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Why setting up integrated theatre commands should not be rushed — former service chiefs explain

Former Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd), former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Fali H. Major (Retd) and former defence secretary NN Vohra were among the experts debating the theaterisation process.

File photo of Indian Army, Navy and Air Force personnel paying tributes to field Marshal SHFJ Manekshaw on his 12th death anniversary in June 2020 | ANI
File photo of Indian Army, Navy and Air Force personnel paying tributes to field Marshal SHFJ Manekshaw on his 12th death anniversary in June 2020 | ANI

New Delhi: Setting up of the integrated theatre commands should not be a rushed affair, even as bringing about jointness among the three defence services on various aspects should remain a priority, top defence and security experts said as they debated India’s national security challenges Friday evening.

The webinar on challenges in higher defence management reforms was organised by India International Centre.

The panellists included former Navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd), former Indian Air Force (IAF) chief Air Chief Marshal Fali H. Major (Retd), former Northern Army Commander Lt Gen. D.S. Hooda and former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff Lt Gen. Satish Dua (Retd).

N. N. Vohra, former defence secretary and governor of the erstwhile state of Jammu & Kashmir, also participated in the session.

The webinar comes at a time India is working towards theaterisation — the big military reform that involves integrating the Army, the Navy and the Air Force and their assets into five theatre commands for a unified approach to future war fighting.

However, the services, particularly the Indian Air Force (IAF), and Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen. Bipin Rawat have not been on the same page over the role of the IAF in theatre commands.

This became evident earlier this month when Gen. Rawat labeled IAF as a support arm to the ground forces — likening it to the role of artillery and engineers in the Army. In response, the IAF chief said air power has a huge role to play in any of the integrated battle areas and is not an issue of support alone.

Aside from discussing the contentious issue of dividing air assets in the theaterisation process, the experts also discussed the roles of the service chiefs and the Department of Military Affairs and how different elements of the security apparatus, such as the paramilitary forces and the Indian Coast Guard, will fit in the theatre commands.

Also read: What are military theatre commands and why does India want to switch to them

‘Should not be rushed’

During the discussion, Vohra said there should be no tearing hurry in setting up of the integrated theatre commands.

“If we do anything in a hurry or leave some element of dissatisfaction amongst the stakeholders, then this venture may not meet with total success, and it is important that it does,” he said.

On the issues coming to the fore in establishing theatre commands, Vohra said there should be a clarity on what the defence minister should do in case of an operational contingency — will he speak directly with the theatre commanders or with the service chiefs or only with the CDS. He also said clarity is needed on the role of the defence secretary.

He further said there needs to be an assessment of how the internal and external security will be managed under the theatre commands, given that there are lakhs of paramilitary personnel and the Indian Coast Guard.

Lt Gen. Dua noted that modern warfare is getting increasingly complex with a multitude of threats, and so there is a need to shorten the decision loop.

“We are in the process of reorganising the military into theatre commands that will exercise operational control over the assets of three services, enable joint planning in warfighting and lead to resource optimisation,” he said.

However, Admiral Arun Prakash said the aim was to enhance jointness, and added that theaterisation could have come later.

He emphasised that there should be no limit of three years in establishing theatre commands. “There should be no rush to create theatre commands until there is complete consensus.”

ACM Fali H. Major said the very concept of an integrated theatre command is lost if one service is given primacy.

“This is the bone of contention — the ownership and supremacy issues,” he said.

He said an integrated theatre command should be a true joint tri-service command, where the theatre commander is appointed on rotation from the three services.

He further said that instead of excluding the Army’s northern command from the theatre commands, it should be the first theatre command to be raised, as a testbed, given that it has been a conflict zone historically.

Agreeing, Lt Gen. Hooda added there is a need for integration in joint warfighting and for that integrated structures are needed.

Once there is a joint warfighting doctrine in place and greater integration has been achieved at lower levels, integrated theatre commands could be established then, Lt Gen. Hooda said.

Also read: Army must ditch ‘superiority’ mindset. Distrust, animosity will only hamper military reforms

Issue of air power

ACM Major said the IAF is not used to a term like ‘allocation of resources’, referring to the division of air assets between theatre commands.

If the IAF wants to “beef up a squadron of aircraft in a conflict zone in the north from east”, it is done seamlessly as each command and squadron knows the deployment plans.

Once the IAF resources are allotted to the eastern sector, they can be pulled out anytime, but to pull out a brigade from the north will take a month, he explained.

He said the idea of an air defence (AD) command was never mooted by the IAF.

Air defence, he emphasised, is the primary task of the IAF — the air defence of the Indian skies, contiguous areas and littoral states — and that is an ongoing 24×7, 365-day job that has to be carried out, irrespective of whether it’s times of peace or war.

There are 7,500 aircraft and other flying objects crisscrossing the Indian skies on a daily basis and the IAF, along with civil surveillance radars, make sure there are no intrusions, he said.

This task is possible as they have placed all their AD assets carefully and strategically, ACM Major said. If Army and naval AD assets are integrated during war, what happens during peace, he asked.

“Air defence command is a no-brainer, since many advanced countries such as Russia and the US created them and disbanded them because they were not working out,” he said.

Admiral Prakash said air power has been an issue of contention not just in India but also other countries.

“The IAF has been quite insecure about placing its assets under any other command of any other service.

The veterans agreed that it is for the three chiefs to sit down together with the CDS and the defence minister to discuss and resolve the issue.

Lt Gen. Hooda said a joint warfighting doctrine can for instance, decide what is the best employment for air power.

The defence experts agreed that there should also be a joint doctrine on national security and that the political leadership should be more involved in defence planning.

(Edited by Manasa Mohan)

Also read: India’s military theatre commands could be delayed as there’s no consensus on basic structure