Why India’s military needs to move to theatre commands now

 Fire Power, Ahmednagar, Indian Army, Army Tank

Fire Power and Manoeuvre Exercise organised at Ahmednagar

Source: ADG PI

The Indian armed forces are likely to see a major overhaul in the coming months, if media reports are to be believed. The armed forces have briefed the government on the creation of ‘theatre commands’ for better coordination among the three services. And Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reportedly directed the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to start working towards creating these commands.

The Prime Minister has been very vocal about the lack of coordination among the services in India and has been pushing for greater ‘jointness’. Presiding over the Combined Commanders Conference in 2015, Modi had lamented:

We have been slow to reform the structures of our armed forces… We should promote jointness across every level of our armed forces. We wear different colours, but we serve the same cause and bear the same flag. Jointness at the top is a need that is long overdue.

Why Theatre Commands?

Major military powers like the US and China, who are serious about their war fighting capabilities, operate via theatre commands as it is seen to be a better means of pooling resources and improving efficiency. China restructured its military in 2015 to come up with six theatre commands, whereas America’s theatres – the Unified Combatant Commands – are global in scope.

India continues to pay lip service to the notion of a tri-service command with its sole Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC).

India needs to be thinking seriously about integrated theatre commands, allowing the three services to share their resources and enabling a reduction of manpower at various levels. Today’s military challenges cannot be tackled without a real integration up to the command level.

A potential conflict with a major military power like China will, in all likelihood, extend well beyond the typical theatres into the domains of cyber, space, nuclear and covert capabilities. A more integrated response will be needed from the Indian armed forces.

So Why Hasn’t It Happened Yet?

Consensus also seems to have finally emerged at the highest political levels in India on the need to appoint a single-point military advisor to the government. The debate now is what form this appointment should take – a four star permanent Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) or a five-star Chief of Defence Staff (CDS)?

A number of committees have regularly examined these issues, underlining the need for greater jointness to be manifested in a CDS and theatre commands, but successive governments have been reluctant to take a final call.

It was the previous National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government that had created the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) but it lacked adequate institutional and resource wherewithal. The Modi government seems more determined than its predecessors to take the bull by the horns.

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The armed forces are also responsible for lack of movement on this front. Successive governments have repeatedly pointed to the malaise within the armed forces as an excuse for not undertaking any meaningful defence reforms of its own. India, for example, finds itself in a peculiar position of having a Strategic Forces Command but no CDS, partly because of the differences among the three services.

Greater Efficiency in Resource Sharing & Joint Ops

The pressures for increasing jointness in the Indian military, like other militaries, are because of not only the need for enhanced efficiency in the use of resources but also due to the need for optimising military performance in joint operations. There is no such thing as perfect jointness but it is an evolutionary process towards an end-state of a more efficient management of a state’s limited resources.

The abandoning of separate identities of three services is a very contentious issue for all militaries. And even if it is fully accomplished, the issues pertaining to the co-ordination of defence forces with other elements of the security sector will always have to be considered.

The relative roles and responsibilities of the bureaucracy, military personnel, and the private sector will have to be sorted out if efficiencies are to be achieved.

The best militaries strive for an optimum balance between single-service identities and areas of autonomy on the one hand, and collective defence on the other.

At a broader level, the MoD will have to increasingly move towards joint organisations for improving the performance of Indian forces on operations as well as for rationalising the peacetime and wartime management of defence resources. By reducing unnecessary duplication of function and by undertaking training and establishing bodies on a wider integrated level, the MoD can further optimise the use of its resources.

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As India strives to become a global player, it needs a modern military capable of projecting power far beyond its shores. For that, major reforms in the realm of defence policy are needed.
The Modi government certainly has the political capital to undertake these reforms and it has also shown that its intent is serious. But it will have to work through the system to make sure the nation’s military institutions are nimble enough to adapt to the changes it is proposing.

An engaged civilian establishment is the only power that can push some of these reforms through even though there might be some resistance within the military. But these reforms are important, they are needed and they are needed now. Dilly-dallying is no longer an option.

This commentary was originally published in The Quint.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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Harsh V. Pant

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