Theatrisation imbroglio requires resolution post-haste

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Uday Deb
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It was indeed bold, on part of the government, to kick-start delayed reforms for integration of defense forces. Institution of combined defence services (CDS) and creation of department of military affairs (DMA), came in only way possible in our system, ‘topdown’, directly announced by the Prime Minister. Even in USA, it was Goldwater–Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, that forced the change.

There was clear, time-bound mandate given to CDS, to initiate process of theatrisation. Everything was progressing smoothly, till we hit the usual speed breakers, Indian Air Force (IAF) and inter-ministerial coordination. Both unfortunately are fuelled by turf centricity and it is indeed surprising with government pushing reforms.

The story of CDS is full of inexplicable twists and turns. In January 2004, propelled by Kargil Review Committee (KRC) and GOM recommendations, reforms stumbled at the final hurdle, Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). The primary reasons were reservations of Air Force (AF) and two chiefs, not wanting to yield turf. Navy, honourable exception has always supported integration.

As a compromise, process was initiated, with interim Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) headquarters (HQ) and first joint regional HQ, upgrading Fortress Andamans (Fortran) to Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC). Concurrently, Strategic Forces Command (SFC) was established, as joint functional command. There was clear cut commitment that these joint commands are pilots, to be honed and proliferated.

In the interregnum of two decades, sordid drama had many side shows. Naresh Chandra Task Force filibustering and inventing new avatar of Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (PCCoSC), pandering to anti-coup lobbies. For them, designations like committee, chairman were preferable, over CDS. Joint command concept was consigned to back burner.

IAF has been permitted obduracy on integration issues, it refused to use nomenclature of ‘integrated HQ’, adopted by other two services. AF has also thwarted attempts by Army to set up UAV bases. Hence, frustrating and inconclusive deliberations on Shiv, Shaugaon, Bir Ghulliana and many more proposed bases never fructified. The issues of air space management were magnified and over played. Marked by refusal to acknowledge potency of UAV and treat it as ‘zerosum’ game between manned and unmanned vectors, it has come to haunt us, in form of terrorist attack on airbase.

The range of arguments start with depleting number of fighter squadrons. Plea of limited resources, also invoked in case of cyber agency, is specious as SFC started from near scratch. Resources, even if limited can be shared and switched. Proclaiming unique capability to operate in strategic domain or designating other service as supporting one, amounts to gross under estimation.

Issue having been temporarily deferred, it will be prudent to create an empowered expert group to find resolution, in expeditious manner. While it is important to start with system that does not require too many tweaks, yet dynamism induced by environmental realities cannot be wished away. We may see conflicts shifting to functional domains of cyber and space, making regional commands less relevant. Unfortunately, we are still bogged down with agencies in these emerging domains.

Even at this belated stage, some issues need re-flagging. The most important is about maritime domain, which in future will be ideal counterweight to China, reducing skewed land centric orientation. It will be appropriate to have two maritime commands. The first one, looking westward, aligned with US Central Command and second eastward, linked-up with Indo-Pacific Command. Karwar and Vizag could be designated as HQs. In case it is question of spoils, Eastern one, like ANC, could be on rotational basis.

The concept of AD Command, essentially functional formulation, needs to be carefully balanced between centralisation and autonomy to operational commanders. Some sources tend to believe that single maritime and AD command could have been driven by spoils-based consideration, with AF and Navy being assigned, one each out of four.

It is important to recount evolution of theatres in Army, as AF leveraged numerical parity, under indulgent ministry. At one stage, AF even overtook Army, till SWC was allowed. On Independence, Army had Western, Southern and Eastern commands. All wars on western front till 1971, were fought under Western and Southern Commands. HQ Eastern Command located at Lucknow, moved out in 1963, only after Chinese shock treatment. This triggered raising of Central Command. Northern came up in 1972 and South Western, an overkill, in 2005.

Informed sources are discussing proposed locations for HQs and even unique status-quo formulation, wherein Northern Command may be kept out of exercise. It will be pragmatic to start with two theatre commands, each on both borders. Northern covering Ladakh (including Kargil and Siachin); HP and Uttarakhand borders, with HQ at Chandimandir. Mounting and logistics bases for Ladakh and HP are located in Tricity. Eastern Command, with current charter can continue, with HQ at Kolkatta. Shifting HQ to Lucknow, besides retrograde will amount to ‘Act East’, in remote mode.

On western border, NW Command (HQ at Udhampur) can be entrusted with entire J&K border, extending to areas of Shakargarh bulge, up to Gurdaspur. Command can accordingly be orbatted with one strike corps.SW Command (HQ at Jaipur) can take on balance IB sector and grouped with second strike corps and two armoured divisions. This formulation of four land centric theatres caters for terrain variations, ensuring manageable span of control.

It is heartening that inter ministerial discussion on operational control of Central Armed Police Forces is on the agenda. Hopefully, Union ministry of home affairs will be magnanimous to allow unity of command. It is axiomatic that National Security Guard, the most potent anti-terrorism force, is brought under Special Operations Agency.

It is hoped that current momentum will be utilised to upgrade cyber agency as fullfledged command. Early resolution will obviate avoidable spats that top hierarchy seems to have currently got embroiled in.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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