Air Operations in Sub-Conventional Warfare

Air Operations in Sub-Conventional Warfare
Air Operations in Sub-Conventional Warfare

The Need to Develop an Independent Philosophy

Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is one of Pakistan’s key instruments of  national power, employed primarily to thwart external aggression or to establish the will of the state where internal dissidents challenge it. Evolved primarily to conduct the full spectrum of air operations against a hostile and belligerent neighbour on the country’s eastern flank, the service has, since 2004, been increasingly deployed for the conduct of major air campaigns against non-state actors. They employ asymmetric Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW) technique on its western flank. Lessons from two major air campaigns during Operations Rah-e-Rast and Rah-e-Nijat and the continuous ongoing air operations against the insurgents, albeit at a much lower tempo, have revealed that airpower employment concepts in such low-intensity conflicts require a slightly different set of capabilities and expertise. For the PAF, it has been a fast learning curve as it continues to improvise and adapt to this new set of challenges.

The current geopolitical environment at both the international and regional levels make low-intensity conflicts between state and non-state actors far more likely than conventional wars between states, the latter being the primary existential threat to nations up to the end of the 20th century. In the coming decade and the foreseeable future, PAF’s employment in the counterinsurgency (COIN) role is likely to feature far more than its engagement in a conventional war. PAF nevertheless, will have to maintain a robust and credible deterrence against any military adventure, especially from its eastern neighbour.

In the past decade, US and NATO forces have had to face non-state actors challenging their presence in Iraq and Afghanistan; in these cases, COIN operations involving massive use of airpower have been resorted to. Their scholars and military thinkers have published a number of very insightful studies and papers on the subject where basic parameters and strategies for the conduct of such campaigns are established. While the lessons of the American experiences in this field will generally be applicable at the macro level for all COIN operations, there may well be the strategic and tactical difference in its application on a case to case basis. An analysis from our rich experience in such operations, and in our peculiar environment, will bring out many pertinent lessons that, along with the American findings, will help make them more relevant in our setting. While much of the lessons learnt so far have been incorporated in PAF’s current and future operational plans this paper will examine and analyze the various factors involved in air operations in the counterinsurgency role in light of PAF’s experience since 2004; this should help Air Staff in the formulation of a philosophical and doctrinal guideline for all PAF operations in low-intensity conflicts.

Control of the Air with the State by Default in Sub-conventional Warfare

In air campaigns against a conventional force of an adversarial state, establishing some degree of air control is central to all future air operations.  When the two air forces are reasonably matched, much of the air efforts of both antagonists will be consumed towards the battle for air superiority and control of the air. The air battle will be severely contested and, barring a debacle by one party, neither side is likely to achieve air dominance. Under these circumstances, only those air platforms that can survive enemy interceptors and ground defences can deliver. Agile, sophisticated and state of the art platforms and systems become an inescapable requirement, and both sides should be prepared to suffer heavy attrition of their high-value assets during the conflict.

In low-intensity conflicts against insurgents within one’s borders, the rebels would have rudimentary airpower capability comprising small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and, at the most, hand-held shoulder-fired, heat-seeking short-range SAMS with which to challenge the air onslaught of the state. Control of the air will be with the state by default right from the beginning and by merely staying above the lethal ranges of these short-range weapons, both high and low tech aerial platforms will have the luxury of unlimited air operations. The agility and sophistication of modern combat aircraft like the F-16 class are not essential for such missions; although they can be very useful and should be employed where their specific characteristics are the need of hour, such as firepower, endurance, speed and the ability to conduct day-night all-weather surgical strikes with pinpoint precision. Generally speaking, less sophisticated and inexpensive platforms that can operate at relatively low speed, have good endurance and the ability to unleash with a high degree of accuracy a mixture of high and low yield precision or free-fall weapons will also be very effective. Besides, they will be much cheaper to operate.

Collateral Damage Criteria for the Two Types of Conflict

For a responsible state, minimizing collateral damage is an essential part of all forms of warfare, whether against another state or against non-state actors within its territory. In the case of a conventional battle against forces of the adversarial state, much of offensive air operations will be conducted either across the border or very close to it. Under these circumstances, some degree of collateral damage, as long as they are not inflicted by design, are acceptable both at the domestic and international forums. In LIC operations within one’s borders; however, the need to minimise collateral damage is of paramount importance. Since air attacks will be conducted within its territory, and in many instances where the insurgents have embedded themselves among the local population (generally against their will), airpower has to be employed very judiciously. Since the centre of gravity in any counterinsurgency campaign rests with winning the hearts and minds of the local population, many air assaults on known insurgents’ whereabouts may have to be eschewed if they entail the risk of high civilian casualties and damage to civilian properties in the process. This single constraint, to no small extent, neutralises the tremendous firepower advantage that the state forces enjoy against the insurgents.  

Delicate Balancing Act During COIN Operations

In the conduct of COIN operations on a regular basis since 2008, PAF’s Air Staff has been confronted with a severe dilemma. COIN air operations that PAF had to undertake on a large scale used up a fair amount of high-value weapons from its inventory that the service had painstakingly acquired for a conventional war contingency against the eastern threat. The rise of the insurgency in the west occurred without a lowering of the threat from the east. The insurgency was tackled jointly by the PAF and the Pakistan Army where the former had to employ precision weapons and high tech aerial platforms from its limited sources to ensure success.

The Air Staff (Principal Staff Officers) had to plan the air effort for the COIN campaign very judiciously and so far, because Pakistan is an ally of NATO and ISAF in the ongoing campaign against terror, the US has periodically helped to shore up the depleting inventory of PAF’s high-value assets. This aid, however, came at a price where the US often pressurizes Pakistan to implement military strategies that they consider critical from their view point, but which is detrimental to their long and short term interest of the Pakistani state and its military. This single factor vitiated the atmosphere and led to frequent deterioration of the relationship between two states that were supposed to be close allies in their war against terror. 

The challenge for the service, therefore, was to initiate measures that would reduce the dependency on foreign sources to the greatest extent possible. It would be incumbent on them to husband the available resources in a manner that would allow LIC requirements to be fully met, without compromising the deterrence to the more conventional eastern threat. The Air Staff had to perform this delicate balancing act all the time, even more so if and when LIC operations were undertaken single-handedly, without any foreign succor.   

Tempo and Duration

Conventional battles in the subcontinent between India and Pakistan have traditionally been characterized by a high tempo of operations and short duration. The military campaigns to date were launched with limited political objectives where the attrition rate in the high tempo operations was high, and since both rely heavily on expensive foreign hardware, a mutually agreed or one-sided ceasefire resulted within three weeks of the start of combat. With the introduction of the nuclear factor, the chances of a full-scale long-drawn war of attrition have receded even further.

The conduct of COIN operations during LICs, by comparison, does not require the full mobilization of the state’s military power. The tempo is low, but the duration tends to be far longer, in some cases extending over two decades (Sri Lanka’s battle with LTTE). Pakistan’s current experience in Baluchistan and FATA displays a similar trend. The state has to prepare the nation for a long drawn conflict, ensure their fighting forces are suitably equipped and have the requisite logistics stamina to go the full distance. A military force, especially airpower, in such conflicts should be used sparingly and only where necessary, with the aim of creating an environment enabling the successful implementation of other strands of strategy to defeat the insurgency. Use of armed forces as the principal tool to quell a homegrown insurgency would very likely be counterproductive.

Impact on Morale of the Service and Citizens

Armed aggression by another state invariably results in the closing of ranks within the aggressed nation, where the morale of the troops and the public reaches a high pitch. Short of a defeat or a major debacle, the morale remains high during the length of the conflict. This phenomenon does not generally replicate during LIC operations. Since the operations are being launched against a section of its population who have rebelled and may have grievances that resonate with the rest, the military action may not have the unanimous support of the public.

Even within the armed forces, especially if its composition reflects the full spectrum of the society, there may be sections that sympathize with the cause of the rebels. When the duration of the conflict is long, a very likely scenario, the adverse impact on the morale of the fighting force and the general public becomes more acute. The state has to counter this negative trend by ensuring very judicious use of force, keeping collateral damage to the bare minimum. The state should also adopt an open and honest policy where mistakes resulting from human errors, instead of being covered up, are analyzed and followed up with corrective measures and taking the public into confidence. In addition, the state apparatus must continue indoctrination of the troops and the public through an honest and unbiased appraisal of events. Propaganda (which by connotation implies the use of half-truths and lies) must be avoided because, in the long run, it results in the citizens’ loss of confidence in their government and invariably does more harm than good.

Offensive Non-Lethal Employment of Air Power during COIN Operations

Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR).          The acquisition of reliable and timely intelligence is vitally important for decision making and the execution of plans in all forms of warfare, more so in a sub-conventional setting. Taliban and al Qaeda operators had been using modern electronic communication tools like satellite and cell phones very effectively to coordinate their attacks and ambushes. Through the use of effective electronic monitoring and surveillance by air platforms, the PAF, along with other intelligence setups of the state, were able to gather very useful intelligence on their movement and operational plans. This has forced the insurgents to abandon use of the electronic spectrum of communication and revert to old methods of couriers, thus severely denting their operational flexibility. The monitoring of any electronic transmissions of the insurgents is one of the critical operational capabilities of the PAF which must be further enhanced through the acquisition of even more advanced all-weather electronic monitoring equipment and aerial platforms in support of its COIN operations. In addition, the ability to monitor the enemy’s movement, hideouts, assembly areas, training grounds, ammunition dumps and potential ambush sites through visual and photo reconnaissance must also be further developed, along with the ability to carry out accurate battle damage assessment after air raids.

Air Logistic Support and Airborne Operations.        As COIN conflicts tend to linger on, the overall pace of hostilities remains relatively slow; however, local battles/skirmishes, develop and progress quickly and then quietly melt away. To support its conventional forces in such environments, an effective and quick reaction air logistics support system is needed. Whether it is a matter of supplying besieged troops in remote areas, evacuating them, or inserting fresh forces within a conflict zone, a new approach to airborne logistic operations is required whereby smaller, less expensive aircraft operating from short dirt strips may be used to carry lighter but mission-specific payloads capable of providing “fresh blood” to embattled soldiers at very short notice. These flexible platforms can be used for multiple mission requirements ranging from visual reconnaissance to leaflet drops as a part of psy-ops.

Media Warfare.          Almost all sub-conventional conflicts are primarily about winning the will of the people on whose land that conflict is being waged.[1] Hence, denying the enemy the ideological and moral support of the local population and securing it for one’s own side through the intelligent use of media is a crucial war-winning strategy in such conflicts. The use of airpower against a section of its population during COIN operations can be exploited by the insurgents, who will use propaganda to paint a picture of extensive collateral damage in a bid to mold the public opinion in their favour. For the Air Forces involved in COIN operations, therefore, a media campaign where the public is kept informed about air operations without compromising operational security and are educated about the danger the rebels pose to the national interest, should be rigorously pursued. Propaganda by the insurgents about excessive collateral damage must be countered through accurate and credible data. When, on occasion, unacceptable collateral damage does occur due to human error or faulty intelligence, the public may be taken into confidence to ensure the credibility of the service is not compromised. Social media provides modern tools for the spread of information, especially among the youth, and their use should be an important part of the Air Force’s media campaign. 

Offensive Lethal Employment of Air Power during COIN Operations

Ever since the dawn of airpower a century ago, strategic bombing has been considered the most sacred and fundamental role of airpower; but in the context of COIN air operations, its application is problematic. The ability of airpower to directly strike the enemy’s strategic centres of gravity (COGs) has long been proclaimed as its greatest strength. In conventional wars, the enemy’s COG normally resides in its sophisticated command and control structure, and the ability to maintain and logistically support its armed forces deployed in combat; these can be directly engaged through air assaults, thus creating strategic effect. The insurgents’ COG, however, revolves around the popular support and legitimacy they enjoy among the local populace. The militant wing of the insurgency is comprised of an unsophisticated system of command and control based primarily on a de-centralised command structure; their armament needs are met by easily available weapons of low-cost/low technology, and they have a small and light logistical tail. Under such an environment, there are hardly any lucrative targets for strategic strikes.  Airpower employment during COIN operations, therefore, would be of a tactical nature essentially in support of the land forces and other strands of strategy that the state employs to defeat the insurgency. That said, judicious use of air assets during COIN operations, even in the classical tactical role, has the potential to create strategic effects.

With unparalleled advancement in the precision, lethality and effectiveness of air platforms and air-delivered weapons, the distinction between strategic and tactical air platforms and targeting has blurred considerably. The current thinking is to replace them with the common term, ‘Effect Based Operations’ (EBO). Air operations since Operation Desert Storm have shown that aerial platforms which were traditionally considered tactical (F-16 class) conducted raids that created strategic effects. In contrast, long-range heavy bombers of the B-52 class were frequently employed to engage classical tactical targets.        

Air operations against insurgents employing sub-conventional warfare strategy tend to have two distinct phases – when no major land campaign is in progress against the insurgents and when such a campaign is launched. In the first instance, the tempo of air operations would be slow, and interdiction missions would form the bulk of the offensive employment of airpower. Since the enemy presents fleeting targets of opportunity by design, airpower must be able to launch interdiction missions very quickly. Time Sensitive Targeting (TST) philosophy is a practical approach where a section of interdiction aircraft are kept on high alert status, and rapid communication systems are in place to reduce the sensor to shooter time to the bare minimum. For TST to be effective, very accurate and timely intelligence is an absolute must. Strict Rules of Engagement should also be framed where only legitimate targets are engaged to reduce the chances of collateral damage due to faulty intelligence or erroneous target identification.

The PAF’s experience with the ongoing COIN operations in FATA has shown that the concept of TST paid rich dividends in its initial phase as the opponents’ were caught unaware. They soon modified their strategy and started to operate in a far more stealthy and clandestine manner, thereby reducing the risk of a surprise air raid. While over a period the number of TST missions flown may have reduced, the advantage of the approach has not dwindled. The enemy no longer has the luxury of operating training centres and facilities in the open, is unable to move about freely and has to exercise great care and caution when moving men and logistics or undertaking any form of assembly. In effect his freedom of action has been severely curtailed. For as long as military actions against the insurgency remain on the cards, TST will continue to be a potent and effective strategy.     

Airpower becomes a vital component during any land campaign against the insurgents. The campaign planning must be conducted jointly by the land and air commanders, and the lessons of air employment of earlier major COIN operations must be incorporated. During the campaign, offensive air support to ground forces would primarily be in the form of Interdiction, BAI and CS missions. Given the fact that the air power of the state would be operating practically unhindered against the insurgents, the impact of Interdiction, BAI and CS missions would be very potent. When appropriately employed, it can obliterate the enemy’s fighting potential during the land campaign, paving the way for the foot soldiers to achieve their military objectives quickly and with minimum casualties.

Combat Search and Rescue in a Sub-Conventional Setup

 Combat aviators have regularly taken off for assigned duties – both combat and routine – with the knowledge that, if they bailed out, especially in hostile territory, their comrades would make all efforts within their means to rescue them. With PAF’s continued involvement in the sub-conventional conflict in FATA and Swat, the focus on traditional training, and on organising and equipping SAR teams operating over own territory but where hostile elements are operating to recover downed aircrews, should be reviewed. 

The fluidity and complexity of the modern non-linear battle-space of a sub-conventional war and the associated blurring of the distinction between friend and foe, coupled with the extremely harsh and remote terrain the PAF is undertaking air operations in, its Tribal Belt options should also involve the deployment of dedicated and specialized combat search and rescue teams. Events in Iraq and Serbia / Kosovo have taught that the capture and incarceration of downed aircrew (or even the cruel footage of dead aircrew) by guerrilla forces tend to be of immense propaganda and morale value, and often leads to disproportionate bargain offers from the enemy in return for the freedom of hostage aircrew. Using special CSAR teams to prevent the capture of downed aircrew by insurgents, therefore, should be accorded a very high priority.

In light of the inherent attributes of airpower, i.e. speed, reach, flexibility and firepower by concentration of force, the PAF is best suited to conduct such CSAR roles. To meet this requirement, it should equip and train specialized rescue forces to undertake CSAR with an emphasis on conducting these delicate and hazardous operations in the alpine terrain, round the clock and in all weather conditions. The Air Force is also unique in this role as it can quickly bring in the entire network of its assets, such as combat and airlift aircraft for close air support, SSG personnel, Drones and Reconnaissance platforms etc. in support of ongoing CSAR efforts. CSAR core units comprise Rescue Aircrew and Rescue Medical team.

The essence of CSAR is that its primary tasks in a sub-conventional setting would be performed inside its own but hostile territory in the face of actual or potential enemy activity. Combat support elements providing air-to-air, air-to-ground, ground-to-ground and Suppression of Enemy Air Defense can deter, degrade or neutralise the threat, permitting rescue teams to enter the area and carry out their primary tasks safely.

Judicious use of Air Power Assets

Insurgencies, where the opponents resort to Sub-conventional warfare, tend to have a long shelf life and severely tax the resources of the state. Continuous employment of high-tech air platforms and advanced weaponry could compromise the credible conventional deterrence against potential adversaries for which these high-value assets had been acquired. Since air operations against insurgents are generally conducted in an environment of Air Supremacy, the air platforms needed for deployment with various roles in combat zones do not need the agility, high speed, ability to outfight enemy fighter interceptors, long-range and effective airborne radars and air-to-air missiles, and advanced self-protection devices against hostile air interceptors and ground defences that are essential when operating in an air contested setting. Instead air platforms ideal for COIN operations should be robust, low cost, with high endurance and the ability to release small PGMs like Hellfire missiles with unerring accuracy.

The USAF A-10 Warthog and the Russian SU-25 Frogfoot are ideally suited for COIN operations in an air superiority/supremacy environment. High tech aircraft like F-16s do have a role, but they should normally be reserved for special missions where their all-weather/full night capability is required. For the bulk of offensive air support in sub-conventional war, efforts should be made to procure and utilize the A-10/SU-25 class air platforms. In the absence of a specialized COIN aircraft, advanced training aircraft can be suitably modified for the purpose. Besides, transport air platforms like the C-130s modified to operate as gunships have proved very effective in counterinsurgency operations. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) of the Predator/Reaper class are ideally suited for COIN operations. even if such sophisticated air platforms cannot be made available due to financial, technical and/or political considerations, efforts to develop indigenous UAV capability by the PAF should continue to be vigorously pursued.

Aircrew Training for COIN Operations

Offensive Counterinsurgency air operations, especially in the offensive role, amount to air to ground weapons delivery missions. Conventional wisdom suggests that the art of air to ground weapons delivery remains the same, whether flown in a conventional or sub-conventional war setting. While it is true that in both instances the level of pilot proficiency required would be similar, the very different ambience in which COIN missions operate necessitates that aircrew detailed for such missions should be provided specialized training to be able to function effectively in the new environment under which they will operate.

When flying strike missions (CS, BAI, Interdiction) in a conventional war where control for the air is keenly contested, safety from hostile air interceptors and the enemy’s sophisticated ground defences is as much a concern, perhaps even greater, as the actual weapons delivery. The strike pilot has to be constantly aware of lurking enemy fighters, monitor his RWR and other threat warning devices, and be prepared to initiate defensive actions to ward off the impending threat even if it amounts to abandoning the mission in the process. The ingress and egress to and from the target would invariably be at high speeds and in a hotly contested Air Defence Ground Environment (ADGE). The pilot will not have the luxury of multiple attack options; he must release the weapons load in a single pass and make a speedy exit.

In his favour, most strike missions are conducted over hostile territory where non-combatants belong to the adversary. As long as the civilians are not deliberately targeted and reasonable efforts have been taken to avoid putting them in harm’s way, some degree of collateral damage is acceptable even by the laws of armed conflict. When operating against a sub-conventional threat, on the other hand, almost all air attack missions are flown in the close vicinity of the state’s own civilians who are non-combatants. Their security invariably takes precedence and the entire mission may have to be abandoned if civilian casualties cannot be kept to the bare minimum, because the collateral damage tolerance of the state engaged in sub-conventional conflicts is extremely small.

In the sub-conventional arena, strike pilots do not have to worry about enemy interceptors; by simply staying above the limited ranges of the enemy’s small arms fire or shoulder-fired heat-seeking SAMs, the ground to air threat is almost negated. They can enjoy the luxury of loitering around at slow speeds over the battle zone and carry out multiple attacks to the extent their aircraft endurance and weapons load permit. The single most critical aspect in such a benign ADGE would be avoiding collateral damage or at least keeping it to the bare minimum.

The adversary is likely to be embedded with the local population and, on occasion, the designated target could well be in close proximity of non-militants residing in the area. In addition, the rebels would make all efforts to coerce the general public to act as human shields. Accomplishing the mission objective without unacceptable collateral damage, therefore, would be the severest challenge and the greatest hurdle the strike pilots have to face and overcome. Engaging and destroying the enemy target with minimum collateral damage would remain the central theme in all strike missions flown under sub-conventional settings. Rules of Engagement (ROE) meant to avoid collateral damage must be strictly followed even if, on occasion, it results in abandoning of the mission.

The PAF aircrew has so far been trained to operate against a conventional adversary, in which the mission will be flown in an environment where control of the air is hotly contested. The special needs while conducting COIN operations need to be inculcated through regular training exercises for those detailed for such missions. In addition to combat-related training, mentally preparing them to understand and accept the need to target a section of their countrymen who have mutinied against the state would be critical. Despite all efforts to negate the subversive and negative propaganda of the enemy, some operational pilots might still be conscientious objectors to an air action campaign against fellow citizens. Unless considered as rebel sympathisers or their active supporters, besides taking them out of the operational loop, no other punitive actions should be initiated against them. This is important to ensure genuine objectors whose loyalty to the state and the service otherwise are above board can come clean without fear of unnecessary retribution.

Command and Control

Centralized Command and Decentralized Execution is one of the founding principles of all air operations involving assets of an Air Force, and this must not be violated when the PAF is involved in COIN operations. Air support planning and requirements during the entire counterinsurgency phase must be jointly conducted at the highest level between the AHQ and the GHQ. The former would then allocate the necessary resources, work out Rules of Engagement (ROE) in conjunction with other stakeholders of the state, and issue and monitor tasking orders as required. The AHQ may create a special cell that would be authorised to deal directly with the GHQ or its nominated formations for receiving air support requests, and for tasking and monitoring of all counterinsurgency air operations.

The duties and responsibilities at all levels of air operators (from individual pilots to the formation, squadron and Base Commanders of operational units engaged in COIN operations) must be clearly and unambiguously spelt out to ensure counterinsurgency air operations are conducted efficiently, while reducing the risk of collateral damage to the bare minimum. Hot and secure communication lines among key operators would be an inescapable requirement.

Defensive Measures

The need for offensive employment of the PAF against insurgents engaged in sub-conventional warfare against the state would normally occur when the insurgency reaches a level where it cannot be controlled through civilian law enforcing agencies, and use of the nation’s Armed Forces becomes unavoidable. Since the adversary has rudimentary or practically nil airpower resources to counter the state’s air actions, it would resort to ground assaults on the PAF’s infrastructure and resources as a countermeasure. The service, therefore, has to adopt stringent measures to protect its assets from ground attacks and terror raids by groups of rebels armed with assault weapons. 

Base Security.       Airbases are large complexes housing very expensive hardware that is essential for air operations. These would be very lucrative targets  for small bands of insurgents mounting surprise attacks at times and places of their choosing. PAF air bases, therefore, must be protected from such ground assaults. Multiple layered defences, Rapid Response Forces, modern ground fighting weaponry, night vision devices, and very stringent entry and exit policies – especially in the technical areas – are some of the measures that have to be strictly implemented. Details of the ground defence of airbases should be a part of the service’s operational plans and should be all-encompassing; they should include the training aspects and the process through which the readiness status of the bases can be monitored periodically.

While successfully defending and repelling a ground raid by rebels is very important, the very fact that miscreants are been able to mount it indicates a shortcoming and failure at some levels of intelligence. A raid of sufficient magnitude by rebels would take weeks of planning, and most of it would occur within the state’s territory. While intelligence work to unearth the raid at the planning stages would be the responsibility of PAF’s intelligence setup at AHQ, which would maintain a very close liaison with the relevant intelligence agencies of the state, the Field Intelligence Units (FLUs) deployed at bases should also keep a very vigilant eye on any suspicious movements within close proximity of the base.   

Personnel Security.    Air bases and other PAF infrastructures are hard targets as compared to PAF personnel; the service should accord security of the latter a very high priority. Personnel security has both physical and psychological dimensions. For physical security, necessary steps and safeguards for PAF personnel, both within and outside the base perimeters, must be in place and should be a part of operational plans that must be adhered to without compromise.

The psychological security of men and women in service with the PAF, whether in uniform or as civilians, is a delicate subject that has to be handled with care. This is especially the case in a religiously conservative society when the insurgency is based on a particular interpretation of the faith followed by the majority of the population, though they may not necessarily adhere to the same interpretation as the insurgents. The insurgents’ master plan would be to convert as many of the public, especially from the defence services, to their point of view through propaganda; this would be done by attempting to portray the state apparatus as being irreligious and would even go the extent of brainwashing individual servicemen and women who appear sympathetic to the cause. The propaganda would resonate with both diehard religious extremists and the gullible, more so if the writ of the state is weak and the administration is viewed as inept and corrupt.

The insurgents’ propaganda can best be countered by education at all levels to expose the deliberate misinterpretation and misuse of the religion for power-grabbing, and raise awareness of the danger the philosophy poses to the state as well as the religious beliefs at the individual and mass levels. Improvement in governance and establishing the state’s writ meaningfully are essential to defeating the menace of religious militancy.

Despite all efforts, the chances of individuals within the service falling victim to the rebel’s propaganda cannot be ruled out. The service has to handle those suspected of leaning towards the insurgents’ viewpoint with extreme caution, as any measures against them will invariably be portrayed by the insurgents as an attack on the religion itself. Care should be exercised to distinguish those who have a genuine religious outlook but do not adhere to the extremist views of the insurgents, and those who have succumbed to their propaganda. Identifying and removing the latter from the rank and file of the service should be undertaken quietly and without much publicity.       


Airpower employed in counterinsurgency air operations plays a supporting yet key role when military action by the state against non-state actors is considered unavoidable. Joint planning of the military campaign by the air and land force commanders from the embryonic stages would be the first key step. Centralized control and decentralized execution of all PAF assets, while maintaining close liaison between the air and land commanders, are some of the very pertinent lessons learnt from joint military operations conducted by the PAF and the Pakistan Army in the recent past against the insurgency in Pakistan’s western front.

The air platforms, weaponry, training and psychological impact on the air force personnel in a sub-conventional war setting differ from those of a conventional one, and these must be recognized and factored in at the planning and execution stages. Since sub-conventional wars continue for long periods, the state must attempt to develop as much indigenous capability as possible to be able to sustain the war effort without being beholden to foreign powers, so that unnecessary and undesirable outside pressures can be deflected. It should be able to outlast the rebels’ stamina, eventually wearing them down, and make them amenable to a negotiated agreeable solution.

All stakeholders of the state whose responsibility is to defend its integrity must keep in mind that military action against indigenously grown rebel factions should only be resorted to when all other efforts to resolve the crisis have failed and its very integrity is threatened. When successfully conducted, military actions to resolve the crisis can, at best, create favorable space for other strands of strategy; this includes good governance, addressing the legitimate grievances of the rebels, and diplomacy to gain friends as well as to identify and neutralize foreign elements that support the insurgents, all of which must be put into action. And finally, honest and frank dialogues and negotiations with the rebels, once grounds have been created to give peace a chance, is the ideal manner through which an internal insurgency crisis is best resolved to the satisfaction of all parties concerned.  

[1] Smith, R., The Utility of Force (Penguin Books Ltd: London, 2006), p. 331.

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Air Cdre Jamal Hussain (Retd)
About Air Cdre Jamal Hussain (Retd) 8 Articles
Air Cdre Jamal Hussain (Retd) is a former fighter pilot from Pakistan Air Force. He has over 30 years’ experience and expertise on air power history, strategy and employment concepts. Has been writing, teaching and lecturing on defence related subjects especially about nuclear dynamics and all aspects of air power particularly in the context of Pakistan and South Asia.

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