calibre, the engineer and signalman publicised their worth, but the infantryman stood dumbstruck, having witnessed the graceful air ops, well beyond the FLOT.

    Time to let the general know that
    “victory would now be measured by the footprint provided by the Air Force.

    1. Anyone can become a Soldier or Sailor but few & capable one earns the Wings on his Breast…..and the Fighter Pilot stands above All . Three Cheers to the INDIAN AIR FORCE 🙏🏻🇮🇳🙏🏻

  26. Very well explained Avinash specially for the ones who have a fog in mind regarding the muscle power of the air dimension. Excellent…

  27. Air power has evolved to becime a separate force to recon with. We also evolved from monkeys they say. Why are monkeys still alive. May be to be in control when the evolution of Air Power is reversed.

      1. Air Power is Ultimate. It is Supreme & Omnipotent.

        More than reforms in Military there is a need of urgent reforms in MoD. It needs to be restructured to integrate with Military. This should be brief of CDS. He must refrain from making public statements to belittle valiant sister service.

  28. Very well written Avinash. One with a little knowledge of warfare understands the might of air power. Unfortunately, Infantry guys like me haven’t gone beyond the little knowledge (which is a dangerous thing ) of close air support to the ground forces ( which is now obsolete ) ie the short sited drama of FLOT & FAC .*Gairon pe karam apno pe sitam aye jane wafa ye Zulm na kar*. While posted at CDM, I witnessed a similar turf war between an Airforce Air Commodore and Infantry Commandant ( Who was an excellent sports man & like all of us Infantry men, Chuna Geru was his forte). I suggested the AF guy that as we Inf guys have their dimag in our Knees, forgive him and just accept his small ideas of *Anything which is static has to be painted and moving saluted*. He said Kya Dimag ghutne me bhi hota hai ? We just laughed like anything. God forgive him as he doesn’t know what he is speaking. The most unfortunate part is that the MoD & IAS Babu’s are going to take full advantage of this. Air force is a great my mama was a fighter pilot. He had to eject out of his plane once. I know what it is. This too shall pass. Forgive & Forget. *Diamonds are forever. We dont have the parakh to assess the Ratna ie the Air Force.*

  29. A succinct overview of air power utilisation written in your imitable style. The sarcasm at the end is not to be missed. Kudos, Avinash.

      1. Amazing article Captain.
        The title itself gives goosebumps.
        The article gives a deep gist of potential of Air Power !!
        Hats off Heros in the Air for their incredible courage , bravery and sacrifices.

  30. Clutter has been cut with clarity !! . All the elements of National Power have to work in unison to achieve the national interests. All three services play a decisive and unique role in achieving synergy in operations. No service can ever be subservient to other. Very lucid and succinctly put across. Well done Sir. Kudos.

  31. Air Power explained and illustrated so effectively. Hope it is understood by those, who really need to.

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