The Indian Navy and the IAF, lately announced exercises with a US Navy Carrier group transiting through the Indian Ocean. To a better recall, in which Indian Naval Ships (INS) Kochi and Teg along with P8i and MiG 29K aircrafts, were seen participating with US Navy Carrier Strike Group Ronald Reagan during its transit through Indian Ocean Region (Arabian Sea) on 23 and 24 Jun 2021. The IAF too participated with Jaguar and Su-30 fighter aircraft of their maritime squadrons.
In general, these exercises are called ‘PASSEX’ or Passage Exercises are routinely conducted by the Navy as an endeavor to build interoperability and enhance levels of joint operations with friendly and like-minded navies of friendly nations.
These exercises typically involve a rendezvous between participating forces at sea and a 24-72 hour long sail together with various drills that range from basic communication exercises to more complex operations such as boarding operations, cross-deck helicopter landings and sometimes even weapon firing drills.
Indian Navy’s lone aircraft carrier, Vikramaditya, currently undergoing a major refit and, therefore, was not available to participate in this PASSEX and, hence with only the IAF participating, as per the sources; required the exercise to be geographically shifted closer to the coast to involve Jaguar and Su 30 aircraft relevantly.
While this PASSEX concluded attaining its objectives pertinently, it was another stark reminder to the limitations posed by the lack of naval airpower at sea due to the absence of our valiant carrier – INS Vikramaditya. Her absence was felt immensely.
While this is a luxury that can be afforded in peacetime exercises such as this, it would surely not be possible in combat to any adverse situation or hours of concern in actuality. Regular exercises have been conducted by the Navy and Air Force to practice scenarios of the future Air Battle at sea. However, the battle at sea would be fought far away from any coast and would test the limitations in reach and poise of shore-based fighters.
In the present era, the Air Battle at sea would be fought in a dense EW environment, with networking and sound identification of friend or foe being the major criteria for the nation’s success. Furthermore, combat air power would need to be available round the clock, here and now and any delays in application of air power would leave forces vulnerable.
The geographical expanse of this battle would also need combat air power to be spread across a large swath of the sea. Fighters would need to prowl the air for long periods of time and there is no more sure way of achieving this than the aircraft carriers, like our INS – Vikramaditya.
Shore-based fighters would find it an enormous task to meet the spread, ‘here and now’ and speed of application that would be needed for success.
The application of combat air power at sea would also require a nuanced understanding of the unique environment at sea and the challenges it poses. With the impending creation of Theatre Commands and foremost the Maritime Theatre Command (MTC), these exercises would have thrown up lessons already identified in the past of the need for shore-based fighters to operate under the Navy or in this case the MTC, to be able to apply scarce resources, effectively in time and space, to achieve best results.
The recent PASSEX with the USN also brings to fore the severe limitations of the Navy that currently operates only with one aircraft carrier. With the second one a year away and the third yet to get nod, the Navy would continue to operate under these limitations for some coming years. However, that does not entail any dip to our Indian Navy’s proven mettle over the years. It is better perceived as a challenge and not a lack.
It would be difficult for the Air Force to fill these gaps especially when an air battle rages over land and more so when the battle at sea is fought on the high seas. Peacetime exercises such as these PASSEX, may at times create a wrong and ill-informed sentiment that combat air power at sea could be filled in by shore-based fighters.
In fact, these are peacetime exercises theatrically enacted and undertaken close to the coast with strict timelines and planned engagements. An easy proposition for shore-based air power to meet.
However, the Air battle at Sea would require naval combat air power, currently the Mig-29Ks flying off the Navy’s Carriers, and smaller elements of the IAF’s shore-based fighters to operate together, when possible, geographically, under a unified commander to ensure synergistic application and exploitation.
The upcoming Theatre Commands would look at this aspect and the drive for integration must be focused on the eventual application of combat power. If one were to go by the recent spate of articles on the IAF’s concerns on the loss of air power when spread thin, it would be right to believe that while this may hold good to a small extent for air power over land launched and recovered from fixed airfields, the same is not true of a geographically expansive and indefinable battle space at sea.
The Maritime Theatre would need air power to be spread across the battlespace in both time and geography. One can only hope that the thinking in ministry and the eventual shape and organization of the MTC meets the needs of today’s battle at sea. Shano Varuna !
(The author is a Delhi-based, DCC qualified, defence beat writer and independent contributor to print and online publications)