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Indian military divided on integration, but air force chefs are learning from Navy school

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Navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba said the three services were moving towards jointness, but remained divided on the proposal for integrated theatre commands.

New Delhi: India’s top military officer Monday said the Army, the Navy and the Air Force were in disagreement over the creation of integrated theatre commands.

But he did say the services were moving towards “jointness”, and the biggest example of this is that wannabe chefs of the Indian Air Force are being taught to cook and serve by the catering school of the Indian Navy — generally rated the most hospitable force.

Responding to a question at his annual Navy Week press conference Monday, Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sunil Lanba said: “You are right, there are differences.”

“The three services have agreed on a permanent chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. The proposal is with the Ministry of Defence.”

A review committee set up by the Central government after the 1999 Kargil war had recommended the creation of the post of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) as a single-point military adviser to the government. A ‘permanent chairman’ is not quite the same.

Admiral Lanba is also chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, and earlier corrected a journalist who had addressed him as ‘Permanent Chairman, COSC’.

The chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee is usually the senior-most among the chiefs of the Army, Navy and the Air Force, making him the most senior military officer in the country.

Also read: History tells us Indian military was not always marginalised by civilian officials

Integrated Theatre Commands

Integrated Theatre Commands (ITC), a concept for a modern military apparatus, has been adopted by most Western countries and also China.

It envisages the creation of a single military machine with a single task — whether it is for a front or for training purposes — that would combine under a single ‘theatre commander’ elements of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force.

Proponents of the theatre command concept in India — most notably the Army — argue that a multiplicity of commands is obsolete in modern concepts of warfare. Multiplicity of commands also leads to confusion in other spheres.

For example, while China has a single ‘Western Theatre Command’ on India’s north, the Indian Army alone has four commands on the China frontier — northern, western (which is tasked with the Pakistan front), central and eastern. In addition, there are three commands of the Indian Air Force for the same front.

Such a situation often queers the pitch for India’s military diplomacy, as happened in July and August when the Chinese wanted a hotline connection between Indian Army Headquarters in New Delhi and their Western Theatre Command in Chengdu. India rejected the idea on grounds of protocol.

Those who oppose the concept of joint theatre commands — notably the Indian Air Force — say the nature of its operations are so fluid that all of India is one theatre. Also, there are issues of who will be the commander of a particular theatre.

The Indian Air Force has proposed a Joint Operations Command (JOCOM).

Lurking behind these differences is the suspicion that senior positions in the IAF and Navy would be subsumed by the Army, by far the largest among the three services.

Admiral Lanba Monday practically brought out these differences into the public sphere for the first time.

“We will have to decide who will be the operations commander here (meaning at headquarters in New Delhi) who would look after all the theatres. Service chiefs cannot be operational commanders,” he said.

Also read: There is growing civil-military dissonance and acrimony in India’s defence ministry

A step towards jointness

Admiral Lanba’s own service, the Navy, will be taking a step towards jointness — not to be confused with ‘integration’ — between January and March 2019.

The Navy’s largest drill, called Tropex, that is practically spread across the Indian Ocean Region, will include within it a coastal defence exercise named ‘Sea Vigil’. Units of the Army and the Air Force will be involved on both the eastern and western seaboards.

The Navy, as mentioned above,  will also be ‘catering’ to jointness.

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