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Will India’s Army, Air Force & Navy Chiefs Surrender Their Turfs To Develop ‘Much Needed’ Unified Theater Commands?

Despite PM Modi’s stress on “jointness” among the three services of the Indian defense forces – army, airforce and navy, there is still acute inter-services rivalry with regard to the control of their respective resources and creation of integrated theater commands (ITS).

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Interestingly, the three forces have displayed noticeable coordination in the ongoing stand-off with the Chinese forces along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Eastern Ladakh.

These problems have been admitted by none other than Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat. Describing the problem as “hiccups”, General Rawat said at an event on December 14 that “We have to have an understanding of each other’s services.”

Though General Rawat is hopeful that the situation will change for better as things are being sorted out and that “we are gradually moving forward in the direction of integration”, the fact remains that his own post, which was created in January this year as the biggest reform in the armed forces towards the integration, is still not powerful enough to bring down expenses in the face of a shrinking defense budget, rationalize manpower and ensure that the armed forces fight as a cohesive unit.

CDS Lacks Full Operational Power

According to Lt. General (retd) Prakash Katoch, “What India needs is a CDS with full operational powers and HQ Integrated Defense Staff fully merged into the Ministry of Defense.

This is all the more vital given the rising threats facing us. A CDS with full operational powers, aside from being a single point advisor to the government, should synergize the military with speedy capacity–building”. But this has not happened as yet.

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The CDS is not the commander of all the armed forces of the country; he is on par with the three service chiefs in military status. He is not even the principal military adviser to provide impartial advice to the political leadership.

Similarly, the defense ministry is far from integrated; the CDS is one of the Secretaries in the Ministry of Defense, whereas as per the protocol, a four-star general (or equivalent) is supposed to be on par with the Cabinet Secretary, the country’s No. 1 civil servant.

In jointness, India is far behind in that respect to not only powerful militaries in the West (including the United States) but also China, the country’s principal adversary. Jointness is different from joint-operations, a semblance of which is being noticed in Ladakh stand-off.

In a true sense, jointness has four aspects: doctrinal, organizational, educational (training), and operational.

India does not have a common military doctrine; the respective forces have their own, as a result of which these are at best tactical only. India does not have an integrated defense ministry as yet, as a result of which there is no synergized use of the resources of the three services to achieve the best results in the least possible time by avoiding needless redundancy and utilizing optimally the available resources in the face of a tight defense-budget.

Bipin Rawat Via: Twitter

Similarly, there is no jointness when each of our services has its own way in matters of training, equipment, procurement, and logistics.  India does not have also operational jointness. The only efforts made so far in this regard are the creation of the Andaman Nicobar Command and the Strategic Forces Command where the three work together.

India may have a total of 19 commands — seven army commands (six operational); seven air force commands (five operational); three naval commands (two operational); and two joint commands – but none of them are co-located and their geographical zones of responsibilities have little commonality.

In most cases, the command of one service overlaps or is linked with two or more commands of sister services. This leads to increased duplication, as each service attempts to fulfill all of its desired operational roles within its own span of command.

IAF Not In Favour of Theater Commands?

It is an open secret that the Indian Air Force has serious reservations on the concept of ‘theater commands’ of the US – types where the theatre commander, leading forces from all the services, report directly to the Secretary of Defense through the Joint Chief of Staff.

The argument is that since the American troops have a global presence, their system is unique, and therefore, it cannot be applied to India whose military is only meant for protecting and defending the country’s borders.

However, experts regard the reservation of the IAF as a clever argument by half only. It is not a question of where the troops are; relevant is how they are commanded in an integrated manner by utilizing the tools of modern warfare such as satellite and surveillance assets, cyber systems, drones, space-based weapons, and so on. It is immaterial where the unified commander sits. The UK does not have theater commands, but it has a well-established structure of unified command.

However, reliable sources in the Ministry of Defence say that the Modi government is determined to have five integrated commands by the year 2022 with defined areas of operation and a seamless command structure for synchronized operations.

The Proposed Commands

The Northern Command – along the border with China, from the Karakoram Pass in Ladakh to the last outpost Kibithu in Arunachal Pradesh. It will be headquartered at Lucknow.

With the Head Quarter at Jaipur, the Western Command will look after the border with Pakistan, from Indira Col on Saltoro Ridge in the Siachen Glacier region to the tip of Gujarat.

The third theater command will be the Peninsular Command by merging the Western and the Eastern Command of the Indian Navy. The area of the command is planned to start from Sir Creek area in the west and Sundarbans in the east and downwards. It is likely to have its HQ at Thiruvananthapuram.

The fourth one will be a full-fledged air defense command that will not only spearhead the country’s aerial attack but also be responsible for defending Indian airspace through multi-role fighters and anti-aircraft missiles.

The fifth one will be a separate command to which the existing tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Islands Command will be merged. It will be tasked with protecting the Indian Ocean and India’s Island territories as well as keep the sea lanes free and open from any outside pressure. It is likely to be headquartered at Port Blair.

Each of the above commands is supposed to be headed by commanders of Lieutenant General and equivalent ranks who would have operational control, while the three service chiefs would be tasked with mobilizing resources to the theater commanders. And this is the most Herculean task. Will a service chief just remain content with being a provider, not master of his forces? General Rawat has to find an answer.


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Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda has been commenting on Indian politics, foreign policy on strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He has been a Visiting Professor at Yonsei University (Seoul) and FMSH (Paris). He has also been the Chairman of the Governing Body of leading colleges of the Delhi University. Educated at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, he has undergone professional courses at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (Boston) and Seoul National University (Seoul). Apart from writing many monographs and chapters for various books, he has authored books: Prime Minister Modi: Challenges Ahead; Rediscovering Asia: Evolution of India’s Look-East Policy; Rising India: Friends and Foes; Nuclearization of Divided Nations: Pakistan, Koreas and India; Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible. He has written over 3000 articles and columns in India’s national media and several international dailies and magazines. CONTACT: prakash.nanda@hotmail.com