There have been numerous attempts to study the ongoing Russo Ukraine war and draw lessons through the prisms of doctrines, strategy and tactics for our armed forces. Rightly so, as doctrines are ever evolving and need to be in sync with the changing character of warfare and serve as a guiding beacon for the services. The IAF has come out with a revised doctrine recently and has been a subject of intense scrutiny by our adversaries, and even more by our own countrymen. It addresses challenges across the spectrum of warfare and has been revised considering the evolving nature of threats facing the country. It also addresses what the IAF needs to do to help achieve the national objectives jointly with the sister services.

By Gp Capt Sartaj Sehgal

A recent article written by an eminent scholar warrior has brought some issues to fore that need to be debated. The larger environment needs to benefit from the lessons that emanate. The incisive article has touched upon vexing issues that need to be understood in our context. While we may draw parallels with other conflicts to learn lessons at the tactical and operational levels, the need to challenge existing doctrines based on years of experience may need further deliberation. An attempt will be made to study some of the issues highlighted in the article.

Modern Warfare and Unity of Command and Effort

In the quest for unity of command, we should not lose sight of unity of effort. The focus should be on achieving unity of effort at the point of decision. However, in the haste to seek a unified command structure, we should not end up compromising and diluting the core war fighting doctrinal precepts of the services. This would only serve to reduce the power brought to bear at the point of decision. We need to get our command structure right, that addresses both concerns in the first attempt.

Are Single Service Doctrines Really ‘Stand-Alone’?

A single service doctrine does draw essence from the Joint Doctrine. The latest version of the IAF doctrine has done it extensively. Any service doctrine would have to be service specific to an extent, in order to give guidance to its rank and file on war fighting while exercising its core capabilities in operations; limited to a specific domain that requires particular specialities. Never has any service doctrine steered a path that is at variance with the national objective. If a service has to execute its mission within an integrated structure, it would only be successful with a robust and a well rounded service specific doctrine that defines its own raison d’être′ to its rank and file. It provides a way forward in ensuring that the service war fighting TTPs (tactics, techniques and procedures), serve as building blocks to an effective joint operational plan to achieve national objectives.

Is There a Need for Reconsideration of Service Specific Doctrines?

The services do take up periodic revisions of their doctrines as is the case with the Indian Navy (Indian Maritime Doctrine 2004, 2009 and revised in 2015). The Navy has also published the Indian Maritime Security Strategy, IMSS 2007 and revised it in 2015. Similarly the Indian Army has the Indian Army Doctrine versions 2004, 2010 and had released the Land Warfare Doctrine in 2018. The IAF has been reviewing its doctrine in step with the changing character of warfare and has come out with the latest version in light of the threats facing India across the spectrum of conflict. Airpower is the most sensitive to technology. The effects of rapid changes in technology in the past hundred years have impacted the aviation sector and especially military aviation the most. A small, incremental enhancement in platform or weapon technology has a huge impact on the way the air forces fight. Hence the reason for air power doctrines to keep pace and embrace these changes that directly impact war fighting.

The author in his piece rightly brings about the point about conjoint combat power and not three combat forces. The IAF doctrine in all its avatars has never drifted from its joint flavour, succinctly stating its joint air land and maritime campaigns to enable the other two services to achieve their objectives. The latest version also draws inspiration from the Joint Doctrine of the Armed Forces. While the other doctrines are exhaustive in what they need to do to achieve their specific objectives, the IAF doctrine explains in detail the Air Land or Maritime Air Campaign, in addition to the other campaigns it prosecutes. In reality the IAF is structurally the most integrated in action and in doctrinal thought with the other two services. Service specific doctrines are the foundation on which the edifice of a joint theatre command will stand in whatever shape it takes. It needs a robust troika of service doctrines that aim to fight jointly, while retaining their core competencies specific to the domain they operate in. Any joint structure must give the latitude to exercise these competencies freely.

The Russo Ukraine War and Doctrinal Upheaval

Are the lessons that emerge at strategic, operational and tactical levels valuable for us? We could wager to say yes. Is there a need to seriously question our doctrinal precepts? That needs study for some time after the war has long ended, to derive correct doctrinal lessons. The failure- if it is termed as one; of the air land battle needs to be looked at in the correct context. Any Western air force would have gone in with counter air operations (CAO) with suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) that is the building block of successful air land operations. The latest IAF Doctrine clearly enunciates the need for coordinated air operations with the sister services for the furtherance of their objectives that comprise of Air Land operations and Maritime Air operations (referred to as counter surface force operations – CSFO, in earlier versions of the Doctrine).

Success of coordinated air operations with the other services hinge upon well executed counter air operations. The preponderance of Soviet armour in the Cold War era had prompted the West to invest in airpower to counter it. However to be able to successfully attrite it, the air force would need to tackle the enemy air force and the surface to air missile(SAM) envelope at the same time. Russian ground forces got mauled by high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS). This was partly because of the absence of a focussed campaign to control the sky and then take out these launchers from medium/high levels using precision weapons and accurately delivered iron bombs after getting precise intel with well planned ISR missions. The Russians got mired in a running armour and artillery battle in built up areas fighting street by street that nullified the advantages of mobility and firepower. This was further complicated by weather that restricted the Russians’ mobilisation to roads and highways, allowing Ukrainian ground forces to cause heavy attrition.

The Ukrainian ground air defence units had a formidable low level capability. A hurried attempt to support the faultily planned ground offensive, forced the Russians to fly into the envelope of MANPADS, causing attrition and also giving Ukraine the handle to win the narrative war by shooting down some aircraft. The Russians followed a classical Soviet era methodology of air primarily supporting the ground, without taking care of the objective to win the skies alongside. The long drawn battle for Bakhmut is now a fight reminiscent of the battles in WW II for the control of cities. Here, the capabilities of both the air and land forces are seriously debilitated, bringing to fore the question – what is the best way to plan air land operations that allows the accrued advantages of modern air and ground forces to play out with freedom. It is a question that probably challenges even the USA.

A Mirror for Us?

A similar sequence of events could also play out in our context in the plains sector, where the density of population and built up areas along the border will force a funneling effect on ingressing ground forces. Counter Surface Forces Operation (CSFO) in such a scenario is a difficult task that even the US found out to its discomfort, while flying Apache attack helicopters at low levels over the insurgent held cities of Iraq. That too when they had absolutely no threat of any enemy air interference. The central idea being that while CSFO is extremely important, it will succeed only if it is supporting a well planned and phased out ground campaign, and not as a last ditch effort to pull the ground forces’ chestnuts out of the fire. CSFO serves to speed up the progress of ground operations. It is an enabler that needs a good ground plan in the first place.

To be effective in interdiction and close support, it needs a degree of freedom to operate in its chosen height envelope and still be effective. That freedom is provided by Counter Air Operations (CAO). For the above to unfold as desired, we first need to accept the fact that a defensive line based on built up areas along with natural and manmade obstacles, with little space for our mechanized forces to manoeuver and bypass will bog us down due to terrain friction. Despite the long thrust lines we make on the maps in our war games, it is improbable that we would be able to penetrate deep enough. Conversely, we also need defences to prevent shallow thrusts of enemy mechanised forces, since losing territory of any manner is anathema in our lexicon. This is a repeat of what is happening in Ukraine – fixed, nearly frozen frontlines reminiscent of World War I.

Hot Disputed Borders and a Surface Centric Narrative

In the predominantly surface centric narrative that is generally spoken of, we need a plan that allows a speedy victory and denying the enemy an opportunity to grab significant portions of our territory. Taking the terrain friction and force ratio into account, neither will we be able to take much territory, nor will we be able to deny the oft repeated ‘Notion of Victory’ to the adversary by preventing any loss of territory. Is the dominant thought in the hierarchy of the military that of total denial of any territory to the enemy? Would we be able to hold on to every inch of land? We probably need to go back to the drawing board and think on what exactly is territorial integrity. What would be the ends we seek and the strategy to achieve them?

The IAF is probably best suited to break this deadlock by hitting the enemy deeper inside and addressing targets of all variety that would complement the overall war effort. This would force the adversary to rethink his strategy as he faces punishment in other areas that constitute national power, apart from his fielded forces. By reducing the narrative to just ‘hot disputed borders’, hence the narrow focus on only what lies in front will be a disservice to the urgent need to expand our thinking and responses beyond the traditional surface centric. It is here that we need a serious doctrinal review by all services.

Taking the current emphasis on revising our doctrines and keeping the ongoing Russo Ukraine conflict in mind the Armed forces need to ponder over the following issues at this juncture, which are restricted to just one of our adversaries to keep the scope of the article limited:-

– What is the capability of our mechanised forces to penetrate the heavily populated and built up areas with multiple obstacles such as mine fields, rivers, canals and obstacles the adversary has constructed?

– What is the depth we need to penetrate to ensure we achieve our objectives?

– If that be the case, what are the chances of the thrust lines getting stuck on multiple obstacles and then being pounded by the enemy air and ground forces?

– If we are sure that this is a difficult scenario and one most likely to play out, what is expected of the IAF to keep the enemy air force out of the equation? – If the IAF does manage to keep the enemy air force’s interference down to acceptable levels, how would the Army still tackle the ground defences of the adversary?

– Do we even have sufficient forces which give us an option of having a potent offensive formation free to exploit gaps in defences after the rebalancing of forces on both fronts?

– Hence the way we fight probably needs to change and we need to think beyond only surface centric, value objective based plans to capture certain towns or geographical features. What are these value objectives? Are we even capable of reaching them in a scenario of near parity? Hence, alongside these plans, we also need to target the enemy with concentrated Strategic Air operations that hit him in his soft underbelly – his economy and will to fight. The IAF can hit targets deep inside along with the CAO and CSFO running concurrently. This could be ably supported by the long range vectors of the Navy and Army.

– The way we plan to capture value territory that usually is a population or infrastructure centre, we would get embroiled in an attrition battle with the enemy in built up areas, which are difficult to support for both the artillery and airpower. We may flatten towns like the Russians are doing with artillery; however is that the way to fight is still a moot point considering the effort and resources required. The plains of North India and the mountains allow very less manoeuver space to the ground forces. So how should the ground campaign be planned and executed to ensure complete victory? After all going into a war without that sole aim is a very costly endeavour for little territorial gains for bartering later.

– Coming back to Russia and Ukraine and the ongoing war as a case study, the very fact that the Russian and Ukrainian armies are slugging it out in a war with nearly fixed frontlines, lays bare the theory of manoeuver warfare that we learn at our training institutions. Are we practicing tenets of manoeuver warfare in reality? By keeping the debate land centric, are we missing out on manoeuver from the sea, air or even in the enemy’s mind?

– The war has now been reduced to a war of wills. Ukraine cannot surrender as they would cease to exist. Russia cannot stop fighting and accept a stalemate because that will finish Putin. The West has smartly engaged Russia and will not allow it to disengage. It supports Ukraine just enough for it to fight another day. It points to a plan that has been reduced to a hard grind and attrition. The failure of the air land campaign may also be partly because of the lack of freedom to another combat force to do its job freely and ensuring that objectives are achieved by shaping the battlefield.

– A stalemate in the air may also be an acceptable outcome if complete victory in the air is not achievable. There is no major threat of the Ukrainian air force hitting the Russians, even though the Russian air force is also supposedly underperforming at the same time. This leaves the supposedly superior army of Russia to deal with the Ukrainian army without an air threat apart from drone attacks. Hence, does it point towards poor ground strategy and a failure of the Russian army to conduct operations? If both air forces are ineffective due to a stalemate, then the Russian army should be able to defeat the weaker Ukrainian army with little to worry of threats from the air.

– The lesson we need to learn is that it is no longer about just an air land campaign. It is about a whole of nation approach by first defining achievable objectives, the time frames required to achieve them and then addressing a system of targets spanning from the fielded forces, to political hierarchy, physical and electronic infrastructure, economy and whatever else it takes to ensure the enemy succumbs to our will. Airpower can address all of these, as can sister services to an extent. Resilience to attrition and logistical stamina is the key to long drawn wars.

– Just like the armies struggle to find answers to weapons like HIMARS that hit their artillery and armour, so is the question about credibility to tackle modern SAM threats for the air forces. However, TTPs and weapons combined will need to be refined to keep attrition to an acceptable figure while pressing home the attack. Resilience to attrition and logistical stamina is the key to long drawn wars.

Control of Air and Counter Surface Force Operations

This is a debate that will take some time and convincing to settle. A counter air campaign is a desirable campaign to commence the war with. However, that does not preclude the commencement and prioritisation for coordinated air operations in the form of CSFO if the situation so demands. A perverse fallacy exists that the IAF is desirous of fighting a private battle against the enemy air force, whereas facts and history speak otherwise. In 1965, the IAF prevented Pak armour to break through in the Fazilka sector, where our army was under extreme pressure. Maximum effort was put into CSFO, choking the Pak offensive. Similarly the Pak offensive in Chhamb in 1971 was countered by the IAF without adequately suppressing enemy air opposition. Despite the attrition suffered, it continued to carry out CSFO in support of the army, preventing the severing of the valuable highway.

This fallacy attempts to challenge one of the basic dictums of airpower doctrine of any country – that air power can simultaneously address and execute multiple campaigns. While control of air is certainly a primary objective, the IAF is sanguine that CSFO has to be provided adequately if the situation demands, even if control of the air is not yet established. However, it is also important to understand that a successful CSFO campaign hinges on a requisite degree of control of the air.

Ideally Conjoint

Taking the argument further into the maritime domain, the navy would be able to carry out its operations with greater freedom if the CAO campaign of the IAF is able to degrade the enemy airfields closer to the coast. This allows the navy to come closer to enemy shores and launch attacks on shore based targets. This is what we need to do, when we speak of a conjoint campaign in which the strengths of one service are harnessed to allow the other service to exercise its strengths. This comes by understanding the core doctrinal precepts of that service which are never to be compromised. Else, it is reduced to just rhetorical questioning that has no answers.

The Question of Air Dominance and Air Denial

In the IAF doctrinal lexicon air supremacy (instead of air dominance) as the highest degree of control of air is always to be aspired for. However we would be pragmatic in saying a favourable air situation, limited in time and space is a more achievable immediate objective for the initial part of the war. Multiple forays achieving specific objectives with a favourable air situation will gradually allow the air force to achieve higher degrees of air control. In our context it would not be a quick affair as was the case with the Israeli air force catching the Egyptians off guard in the Six Day War.

Air power is essentially offensive in nature. Air denial may keep the enemy air at bay for a while over a certain area, but not for the duration of the war and certainly not everywhere. Air denial will not win us the war, as it is a defensive strategy that at best can be successful for a while. It will not destroy the enemy air force and he will always exploit gaps in defences. A denial strategy for the ground forces will have to be carefully tailored in time and space to allow freedom to own air force to target enemy air and ground forces in the depth. It cannot be at the cost of freedom of operations for our own air force in the same volume of airspace.

The Egyptians had success with limited air denial over an area for a while in the Yom Kippur war, but the Israelis quickly found a way to penetrate the ground air defence (AD). Similarly the Americans in Vietnam gave birth to the Wild Weasel tactics to defeat a formidable Vietnamese AD. Seeing a faulty air land campaign in the current conflict should not push us to be quick in questioning time tested concepts of aerial warfare. Some blame can be placed at the foot of the Soviet doctrine of air land battle that tied the air force to the immediate ground war, giving it little freedom to exercise its full spectrum of capabilities. While air denial is certainly a part of the overall concept of operations, control of the air would always be desirable at the outset. These go hand in hand and cannot be separated.

The IAF is essentially an offensive force and doctrinally believes that control of the air achieved by offensive action is the best way to achieve joint objectives. It has the wherewithal to prosecute simultaneous offensive and air defence operations. The capability of the IAF to carry out operations on a large scale was demonstrated in Exercise Gagan Shakti in 2018. The scale of the exercise was impressive. 11,000 sorties were carried out of which 9,000 were by fighter aircraft. It was conducted over land and sea covering the entire Western and Northern Borders. An important element of this Exercise was to conduct joint operations with the Indian Navy and the Indian Army as per the joint military doctrine announced last year. What is of interest in this statistic is the huge volume of sorties carried out towards CAO, with a focussed effort for SEAD, and support to surface forces simultaneously in an offensive posture.

A Maritime Parallel

In maritime terms a similar parallel can be drawn for sea control and sea denial. The Doctrine of the Navy explains that sea control is a situation that is for a limited time and defined sea area for the immediate objective at hand, while denying the enemy its use. Having achieved the objective the naval force would move away, akin to a favourable air situation. Command of the Sea unqualified by time and space is closer to air dominance and the situation may be rarely, if ever achievable. Sea denial on the other hand is done to prevent the enemy using a sea area for a certain time, when it is not in use by own forces. Air denial can be done for time periods when our own air force is not in the vicinity, and it can never be a perpetual state.

In the absence of a National Security Strategy, the services derive objectives as spelt out by the higher directives depending on the threats faced. The former Army Chief, Gen Naravane has gone on record saying it is time for publishing such a document to serve as a guide to planning the defence of our country that would provide guidance to any changes in the defence structure. It must be remembered that service specific doctrines lay the foundation for that service to be an effective fighting force. Core competencies of any service should not be compromised at the outset to fit forcibly into a rigid joint structure which does not allow freedom to operate effectively. It is most important to be integrated and joint, but by harnessing the strengths of each service and addressing their core concerns in a healthy and fair debate. Writing doctrines that supersede established service doctrines, before even the conceptualisation of a theatre structure, would be putting the cart before the horse and would be counterproductive.

This article first appeared in and it belongs to them.