Leadership: Going To War Over Gunships


January 3, 2013: The Indian Air Force is refusing to give up control of its AH-64 Apache helicopter gunships, insisting these helicopters are crucial for certain air combat missions (attacking air defense radars and other helicopters). The army generals are furious and demanding that the government set the air force straight. The army was particularly anxious to get the 22 Indian AH-64s as soon as possible, as these are generally recognized as the best gunships currently in service anywhere.

Back in October the Indian Army thought it had won a major victory over the Indian Air Force when the government agreed to transfer most attack helicopters from the air force to the army. That was supposed to mean the army gets control of over 270 armed helicopters (22 AH-64s, 179 light combat models, and 76 armed Indian made transports). The air force would continue to operate a dozen or so elderly Mi-25 and Mi-35 helicopter gunships, until they retire by the end of the decade. These are export versions of the Russian Mi-24.

The army has long complained that air force control of the armed helicopters, which were designed to support army operations, are sometimes difficult to get from the air force in a timely manner. Another aspect of this deal is a new agreement by the air force to station some transport helicopters at army bases in Kashmir, so that there will not be a delay when transport is needed for an emergency.

This sort of problem between the army and air force is not unique to India and is actually quite common. It all started back in the 1920s, a decade after aircraft became a major military asset. For example, at the start of World War I (1914-18), the British Royal Navy had more aircraft than the Royal Flying Corps (which belonged to the army). But at the end of World War I, it was decided to put all aircraft under the control of the new Royal Air Force (the former Royal Flying Corps). The navy was not happy with this and just before World War II broke out, the admirals got back control of their aircraft, at least the ones that operated from ships (especially aircraft carriers).

The British army expanded its Army Air Corps during World War II, to gain control over artillery spotter aircraft, gliders (for parachute divisions), and a few other transports for supporting commando operations. After World War II the Army Air Corps mainly controlled the growing fleet of transport and attack helicopters. The Indian Air Force has always refused to allow the Indian Army to do the same thing after modern India was created in 1947.

Air forces tend to keep at it. British Royal Air Force generals recently demanded control of everything that flies, believing that this is more efficient. The army and navy, not to mention the experience of many other nations, said otherwise. At the very least the army needs to control its helicopters and some small transports. In Russia the army always controlled ground attack aircraft, as well as some fighters. In the United States the Marine Corps controlled its own fighters, light bombers, and helicopters. It made a difference, especially to the marines on the ground, that the marine aircraft were being flown by marines.

Another problem with a unified air force is that it becomes, quite naturally, air force centric. This is understandable and the air force proceeds to develop strategies, and tactics, that emphasize looking at military matters from an air force viewpoint. Before World War II this led to the doctrine of strategic bombardment. This was supposed to be a decisive weapon but it wasn't. When nuclear weapons came along the air force believed that it finally had a way to make strategic bombardment decisive. But it didn't, as ballistic missiles (another form of artillery) became the key delivery system for nukes. Nuclear weapons were so destructive that they became more of a threat, than a weapon that you could use (and they have not been used again, since the first two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan in 1945). The fact of the matter is that wars are still ultimately won by the ground forces. As the army likes to point out, the ultimate air superiority weapon is your infantry occupying the enemy air bases. Everyone else (the navy and air force) is there to support the infantry in actually winning the war.