Author : Manoj Joshi

Expert Speak War Fare
Published on Jul 05, 2021
Revamping the defence forces: An attempt at the creation of unified commands A news report suggests that the government is preparing to begin the process of creating theatre or unified military commands by August 15. In early June, after a presentation on the issue, the Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh, had called for a meeting of all the stakeholders to discuss the matter before taking it to the Cabinet Committee on Security for final approval. Now, indications are that government plans to move ahead and order the creation of theatre commands. In January 2020, when the government appointed General Bipin Rawat as the first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and Secretary of a new Department of Military Affairs (DMA)  in the Ministry of Defence,  he was also given the mandate to reorganise the military within three years. A year-and-a-half after General Rawat was mandated to promote jointness and restructure military commands for optimal resource utilisation, there were concerns that the decisions were being taken with haste, which could undermine the very goals that the government is seeking to achieve. Also, there are reports of the reluctance of the Indian Air Force to go along with the schemes that are proposed. More disturbing have been remarks of CDS General Rawat indicating that he may not have been the best man to lead the process which is vitally important for the country. For example, speaking at a seminar on July 2, Rawat declared that the role of the Air Force was merely as a “support arm” for the ground forces, much in the way artillery, or combat engineers are. This is an extraordinary statement that hearkened to a thinking that prevailed in World War II and certainly has no place in an era where integrated AirLand or AirSea operations are the norm, and doctrinal shifts are evolving towards Multi Domain Operations which fuse not just the traditional Air Force, Army and Navy elements, but cyber capability  to disrupt communications and enhanced logistics to increase the depth and tempo of operations. Rawat’s sometimes off-the-cuff remarks and the speed with which things are moving does not inspire confidence. One reason for this is the existing hodge-podge of reforms that we have being seeing in the last couple of years. Take the appointment of the CDS himself. He is a four-star officer, who is also a Secretary DMA in the Defence Ministry, but he is neither responsible for the defence of the country or making defence policy, or the acquisition of capital equipment; all of which remain the remit of the Civilian Defence Secretary. As  the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, he is adviser only to the Defence Minister and that, too, on tri-service matters. The three Service Chiefs hold the same rank, but as Secretary DMA which controls promotions, postings, and disciplinary matters, the CDS has the ability to throw his weight around with the service chiefs. Confusion also reigns over his relationship to the National Security Adviser who heads the Defence Planning Committee created in 2018 and the Strategic Planning Group as of 2019.

Unified Commands

One report says that under the present concept that has emerged, there will be three land-based commands: the Northern for Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, Eastern for all areas from Himachal to Arunachal, and the Western from Punjab to Gujarat. Besides, there will be an Air Defence Command covering the entire country, and a Maritime Theatre Command stretching from the Andamans to the western coast of the country. Another report, however, says there will be just four theatre commands, two land-based ones to deal with the Pakistan and China borders, as well as the air defence and maritime command. Yet a third report says that there will be three land-based commands—Northern, Western, and peninsular, as well as an air defence and a maritime command. The theatre commanders will be of the rank of Lieutenant General/Vice Admiral/Air Marshal and will report to the Chiefs of Staff Committee chaired by General Rawat as CDS and comprising the three Service Chiefs. From the outset, the Indian Air Force has expressed its unhappiness over the development, though all three Services agree on the need for a joint war fighting doctrine. The Air Force has been of the view that given its meagre resources, dividing them amongst the theatre commands and an air defence command would be counterproductive. The problem with the current process underway is that General Rawat has been in a tearing hurry from the outset.  On day one of taking over as CDS, Rawat issued orders for working out a roadmap for the creation of an Air Defence Command. Just how much thought or staff work went into that decision is not clear. The second problem is that the process being envisaged is a top-down one, where the commands are created and the parts that constitute them left to fit in over an unspecified time later. It is that process which can lead to an unbalancing of India’s force posture, which is semi-mobilised at any given time. General Rawat has been in a tearing hurry from the outset.  On day one of taking over as CDS, Rawat issued orders for working out a roadmap for the creation of an Air Defence Command. Just how much thought or staff work went into that decision is not clear. The second problem is that the process being envisaged is a top-down one, where the commands are created and the parts that constitute them left to fit in over an unspecified time later. It is that process which can lead to an unbalancing of India’s force posture, which is semi-mobilised at any given time

Doctrines and experience

Ideally, changes of this scale should follow a clearly articulated National Security Strategy and be worked around a joint defence doctrine. Instead, the process is being done the other way around, with structures being created which will shape the doctrine. A joint doctrine has been formulated in April 2017, but a discussion in ORF in June revealed its shortcomings. Minus such a doctrine, the theatre commands will fall back on their single-service doctrines and concepts of operations. No doubt, the Integrated Defence Staff and other groups would have done a lot of staff work on the issue for Rawat. But paper reports are not enough. There is no substitute for practical experience which comes through exercises on the ground. Ideally, the new joint operating concepts needed to be proved through the process of discussion, wargaming,  and exercises for several years before these theatre commands are established. Actually the government did try and go about it the right way when it set up the Andaman and Nicobar Command in 2001 on the recommendation of the Group of Ministers who had carried out a thorough review of the Defence situation at the behest of the Kargil Review Committee. The A&C Command was seen as a proof-of-concept for the idea of theatre commands. But the experience has not been good and the tri-service Command has been limping along. This is not just because it was an orphan, but because the distinct cultures of the three services did not meld easily. But the idea of a CDS and an implicit acceptance of theatre commands were contained in the Naresh Chandra Task Force in 2012 as well. But the resistance, mainly from the civilian Ministry of Defence, did not go away. The Modi government cut through the Gordian knot and appointed General Rawat as the CDS and Secretary to the DMA. The General seems to have decided that he will theaterise the Indian military by fiat. This would be a big mistake. Reforming and restructuring large military services is not easy, especially ones like the Indian military which are, in many cases, in a semi-mobilised state confronting actual and potential adversaries. Any process needs to keep two issues in mind: 1) Balance and 2) efficacy.  The first is important to ensure that the process of reform and restructuring does not create or leave unintended gaps which can unbalance the forces in times of combat. The second is obvious, because the ultimate test of reform is whether it works better than the system it is replacing. The Modi government cut through the Gordian knot and appointed General Rawat as the CDS and Secretary to the DMA. The General seems to have decided that he will theaterise the Indian military by fiat. This would be a big mistake. Reforming and restructuring large military services is not easy, especially ones like the Indian military which are, in many cases, in a semi-mobilised state confronting actual and potential adversaries The usual way of doing things is by experience and also working from the easy to the hard. It would, for example, have been easier to create new unified commands, for special operations, space and logistics, rather than break down the old and give them new shape. A unified Logistics Command could begin with handling general items which were common to all the services, such as food, POL, maintenance of vehicles, hospitals, and so on. It could also evolve means and methods to work with civilian organisations so as to reduce the military’s burden in warehousing, holding and transporting non-essential stores as well as providing surge capacity in times of emergency and war. In the US, the concept of unified commands has been evolving since 1947 and continues to do so in the flexible format of the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. Being a country that frequently fights wars, the US is able to use them as a practical laboratory to push change and adaption. In China, on the other hand, the exercise of creating theatre commands and restructuring the command structure of the Central Military Commission may have been done in three years in 2015-2017, but that was the end of a process that was more than a decade-and-a-half old. A lot of work of proving concepts on the ground was undertaken in the Jinan Military region. The Indian military has been somewhat archaic where each service has essentially made plans to fight its own war. Though they swear by “jointness” and conduct joint exercises, under present arrangements, each component—naval, air and land— fights under its own commander who “coordinates” with his colleagues. Today, besides the huge volume of missiles, precision munitions, and cyber attacks, militaries must also deal with the hugely increasing tempo of modern war. A commander must be able to apply force or maneouver rapidly, through seamlessly integrated combat capabilities, rather than leaving it to “coordinated action.” The Indian military needs to restructure and reorganise to be able to fight modern, high-tech wars. But whether it should precipitously undertake change, instead of what a Chinese proverb says is “cross the river by feeling the stones” is another matter.
I would like to express my thanks to my colleague, Brig Deepak Sinha who gave me some useful comments on this draft.
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