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Armed forces must change in nation’s interest The Statesman 06 Jul 2021
Speaking at a seminar organized by the Global Counter Terrorism Council last week, both the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, and the air chief, Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria, spoke on the role of airpower. Their comments, partly contradictory, were blown out of context, leading to remarks that these displayed major differences in the creation of theatre commands, which is the primary mandate given to the armed forces with the appointment of the CDS.
Theatre commands have been in discussion since the Kargil committee report. However, views from the services have been at variance. Initially no service desired theatre commands as they would reduce service chiefs from being force providers and employers to being force providers. For the last three decades the forces suggested adopting a ‘bottoms up’ approach, implying commencing jointness from basic levels of training. It was an eyewash and the approach remained on paper.
Globally, theatre commands have been created by adopting the ‘top down’ approach, implying political authority forced armed forces to integrate and operate jointly. In no democracy were armed forces willing to shed their power bastions and lose control of their force to other services. India is following on similar lines.
The current contradiction stemmed from the CDS’s comment, ‘Do not forget that the Air Force continues to remain a supporting arm to the armed forces just as the artillery or engineer supports the combatant arms in the army. They will be a supporting arm and they have an air defence charter and supporting ground forces in times of war.’ Speaking later, the air chief stated, ‘I have said it on record many times before that we are for establishing an integrated theatre commands but the issues, we have raised in our internal discussions, has got to do with how we should do it. We must get it right. It is the most important reform that will have an impact on war fighting.’
There is no doubt that air power is a versatile force in modern warfare. All conventional wars commence with launching of air power. The air force’s roles stretch from the strategic to tactical. Its task commences with destruction of vital strategic targets leading to shaping and isolating the battlefield, thereby creating conditions for launching ground forces. Gaining air superiority, even for limited durations, provides avenues for ground and naval forces to push through their offensive plans. The air force is also responsible for securing the nation from enemy air threats. Ground and naval forces remain vulnerable to airstrikes, needing air cover. Finally, air support to ground forces in their offensive enhances chances of success.
Simultaneously, determination of victory in conventional war is by gaining territory and destruction of enemies fighting potential. Gaining territory is the task of the army, whereas destruction is of all forces working in unison. Assaulting troops are supported by fire power of the artillery and air force. Nowhere was this more devastating, than during Kargil, where the combined power of guns and air resulted in destruction of enemy positions enabling assaulting troops to achieve success.
Even during the Ladakh crisis, air power, mainly strategic airlift, played a major role. If it was not for the air force employing airlift, rapid army deployment to stem the Chinese may not have happened at the pace it did. Ultimate victory, whether Kargil or 1971 was determined by physical occupation of ground, possible with support from the air.
Individually, neither service can guarantee success. The nation can only emerge victorious when forces operate jointly. Success on land flows from joint army-air force operations. Hence, the larger picture must be considered. Splitting hairs on a comment does not display maturity.
Due to cost in procurement, maintenance and multirole capability, air power resources will always be at a premium, especially as their tasks continue to expand. The air force’s concerns of splitting its meagre resources within theatre commands is genuine and a solution needs to be evolved. Simultaneously, unless theatre commands are created, the drawbacks of the current system, where coordination and directions are needed from Delhi, rather than by the commander responsible for operations, will continue. The senior most commander in a theatre must be given forces essential to ensure victory from the outset, rather than piecemeal with the risk of part being withdrawn if other contingencies emerge, even in the midst of operations.
With theatre commanders tasked to operate under the Chiefs of Staff Committee, maintaining authority to withdraw resources from dormant sectors can be considered. Other options including allocation of additional resources post certain stage of operations is another option. However, using shortfall of resources as an excuse to stall transformation is incorrect.
A turf war on the term land-based and maritime commands, implying ignoring the air force has also emerged. Air power would play a dominant role in every theatre of operations, maritime or land. The term land-based is employed to clarify that commands facing China and Pak will not possess a naval element, while marine commands would include army and air force assets. Exploiting this term to claiming domination by the army is possibly immature.
Currently, Indian armed forces officers have not moved forward in understanding concepts of employment, deployment and logistic requirements of other services. This is because the ‘bottoms up’ approach, advocated by service chiefs for the past three decades, has existed only on paper. Cross-service training and understanding employment and joint operations is still at a nascent stage and would only enhance once theatre commands emerge. If its implementation is delayed, everything would revert to status quo.
With passage of time, when understanding of employment of other services increases, command of theatres could be given to any capable commander, irrespective of service, as is the global norm. The nation needs its brightest to command important theatres not solely those from a single service. The hierarchy needs to find solutions to contentious issues within themselves and move forward. It is in national interest that the armed forces transform, setting aside ego’s, rather than remain mired as armed forces of the 1940’s.