OPINION | Does India Need Offensive Special Forces Air-power?

OPINION | Does India Need Offensive Special Forces Air-power?

By Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon 
Indian Air Force

OPINION | Does India Need Offensive Special Forces Air-power?

Image Attribute: Pexels / Pixabay, Creative Commons

Introduction:

Special Forces offer unique capabilities to a military during times of war as has been exemplified from time immemorial. What perhaps needs deliberation is their role in Operations Other Than War (OOTW). Full fledged slanging matches between militaries are going to be increasingly rare in the days to come with border skirmishes, special missions, counter-terror operations and combat search and rescue (CSAR) being more likely, especially in our context. Airpower would be a critical element of such capabilities, not only for insertion and extraction of special forces but for hard kill military options even below the spectra of visibility and consequent deniability. Nations such as the USA have chosen to organize such wherewithal under their potent intelligence organizations, viz the Predator hard kill campaign under the CIA.  Of course,  technology is the main driver here because as of now hard kill drone capability exists only with the Americans. They also have the political will to employ such assets, the President himself signing the orders for such operations. Another interesting story which is currently breaking is that of employment of modified light aircraft by CIA-sponsored  "Blackwater" military contractors .

Threat Spectrum:

India has a peculiar threat spectrum indeed, stretching from indigenous groups such as the Maoists and the various militant outfits in the North East, cross-border Pak Army-sponsored terror groups, smugglers over land and sea , homegrown terrorist elements, fugitives from Indian law (such as the  much reported "D Company") and individuals such as Hafiz Sayeed and Masood Azhar with sworn established inimical designs on India. So far our government has chosen to count on international goodwill and ineffective sanction regimes by the UN to address the terror issues. A country with the size and the increasing economic clout such as India needs other viable instruments to protect its  national interests. Political will, of course, is anther intangible, which it is hoped our country would imbibe, if only from strong public opinion  down the line against being a soft state. Capabilities, militarily, have to be  in being ..then the decision makers have to take their call on employing them. The current exposure about the Blackwater/Frontier Services Group employing a certain Airborne Technology firm in Austria to modify crop sprayer aircraft named Thrush 510 G should render valuable lessons for our strategic planners. It seems that the innocent, inexpensive, Thrush “crop duster” was retrofitted with armor plating around vulnerable zones  such as the cockpit, engines, and airframe, for carriage of bomb rails and 23 mm front guns, its associated sighting equipment  as also an array of ISR gadgets such as  laser  target designation and  surveillance pods. They  were  then employed in conflict zones such as Mali, Iraq, and Columbia  along with "little bird" helicopters, to provide the CIA  uniquely low cost  and deniable options to wage prolonged counter insurgency, counter drug trafficking and other military surveillance and attack operations. India, of course, does not have the global compulsions that the Americans have. More importantly, we do have enough wherewithal within the Indian Air Force Base Repair Depots , the HAL and other PSUs  such as Garden Reach Shipyards to undertake requisite modifications to indigenous or imported light airplanes,  to equip them for counter-terror or counter-insurgency purposes.

Image Attribute: Airborne Technologies brochure featuring the modified Thrush 510G.  Photo: Airborne Technologies

Image Attribute: Airborne Technologies brochure featuring the modified Thrush 510G. 
Photo: Airborne Technologies 

Organizational Aspects:

Modification of any sort as envisaged being well within Indian ingenuity, the real challenge would be to evolve a suitable mechanism  for tasking and operational employment. There would be clear advantages in positioning such assets under the operational control of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), the major one being that of deniability. Also it would be much easier to dovetail tactical intelligence and aerial strikes / operations. Armed drones could be brought into the ambit as and when the technology becomes available. Crewing and manning once again would not pose a serious issue as any number of serving (or medically down) pilots or retired pilots and technicians would willingly come forth for these special tasks, including to function as drone pilots. Incentivisation for the high-risk missions, as proposed, could always be catered for through suitable budgeting "black" or otherwise.Let us not forget that even strategic assets such as the A -12, SR 71 "Blackbird" were operated  under the aegis of the CIA during the Cold War.

Scope for Use of Air-Power:

In days of yore our strategic thinkers believed that the moment the IAF or such elements of air power came into use, the situation would invariably lead to all out war . Kargil put paid to this misplaced belief , clearly earmarking a distinct window for offensive military operations, in a so – called “nuclear overhang”, for many a variety of Operations Other Than War. Our decision makers should surely understand this and not be swayed by motivated propaganda, least of all by the protagonists   from who are emanating the threats to our nation. Instances abound wherein not using air power in a timely and apt fashion has impacted directly on the outcome of an operation- in war or otherwise. The delayed use of its Air Force by the Sri Lankans against the LTTE and our own being remiss (thanks to some woeful professional advice perhaps!) of not employing the IAF during the 1962 border war with China are graphic cases in point. And this is where covert special forces air power comes in , to offer options for  timely and effective  neutralization of impending threats.

Conclusion:

The purpose of this article was mainly to get our policy makers to think out of the box about unconventional military means to counter the biggest security bugbears in modern day India ".. that of cross-border terrorism and counter-insurgency" Once the concept is understood and the requirement recognized, a way ahead to operationalise the use  of air power  and  establish its support infrastructure could be worked out. We need to respond forcefully against any of the threats as considered herein. Besides having the trained commando forces, their specialized gear and special forces air support aircraft such as helicopters /C-130/ drones/ Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles, modified light aircraft would offer interesting possibilities for the military planner. We need to take a leaf out of the  now known Blackwater experience to give ourselves this uniquely unconventional light aircraft attack option for counter-terror and counter-insurgency. These assets could also be effectively employed in Combat Search and Rescue missions , which again has been a weak area in our air war planning. The fate of the missing 54 POWs of 1971 vintage cannot be allowed to   be forgotten or for it to recur . It is time India thought big not only about its global clout politically and diplomatically, but also act its size against pin pricking by anti-national elements.

About the Author:

Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon
Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon served in Indian Air Force for 32 years, transiting it tactical, operational, strategic and conceptual appointment spectra with credit. He was India’s Air Advisor to Indian High Commission at Islamabad, Pakistan (2000-2004). In his second avatar, he served for 8 years with India’s Cabinet Secretariat, including a stint as Consular at Ankara, Turkey from 2008-2011.  

He was one of the pioneers in the IAF’s Doctrine Think Tank – “Air War Strategy Cell” that produced India’s first Air Power Doctrine, the IAP 2000 in 1995. His interests include strategic studies and since post-retirement, he contributes to various think-tanks based out of New Delhi, India.
Cite this Article:

Menon, M. "OPINION | Does India Need Offensive Special Forces Air-power?" IndraStra Global 002, Issue No: 04, (2016) 0067,  http://www.indrastra.com/2016/04/OPINION-Does-India-Need-Offensive-Special-Forces-Air-Power-002-04-2016-0067.html, ISSN 2381-3652


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