Military Transformation on Back Foot

After months of media blitz of new tri-Service Commands being round the corner, news has emerged that the proposal has hit a roadblock. An Air Defence Command (ADC) headed by the IAF and a Maritime Theatre Command (MTC) headed by the Navy was to be set up this year. Subsequently, three Theatre Commands were to be set up under the Army; one for the western border with Pakistan, and northern and eastern ones with China. Incidentally, China’s Western Theatre Command (WTC) covers the entire expanse of China’s border with Myanmar in the east to Afghanistan in the west including its borders with India, Bhutan and Nepal.

According to media reports above proposal was recently presented at the Ministry of Defence (MoD) evoked major inter-Service differences, also mentioned as “turf wars”.  One instant quoted is IAF opposition to divide its “limited air assets” in different theatre commands. Obviously the presentation was organized by the Directorate of Military Affairs (DMA) headed by the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) but was Defence Minister and Defence Secretary present and representatives from the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and Ministry of Finance (MoF)?

A committee has reportedly been constituted that includes Vice Chiefs of Army, Navy and Air Force, Chief of Integrated Defence Staff and representatives of other ministries and departments to resolve internal differences of Armed Forces, consult external stake holders like the MHA and MoF and look into the structure, composition, nomenclature and reporting channels of the proposed tri-Service commands. The Committee is to resolve various issues and recommend the way forward.

Military jointness has been emphasized by Prime Minister NarendraModi though this is not something new. In 2004, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated, “Reforms within the Armed Forces also involve recognition of the fact that our Navy, Air Force and Army can no longer function in compartments with exclusive chains of command and single Service operational plans.”  General VP Malik, Chief of Army Staff had said, “It  is  not  my  case  that  the  Service  Chiefs  do  not  cooperate  in  war.  Were they not to do so, it would be churlish.  But in war, cooperative synergies are simply not good enough.” Similarly, General S Padmnabhan, Chief of Army Staff had said,“There  is  no  escaping  the  military  logic  of   creating  suitably  constituted  Integrated  Theatre  Commands  and  functional   commands  for   the   Armed  Forces   as a  whole.”

The catalyst to Indian military’s theatreisation in recent years is reorganization of China’s PLA though this did not happen overnight. PLA’s transformation was ushered by President Jiang Zemin (1993-2003) with its implementation overseen by the Central Military Commission and Chief of General Staff of the PLA. In Germany the transformation process was initiated by the Berlin Decree to integrate German Armed Forces ensuring full benefits of ongoing technological advancements. In the US, catalyst for the transformation process commenced with Secretary of Defence, Donald H Rumsfeld; the US Department of Defence created US Joint Forces Command as the transformation laboratory. The Goldwater Nichols Act finally brought about the transformational changes in US Armed Forces but this act too was debated for four years.

While establishment of CDS in India was under consideration, there was hot news that the Defence Secretary will be elevated to Principal Secretary before the CDS is appointed – because bureaucracy wanted to retain its ‘prime position’ in governance. But the bureaucrats scored even better with the CDS as Secretary DMA and all the power and finances controlled by the Defence Secretary heading Department of Defence (DoD). Stature of a four-star General was reduced to secretary level, which has been followed up by appointing three-star and two-star equivalent officers as additional and joint secretaries in DMA.

General Bipin Rawat was appointed first CDS and tasked with creating integrated military commands during his five year tenure. In the instant case it appears Army, Navy and Air Forces were not taken on board by DMA while working on the proposals, leave aside concurrent liaison with MHA and MoF. Had this been done, matters would not have come to a head. Inhibitions of IAF about limited air assets distributed among theatre commands needs resolution. Air assets of one theatre can be employed elsewhere as has been exercised in the past in previous wars and in IPKF operations with even naval air assets supporting ground operations. If that were not the case even China will be ill prepared to fight on multiple fronts. However, air assets of IAF are at premium and IAF has to cater for a two-front war.

The proposal includes Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) deployed on the borders placed under operational control of the Army Theatre Commands. This was also recommended by the 1999 Kargil Review Committee and Group of Ministers (GoP) reports but never followed. Even the ITBP deployed in Easter Ladakh in sensitive areas has not been put under operational control of Army. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh who was earlier Home Minister should understand the nuances but he never even raised the issue during the Chinese aggression last year. This needs to be resolved at ‘minister level’ least it becomes an issue at the CCS.

It is being said that theatreisation will result in financial savings in the ‘long run’ but have the financial implications of adopting it been worked out? Not only is this required, provisional approval for this must be obtained before the proposal goes to the CCS. If this is not done we may end up with theatreisation in suspended animation midway, as it happened with the Mountain Strake Corps for lack of funds. As Army Chief,Rawat’s focus was on reducing defence expenditure. He never even raised the issue of civilian defence employees being five times more expensive than their uniformed counterparts. As CDS, the bureaucracy is more than happy to use him in the same manner – cutting defence expenditure. India’s forex reserves have reached US$605 billion but we are loathe to spend on defence.

The command and control in theatreisation too needs to be fixed. For example IAF heads the ADC, is responsible for a two-front war but would have air assets distributed in various Theatre Commands. Besides, who will the Theatre Commanders report to with CDS having no operational role? Will they report to the Prime Minister, Defence Minister or will Defence Secretary claim the slot on plea that he is charged with the defence of India?

Many strategists and military thinkers in India have opined that only an Act of Parliament (like the Goldwater-Nichols Act of the US) can bring about required transformation in for Armed Forces. Will the CCS have the inclination to undertake such an exercise through a committee in time-bound manner? Can the National Security Council (NSC) or the DMA be tasked to work out a Draft Act of Parliament for Military Transformation?Will this not be better for transformation to be implements smoothly rather than hurrying up in the present manner?Establishment of integrated theatre commands must be done in deliberate fashion over a period of time taking into account that the transformation period does not put us at disadvantage if war is thrust upon us during the changeover.

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