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.