FEATURED | Air Campaign against Pakistan-sponsored Terror : A Perspective

There has been this bogey that the moment air power is employed in the Indo- Pak scenario, all-out war is inevitable.

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


Image Attribute: India Air Force's Su-30 MKI / Source: Union Ministry of Defence, Government of India

Image Attribute: India Air Force's Su-30 MKI / Source: Union Ministry of Defence, Government of India

With each terror attack on our soil by Pak-sponsored terror groups and the fits-and-starts reactions by our establishment, one wonders if we are gradually playing into Pakistan’s hands – they are managing to avoid a regular war and we are caught fighting the wrong kind of war against them. Irregular or “hybrid” warfare calls for a different kind of a counter by its victim. While our country has never believed in creating non-state actors to wage this kind of warfare, special forces elements of our armed forces are too few and precious to employ for routine counter-terror operations. They have to be kept in reserve for the priority tasks and important strategic operations. The present dispensation in New Delhi has apparently been more supportive to the Indian military in terms of giving it a “free hand”. But terror attacks continue unabated, surgical strike notwithstanding. What then is the solution for us to neutralize our adversary’s terror juggernaut?

Airpower in counter-terror warfare

There has been this bogey that the moment air power is employed in the India-Pak scenario, all-out war is inevitable. Kargil war showed otherwise ,  that this  need not be the case. Of course, there in  a conscious decision was taken to not operate across the Line of Control (LOC). We now need to evolve an appropriate air power response to Pakistan’s terror game by selective targeting of its jihadi infrastructure. The IAF needs to study this target system very carefully to determine its vulnerabilities, seeing it in the context of the adversary’s morphed warfighting doctrine.  A new targeting matrix needs to be drawn up by us to prosecute the counter-terror air campaign in a graded fashion, supported of course by effective media management and psychological warfare to convey the requisite signals to Rawalpindi. Fear of inability to control the escalation appears to have kept us from utilizing IAF assets appropriately against Pak-based terror groups. The nation demands protection and the need of the hour are smart intelligent proactive air strategy rather than run of the mill military- bureaucratic rambles. This can only be overcome through tough political leadership ( ostensibly manifesting now) and  an audacious military leadership. We need to draw up a “Terror Targeting Matrix” in such a manner as to factor in the modus operandi of the Pakistan Army-ISI-terrorist Tanzeem nexus . Needless to state good timely intelligence is vital for this.

The Intelligence War

India needs to reorientate its intelligence assets to obtain continuously updated intelligence on the activities and whereabouts of terrorist elements across the International Border (IB) and LOC. Terror leadership would need to be zeroed  in on. Our space-based assets need to be exploited to obtain a continuous imagery of the critical territory. Signal intelligence assets should be optimized to triangulate targets effectively, spanning the entire spectrum of likely communications between the elements of terror if required through special forces insertion into enemy territory (as it was done by the Americans in Iraq circa 1991).This kind of real-time intelligence would, of course, be even more crucial for hard kill UAV operations, as and when that materializes, in the days to come when we have those assets.

Once accurate intelligence is gathered and collated, air strikes could be launched to neutralize the specific terror targets in a standoff mode or conventional close-in weapon delivery mode. Attacking aircraft should be provided with built in and area air defense wherewithal to counter expected PAF reaction.Selective SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defence) would need to be done to obtain total control of the air domain and reduce own air attrition.

How will Pakistan Air Force (PAF) react?

Of course, the PAF will react to any IAF air strike. But then we need to plan for countering that too , as indeed we do in any war scenario. Optimal deployment of the Airborne early warning and control (AWACS)/ Airborne Early Warning (AEW) platforms and Aerostats would provide effective air defense cover to our strike elements,  more so should they require to go in for close-in attacks. For standoff attacks area, air defense protection of a different order would  call for, as the attacking aircraft would be mostly over our own territory. So whilst we would be targeting the adversary’s terrorist entities, what could the PAF target on our territory in retaliation? Clearly, they would go for military targets such as formation HQs or communication hubs. Any attempt to target civilian areas or strategic targets would perforce throw the onus of escalation on Pakistan. Our escalation strategy should thus be to focus on terror targeting, upping the ante once the adversary opts to widen his aerial targeting spectrum, ensuring failsafe air defense in the operational domain to preclude a walk through for the adversary.

What precautions are needed from the Indian Air Force (IAF)?

India’s situation is altogether different from that of the US in Afghanistan, Yemen or Iraq or the Israelis in their theaters of counter – terror air operations. Both US and Israel totally overwhelm their adversaries in operational capabilities and mostly their air strikes take place in a comparatively benign aerial threat scenario, with hardly any air defense called for except perhaps small arms or light anti-aircraft fire. In our scenario, we are going to encounter a full-fledged Air Force, with substantial capabilities across the operational spectra and that too one which is vainglorious enough ton consider itself more than equal to the challenge. The IAF would, therefore, need to prepare its ground carefully in terms of PAF reaction. Depending on the area of operations an effective air defence umbrella would need to be put in place, comprising AWACS, AEW and Aerostats for the airspace  over own territory and beyond the IB/ LOC and a continuous maze of IAF ADGE assets in terms of radars, SAGW (Surface to Air Guided Weapons) and LLAD (Low Level Air Defence Guns). Needless to say Army/Naval radar, missiles and guns would need to be integrated where required to obtain seamless coverage.

An air war tends to be more visible in terms of media exposure and enhanced likelihood of collateral damage. But the advantages of rapid attack, striking across the levels of war and flexibility of switching forces from  one target area to  another and the multirole capabilities of our  modern assets such as the Su-30 and Mirage 2000 affords the IAF advantages that the PAF would not have in wherewithal and numbers. Another area of superiority for the IAF would be in a superior standoff weaponry. Selective counter air operations against PAF launch bases may also need to be called for to preclude interference in our operations.

Orchestration of the Campaign

From historical experiences of  Col. Jim Warden’s “Black Hole” air tasking center during Gulf War-1 to our own experience during Operation Safed Sagar in Kargil, the need for a dedicated battle staff to handle day to day air tasking and planning need not be overstated. Such a control center needs to be created in a suitable air base, central to the ones from where the air assets are to be launched. The intent should be to achieve "optimal timely tasking", to hit the enemy continuously when he is down. The beauty about air power is that it can be dramatically unleashed across tactical, operational and strategic spectra with effect, unlike the other two services. Of course, we may need to incorporate special forces operations on occasions either to confine collateral damage or executing snatch operations with regards to valuable targets such as Hafiz Syed, to aid in the prosecution of the air war subsequently.

Attrition Aspects

Traditionally in air campaigns, an attrition figure of 1% is considered reasonable. This is, of course, spread across the entire air campaign .. the numbers may well be higher in initial stages. It has been well established that survivability of aircrew increases exponentially as one continuously gets exposed to the operational threat environment. In an air campaign such as the one being discussed here, employment of attack helicopters, light transport aircraft and even some other modified trainer or crop duster aircraft and the like may be envisaged. It may be prudent to employ low-cost options in counter- terror air operations given their pay off in efficacy versus lethality. Assets such as drones and satellites would need to be integrated suitably.

Killing Terror by  "a Thousand Cuts"

Our adversary, realizing that he cannot ever hope to engage India in a conventional military contest, has opted to adopt “hybrid” warfare, a low-cost option for him. The job of the army and political dispensation is mere to hype the nuclear threat and cry for international mediation. Our counter to his jihadi infrastructure has to encompass the entire gamut of madrasas, launchpad  and leadership. Responsible ISI organizational headquarters need to be targeted too to send appropriate signals to Pak GHQ. Depending on the situation on the ground we may even opt to employ the “kill box” technique, choosing to neutralize any threat that approaches our vulnerable areas or points. Terror targeting would be a new challenge for the IAF, but something only it can prosecute effectively. It is India’s time for the reckoning. No timelines can be given as to how long it would take to neutralize terror absolutely, but act we must forthwith. Prevailing political  leadership congeniality cannot be allowed to be squandered. The IAF leadership needs to measure up and project the correct air campaign options to the government. The nation expects the air warriors to deliver the substantial blow against Pakistan-sponsored terror. 

About the Author:

Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon, IAF
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.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IndraStra Global.

Cite this Article:

Menon, M. "FEATURED | Air Campaign against Pakistan-sponsored Terror : A Perspective" IndraStra Global Vol. 02, Issue No: 12 (2016) 0007, http://www.indrastra.com/2016/12/FEATURED-Air-Campaign-against-Pakistan-sponsored-Terror-002-12-2016-0007.html | ISSN 2381-3652


AIDN0021220160007 / INDRASTRA / ISSN 2381-3652 | FEATURED | Air Campaign against Pakistan-sponsored Terror : A Perspective / Group Captain (Retd.) Murli Menon, IAF
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IndraStra Global: FEATURED | Air Campaign against Pakistan-sponsored Terror : A Perspective
FEATURED | Air Campaign against Pakistan-sponsored Terror : A Perspective
There has been this bogey that the moment air power is employed in the Indo- Pak scenario, all-out war is inevitable.
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