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Disagreements on theatre commands: India needs this project; don’t dump it as unnecessary First Post 31 Jul 2022
Addressing a seminar in Delhi, the current Air Chief, Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Chaudhari, mentioned that creation of an air defence theatre command ‘may prove counterproductive.’ He justified his comments by mentioning, ‘air defence and offensive air missions are interdependent and if executed in isolation, these would not only be disjointed but also ineffective in design or execution of the joint strategy.’ On air defence, Chaudhari emphasized ‘independent air defence systems in the field will have very little relevance in tomorrow’s wars unless they are a part of a larger integrated air defence system.’
What he implied was that the air force would integrate all air defence elements employing its Integrated Air Command and Control Systems while simultaneously be unwilling to establish an air defence command. Current air defence systems need to be capable of countering a variety of aerial threats ranging from drones, aircraft and missiles. Their effectiveness is determined by them being integrated into a larger system for early warning and target selection and engagement. Air defence of the country, less the battle zone, is the responsibility of the air force.
ACM Chaudhari raised his latest objection to theaterization which was being pursued by the late CDS, General Bipin Rawat. The air force had earlier questioned dividing its meagre resources between theatre commands claiming that current air assets are multi-role and can be effective over vast regions. There is no doubt that an aircraft launched from an airbase in the east, for operations in the west, could land in southern India, post completing its tasks, employing air-to-air refuellers. Hence, proponents of airpower insist that air resources must be centrally controlled.
Addressing the passing out parade at the National Defence Academy in May this year, Chaudhari stated, ‘It (future threats) require us to build multi-domain capabilities and execute operations simultaneously and in shortened time frames.’ Earlier, in Dec 2021, addressing the Air Force Combined Graduation Parade, he had made a similar statement. Developing multi-domain capabilities, launching joint operations, but without an integrated theatre operational plan supported by joint capability development, may be just wishful thinking.
The naval chief, Admiral Hari Kumar, in an interview in Jan this year, mentioned, ‘The ongoing flux in the geopolitical situation and its security implications require India to adopt an integrated approach towards development of combat capability and its application, to protect its national interests. Hence, effective application of ‘Joint Force for Joint Effects’ across all domains is the pre-requisite for winning future wars. The raising of theatre commands is the next logical step in ongoing reforms.’
Service chiefs have been emphasizing that there is a need for increased synergy and jointness in operations but have varying views on integrated plans under a single theatre commander. While the navy and army appear to support raising of theatre commands, the air force has reservations.
The government too backs the creation of theatre commands. Rajnath Singh, addressing a function organized by the J and K people’s forum, in Jammu, early this week, stated, ‘Drawing a lesson from the coordination seen between the army, air force and the navy during the Kargil war, we have decided to set up joint theatre commands in the country.’ He did not elaborate.
While threats increase what remains constant is the need to ensure territorial integrity. No loss of territory is acceptable to the Indian public. Anger continues against the current dispensation for its unwillingness to acknowledge loss of territory in Ladakh. Both nations maintain large force levels in Ladakh as deterrence. Therefore the need to hold ground and the watershed is paramount, thus denying the adversary an opportunity. Chinese air force continues to fly close to the LAC, resulting in similar response from our fighters. Air power and ground force coordination is therefore essential. It is best achieved when resources in a sector are under one commander.
The availability of nuclear weapons, within the region, is likely to prevent an all-out war thereby resulting in conflicts remaining localized, with emphasis on grabbing chunks of land, changing status quo. Hybrid warfare would be ongoing. Forces will have to remain prepared for short, swift and localized operations. Kargil type operations are unlikely to be repeated. A two and a half front conflict, under a nuclear overhang, would be the worst-case scenario for India, though unlikely, as major losses to any one side could trigger a nuclear warning. A two and a half front scenario forms the basis for planning parameters for maintenance of force levels and war reserves.
What remains unclear is that the air force, while unwilling to contribute resources for joint operations under a single commander, responsible for a theatre, continues to harp on simultaneity of operations. How would simultaneity in operations flow? While the navy has its role cut out in the Indian Ocean, the air force and the army need coordinated plans under a single entity responsible for a region/ theatre.
Both have differing perceptions on their roles and tasks. Air power believes itself to be a predominant force employed in the initial stages to isolate the battlefield and engage strategic targets in depth. Will such an opportunity present itself in a limited conflict? Will it still be tasked, or would missiles or UAVs be better suited in limited conflicts? There is no answer at present. It could happen in an all-out war, but is that the future? The army perception is that loss of territory is unacceptable and support to ground troops should be priority.
If operations have to be joint, then a single commander must be responsible. Planning cannot be undertaken in Delhi, once operations commence, but in peace time, at the level of responsibility for operations. For this firm allocation of resources are essential. If air resources remain centralized and allocations made dependant on futuristic employment of air power, then planning is unrealistic.
Versatility of airpower, as claimed by its proponents, can be exploited to ensure sidestepping of resources from dormant sectors to boost operations wherever essential. However, centralized control of resources from the outset will impact planning, thereby questioning the very concept of joint operations. Current single service commands, which control planning and operations of their respective regions may continue to remain, but would operate under a theatre commander, rather than service HQs. Planning, currently being undertaken at single service levels, would now be done jointly at theatre levels.
Another factor which impacts our views is distrust of our own uniformed community on their ability to comprehend capabilities and responsibilities of sister services. Airpower strategists believe that an army theatre commander could place greater emphasis on counter surface force operations rather than on other airpower tasks. This view was reinforced post General Bipin Rawat terming the air force as a support arm. If we are to employ maximum combat potential at the point of decision, we must look beyond our noses and evolve solutions, rather than placing stumbling blocks. On Air Defence Command, the intention must be to integrate all resources under one umbrella. Solutions must be found, rather than the project being dumped as unnecessary.