Armed Forces have always been an important organ of the State and a powerful tool in furthering the State policies. Classically, their role related to engaging external forces and hence the armed forces were equipped and trained to use ‘maximum’ force to achieve their objectives.
Internal security issues, on the other hand, have had to be dealt with using ‘minimum’ force and as such the Police Forces, assigned for this task, have always been ‘lightly’ armed and trained. On the other hand technological advances and globalisation have given new dimensions to insurgency and terrorism, euphemistically, also termed as warfare of the future/proxy war/ LICO (Low intensity Conflict Operation) as come to be understood.
These transformations of internal security into insurgency and terrorism have forced us to re-visit the erstwhile classic roles of the armed forces. While the army has for long been employed on internal security duty and for anti-terrorism operations, the Air Force has almost been kept insulated from this task.
The use of Air Power in fighting insurgency is not as well documented as the conventional wars. Also, Air Power is only a century old while Low Intensity Conflicts are as old as mankind. However, Air Power has often been employed in LICO situations by various nations from the time of birth of this potent force. Some examples being:-
• The British made the first use of airpower in LIC environment in 1920 against Mohammed Bin Abdullah Hassan, “the Mad Mullah” in Somali Land, who had been evading punitive operations by regular British units.
• During the Algerian war between 1957 and 1959, helicopters played a vital role in the French victory.
• When the Soviets intervened in Afghanistan December 1979, they found that the quickest and the easiest way to bring force to bear on rural guerrilla groups were by the use of air power.
• The US demonstrated the most extensive use of aircraft and technology during Vietnam War. Aircraft were used more innovatively than in other LICs. Helicopters were used extensively. 1.24 million fixed wing and 37 million helicopter sorties were flown in the course of war. US also perfected the use of helicopter gun ships.
In our country, air power has not been used effectively in this role other than during the Sri Lanka and Kargil operations. High lethality of aerial weapons and consequent unacceptable levels of collateral damage is perhaps one strong reason. Also, for some unknown reason it is feared that using military aircraft against insurgents would lead to undesirable escalation of hostilities. Most importantly, a serious thought has not been accorded to understand the capabilities of the Air Power with a view to employ it to combat terrorism, insurgency and on internal security duties. When this is viewed against the fact that at the level of the Prime Minister it has been admitted that insurgency and internal security are the biggest threat to the Nation, it does not make sense not to use all of our fighting capability to counter this scourge. An enormous amount of tax-payers money is spent to purchase extremely expensive aircraft and related weapon systems. While capability so attained has ensured that our adversaries have not dared to fight us for more than three decades, it would still be understandable if one wonders why we buy such potent weapons and then retire them without ever employing them ‘to fire a shot in anger’, especially when the opportunity was always there.
To find a viable solution, it is important that we first understand the assigned role of the Air Force, the weapon systems it possesses and capabilities it has.
Role of the Air Force
The Air Force has the unenviable task of ensuring that the medium of air is not employed to harm our nation and our national interests. It must be realised that to so sanitise the country, the Air Force has to possess the capability to monitor the entire potentially hostile airspace to detect any potential threat and have weapon systems on stand-by to neuterlise the same before it becomes a real threat. With increasing range of air launched weapons, this capability has to be enhanced further to ensure that any aircraft which has the potential of becoming a threat, even if it has not violated our airspace, is successfully neutralized before it can launch its weapons. This being necessary since a weapon once launched is extremely difficult to neutralise.
Air Force Weapon Systems
The systems that the Air Force has to perform its operational roles can be classified under three separate heads. The sensors, the decision making apparatus and the weapons:
One of the main sensors with the Air Force is its radars. These include ground based radars of various powers, radars mounted on Aerostats which can be raised to a height of more than 15,000 feet as well as those that are carried on-board AWACS, UAVs and fighter aircraft such as Mirage 2000, MiG 29 and the SU 30s. These radars allow the Air Force to not only look deep inside the hostile territory to detect airborne targets but also targets on the ground. Also, this capability is not hampered by weather factors such as cloud, fog, smoke etc. As a matter of fact some of these sensors can look through foliage etc., as well. This entire capability is being greatly augmented through space-based sensors.
Other sensors include communication-intelligence and signal-intelligence devices and most importantly the human-intelligence.
Decision Making Apparatus
Information gathered through the above sources needs to be carried real-time from the sensors to the collation centres, where it is sifted, analysed and converted into decision-making-matrix that would allow the Commanders to take informed decisions. These decisions are then to be conveyed to the field for activating appropriate weapon systems. Considering the dynamic conditions in the tactical battle field, the entire process has of-course to be very rapid. In military parlance this is referred to as sensor-to-shooter time, which of course has to kept to the minimum. This demands high-speed and secure communication networks, electronic means to coherently mix all types of data to provide necessary global-awareness for correct and prompt decisions. Despite sophistication of the equipment there is the human at every stage who is to be highly trained and well-versed to not only operate complicated devices but also see through chaff to arrive at the right decisions. Since human lives and expensive resources are at stake on both ends of the weapon systems, the decisions have to be right each and every time. This fact under scores the need for extensive and effective training at all levels.
Offensive weapons include all types of fighter aircraft, armed helicopters and transport aircraft, soon to be included (perhaps) armed UAVs, surface-to-surface missiles etc. Weapons carried by these platforms comprise of bombs , rockets, guns and missiles. These are of varying ranges and a number of them are the high precision variety. Inventory of defensive weapons includes surface-to-air missiles of short, medium and long ranges.
Capability of the Indian Air Force
The above stated systems impart the Air Force the capability of continuous surveillance of the area of interest to compile information on the potential targets which is routinely updated. This information is passed on to the fighting forces to prepare plans to undertake operations against these targets and to train all the crews to conduct these operations. Other attributes of the Air Power are : rapid flow and analysis of information, quick reaction, ability to surmount terrain difficulties, execute precision attacks, flexibility in employment of resources for support operations etc.
Requirements of Low Intensity Conflict
To be successful, insurgent movements have a variety of requirements, most of which can be grouped into two categories-human and material.
• Ability to mobilize local and internal support
• Capable leadership, including effective command and control
• Intelligence concerning the adversary
• Organizational aid
• Safe haven and transit
• Financial resources
• Direct military support
• Arms and material, including ammunition, food, and fuel
From the analysis of above factors in the growth and sustenance of insurgency, appropriate roles for air power to counter such threats could be deduced. It is also clear that in counter insurgency operations hard and actionable intelligence is the key for any meaningful role for air power; be it covert or overt. If intelligence is available, then the scope for employment of air power increases considerably.
Employment of Air Power in Low Intensity Conflict
From the doctrinal approaches in various countries, the following broad tenets for combating LIC emerge:-
• Speed and Surprise.
• Mobility and Initiative.
• Psychological ascendancy.
• Countering technology. Retention for own use and deny the same to adversary.
A careful analysis of the above imperatives suggests that, broadly, the air power has roles under two major groups, i.e., supportive and combat.
Supportive Roles. The roles which emerge are as under:-
• Intelligence gathering-communication, signals, imagery in both strategic and tactical categories.
• Air transport operations- for mobility and logistics support.
• Convoy protection.
• Casualty evacuation.
• Reinforcements and air maintenance.
• Electronic warfare.
• Psychological operations.
Combat Roles. The roles for which air power can be employed during combat are:-.
• Direct attack on insurgent centers of gravity.
• Interdiction of supply lines.
• Interdiction of camps and safe havens.
• Political signalling for demonstration of political intentions.
While the tasks of fighter aircraft are quite well understood, transport aircraft, helicopters and UAVs too have very important roles, as brought out in the subsequent Paras.
Roles and Employment of Transport Aircraft
The Transport/ Cargo planes play a vital role in a LICO scenario. The Chief Characteristics of such planes are:-
• Long endurance and range.
• Capability to lift large cargo/large number of troops.
• Capability of air drop/para drop.
• Casualty evacuation.
• Military aircraft’s ability to land in rugged surface, with minimal infrastructure.
• Ability to switchover roles.
With the above characteristics it is easy to deduce the roles which can be tasked to transport aircraft in a LICO situation.
• Airlift of Supplies/Cargo/Troops.
• Para Para drop of Troops/ Supplies/ Bulk equipment.
• Casualty Evacuation.
• Airborne Command and Communication Post
• Electronic Support Measures and Electronic Counter Measures.
• Flight Refuelling
Employment of Helicopters in LICO Enviroment
Attack helicopters could be used in LIC operations as follows;
• Rapid force projection as soon as areas are demarcated and necessary political directive is obtained. This will have visible psychological impact.
• Quick aircraft survey and armed reconnaissance will assist in better transparency of the insurgency area and will have visible psychological impact and will facilitate optimal force deployment.
• Once camps and logistical bases are identified, teams of attack helicopters can be deployed to destroy them.
• A watch in terrorist infested towns during massive combing operations can be better achieved through attack helicopters.
• Quick disengagements and provision of safe access to the local political leadership and administration to areas cut off by insurgents there by breaking their psychological isolation.
Utility helicopters could be employed for :-
• Rapid reaction forces deployment and redeployment.
• Logistic Resupply
• Casualty Evacuation and Search and Rescue.
• Convoy Protection and Escort.
• Advance warning missions for troop induction by road.
• Small team insertion and extraction.
• Special operations
• Anti personnel, anti vehicle armament.
• Remote area operations.
Observation Helicopters, which are typically in 1-3 ton class may be employed for:-
• Casualty evacuation.
• Observation and surveillance.
• Special operations.
• Search and rescue.
• Convoy protection
• Advance warning during route reconnaissance.
UAV Employment in LICO
The UAV could be employed to gain intelligence under the following locations: -
• Headquarter locations and communication centers.
• Cadres and transport concentration including armour concentration.
• Administrative layout including dumps and explosive sites.
• Gun and mortar positions.
• Digging and emplacement.
• Road blocks.
• Prepared defensive positions.
• Demolitions of roads and railways.
• Terrain intelligence.
UAVs would also be useful for Tracking of Mobile Targets, Adjustment of Fire and High Altitude Surveillance.
Air power is an influential and often decisive force. It has unique capabilities that should be exploited in order to enhance any government’s low intensity conflict efforts. Air power cannot single-handedly defeat conflicts, particularly over long term, nor should it play a primary role in. On the contrary, all elements of national power, including civil intelligence, law enforcement, diplomatic, economic and political efforts as well as the military, need to be employed collectively if a country is to wage a successful LICO For India, a small scale military action along the line of control or a terrorist act in the hinterland are all tending to become issues for consideration and decision making at the strategic level. Therefore, what is required is a national capability to detect attack and manage the LICO situations. Air power is adequately suited to undertake most of the roles meant for managing the LICO.