Employed in synergism with ground forces, air power is a force multiplier that can pave the way for victory. It is this synergy between the Indian army and our air force that needs improvement, where the response time between an immediate air strike being initiated and delivered is still greater than the one hour and 15 minutes that it used to take during World War II. The procedures tor demanding air support, vetting the demands at various levels of command, the coordination between the air base launching the strike and the forward air controller with the ground forces and finally, the air-to-ground communications available to the strike pilot, all need to improve substantially.
The foremost military lesson from Operation Iraqi Freedom is that while air power must be employed extensively in modern conflict, without ‘boots on the ground’ in large numbers, military objectives cannot be achieved. If the coalition had relied only on air power to drive Saddam Hussein out of Baghdad, they would probably, have still been at the gates of Basra.
The recent conflicts in the Balkans, Afghanistan, Chechnya and now Iraq show that air power alone cannot win a modern war. Employed in synergism with ground forces, air power is a force multiplier that can pave the way for victory. Interdiction of targets in depth and the provision of close air support to the ground forces is now part of the tactics, techniques and procedures of combat on land.
In fact joint operations have for long been planned as an ‘AirLand’ campaign, a term that originated in the NATO-Warsaw Pact context in the 1970s. In Gulf War II the US armed-forces raised close air support to the level of a fine art. Air-to-ground strikes were whistled in more frequently than in any other war and were delivered with alacrity in an unbelievable response time of 15 to 20 minutes.
It is this synergy between the Indian army and our air force that needs improvement, where the response time between an immediate air strike being initiated and delivered is still greater than the one hour and 15 minutes that it used to take during World War II.
The procedures tor demanding air support, vetting the demands at various levels of command, the coordination between the air base launching the strike and the forward air controller with the ground forces and finally, the air-to-ground communications available to the strike pilot, all need to improve substantially. Only then will the provision of close air support to a leading spearhead or a beleaguered defender be upgraded by an order of magnitude. A mechanised combat commander in the plains and a company commander in the mountains must be able to bank on close air support being available in a here-und-now manner when the shrapnel is flying thick and fast around them like artillery fire is today.
Dedicated air-to-ground strike platforms have also come of age. The best examples were the A-10 Warthogs that were tailor-made for the role. These aircraft had also proved their versatility, along with the AC-130 modified gunship, during the recent conflict in Afghanistan. Equipped with heavy armour plating on their vulnerable underbellies, the Warthogs can take a lot of beating from ground fire and can carry substantial payloads that include an array of rockets, missiles, guided and free-flight bombs and Gatling cannon. These aircraft also fly at relatively slower speeds that enable the pilot to visually acquire a ground target and strike accurately.
Dedicated air-to-ground strike platforms like the Warthogs or the Russian SU-39s are now a necessity for a modern army. It stands to reason that sophisticated fighter aircraft designed for air defence and deep strategic strikes are too expensive to risk in close combat. For such fighters ground strikes are only a secondary role.
If attack helicopters are today considered the ‘fourth squadron’ of an armour-based combat group, the time has come for dedicated close air support assets to act as the ‘fifth squadron’ so that fleeting opportunities can be optimally exploited, particularly during offensive operations in the plains.
A blinding sand-storm slowed down the Coalition offensive and gave Iraqi fedayeen squads the cover they needed to close in with the US forces and fire rocket-propelled grenades from hand-held launchers. Just as the skies cleared and the offensive got under way again, a ‘tactical’ pause was imposed. It was more likely an administrative pause.
The leading spearheads that had bypassed urban centres on the main highways, had clearly outstripped their logistics supplies and run out of tank gun ammunition, fuel, oil and lubricants, water and rations. The old dictum that an army marches on its stomach had either been ignored by tacticians or the plans had been poorly conceived and did not cater for creating an artificial road axis along which supply vehicles could ply over the shifting sands.
Called a ‘centre line’ in military parlance, it is an artificial track laid by army engineers that can take sustained military traffic with limited maintenance effort. Such a route is also insulated against enemy action by selective picketing, stand-off patrolling and flank protection. All these measures were taken only after casualties were inflicted by fedayeen snipers. On this issue the Coalition forces could learn a lesson or two from the Indian army.
Special forces operatives had been inducted into the theatre well in advance and again performed their multifarious tasks commendably. In particular, they provided accurate information about Iraqi deployments and movements and directed air-to-ground strikes on the Republican Guards and other forces. Indian Special Forces should also be equipped, trained and employed behind enemy lines accordingly.
Psychological operations (psyops) are an important ingredient of America’s information warfare plans. Psyops played a role in subverting the minds of the Iraqi forces and were instrumental in impelling them to abandon their posts and equipment to flee or surrender. Information dominance provided coalition commanders with a major advantage over the Iraqis. Unarmed aerial vehicles (UAVs), spy satellites, specially equipped reconnaissance aircraft with thermal imager-fitted night vision sensors and a plethora of other opto-electronic surveillance devices, combined with humint resources, helped the intelligence staff to compile a fairly comprehensive picture of the Iraqis intentions, plans and manoeuvres.
Despite the Iraqis choosing to avoid major battles, the asymmetric domination of the airspace by the allies made Operation Iraqi Freedom by all yardsticks a military success. The abiding lesson of the war in Iraq is that, being capital intensive, modern military capabilities do not come cheap. However, these need to be invested in for a nation to leapfrog several jumps ahead of the enemy.