IAF in Maritime Operations

Air Vice Marshal (Retd) H. S. Ahluwalia YSM, VM

With the induction of a new aircraft carrier and multi role Mig 29K aircraft by the Indian Navy, will the Indian Air Force have any role in maritime air operations? The Navy with its mix of Sea Harrier and Mig 29K aircraft would be capable in ensuring both air defence of the fleet and anti-shipping strikes at sea. So where, if at all, will the IAF fit in? Perhaps a brief look at the history of maritime air operations over the years and doctrines that have evolved over the years may suggest an answer.

The IAF defines maritime air operations as operations by land based, fixed wing aircraft in pursuit of a nation’s military policy, strategy and tactics at sea. Of the various roles performed by the Indian Air Force - support of maritime operations is the least known or discussed. Nevertheless this role has made a significant contribution in the overall understanding of air power in the Indian context.

The genesis of the IAF’s operations over the sea  dates back to 1939 when the Chatfield Committee reassessed the problems concerning the defence of India . One of its recommendations was to raise five flights on a voluntary basis to assist in the defence of the principal ports of India . These Coastal Defence Flights, (six flights raised in all), were built around a nucleus of regular RAF and IAF personnel and were located at Karachi , Bombay , Cochin , Madras , Calcutta and Visakhapatnam . The flights did not last long and were  disbanded by the end of 1942. The Royal Air Force (RAF) and Fleet Air Arm units then took over the Coastal Defence role. After partition there were some ‘make shift’ arrangements for meeting the maritime reconnaissance requirments. In 1951, the No 6 Squadron was  re-raised in Poona (B-24 Liberator Squadron), with Maritime Reconnaissance and Air Sea Rescue as its primary role; and thus the IAF’s role in support of maritime operations began in earnest. 6 Squadron became synonymous with maritime operations and over the year the Liberators were replaced by Super Constellation aircraft, then by Canberras, and finally by Jaguars. With the introduction of the Canberra aircraft, the role of the squadron was changed to that of maritime strike. The squadron currently operates six suitably equipped Jaguar aircraft in the maritime strike role along with its more conventional counter air role. For a brief period the No 2 Squadron, operating Mig 27 aircraft, had been given a very limited maritime responsibility. Both squadrons performed  their strike roles in conjunction with the Navy’s Tu 142M and IL 38 MR aircraft.

Maritime Reconnaissance remained an IAF responsibility till the 1970s even as the Navy did take up a case for change of responsibility in the mid 1960s. After the 1971 Indo-Pak war, the Navy again put in its stake to take over the entire responsibility of MR from the IAF as well as for the induction of a new aircraft type to replace the Super Constellation in the MR role. The IAF initially resisted this proposal, but with the induction of the IL 38 MR aircraft, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) finally resolved the matter in favour of the Navy by making MR the exclusive responsibility of the Indian Navy. Accordingly the IAF had to transfer all its maritime reconnaissance assets to the Indian Navy.

Air Over the Sea in WW II

The period between the first and second world wars saw the aircraft carrier emerge as a major element of the world’s leading navies. The major navies generally operated similar types of aircraft from them: fighters for air defence and bombers or torpedo carrying aircraft to attack enemy shipping. Aircraft carriers were, therefore, seen as platforms carrying aircraft for both offensive and defensive purposes. But while the technology was available to carry out these roles there was much inter-service and intra-service bickering with regard to to the exact role of air power in the maritime context. There were also claims and counter claims for  control of the air assets. This could perhaps be attributed to a lack of any coherent mutually arrived doctrine between the IAF and the Indian Navy. It is to the credit of the British that they learnt quickly and put to devastating effect the limited air power at their disposal in the battle over the Atlantic Ocean , notwithstanding the disputes between the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. It is on record that the RAF played a noteworthy role in maritime operations over the Atlantic . A total of 1,475 enemy surface vessels (representing 1,654,670 tons of shipping) were sank at sea or destroyed in port by RAF attack, constituting 51% of the total enemy losses of 2,885 ships (totaling 4,693,836 tons) destroyed by Allied sea and air action, as also captured, or scuttled from 1939 through 1945. A total of 437 of these ships (186 of which were warships) sank on account of direct air attack at sea, while 279 others (of which 152 were warships) were bombed and destroyed in port. Mines laid by Coastal Command and Bomber Command claimed an additional 759 ships, of which 215 were warships.

The postwar study by a joint U.S. Army and U.S. Navy assessment committee of the maritime war against Japan estimates that out of 2728 Japanese ships sunk in the Pacific Ocean , 1232 were sunk by direct or indirect air attack. In concert with other attackers, air effort sank an additional 46 ships. In all air effort accounted for 47% of Japan ’s maritime losses. In both the Atlantic and Pacific theatres, the key to winning the aircraft versus ship war was the achievement of air superiority over the battle area.

Post WW II Developments

During the cold war, there was a major stress on the development of maritime reconnaissance aircraft, be they derivatives of old bombers or new specific to task designs. The role perhaps got further impetus from the Cuban missile crisis when reconnaissance aircraft were employed to locate and track the movement of Soviet shipping to Cuba . Naval patrol planes located and photographed Soviet-bloc vessels heading towards Cuba so that intelligence analysts could assess what they were carrying and, where appropriate naval vessels could be directed to intercept them. Also the US Air Force’s Strategic Air Command, at the request of the US Navy, located and identified Soviet ships in mid-Atlantic. As the crisis began, the USAF employed KC-97 and KC-135 tankers, together with B-52 strategic bombers, in the sea surveillance role.

Maritime air operations did not play a prominent role in the Indo-Pak wars of 1965 or 1971. In 1971, the Indian Navy used its carrier, INS Vikrant, in air strikes over East Pakistan , but these operations could not be termed ‘air operations over the sea’ in the classical sense. There have also been some isolated air-naval encounters in the Middle East but none could be classified as ‘war’. The Falklands War in 1982 was, therefore, the first post WWII conflict that saw offensive use of air power over the sea on a large scale. Both Royal Navy aircraft carriers (some with RAF Harriers on board) and land based strike aircraft of the Argentinean Air Force (AAF) played important roles in the conflict. While integral air of the Royal Navy provided air defence to the fleet, its strike capability on board, interms of the carrier and other ships were the enabling element in naval and amphibious operations. But what has emerged, as perhaps the most notable lesson from the war was, the value of anti-shipping strikes by land based aircraft. The Argentinean Air Force sank six ships and damaged another 13, thus bringing home the vulnerability of modern ships to such attacks. The damage could perhaps have been greater but for the fact that the AAF was operating at the extreme end of its endurance and did not really have much time available for locating hostile ships in the target area which was bristling with Sea Harriers on defensive patrols. Ultimately, it was the thinnest of margins that separated victory from defeat for Great Britain .

Technological Advancements Affecting Maritime Air Operations

The development of new long-range maritime patrol aircraft, some with an anti-submarine capability, had commenced in the 1950s. With their deployment they could intercept enemy fleets a long way from their intended targets. With the introduction of aerial refueling, the range of these aircraft and their time over target was greatly enhanced.

Also it was seen that despite new innovations the size of the aircraft carrier increased while the size of the deployed aircraft on board declined. Further, from ‘pure’ fighters the aircraft carriers had now to mother a large number of air-defence and support aircraft, thereby reducing their ‘punch’. The Carrier battle groups became large flotillas and the available fighter air effort was fully extended in providing air defence to the ships in this flotilla. If one studies the US naval carrier employment after the 1980s, one would see that these forces became increasingly dependent upon long range land based air forces for a whole gamut of support including aerial refueling, reconnaissance, air borne warning and control, Electronic Warfare (EW) and Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD).

New developments in long-range precision guided munitions and target-locating systems have added much needed potency to land based aircraft. Availability of aerial refueling capabilities have largely extended the operational envelope of these aircraft, thereby making land based aircraft increasingly effective in the maritime warfare role and compelling carrier battle groups to operate further away from shore.

Role of Land Based Air Forces

Favourable Air and Space Situation: Given the developments in the reach and lethality of land based aircraft, it would be necessary for naval forces operating to influence the outcome on land or sea to operate within an area of air superiority or at the least a favourable air situation (FAS) depending on the level of desired sea control. While it is not part of current IAF lexicon to the extent that it should be, successful naval outcomes in the future would depend not only on a favourable air situation but a favourable air and space situation (FASS) as well. Unfortunately, many sailors and soldiers, who have not been exposed to the intricacies of air warfare, and many inspite of it, tend to believe that the struggle for air superiority is a private war being fought by opposing Air Force Commanders. That the outcome of this war would have direct and relevant effect on the operational viability of surface forces on land and sea is not fully appreciated. It was 20 years ago that Casper Weinberger, the US Secretary for Defence had said that “air superiority remains a critical linchpin in the air, sea and ground battles; without it our forces are subject to attack by enemy aircraft. To retain our qualitative edge in this area, we need high performance fighters that can detect and identify enemy aircraft in all types of weather and at long ranges, shoot first, and engage multiple targets in rapid succession.” The USAF has equipped itself with aircraft capable of achieving this. So whether it is by Counter Air Operations, Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD), or Air Defence operations, the fight for the appropriate degree of air superiority will be an overriding requirement for any naval operation within range of land based air forces or air equipped naval forces while at sea.

Counter Surface Force Campaign: The second major role that the Air Force would carry out is the Counter Surface Force Campaign (CSFC). In the maritime sense, it is to deprive the enemy’s naval forces the freedom that he needs to exploit sea space and can be termed as anti-surface unit warfare’. Since 1980s, this has been the primary maritime role entrusted to the IAF and involves the use of air power in cooperation with friendly surface forces to deter, contain or defeat the enemy’s naval forces. The prosecution of the Counter Surface Force Campaign which would depend heavily on the success of the Counter Air Campaign and invariably these two campaigns  would be closely integrated.

It can be argued that anti-surface unit warfare is something that naval forces and sub-surface platforms could do very well by themselves, so why involve the Air Force. The argument would not be entirely correct. If one were to task surface ships against opposing surface ships, one paramount consideration would be the comparative range of anti-ship missiles. Clearly, the side that has the long-range missile can threaten the other, while remaining beyond the reach of enemy missiles. It could also take the tasked ship some time to find the target and manoeuvre into a safe firing position. Locating the target and extended tracking before mounting an attack could pose further problems.

Aircraft enjoy a big advantage over surface ships and submarines with regard to speed of reaction. A high performance aircraft, whether shore or carrier based, can cover long distances to acquire and engage targets in relatively. These aircraft, if required, can carry heavier loads as also more fuel to be more effective. Availability of in-flight refueling greatly enhances range and weapon capability, and thus the need to use land based air assets would always be an attractive and operationally viable option.

Air Defence of the Fleet: While carriers can provide indigenous air defence fighters and Airborne Early Warning aircraft (AEW), modern land based aircraft with aerial refueling can maintain combat air patrols at considerable distances from their base. Depending on the situation at sea, land based air defence could form part of the layered air defence which would include Close In Weapon Systems (CIWS), point defence weapons, area defence weapons, carrier based aircraft and shore based fighters.

Future Operations

The IAF has in the recent years added SU 30 MKI multi-role aircraft and IL 78 tankers to its arsenal. There are reports of fourth generation multi-role aircraft acquisitions in the near future which will endow the IAF with a very potent long-range strike capability it lacked.

If the Indian Navy is to influence the outcome of the land battle in the Indian scenario then it may have to carry out its task of interfering with SLOCs and setting up blockades in areas that may be within striking range of land based hostile aircraft. Besides the very potent threat from submarines, the greatest threat to the Naval Task Force in such a scenario would, perhaps, emanate from air launched sea-skimming missiles because of the inherent attributes    of aircraft i,e, flexibility, high speed, agility and surprise attack. As the speed and range of sea-skimming missiles increase, surface fleets will become increasingly dependent on air power, both integral and land based air support.

The stringent demands for defensive capabilities against this threat imply that the Task Force cannot operate near enemy territory without achieving a considerable degree of air superiority. To do so against a well armed adversary would be tantamount to courting naval disaster. The availability of air power must dictate the doctrines and tactics of maritime conflicts and also the force structure ahead of any conflict.

At present the IAF coordinates maritime air operations with the Navy through a Maritime Air Operations HQ co-located with Western Naval Command in Mumbai. IAF aircraft dedicated to the maritime strike role are exercised through periodical exercises with both the Western and Eastern Naval Fleets. With IAF’s  increased capability and much enhanced operating range, due to the   acquisition virtue of SU-30 and IL-78 aircraft, it is time to increase the allocation of air effort to the Navy, qualititively and quantitively. Since the Navy will be employing the Mig 29K in the strike role, it would also be necessary to plan on coordinated strikes with the IAF and initiate the formulation of a joint doctrine for such operations. The doctrine should encompass the roles for all types of fighter and support aircraft that would enhance the effectiveness of the operation and incorporate adequate flexibility for use of aircraft that may not at the outset be earmarked for naval support roles. There have been instances in the past (mercifully limited to exercises), when requests for employment of aircraft other than those already ‘detached’ for maritime support were refused. It was perhaps a reflection of a lack of flexibility on the part of the concerned air staff. To optimise the inherent flexibility of the aircraft, flexibility of the mind is essential. The present joint doctrine is somewhat limited and rigid in keeping with the current task entrusted  to the IAF, and therefore may not be able to fully exploit the present enhanced capability of the IAF and the capabilities that the Navy is set to acquire in the near future.


The Maritime Warfare history of  the Twentieth Century is witness to the fact that Air Forces, whether integral to the Fleet or operating from land bases, have a major role to play in maritime operations. In the Indian context, joint approach to air warfare has been more oriented to land-air warfare with land based air forces playing a very limited role over the sea and consequently this role has received less than desired attention or focus.

It is unlikely that any future hostile maritime situation in the Indian context would take place far from land-based air forces. It would therefore be inconceivable to undertake any naval action without ensuring the availability of air to support the action. This is particularly true for air superiority operations near the coast where an exclusively naval force may be unable to operate freely, or where an enemy’s anticipated air defenses may pose grave dangers to conventional naval attackers.

Both the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy have acquired and are still in the process of acquiring greater potency in the use of air over the sea. This potency comes from more capable aircraft, with longer ranges, heavier weapon loads, and aerial refueling capability - for operating at longer ranges or for more time over the target area. In addition to the availability of modern aircraft, satellite based intelligence-gathering systems is also needed. It is the sum of all these parts that needs to be jointly exploited by Naval and Air HQ to bring about greater synergy in joint naval-air operations.

This article first appeared in the Indian Defence Review Volume 20(3) and has been reproduced here with the permission of the editor.