Murphy's Law: Theory Versus Reality

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December 16, 2014: The Indian ITBP (Indo-Tibetan Border Police) received permission to lease two helicopters because of growing problems getting helicopters in a timely fashion from the Indian Air Force. The ITBP is responsible for patrolling the largest part of the Chinese border, that which borders Tibet. This is where there are a growing number of confrontations with China, and the need for helicopter support on short notice.

The ITBP was formed in 1962 after the disastrous border war with China. ITBP is a paramilitary organization which has grown to 45 battalions. The latest addition was four more battalions in 2013. The ITBP guards the 2,000 kilometers long border with Tibet. The ITBP has over 12,000 personnel, and many of them work along thinly populated, high altitude border areas. ITBP has battled Islamic terrorists in Kashmir, but along most of the border the big enemy is rugged terrain, high altitude and bad weather (particularly Winter cold and storms.) Aviation support, especially helicopters is often a matter of life and death at these high altitudes.

Like many nations the Indian Air Force seeks to control all aviation but as most nations that allow this have discovered it causes problems with the other services. The bureaucratic battle has been getting more intense in India. For example after years of effort the Indian Army won a major victory over the Indian Air Force in 2012 when the government agreed to transfer most attack helicopters from the air force to the army. That meant the army got control of over 270 armed helicopters (22 AH-64s, 179 light combat models, and 76 armed Indian made transports). The air force continued to operate a dozen or so elderly Mi-24 and Mi-35 (export versions of the Russian Mi-24) helicopter gunships, until they retired by the end of the decade. The army long complained that air force control of the armed helicopters, which were designed to support army operations, sometimes made it difficult to get gunship support from the air force in a timely manner. Another aspect of this deal was a new agreement by the air force to station some transport helicopters at army bases in Kashmir, so that there would 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. 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 reformed its Army Air Corps during World War II, to control 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.

Despite these problems Air force tend to keep demanding more control. Royal Air Force generals continue to demand control of everything that flies, believing that this is more efficient. The army and navy, not to mention the experience of many other nations, says 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 and 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.

 


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