Sunday, July 14, 2024

IAF’s Exciting Transformation Ahead

By Ravi Srivastava

The manner in which modern-day warfare is evolving has been truly unprecedented. The escalation of conflicts across the world, though unfortunate, has suddenly afforded a ring-side view of this fast-paced evolution. There are no more tardy mobilizations or the amassing of forces suiting the convenience of assault timelines. If the war of trenches was the hallmark of the First World War, it was manoeuvre warfare that reigned supreme in the Second World War. Now it’s a 360-degree and Four-Dimensional Warfare that the world is witnessing. Abjectly blurring the distinctions of frontlines from depth locations and air from space.

The advent of space in the 1990s as an enabler was a generational upgrade with battlefield transparency becoming available to field commanders as never before. Satellite imagery, satellite communication, and the Global Positioning System (GPS) became the mainstay for armed forces in the years that followed. Execution of precision bombings, and real-time footage became awe-inspiring moments witnessed live across the world. All of these were possible simply because Space started playing up in the warfare calculus. Undoubtedly it was a technological leap and available only to front-line nations. Their already-matured civilian space program started offering dividends on the battlefield, led by the US and NATO. Space has the envious advantage of being unrestricted in the combat field, with no sovereignty issues even if satellites cross over international boundaries.

IAF’s Road Map

Fortunately, India was among the very few nations in the world to possess an advanced civilian space program of its own, that is rapidly growing in scope and caliber. The Indian space agency, ISRO has mastered the satellite launch capabilities. It soon turned India into a self-reliant nation in space technologies of broadcasting, communication, and weather monitoring. India’s space explorations to Mars, the Moon, and now the Sun led to soaring ambitions fuelled by envious achievements. However, the accomplishments that India’s civil space program has achieved were somehow not being replicated in the military domain.

In June 2022, IAF revisited its “Doctrine of the Indian Air Force”, originally formulated in 2012 – this time detailing its vision to transform into an Aerospace Power. Finally, in December 2023, IAF put forth a complete road map towards reorienting itself as the Indian Air and Space Force (IASF). The proposal to the government explained the future challenges and rationale for undertaking this leap. This is expected to enhance synergy in operation and open new vistas in the administration of war-fighting assets across the full spectrum of future war.

The quandary of the space domain was once well described by Air Commodore Jasjit Singh as – ‘with no dividing line between air and space, it is indeed a continuum of the third dimension above the earth’s surface’. It was an apt pointer toward the terminal end that IAF must pursue. Battlespace now is connected to seamless space-based satellite links integrating surface, subsurface, and air assets through space entities. It allows an unmatched situational awareness of all organs in almost real-time. Leading to optimised resource management from across the spectrum making accurate engagements of time-sensitive targets a possibility.

The Stakeholders

IAF in its future avatar as IASF, would be aspiring to gain such a level of operational efficiency that enables it, to deploy, control, execute, and preserve the space-based resources. What would act as a great enabler for the IAF is its deep-rooted culture of high-end technological adaptations. The new domain encompasses tremendous dividends as well as demanding challenges. Some of the most critical ones would be the identification of the right technology, its absorption, measures for survivability of space assets, and most notably, a well-trained workforce to handle this turf of combat.

Each such challenge would also present an equivalent opportunity that will be incumbent upon the timeline in which IAF can achieve these milestones. For sure, a straggler’s approach in absorption would put a commensurate penalty on the force. IAF would be looking to establish a mechanism for close interaction with national stakeholders in this field like ISRO, IN-SPACe, DRDO, and even the private players. This would allow a larger perspective and availability of the best resources the nation can afford. Indicating its significance, the IAF Chief during his address at Synergia Conclave in November 2023, had argued for aligning technologies, he said: “It will require a joint and consolidated effort on the part of all stakeholders, including defence PSUs, private industries, academia, and all others to facilitate the process”.

Aerospace Force

The valuable fact is, IAF has finally taken that proverbial ‘first step’ towards being a full-throttled Aerospace power. It would thus become only the fourth force in the world to operate a dedicated space arm. The first one being US SPACECOM, originally established in 1985 and later revived in August 2019, amplifying the value of the space domain in a future conflict. Russia and China also moved in the direction of becoming an aerospace force in 1992, and 2015 respectively. Russia graduated with its space fighting capabilities by establishing the Russian Aerospace Forces in 2015. This was when China also set up its PLA Strategic Support Force (PLASSF), its aerospace arm.

IAF should be racing to effectively operate among such an elite group who have gained over a decade of operational experience.  As a full-fledged Aerospace Force, IASF would need to attain advanced capabilities such as monitoring national space assets, handling space infrastructure, tracking space interference, launch on demand, providing astronauts for India’s future space station, as also the capacity to counter hostile space actions of adversaries. Survivability of such crucial assets is as important as possession of the capability itself. The denial at the time of operational need would make the entire effort absolutely futile. IAF would be fully alive to these complex dynamics as it prepares to cruise into the exciting and deeper end of the blue sky!

Ravi Srivastava is experienced in security and geopolitics and contributes to national publications. His articles can be accessed on the popular website, focusing on geostrategic affairs.

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