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Time to press pedals on theatre commands The Statesman 09 Nov 2021
A news report last week stated that the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, had presided over a discussion on creation of theatre commands attended by representatives of the three services. He is stated to have directed them to submit their proposed structures for theatre commands by Apr next year. The plan is to create four new theatre commands. J and K may form a separate command. The report added that while the army and the navy have nominated members for their respective studies, the air force has not. The process had been kickstarted by the government by appointing the CDS and creating the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) under the MoD. The air force is against current structures acceptable to the other two services.
The air force has been conveying the logic that it cannot split its meagre air power resources between theatre commands as its tasks vary from strategic to tactical and that its aircraft are multirole. Further, Its current holding of squadrons is below desired levels for a two-front conflict. Simultaneously, it claims that its current capabilities permit its multirole aircraft taking off from airfields in the East, engaging targets in the West and landing in the South, employing air-to-air refuellers. Another major concern is its limited strategic air lift resources which also cannot be frittered away.
When the CDS stated at a seminar, ‘The air force is required to provide support to ground forces. Do not forget that the air force continues to remain a supporting arm to the ground forces,’ air power experts felt their tasking was being downgraded. The then air chief, Air Marshall Bhadauria, stated in the same seminar, ‘It is not a supporting role alone, air power has a higher role to play.’ The air force considers its strategic role of greater importance than its tactical and believes that it is a battle winning power, while the army and navy consider tactical support as an essential battle winning factor.
There is no doubt on the key role air power would play in any future conflict. However, the words of the CDS were misconstrued. He had implied that in the current Indian security context, victory is determined by capture or loss of territory, not on destruction of strategic assets, especially in a nuclear environment, where war would be short, swift, limited in scope and objectives. This was evident in the debate raging post the Chinese intrusion of May 2020, where the current government continues being questioned on territory occupied by China. Hence, troops are physically deployed along the LoC and LAC to secure passes and deny territory rather than just protecting strategic assets.
A good indicator is that the three services have accepted that there is a requirement to change the manner warfare is fought as also to enhance synergy and cooperation between them, not only in warfighting but also in procurement and capability development. However, its manner of implementation remains under dispute. A recent media report quoted the air chief, Air Marshall VR Chaudhari, in his address to the National Defence College, where he stated that joint structures should be created between armed forces to capitalise on each of their strengths and reduce decision-making cycles.
In any nation where theatre commands have been implemented, it has been by a top-down approach. A bottoms up or a conciliatory approach, as being adopted by India currently, has never worked as services hate losing their independent silo’s. Service chiefs, who currently maintain their position as force providers and force employers, would only be force providers, with theatre commanders functioning as force employers. In the current scenario, the government displayed its intent of creating theatre commands by giving this as a mandate to the CDS.
For decades service chiefs had discussed theatre commands never expecting them to be implemented. They had considered the topic to be theoretical. The common impression was that the polity would be influenced by views of the bureaucracy which was against amalgamating the armed forces into the MOD, creating a CDS and a DMA, thereby retaining control over them. They had preferred a divided military kept away from national security decision making. Retired bureaucrats wrote extensively warning the government of placing excessive power in an appointment such as the CDS. The government announcement and mandate changed the scenario.
Post announcement, the government left it to the services to create requisite structures. This was based on the premise that since creation of theatres had been a demand which flowed from the services themselves, they would develop these structures without hiccups. However, as implementation came close, stumbling blocks began to emerge. These, apart from sharing of assets, also include sharing of command of theatres between themselves. The navy is smug as its maritime domain would remain untouched. The battle rages between the army and the air force. The air force feels it would lose ground to the other services. Hence, it is slow in reacting to demands for further studies.
There is no doubt that theatre commands are essential and should be created. Points of contention exist, but none of them are insurmountable, provided the services put their heads together. Options are available to resolve internal disagreements to the satisfaction of all. Shortfall in holdings can be offset by multiple means, solutions for which are available. These are being overridden by internal biases and interests, which would only be overcome if the government decides to push its way.
What is lacking is the government avoids imposing its will forcefully. Unless it issues a diktat, these differences would continue to stall a process which is essential for future conflicts. There were rumours that the PM was keen to announce details of theatre commands from the ramparts of the Red Fort on 15th August, however, due to differences this was delayed. While a consensus is essential between the services, letting the formation of theatre commands continue lingering, due to differences which can be resolved, is also not desirable. It is time the government steps in with a firm mandate and timeline.