India’s Air Assault Capability

Malabar 07, the multinational exercise held in the Bay of Bengal in September, has once again brought into focus the threats and challenges facing India’s maritime security and the need to join international coalitions to maintain peace and stability in the Indian Ocean region.

Since independence, India has had to intervene militarily several times. The army was employed to integrate Goa, Hyderabad and Junagadh into the Indian Union as part of the nation building process. The Indian armed forces created the new nation of Bangladesh after the Pakistan army conducted genocide in East Pakistan in 1971. In the 1980s, India intervened in the Maldives and Sri Lanka at the behest of the governments of these countries and was ready to do so in Mauritius when the threat passed. Now, resurgent India has emerged as a dominant power in Southern Asia and must raise small expeditionary forces to participate in international coalitions sanctioned by the UN Security Council. Such a force must be maintained in a permanent state of quick-reaction readiness.

The aim of such operations will be to further India’s national security and foreign policy objectives, to support international non-proliferation efforts, and to join the international community to act decisively against banned insurgent outfits like the LTTE in Sri Lanka. International non-proliferation initiatives, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and the Container Security Initiative (CSI), in particular, cannot succeed in the Southern Asian and Indian Ocean regions without Indian participation as a member or as a partner providing outside support. As an aspiring regional power, India will also need to consider its responsibilities towards undertaking humanitarian military interventions when these are morally justified. 

When the Taliban first came to power in Afghanistan, a perplexing question was what India would do if it ever became necessary to launch a military operation to rescue the Indian embassy staff from Kabul. Would India ask for American or Russian help? How would they respond? Or, would India have no option but to leave the embassy staff to the mercy of terrorist Jihadis? That contingency fortunately did not arise but another one did. Indian Airlines’ flight IC-814 was hijacked and parked at Kandahar airfield for several days in the cold month of December and the nation was forced to look on with helpless rage, as virtually no military options worth considering were available. The ignominious surrender to the Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists prompted some soul searching and, hopefully, some air assault capabilities will soon be put in place. 

The late General K. Sundarji, former COAS, had advocated the raising of an air assault division by about the year 2000. However, the shoestring budgets of the 1990s did not allow the army to implement his vision. Air assault capability is a significant force multiplier in conventional conflict as well. The present requirement is of one air assault brigade group with integral helicopters for offensive employment on India’s periphery. Comprising three specially trained air assault battalions, integral firepower, combat service support and logistics support units, this brigade should be capable of short-notice deployment in India’s extended neighbourhood by air and sea. 

Simultaneously, efforts should commence to raise a division-size rapid reaction force, of which the first air assault brigade group should be a part, by the end of Inida’s 12th Defence Plan (2012-17). The second brigade group of the air assault division should have amphibious capability with the necessary transportation assets being acquired and held by the Indian Navy, including landing and logistics ships. The third brigade of the division should be lightly equipped for offensive and defensive employment in the plains and mountains as well as jungle and desert terrain. All the brigade groups and their ancillary support elements should be capable of transportation by land, sea and air. 

The recent commissioning of INS Jalashwa (former USS Trenton) has given the armed forces the capability to transport one infantry battalion by sea. The Indian Air Force has acquired strategic airlift capability. These must be built upon to plug gaps in India’s capability to intervene militarily when it becomes necessary to do so.

(The author is Additional Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.)