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Are forces moving in the right direction The Statesman 01 Aug 2023
The Kargil war, whose anniversary was held last week with the defence minister and all service chiefs honouring those who sacrificed their lives at the war memorial in Drass, had brought to fore serious shortcomings in India’s management of defence. On 24th Jul 1999, even before the war formally concluded, the government established the Kargil Review Committee under K Subrahmanyam, then head of the National Security Council Advisory Board. It submitted its report on 07 Jan the next year, which was tabled in parliament on 23rd Feb.
The report stated, ‘An objective assessment of the last 52 years will show that the country is lucky to have scraped through various national security threats without too much damage, except in 1962. The country can no longer afford such ad-hoc functioning.’ It added, ‘The Committee therefore recommends that the entire gamut of National Security Management be comprehensively studied and reorganized.’ Indian armed forces had always functioned in isolated cylinders with limited cooperation.
Based on its recommendations, Groups of Ministers (GOM) were formed to scrutinize the national security system in totality. The task force on ‘Management of Defence’ was headed by Arun Singh, former MoS, Defence. It comprised of, apart from others, senior members of three services, including Vice Admiral (later Admiral) Arun Prakash, Lt Gen SS Mehta and Air Marshal TJ Master, all of whom throughout interacted with their service heads. Thus, service chiefs were indirectly part of the deliberations.
Admiral Arun Singh, writing for the IDSA stated, ‘The underlying root of contention (impacting the task force’s recommendations) was a sense of insecurity in the IAF, possibly engendered by the fear that some of their roles, or even assets were coveted by the Army and the Navy.’ He added, ‘The civil services too, felt threatened by grant of any autonomy to the Armed Forces.’
One of the major recommendations of the Task Force were, ‘Since the COSC (Chiefs of Staff Committee) has not been effective in fulfilling its mandate, it be strengthened by the addition of a CDS and a Vice Chief of Defence Staff (VCDS).’ HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) was to be established as the HQ of the CDS. The CDS appointment was subsequently scuttled by ‘backdoor lobbying’ by service HQs, senior veterans and the bureaucracy. The service chiefs were unwilling to sacrifice power, while the bureaucracy feared losing control over the forces.
Theatre commands were not addressed by the GOM, expecting it to be a continuation of the appointment of a CDS. Politicians were fed the belief that making the CDS all powerful could be a threat to democracy (Musharraf had recently taken control of Pakistan). With no CDS, the VCDS nomenclature was changed to ‘Chief of Integrated Defence Staff to the Chiefs of Staff Committee’ (CISC) and he continued to head the IDS.
Two integrated commands, Andaman and Nicobar Command and Strategic Forces Command were raised. The system re-settled and major gains from a thought-provoking study, which could have transformed an archaic system, were scuttled. Change was to come two decades later. PM Modi announced from the ramparts of the Red Fort on 15th Aug 2019 that a CDS will be appointed with the responsibility to integrate the forces and establish theatre commands. General Bipin Rawat became the first CDS, assuming the chair on 01 Jan 2020.
This time around there were no screams on threat to democracy or loss of power. Most believed that the time had arrived for the system to be overhauled. There were demands from multiple quarters for ‘rightsizing, right spending of the defence budget, pooling of resources and integrating war fighting capabilities.’ Lessons from recent conflicts proved that future wars need integrated employment of force and the current system must be overhauled.
However, in India, disagreements and hesitation to share resources remained the same as it was twenty plus years ago. The air force refused to budge, claiming shortfall of resources as also it would be against its concept of ‘indivisibility of air power.’ It pushed forth the belief that air power will be employed in contingencies to meet ‘operational requirements of theatre commands,’ implying that they had their own concept of operations.
While many criticized the US system, which they believed India adopted, they missed the fact that US theatre commands have a base allocation of air power and additional based on threat. Strategic airlift assets are largely centrally managed and allocated as per need. The size of the Indian theatre is far smaller than that of US theatre commands, enabling better coordination of resources even if allocated.
The other services also have their own agendas. The navy hopes to gain control over the coast guard, while the army over all border deployed forces, including those under the Home Ministry, on their concept of ‘one-border, one-force.’ The final structure which will emerge is yet to be announced.
After intense debate and resolving disagreements, alongside a possible nudge by the political leadership (elections being next year), India’s first set of theatre commands were announced. Of the two land-based theatre commands, one would be established at Jaipur, for the western sector, and the other at Lucknow, for the northern. The maritime command would be located at Karwar. Other joint commands including logistics, training, etc would follow.
The two land-based theatre commands would be largely army with air power advisors, but no resources, hence in reality they will not be integrated commands. They will possess a sprinkling of elements of other joint commands including logistics, cyber, space etc. Once this structure is established, it is unlikely to change. The end result will be theatre commands in name but not in form. How effective will it be, is questionable. Air power allocation for operations will still be planned in Delhi, whereas it should have been in Lucknow, Jaipur and Karwar.
It is distressing that the armed forces have not evolved to meet challenges of the future, solely because of a belief that assets are insufficient for permanent allocation. Shortfalls will always exist, countering challenges jointly, despite them, is a sign of efficiency and leadership. As Buddha had said, ‘Change is never painful. Only the resistance to change is painful.’