The President of India is the Supreme Commander of the Indian Armed forces but the Air Chief Marshal or Chief of the Air Staff (COAS), who is a four-star officer is responsible for the bulk of operational command of the Indian Air Force. However, after the introduction of Theatre Command, the Chief of Air Staff will not be responsible for the operational work but will focus on mobilising resources to the Theatre Commands.
Furthermore, the Chief of Air Staff is assisted by six officers, all with the rank of Air Marshal to carry out daily operational responsibilities.
Vice Chief of Air Staff
Deputy Chief of Air Staff
Air Officer in Charge of Administration
Air officer in Charge of Personnel
Air Officer in Charge of Maintenance
Director General of Inspection and Flight Safety
To be able to understand the Chain of Command in the Indian Air Force, one needs to be familiar with the rank structure of the Indian Air Force. The following image represents the rank structure of the Indian Air Force (from left to right in increasing order of seniority).
Ranks in the Indian Air Force
Another significant rank in the Indian Air Force is the rank of Marshal of the Air Force which is an honorary rank and has been conferred by the President of India on only one occasion in history, to Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh. On 26 January 2002, Air Chief Marshal Arjan Singh became the first and so far the only five-star rank officer of the Indian Air Force to have been honoured with the rank of Marshal of the Air Force.
Formations and Structure of the Indian Air Force
There are five operational commands and two functional commands in the Indian Air Force. Each Command is led by an Air Officer Commanding–in–Chief with the rank of Air Marshal. In addition, the purpose of an operational command is to conduct military operations using the aircrafts under its Area of Responsibility (AOR), whereas the primary goal of functional commands is to maintain battle readiness. The different commands of the Indian Air Force are given below in the order of their raising.
Central Air Command: headquartered at Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh.
Eastern Air Command: headquartered at Shillong, Meghalaya.
Southern Air Command: headquartered at Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.
South Western Air Command: headquartered at Gandhinagar, Gujarat.
Western Air Command: headquartered at Subroto Park, New Delhi.
Unlike the Indian Army, the Indian Air Force does not have a Northern Command.
Air Marshal VR Chaudhary assumes command of Western Air Command of Indian Air Force in 2020
Training Command: headquartered at Bangalore, Karnataka.
Maintenance Command: headquartered at Nagpur, Maharashtra.
Andaman and Nicobar Command
An equally important command is the Andaman and Nicobar Command.
A tri-service theatre command of the Indian Armed Forces, based at Port Blair, it was created in 2001 to safeguard India’s strategic interests in Southeast Asia and in the Strait of Malacca.
Not only does the IAF provide logistical support to naval ships on deployment to East Asia and the Pacific Ocean, but also plays a key role in safeguarding India’s maritime interests with their incessant and effective patrols over the Indian Ocean with their maritime fighters, specifically the Sukhoi-30 MKI.
Commands are divided into bases and a command usually operates 7-18 bases, where every base is headed by an Air Commodore. There are more than sixty air bases and air strips that are operated by the Indian Air Force, with more being built and planned across the country.
Additionally, the Western Air Command is the largest Air Command in the country and operates sixteen air bases from Punjab to Uttar Pradesh, whereas the Eastern Air Command operates fifteen Air bases across Eastern and North-Eastern India. Likewise, the Central Air Command operates seven air bases in Madhya Pradesh and in surrounding states of Central India.
Similarly, the Southern Air Command also operates nine air bases in Southern India and two in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It is important to note that the Southern Air Command is a strategically imperative air command, in accordance with India’s latest doctrine of safeguarding its vital maritime trade routes.
By the same token, the South Western Air Command also operates twelve air bases in Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan. In fact the South Western Air Command is India’s first line of defence against Pakistan. Moreover, India also operates the Farkhor Air Base in Tajikistan and a new air base will soon be operationalised at Agalega Islands in the country of Mauritius.
A wing is a formation intermediate between a Command and a Squadron. A wing comprises two to three squadrons and a few helicopter units, along with Forward Base Support Units (FBSUs). Though FBSUs usually act as transit air bases for routine operations, they can transform into full-fledged air bases in times of war or insurgency. To summarize, it is established that 47 Wings and 19 FBSUs make up the Indian Air Force.
Squadrons are the field units and formations that are attached to static locations. Thus, a flying squadron is a subunit of an air force station which carries out the primary task of securing the Indian air space in war and conducting routine patrols during peace. Furthermore, a fighter squadron usually consists of 16 aircrafts plus two trainer aircrafts, which are two-seaters and all fighter squadrons are headed by a Commanding Officer with the rank of Wing Commander. Although, some transport squadrons and helicopter units are also marshalled by an officer with the rank of Group Captain.
Correspondingly, squadrons are subdivided into flights that are led by a Squadron Leader. Each flight consists of two sections.
Finally, flights are classified into sections that are commanded by a Flight Lieutenant. A section is the smallest unit of the Indian Air Force and consists of three aircrafts.
Within this formation structure, the Indian Air Force has several service branches that are responsible for day-to-day operations. The flying branch is responsible for flying operations and routine patrols, while the technical branch provides communication support, operational data, and maintenance services to aircrafts. Accordingly, the ground branch is responsible for logistics, administration, accounts, meteorological data, education, and medical support.
Garud Commando Force:
To begin with, the Garud Commando Force is a special operations unit of the Indian Air Force, tasked with a variety of roles like air assault, airfield control and defence, air traffic control, combat search and rescue, forward air control, special reconnaissance, human intelligence, and hostage rescue. Secondly, the Garud Commando Force was raised in 2004 on the lines of para commandos of the Indian Army. Since 2004, the unit has seen combat in Jammu and Kashmir, Democratic Republic of Congo, and amid the recent standoff with China in Ladakh.
Garud Commandos practicing jungle warfare drills
Thirdly, Garud personnel are enlisted as airmen in Indian Air Force. For now, the Garud Commando Force is organised into fifteen flights. These flights are deployed at air force stations and each flight is led by an officer who holds the rank of a Squadron Leader or a Flight Lieutenant. Generally, a flight has 60-70 personnel who usually operate in squads of 14 people.
Structural Reforms in the Indian Air Force
Ever since the Kargil war took place, the Indian Air Force is on a modernisation spree to counter the challenges of the 21st century. As a result, the Indian Air Force will witness major structural reforms with the advent of Theatre Commands and various other joint commands like the Special Operations Command. Also, the Indian Air Force has undertaken multiple initiatives to ornament itself into a truly network-centric air force. Moreover, the Indian Air Force also aims to integrate the relevant air defence assets of all three branches of the Indian armed forces under a single command that will be known as the Air Defence Command. Considering the threats posed by foreign forces to India’s space assets, Indian Air Force has also set up an Integrated Space Cell to safeguard India’s military and civilian space assets.
Integrated Space Cell:
It could be said that the Integrated Space Cell envisages cooperation and coordination between the three services as well as civilian agencies dealing with space. It is managed by the three services of the Indian Armed Forces, the civilian Department of Space and the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). It is considered an important unit that stands for the synergy between the various important players of the landscape.
In conclusion, the current structure of the Indian Air Force makes it a formidable force that has proved its mettle over the years in countless conflicts and will continue to do so in the future. However, there is always a room for improvement and evaluation and undoubtedly, the Indian Air Force’s modernisation plans are not only adding teeth to its offensive capabilities but are also augmenting the jointness between the three forces.