Primacy of Aerospace Power

anil chopra, air power asia, Aerospace Power

“To have command of the air means to cut an enemy’s army and navy from their bases of operation and nullify their chances of winning the war.”

Giulio Douhet

“Air control can be established by superiority in numbers, by better employment, by better equipment, or by a combination of these factors.”

Carl Andrew Spaatz

The 21st-century aerospace technologies have profoundly altered the prosecution of war and have in fact laid the foundation for a third revolution in military affairs. Warfare in the third dimension has brought about a substantial increase in range, speed, manoeuvrability, accuracy, and lethality of platforms and weapons. The increased mobility gives aerial platforms significant advantages over surface forces in terms of responsiveness, flexibility, and versatility in the application of overwhelming destructive force. Any point on the globe can now be addressed by aerospace power within hours or minutes with little or no warning, and it allows military power to be brought to bear against any aspect of an adversary’s power, be it political, military, economic, or social. Employed at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels of war, either simultaneously or separately, air and space power have become integral to military operations on land or sea. Aircraft carriers have already taken a central role in naval operations. Airpower has a great role in the air- land battle doctrine of armies. “War is thus an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will,” said Carl von Clausewitz. Military aerospace capabilities serve to deter aggression and prevent conflict by cautioning potential adversaries that their objectives will be denied and their aggression will be decisively defeated.

U.S. Air University Defines Aerospace Power

The United States Air University defines aerospace power as “the ability to use a platform operating in or passing through the aerospace environment for military purposes.” The meaning of aerospace is elaborated as “Of, or pertaining to, earth’s envelope of atmosphere and the space above it….” The perspective, range, speed, and manoeuvrability of air and space platforms produce levels of mobility, responsiveness, flexibility, and versatility unique to air and space power. The key elements are centralized control, flexibility/versatility, priority, synergy, balance, concentration, and persistence. Commanders are expected to exploit the mobility, responsiveness, flexibility, and versatility of air and space power. Air and space forces must be centrally controlled by an air commander to achieve advantageous synergies, establish effective priorities, capitalize on unique strategic and operation flexibility, ensure unity of purpose, and minimize the potential for competing objectives. Execution of aerospace missions should be decentralized to achieve effective spans of control, responsiveness, and tactical flexibility.

Indian Air Force (IAF) Su-30MKIs flank an IAF A-50EI EL/W-2090 “PHALCON” AWACS ”. Image Source: Pinterest

The ability to concentrate force anywhere and attack any facet of the enemy’s power is the great strength of aerospace power. Aerospace operations must be prioritized because demands for air and space forces will invariably swamp air commanders. The proper application of air and space forces, in mutually supportive air campaigns, produces effects well beyond the proportion of each mission’s individual contribution to the campaign. The proper application of air and space forces in joint operations with surface forces produces effects that greatly magnifies the contribution of the surface force, in effect shape the theatre in ways that cannot be achieved by surface forces. The versatility and flexibility of aerospace power permits the simultaneous accomplishment of strategic, operational, and tactical effects through dispersed and parallel attacks in order to achieve an overwhelming effect. Air and space power should be applied persistently. Destroyed targets can be rebuilt and need to be visited through re-strikes. A primary objective of air and space operations is to gain air and space superiority, which provides the essential security and freedom of action for all friendly forces in the theatre. The enemy has to be denied access or full use of air and space. Action against a wide array of military, economic, political, and social targets permits the shaping of a conflict in ways that cannot be done by surface forces.

IAF Strikes at Pokaran Firing Range. Image Source:

USAF Doctrine: Primary Roles of Aerospace Power

The U.S. Air Force (USAF) doctrine identifies four primary roles for aerospace power.‘Aerospace control’, to control the combat environment, and deny to the enemy; ‘force application’ to apply combat power; ‘force enhancement’ to multiply combat effectiveness; and ‘force support’ to sustain forces. Aerospace control includes counter-space and offensive or defensive counter-air operations. Force application involves the use of interdiction, close air support, and strategic attack missions against enemy surface components and capabilities. Force enhancement missions are those that enhance or improve the capability of combat forces, and include airlift, air refuelling, space-lift, electronic combat, special operations, surveillance, and reconnaissance. Finally, force support encompasses logistics, combat support, on-orbit support, and base operability and defence. One of the main problems for the USAF had been to define its mission as ‘air and space’ separately or as ‘aerospace.’ The main argument for making a distinction between the two mediums is that the systems and operations of air assets are inherently different from space assets. Air assets are governed by the laws of aerodynamics and tend to be more flexible and more responsive. Space assets are governed by orbital mechanics and tend to cover wider areas of the Earth and provide a more continuous presence. The argument for defining air and space as one medium ‘aerospace’ points to the fact that air and space platforms perform similar missions and the characteristics of air and space assets will merge as more systems that can operate in both environments become available.

Aerospace Core Capabilities

Aerospace forces need three core capabilities, highly developed and capable combat assets, mobility/transportation, and information systems. The ability of air and space power to shape the operational level can best be described by using John Boyd’s OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) loop theory. The OODA loop works both at tactical and strategic levels and comprises four basic operations: observation, orientation, decision, action. Space platforms in low orbits and air platforms cannot occupy a single point in the air or space for extended periods. Air platforms are sent out for one or more missions, and after each mission the air platform must return to a friendly base for refuelling and re-arming. Space platforms in low and medium orbits must often be tasked for each pass over the theatre or area of interest. The effects from each mission must be evaluated and a decision on subsequent missions must be made. The objective of air and space superiority is not to conduct air and space operations faster than the enemy, but to deny the enemy the ability to conduct any air and space operations at all. Surface forces also typically establish the objective of denying the enemy forces the ability to operate in a theatre but that denial is usually the result of other operations. Most of the important air and space assets which are essential to operations like the air operations centres, air bases, satellite ground stations, AWACS and other high-value air assets are mostly located beyond the reach of enemy surface forces. Therefore, they can only be attacked by enemy air and space forces. The ability to observe the whole theatre of operations both close in and deep into enemy territory, including radar, and infrared radiations is unique to the air forces using satellite sensors, UAVs, AWACS, Aerostats, groundbased radar, and traditional reconnaissance assets. This huge data has to be processed and disseminated in a timely manner for decision-making.

OODA Loop. Image Source:

Core Missions

Air and space superiority is a necessary precursor to all successful operations. For the air force is critical to disrupt and destroy enemy command and control to prevent effective control of all armed forces. The core competencies of precision engagement and global reach are far reaching. Close air support and interdiction destroy the ability to effectively mount any offensive land or naval combat operations. Air and space power shaped the entire theatre during Operation Desert Storm. The ability of the air forces to respond quickly with massive airlifts to remote locations around the globe is unmatched. The OODA loop also signifies communications and intelligence and their relationship to air and space operations. Supporting infrastructure that provides targets, target data, integrated mission orders, and the necessary logistics and maintenance are very crucial. The non-lethal applications of aerospace power include strategic reconnaissance, electronic jamming, psychological operations, transportation, and communications. They support to degrade or deny.

WW II: Aerospace Power Evolves

The primacy of air power was first established in WW II as it was used extensively in all theatres. While air forces flew their own strategic missions, they were closely integrated with land and naval forces. Strategic bombers became an important element. Tactical control of the battlefield by air, as well as the need for air defences was crucial. Achieving air superiority over the battlefields also gives vital freedom of action to surface forces. Aircraft carriers played the central role in the war at sea. The Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, was seen by Adolf Hitler as the decisive strategic weapon. For the Battle of Britain, the Royal Air Force (RAF) started on a large expansion, with many airfields being set up. They combined the newly-developed radar with communications centres to direct their fighter defences. Similarly, the Soviet Air Force was on a defensive when Operation Barbarossa began, having to confront more modern German aircraft. Later, Soviet aircraft production rose sharply. The Soviets concentrated on aircraft for tactical ground attack role mainly in support of the Army.

German Luftwaffe Heinkel He 111 bombers during the Battle of Britain. Image Source: Pinterest/juliandoubleyou

President Franklin D. Roosevelt gave command of the U.S. Navy to an aviator, Admiral Ernest King, with a mandate for an aviation-oriented war in the Pacific. Robert A. Lovett, the civilian Assistant Secretary of War for Air, said, “While I don’t go so far as to claim that air power alone will win the war, I do claim the war will not be won without it.” George Catlett Marshall Jr., the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, though an infantryman uninterested in aviation before 1939, became a partial convert to air power and allowed the aviators more autonomy. He authorized vast spending on planes, and insisted that American forces had to have air supremacy before taking the offensive. MacArthur had been badly defeated in The Philippines in 1941–42 primarily because the Japanese controlled the sky. MacArthur vowed never again. His island-hopping campaign was now determined by the range of his air force, and the first task on securing an objective was to build an airfield to prepare for the next leap. The Allies won battlefield air supremacy in the Pacific in 1943 and in Europe in 1944. That meant that Allied supplies and reinforcements would get through to the battlefront, but not the enemy’s. Both Germany and the USA pioneered the use of what would come to be known as Precision Guided Munitions ( PGM ).

Japanese naval air power proved unexpectedly powerful, sinking the American battleship fleet at Pearl Harbour in December 1941. A raid by a powerful Japanese Navy aircraft carrier force into the Indian Ocean resulted in the Battle of Ceylon and sinking of the only British carrier, HMS Hermes as well as two cruisers and other ships effectively driving the British fleet out of the Indian Ocean and paving the way for the Japanese conquest of Burma and a drive towards India. In the battle of Midway, Japan had 272 warplanes operating from four carriers; the U.S. had 348 of which 115 were land-based. In an extraordinarily close battle, the Japanese.

Japanese Air Strike on Pearl Harbour. Image Source:

After 1942, the USA made a massive effort to build up its aviation forces in the Pacific, and began island-hopping to push its airfields closer and closer to Tokyo. The small geographical area of Japan, large heavily populated cities, and the concentration of munitions production made strategic bombing the preferred strategy of the Americans. The Operation ‘Meetinghouse’ raid was on the night of March 9/10, 1945. Nearly 100,000 Japanese were killed and another million injured, most of them civilians, when more than 300 American B-29 bombers dropped 1,500 tons of firebombs on the Japanese capital that night. The inferno the bombscreated reducedan area of 41 sq. km. to ash. Moreover, by some estimates, a million people were left homeless. It is estimated by some to be the single most destructive bombing raid in military history. On August 6, 1945, the ‘Little Boy’ enriched uranium atomic bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima. This was followed by the detonation of the ‘Fat Man’ plutonium core atomic bomb on August 9 over Nagasaki, forcing the announcement of the surrender.

LB (Little Boy) unit on trailer cradle in pit. [Note bomb bay door in upper right-hand corner.] , 08/1945. Image Sorce: National Archives & Records Administration

During the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944, General George Patton said the cooperation of XIX TAC Air Force was “the best example of the combined use of air and ground troops that I ever witnessed.” For the first time during WW II, the fundamental assumption of the air power doctrine emerged that it was just as important as ground war. The idea of combined arms operations (air, land, sea) was well established. Hereon, the USA invaded only after certain of air supremacy. Senior ground commanders now had attached air commanders.

Technology Critical to Air Power

Very early it became clear that technology was critical to air power and air supremacy. Building on their lead in ground radar, the British made the first airborne ground-scanning radar system that improved navigation, targeting and bombing at night even in bad weather. The postwar shift to jet engines resulted in enormous increases in speeds and altitudes of aircraft. High-altitude observation aircraft like the Lockheed U-2, and, later, the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird were used for intelligencegathering. The Soviets finally downed a U-2 piloted by Gary Powers using an SSM. Air combat also got transformed with greater use of Air- to-Air Missiles (AAM) with increased sophistication in guidance and increased range. The emphasis then shifted to highly manoeuvrable attack aircraft that could also fly ‘under the radar’ at very low levels. Swept-wing fighters could fly much faster. Anti G-suites increased the ‘G’ tolerance of pilots, and thus came highly manoeuvrable aircraft.

SR-71 Blackbird. Image Source:

Indo-Pak Air Wars

The 1965 Indo-Pakistan war saw the first full-scale engagement in combat. The IAF had numerical superiority, and the PAF had a little qualitative advantage. Neither side could achieve air superiority. However, by the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war, the IAF had both the qualitative as well as numerical edge with large numbers of MiG-21s in service. After the initial pre-emptive strike, the PAF adopted a defensive stance. The IAF continued aggressively against the PAF which offered little in retaliation. The PAF failed to intervene during the Indian Navy’s two raids on Pakistani naval port city of Karachi during Operation Trident and Operation Python. The PAF was unable to support the Pakistan Army during the tank battle of Longewala. The IAF’s air superiority in the east destroyed the PAF. Air superiority in the east also allowed the IAF to provide unhindered support to the Indian Army for the ground offensive. It hastened the operations by providing heli-lift for troops to cross river obstacles and the famous Tangail para airdrop on 11  December 1971 when the 2nd Battalion of the Indian Army’s Parachute Regiment was dropped to cut the Pakistani 93rd Brigade. The final nail in the coffin was the four- MiG-21 strike by IAF that blasted the Governor’s House with 57 mm rockets on 14 December when a crucial meeting was on. The Governor of East Pakistan, Mr. A.H. Malik, was so shocked after the incident that he resigned on the spot. It was also to accelerate the surrender.

The Dhaka Governor House Strike by IAF MiG 21s, painting by Gp Capt Deb Gohain. Image Source:

Air Power in Vietnam War

The large-scale use of helicopters by the US Army in Vietnam led to a new class of air-mobile troops, and the introduction of ‘Air Cavalry’ through extensive use of the Bell UH-1 Huey helicopter. The Sikorsky CH54 Tarhe ‘Skycrane’ and the Boeing Vertol CH-47 Chinook lifted heavier loads such as vehicles or artillery. The specialized AH-1 Cobra was developed from the Huey for escort and ground support. The Boeing B-52 Stratofortress was modified to unload a massive high-explosive payload on enemy troop concentrations. The Lockheed AC-130 became a significant gunship. The A-10 Thunderbolt II was the main ground attack platform. The carrier-based A-4 Skyhawks were extensively used by the U.S. Navy (USN). For the first time, the combat use of electronic computers aboard ships displayed comprehensive real-time battle pictures for better situational awareness. General Dynamics F-111 Aardvarks, pioneered several technologies, such as variable-sweep wings, first afterburning turbofan engines, and automated terrain following radar for low-level flight. North Vietnam very effectively used the anti-aircraft artillery, SA-2 guided missiles, and MiG fighters. US air strikes were for the first time supported by force multipliers like airborne radar platform the Lockheed EC-121 Warning Star, and FRA Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker, and specialised ‘Wild Weasel’ radar jamming aircraft. ‘Smart’ guided bombs were used later in the war. Air combat training school such as TOPGUN was set up to improve kill ratios. In addition, the USAF restarted programs to produce agile air superiority fighters such as the McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle.

USAF Carpet Bombing in Vietnam. Image Source:

Egypt Israeli Wars

On June 5, 1967, the Israel Defence Forces initiated Operation Focus, a coordinated aerial attack on Egypt. Nearly 200 aircraft took off from Israel, catching the Egyptians by surprise, and attacked 18 airfields and eliminated roughly 90 per cent of the Egyptian air force on the ground. Later Israel attacked and decimated the air forces of Jordan, Syria and Iraq. By the end of the day on June 5, Israeli pilots had won full control of the skies over the Middle East. Israeli tanks and infantry could storm across the border and into the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip. On June 9, following an intense aerial bombardment, Israeli tanks and infantry advanced on the heavily fortified Golan Heights region of Syria and captured it. The Six-Day War, won mainly by air power, had momentous geopolitical consequences in the Middle East.

Egypt began a concentrated effort to build up its forces, inducting Russian MiG-21 jet fighters, SA-2, SA-3, SA-6, SA-7 anti-aircraft missiles, T-55 and T-62 tanks among many other weapons. On October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated attack against Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. Taking them by surprise,

Egyptian troops swept deep into the Sinai Peninsula. The mobile SA-6 SAMs proved effective against low-flying Israeli aircraft until they were neutralized. The Israeli Air Force had no time to execute a Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) operation due to the element of surprise. It lost 102 airplanes mostly in the initial strikes on the ground. Nearly 450 Arab aircraft were shot down. Most of these were shot in aerial engagements. Disengagement took place on October 28, 1973. Israel’s victory came at the cost of heavy casualties. Air power had been intelligently and copiously used by both sides. Israeli losses were greatly reduced due to use of air power.

Air War Over Sinai. Image Source:

Falklands War

The Falklands War of 1982 was fought by Britain against Argentina at a distance of 12,781 kilometres. On 2 April 1982, Argentinean forces mounted amphibious landings, known as Operation Rosario, on the Falkland Islands. The operations lasted from 1 April 1982 to 20 June 1982. Sierra Leone allowed British task force ships to refuel at Freetown. VC10 transport aircraft landed at Banjul in Gambia while flying between the UK and Ascension Island. Chile gave support to the UK in the form of intelligence about early warning intelligence on Argentine air movements. The two British aircraft carriers ‘Invincible’ and ‘Hermes’ set sail. The whole task force eventually comprised 127 ships, including 62 merchant ships. The British had just 42 Harrier aircraft for air combat operations, against approximately 122 Argentinean serviceable jet fighters. The British lacked Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft. The RAF set up an airbase on Ascension Island in the mid Atlantic British overseas territory. They positioned a sizeable force of Avro Vulcan B Mk 2 bombers and aerial refuellers and some fighters to protect them. On 1 May, British operations on the Falklands opened with an attack on the airfield at Stanley. A Vulcan bomber from Ascension flew a 15,000-km round trip dropping conventional bombs across the runway at Stanley and returning to Ascension. The mission required repeated refuelling and required several Victor K2 tanker aircraft operating in concert, including a tanker for tanker refuelling. The raids prevented Argentina from stationing fast jets on the islands. Stanley airfield was too short to support fast jets. The Argentines were forced to launch their major strikes from the mainland. The effective loiter time of incoming Argentine aircraft was low. The British lost the Destroyer HMS Sheffield to fire following an Exocet missile hit from an Argentine naval aircraft. During the six-week war, British carrier- based Harriers flew over 1,500 sorties. Twenty-one Argentine fixed-wing aircraft were destroyed in the air. An additional 18 Argentine fixed-wing aircraft were destroyed by British SAMs. Fifteen Argentine fixed-wing aircraft were destroyed on the ground and 14 were captured. Militarily, the Falklands conflict remains the largest air- naval combat operation between modern forces since the end of the Second World War. The most significant lessons were the vulnerability of surface ships to anti-ship missiles and the challenges of coordinating logistical support for a long-distance projection of power, and reconfirmation of the role of tactical air power, including the use of helicopters.

Sea Harriers, Falklands War, 1982. Image Source: Mark Skarratts via Pinterest

Gulf War in 1991

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought a shift in concept from large numbers to lesser multi-role aircraft. Aircraft carriers became important in global air power projection in the absence of dedicated air bases. The PGMs allowed strikes at selected surface targets with high accuracy. The role of air power in modern warfare was dramatically demonstrated during the Gulf War in 1991. Air attacks were made on Iraqi command and control centres, communications facilities, supply depots, and reinforcement forces. Air superiority over Iraq was gained before major ground combat began. The initial strikes were composed of Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from ships. Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk stealth bombers with laser- guided bombs and anti-radar missiles first destroyed the air defence network and resulted in air superiority over the country. A-10 Thunderbolt IIs attacked Iraqi armour with Gatling guns and Maverick missiles to support the advance of US ground troops. Attack helicopters fired laser-guided Hellfire missiles and TOW (Tube-launched, Optically tracked, Wire-guided) missiles. The allied air fleet also made use of AWACS and the B-52 bombers. The allied aerial strike force was made up of over 2,250 combat aircraft, which included 1,800 US aircraft. The Iraqi force was of about 500 aircraft composed mainly of MiG-29 and Mirage F1 fighters. More than 88,000 combat missions were flown by allied forces with over 88,000 tons of bombs dropped by the end of the fifth week. Air superiority had been well established resulting in low ground casualties.

Air action in Gulf War 1991. Image Source: U.S. Department of Defense through

Operation Safed Sagar

On 11 May 1999, the IAF was called by Indian Army to provide helicopter close air support against Pakistani intruders for its ‘Operation Vijay’ in Kargil. The IAF subsequently launched air operations and were called operation ‘Safed Sagar.’ The IAF had been carrying out routine electronic intelligence (ELINT), photo and aerial reconnaissance since early May. On 21 May, a Canberra PR57 on a reconnaissance mission, was hit by a Chinese-made Anza infrared SAM. The plane returned to the nearest IAF base, Srinagar, on one engine. On 25 May, the Indian Government cleared limited use of offensive and defensive air power, restricted entirely to the Indian side of the Line of Control. The aim was to target Pakistani bunkers in the occupied hills and cut off Pak transit lines. The first strikes were launched on 26 May, and the IAF struck infiltrator bunkers with Mi17  armed helicopters. This was followed with fighter strikes by MiG-27s and MiG-21s with MiG-29s providing air cover. On 27 May, the IAF lost a MiG-27 which suffered an engine flameout due to disturbance of air flow near the air intake on rocket firing at very high altitude. It also lost a MiG-21 to enemy ground action when the IAF pilot was trying to search out the downed MiG-27. The following day, a Mi-17 was lost when hit by three Stinger missiles while on an offensive sortie in the Tololing sector. These losses forced the IAF to reassess its strategy. It withdrew helicopters from offensive roles. On 30 May, the IAF inducted Mirage 2000 for high altitude weapon delivery. Mirage 2000s could carry out day and night attacks on Tiger Hill and Muntho Dhalo using LGBs. It used the much cheaper US Pave way II LGB kits with the Israeli Litening Laser designator pods (LDP). The LDPs were also used for recce, and attack of the large Pakistani logistics camps. The attacks on Muntho Dalo and Mashkoh Nalla had a demoralizing and paralyzing affect on the Pakistani Army. The first Mirage 2000 LGB mission, was carried out by then Wg Cdr R. Nambiar (later Air Marshal), and Sqn Ldr Patnaik (now Air Marshal) and observed by the (then) Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal A Y Tipnis, in yet another two-seater. All LGBs were delivered by two-seaters, with the rear- seat pilot doubling up as a WSO. The first night LGB mission was flown on 28 Jun achieving a direct hit, and this mission was considered instrumental in paving the way for ground forces to capture Tiger Hill. During an aggressive patrol, two MiG-29s armed with Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles got a missile lock on two F-16s of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) patrolling close to the border, but did not engage them because there was no official declaration of war. By keeping the PAF threat at bay, the IAF was able to deliver numerous devastating strikes on intruder positions and supply dumps. All aircraft operated at an altitude of 10,000 metres above sea level, diving when required and pulling out well out of MANPADs range. The air strikes against the Pakistani infiltrators, supply camps and other targets yielded rich dividends. The Mirage 2000 was looked upon as the aircraft that turned the tide of the Kargil War. By the end of July 1999, India regained all its possessions lost in the Kargil region. As per Indian government reports, IAF transport aircraft flew 3,427 sorties, helicopters 2,474, and fighters 1,730 sorties, totalling 7,631. The breakdown of IAF fighter missions were 48 per cent for air strikes, 30 per cent CAP and Air Escort, and 13 per cent Reconnaissance. The restrictions for not being able to cross the LoC which was very close to the area of action did place significant attack limitations on air power. Finally, air power not only greatly reduced Indian Army casualties but also turned the tide of war and hastened the end. The lessons learned in this limited war influenced India to urgently upgrade its combat fleets. The IAF also acquired and started co-developing the Sukhoi Su-30 MKI. The process of acquiring 126 Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) was also initiated.

Operation Safed Sagar. Image Source:

Iraq War 2003 ‘Iraqi Freedom’

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was led by US and British forces putatively to defeat the regime of Saddam Hussein. Aerial warfare once again proved to be decisive. The air campaign began on March 19 with limited night bombing on the Iraqi capital, Baghdad. Later, intensive bombardment began. About 14,000 sorties were flown. Eight hundred Tomahawk cruise missile, each costing around a million dollars each, were fired at numerous targets in Iraq in just a period of a month. Iraqi resistance was crushed. Iraqi anti-aircraft weapons were unable to open fire on high-altitude US bombers such as the B-52, or the stealth B-2 bomber and F-117A. U.S. and British aircraft used radar-detecting devices and aerial reconnaissance to locate and destroy Iraqi anti-aircraft weapons. Bunker buster bombs, designed to penetrate and destroy underground bunkers, were dropped on Iraqi command and control centres. Iraqi ground forces could not seriously challenge the American ground forces because of their air supremacy. By mid-April 2003, U.S. and British forces controlled all of Iraq’s major cities and oil fields.

War in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan began with the rise of al-Qaeda and the Taliban which rose from the ashes of Afghanistan’s post-Soviet civil war in 1999. The Taliban had been providing al-Qaeda sanctuary of operations since 2001. The UNSC adopted Resolution 1267 which created the al-Qaeda and Taliban Sanctions Committee, which linked the two groups as terrorist entities and imposed sanctions on their funding, travel and arms shipments. The assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud, commander of the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban coalition, dealt a blow to the antiTaliban resistance and operations. Osama bin Laden started getting protection from the Taliban after the 9/11 attacks. After the 9/11  al-Qaeda attacks in the U.S.A., U.S. President George W. Bush vowed to “win the war against terrorism”. It was then decided to invade Afghanistan. On 07 October 2001, U.S. military, with British support, began a bombing campaign against Taliban forces, officially launching Operation Enduring Freedom. Many other allies promised to support. The U.S. air strikes were supported by over a thousand special forces troops. The Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban forces also joined. The Taliban soon started losing ground and finally collapsed. Despite the collapse, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden continued to hide in the Tora Bora caves, but he later escaped. In December 2001, Hamid Karzai was installed as the interim administration head. Operation Anaconda was the first major ground assault in early 2002, but the Pentagon’s priority shifted to Saddam’s Iraq. The new strategy in Afghanistan was to rebuild with humanitarian and reconstruction assistance. Meanwhile Osama bin Laden resurfaced and released a video tape claiming responsibility for 9/11 . The year 2006 saw a resurgence of Afghan insurgency. However, in the renewed offensive, there were many instances of collateral civilian killings in air strikes that brought negative publicity and worldwide condemnation. A tactical directive issued by Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal on July 6, 2009 cautioned to avoid the “trap of winning tactical victories, but suffering strategic defeats, by causing civilian casualties and alienating the people”.

US Air Strikes in Afghanistan. Image Source:

In February 2009, the new American President, Barack Obama, declared a recommitment to the war and deployed 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan, adding to the 36,000 already there. In December, Mr. Obama announced a “surge” meant to build and train an Afghan security force that would be strong enough to assume responsibility for fighting the insurgency. His plan included sending 30,000 more American troops, bringing the total number to nearly 100,000 by mid-2010. The new strategy was to link success in Afghanistan to a stable Pakistan. The aim was to disrupt and dismantle safe havens in Pakistan. A fresh offensive was launched by nearly 4,000 U.S. Marines to restore government control in Helmand Province. Obama put a timeframe of July 2011  to complete operations in Afghanistan. On 01 May 2011 , al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. forces in his hideout in the military cantonment in Abottabad through a mid-night air operation deep in Pakistan. In early 2013, an unsuccessful attempt was made to strike a deal with the Taliban. However, gradually, Afghanistan security agencies were handed control of internal security with the full backing and training by NATO allies. But U.S. war on terror continued. Meanwhile, the Islamic State started emerging as a group in Iraq and Syria. On April 13, 2017, the USAF dropped the most powerful non-nuclear bomb, also referred to as the ‘the mother of all bombs,’ on an Islamic State cave complex in eastern Nangarhar Province. After his election, President Trump initially signalled a pullout, but later supported a prolonged Afghan war. He invited India to play a greater role in rebuilding Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the Taliban carried out some bold attacks amid U.S. escalation.

The new rules of engagement had made it easier for U.S. forces to carry out strikes against the Taliban. Also, resources had shifted from the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan. At the same time, the USA had launched a five-year plan to massively expand and overhaul the Afghan Air Force, including providing it with 159 Black Hawk helicopters. John W. Nicholson, the top U.S. General in Afghanistan, pledged that a “tidal wave of air power” will be unleashed to push the Taliban to the negotiating table, and perhaps bring an end to America’s longest war—which has dragged on for 17 years.

Collateral civilian damage had been an issue. Ever since the negative media coverage of collateral damage of loss of innocent civilian lives in the Vietnam war, weapons have been developed with higher accuracy. Heavy bombing against the Taliban and IS saw many Afghan civilians killed and injured from the air, though most civilian casualties were caused by anti-government groups like the Taliban and IS. There are some who believe that the entire strategy of pounding the Taliban militarily was misguided. A BBC study found that Taliban fighters continued to be openly active in 70 per cent of Afghanistan. Barnett Rubin, who served as senior adviser to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the US Department of State from 2009-2013, said the air campaign was having “no strategic effect.”

Air Power: Capital Budgets

Air power continues to dominate most conflicts around the world. The investments in air power even by land and maritime forces are also significantly increasing. The biggest share of capital procurement budgets are also for air power assets. U.S. DoD budget proposals for 2021 at $ 705.4 billion have major funding for Nuclear Modernisation ($28.9 billion) that includes B-21 Bomber. Missile Defence ($20.3 billion), the new Space Program $18 billion, while Cyberspace protection is budgeted at $9.8 billion, which includes AI and Cloud. The Air Domain $56.9 billion includes $11.4  billion for 79 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. The Marine Domain $32 billion includes $3.0 billion for an aircraft carrier. The land domain is budgeted for $13 billion. The Department’s largest RDT&E budget, $106.6 billion, is the largest ever focused on the development of crucial emerging technologies, including $3.2 billion for Hypersonics. The services readiness (revenue) budgets are Army $30.9 billion, Navy and Marine Corps $47.5 billion, Air Force $37.1 billion, and $69 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations.

China’s biggest portion of the defence budget goes into the development program of aircraft carriers, fighter aircraft and other aerial platforms. The IAF gets the highest percentage of the capital budget at 57 per cent of its total allocation for Financial Year (FY) 2019-20. Aerial platforms will affect the outcome in war and peace, said Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, Chief of the Air Staff, IAF. He stressed the need for procuring aerial strategic assets on a continuous and long-term basis.

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IAF Doctrinal Shift: Greater Offensive Role

The IAF has also seen a doctrinal shift over the years. It will now take on a more offensive role against both adversaries. Introduction of combat enablers like AWACS, flight refuellers and strategic transport aircraft has made a difference. In the recent, so called mother-of-all-exercises, ‘Gagan Shakti’ the IAF tested out a possible two-front war and included intertheatre movements of assets among practically all other domains of modern air power. Regional power projection and ability to take on China are the clear new doctrinal focus areas. The IAF’s 2012 doctrine clearly brings out the intent to dominate conflict and a greater role of air power in the full spectrum of national security and diplomacy. The IAF sees that deterrence and control of the air are linked. Its control of the air may not be absolute, but it hopes to possess sufficient control in order to prosecute the campaign. IAF transformation is being driven from just being platformbased to being capability-based. Effects based, network centric operations are the new normal. The advantage of air power is the ability to exploit swing-role capabilities. Modern platforms are critical. As Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne said, “Our aim is to preserve and maintain, upgrade and improve, and replace and acquire. At the end of this process, IAF force structure will be modern and potent with new and upgraded fleets only”. This action plan is underway, albeit a little slowly, because of fund crunch. Induction of high technology assets is on and existing fleets are going through mid-life upgrades.

Any modern air force must have at least 40 per cent combat fleet comprising high tech all weather platforms. Another 40 per cent upgraded fleets still having 20 years of life ahead and the remaining 20 per cent under changeover but still giving strength through numbers. The heavy lift capability for both transport and helicopter fleets is crucial for inter/ intra theatre movements in war and sustaining troops and relief operations during peace time. A game-changer shift took place on 26 February 2019, when India decided to use offensive air power by carrying out deep strikes against targets in Pakistan even beyond Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). The Pakistani bogie of nuclear retaliation and over- hang even against a conventional strike was demolished.

Air Power Against Hybrid Threats

Air power has now to contend with ‘hybrid threats’ that take advantage of modern technologies for espionage, sabotage, data collection, attacks on people or infrastructure, or the achievement of media effects. Hybrid warfare exploits the vulnerabilities of the system. The air domain is being increasingly exploited to perpetrate illicit and terrorist attacks. Commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies have greatly improved the aerial warfare capabilities of non-state actors. For long it was thought that air power could only support land forces to counter hybrid threats. However, it is now clear that air power can act independently against hybrid threats. Air policing, air defence, and intervention against civilian aircraft and against other hybrid threats are evolving. Air commanders have the means to act against terrorists, and other illegal, hazardous and dangerous acts in the air domain. National resilience and the nation’s will to prevent and deny threats represent a strong deterrent in hybrid warfare. Transforming the traditional concept of AD with an appropriate level of flexibility to manage the new aerial hybrid threats is evolving. Satellite and aerial surveillance, air traffic management, cyberspace monitoring, low RCS detection, multi-sensor fusion and tracking, and finally kinetic and non-kinetic engagement using laser beams or directed energy weapons are some of the means.

Drone Swarms. Image Source:

Technology Driving Air Power

Today, technologies are offering enhanced capabilities that are driving operational employment and tactics. AI, cyber, hypersonic flight and weapons, DEW, smart structures, and hybrid systems will dictate the future. Demand for streaming high-quality data requires bandwidth, which involves innovating sensor/processing systems. Thermally efficient, highperformance mission computer systems and network-centric payload processing units enable onboard data fusion prior to sending to digital links. Next-generation avionics would be smaller, more efficient and capable of operating under extreme conditions. Gallium Nitride (GaN) is a semiconductor material that is more efficient, easier to cool, and improves reliability for radars. Any system must be designed to maintain a competitive advantage in an austere budget environment. The Passive Aero-elastic Tailored (PAT), a uniquely designed composite wing, will be lighter, more structurally efficient and have flexibility compared to conventional wings. This wing will maximize structural efficiency, reduce weight and conserve fuel. Hypersonic cruise, fuel cell technologies, hybrid sensors, improved human-machine interface using data analytics and biomimicry, combination of materials, apertures and radio frequencies that ensure survival in enemy territory are under development. Things will be built faster, better and more affordably, using 3D printing yet ensuring quality and safety standards. Additive 3D manufacture creates a world with spare parts on demand, faster maintenance and repairs, more effective electronics, and customized weapons. The development of a hypersonic aircraft would forever change the ability to respond to conflicts. Nanomaterials will control sizes, shapes and compositions, and significantly reduce weight yet create stronger structures for air and spacecraft, yet drive down costs.

Sixth Generation Air Platforms

The Americans are already working on sixth generation aircraft which would have enhanced capabilities in reach, persistence, survivability, netcentricity, sustained awareness, human-system integration and weapon effects. Boeing’s Phantom Works and Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works are already having work-in-progress. The projects are currently limited to concept images. The USAF’s current approach to the sixth-generation fighter is the “Digital Century Series”. Instead of maturing technologies over time to create an exquisite fighter, the Air Force’s goal would be to quickly build the best fighter that industry can muster over the next few years, integrating whatever emerging technology exists. The service would select, put a small number of aircraft under contract and then restart another round of competition which would revise their fighter designs and explore newer leaps in technology. The result would be a networked family of fighters. One jet might be optimized around an airborne laser, another fighter might prioritize state-of-the-art sensors and include AI. One might be an unmanned weapons truck. Instead of trying to hone requirements to meet an unknown threat 25 years into the future imagine.

Sixth Generation Air Craft. Image Source:

The USN has a program called ‘Next Generation Air Dominance’, to complement the smaller Lockheed F-35 and replace the Boeing F/A-18E/ F Super Hornet. The current rationale is to look at both new airframes as well as adaptations of the best of technologies that are available. Industry developers are already building prototypes of 6th-Gen fighters with newly designed, stealthier airframes. Looking at applications of AI, there will be miniaturized long-range sensors, targeting technology and drones operating with ever-increasing levels of autonomy.

The future system will have to counter adversaries equipped with next generation advanced electronic attack, sophisticated integrated air defence systems, passive detection, integrated self-protection, directed energy weapons and cyber-attack capabilities. Aircraft must be able to operate in the anti-access/area-denial environment that will exist in the 2030–50 timeframe. The USAF’s budget request for fiscal 2020 shows the service had asked for $1 billion for next generation air-dominance projects. New proposals call for greater speed, range, stealth and self-healing structures; developments that will require new breakthroughs in propulsion, materials, power generation and weapon technology. Self-healing structures in particular would pose a significant advantage over modernday aircraft, remaining airborne despite taking heavy fire. Avionics are supposed to withstand next generation electronic attacks and cyber- attacks and have passive detection, and integrated self-protection. The tailless flying wing, “cranked kite” design concept currently appears the way forward for future fighter aircraft. New generation of engines will allow ultra-high altitude super-cruise. Sixth-generation fighters are expected to use advanced engines such as ‘Adaptive Versatile Engine’ technology to allow longer ranges and higher performance, where the ratios of bypass and compression airflow can be made variable to improve efficiency.

Future weaponry would utilize scramjets for the production of faster missiles at speeds at which a missile could not be stopped by conventional air defence technology. Continued experiments with DEW and lasers, used for defensive as well as offensive measures, are also likely to shape precisely what sixth generation fighters are equipped with.

The USAF inducted its first fifth generation aircraft, the F-22, in 2005. In July 2015, the US Marines declared its first squadron of F-35B fighters operational. The USAF first squadron of F-35As became operational in August 2016. The USA plans to buy 2,663 F-35s, which will provide the bulk of the crewed tactical airpower of the USAF, Navy and Marine Corps in the coming decades. Deliveries of the F-35 for the U.S. military are scheduled until 2037 with a projected service life up to 2070. The Russian fifth generation aircraft PAK FA first flew in 2010. The Russian Air Force has just formed the first squadron with its variant Su-57. The Russian sixth generation fighter Mikoyan MiG-41 is currently under development. If selected by the Russian Air Force, the first production MiG-41 could enter service around 2027.

The Chinese fifth generation fighter, Chengdu J-20, entered PLAAF service in September 2017. A 2015 Rand Corporation report noted the J-20’s combination of stealth and long range could hold USN surface assets at risk, and that a long-range maritime strike capability may be a cause for greater concern than a short-range air-superiority fighter. After the deployment announcement, several analysts noted that the J-20 will let China leverage a significant edge over India, Japan and South Korea, which struggle to design and produce their own fifth-generation fighters program by schedule. Some of the technologies evolved in J-20 are being offered to Pakistan in the Block III JF-17 fighter. The Shenyang FC-31 is still undergoing flight testing, and PLAAF or PLAN have still to commit for the program. Meanwhile, China has reportedly begun development on a 6th generation fighter, and has announced important breakthroughs in designing and developing several key components, including a nextgeneration engine. China plans to field it in the 2025–2030 time frame. France has reportedly abandoned any attempt to develop an indigenous fifth-generation fighter and has moved resources directly to development of a sixth-generation fighter aircraft. On March 22, 2016, Japan conducted the first flight of the Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin test-bed aircraft for its sixth generation aircraft project.

Proposed Indian AMCA. Image Source:

Indian FGFA

India has walked out of the Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) project over cost, work share and core technology transfer issues. In any case, India has already committed to the 272 Su-30 MKI. That currently amounts to nearly 45 per cent of the IAF. Putting any further eggs in the Russian basket has its own risks and dynamics. The Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is still in work-in-long-term progress. The core technologies have still to be evolved or bought. India is still at the LCA Mk 1 stage. A big step in-between is the LCA Mk 2, which may take over 6-7 years for its first flight. As per DRDO estimates, which invariably are tall orders the AMCA first flight will be around 2028 and that would mean induction around 2035. That would mean nearly 18 years after the Chinese J-20. India can ill afford that long wait. The Americans are currently not talking with India on the F-35. They believe that India must first fit into the American fighter aviation eco-system, tacitly implying that India must first choose between the F-21 (India-specific variant of the F-16) or the F-18 Super Hornet, or the recently on offer F-15EX. Buying a foreign fifth generation aircraft could further delay the AMCA. The best option then would be to acquire critical technologies during the new fighter acquisition even if it means paying for some. AMCA radar and EW suites can be developed through the joint venture route. By 2025, India should review the progress of the AMCA and maybe decide to buy two squadrons from abroad.


The primacy of air power continues to be a decisive factor in shaping the outcome of future conflicts. Air forces have developed into a major ‘Component of National Power’, which can be applied quickly and decisively. Air superiority is the single most important factor in deciding the outcome of a modern conventional war. Military operations on land, sea, or in the air are extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the side that does not control the sky. Many decades ago, Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery had said, “If we lose the war in the air, we lose the war and we lose it quickly”. It still holds true, and magnified many times more. Gaining air superiority is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end: to damage, destroy, or otherwise affect an enemy’s centres of gravity, whatever they may be. Air superiority must be won, and to maintain it requires constant investment and training. Although air superiority will not by itself bring victory, it is almost impossible to achieve success without it.

Header Image: IAF

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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