It would be naïve to expect that anything good would emerge from the public spat between Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat and Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria on the politically mandated creation of the Theatre Command System. There is nothing wrong in professional disagreements but to air them in public is unacceptable to the military ethos. Worse, it comes at a time when threats to national security are assuming ominous proportions.
In all probability, both Gen Rawat and ACM Bhadauria would have got the political pipe down messages and one can expect that things will settle down. India’s military image would have temporarily taken a beating. But certain good things can come out of this unbecoming episode, if the next moves by the political leadership are appropriately and speedily managed.
CDS encumbered with multiple roles
First, let us be clear that change and progress required for theatre commands are practically impossible without political intervention. In essence, the CDS-IAF chief fracas showed the base instincts of tribalism, wherein commitments to group goals are deeply rooted in the emotions of individuals who make up the tribes. CDS Rawat’s statement betrayed highly questionable professional views – unless he said what he meant but did not mean what he said.
What is also of concern is that when the IAF’s image was belittled, there was no attempt to control the emotions and resolve the issue behind closed doors. It seems the surge in the baser instincts of tribalism had overwhelmed prudence. Yes, it was a natural human reaction, but surely it has to be kept private and not allowed to find public expression. India is a nuclear power and it can ill afford its top military leadership displaying such standards of professionalism or letting wisdom succumb to emotions. The political leadership, it appears, has decided that the squabble be granted innocent passage in India’s democratic waters.
It seems that Gen Rawat has been unfairly encumbered with three hats — of CDS, Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (PC-COSC) and the head of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA). The range of his responsibilities as given in the MoD press note is staggering and the time frame of three years is unrealistic.
The political leadership must take note and shift the responsibility of crystallising the structure of the future theatre command system away from the CDS. Gen Rawat should no longer be the chief architect who conceptualises the structural blueprint and gives it shape and form. Instead, he should be the builder who oversees, guides and executes the decisions on the structure that should be externally crafted and politically approved after widespread consultations by a group of experts. These are challenging tasks because they have to be undertaken in an ambience of heightened geopolitical threats, financial stringency, internecine disagreements within the armed forces and between ministries.
No operational role was visualised for the CDS, but in practice, it was unavoidable as long as he was wearing the hat of the PC-COSC. In a conflict with nuclear overtones, it is not possible for the CDS to be easily available to the political leadership, if he is also PC-COSC. A separate four-star PC-COSC should be responsible for coordination of all joint service issues as elaborated in the MoD press note. The PC-COSC should focus on the complex and lengthy process of transition to theatre commands. One of Gen Rawat’s main challenges will fundamentally involve fostering jointness based on a shared and common narrative. Right now, the dominant narrative in each of the three services is polluted by lack of trust and the ascent of animosity.
‘Superiority’ mindset must be tackled
The extant default posture has a deepened sensitivity to protect stretches of turf that are believed to be under threat of encroachment by another service. It is apparent that the CDS has, on behalf of the Army, laid claims to superiority, perhaps because he believes that ultimately it is all about control of territory and therefore the other services serve to enable the function of the Army. This mindset needs to be disparaged. As always, and especially in the information age, it is more about the control of perceptions, and who is in support of whom is a dynamic concept depending on the political, strategic and tactical context. Deterrence, which is the primary objective of military exertions, is a mind game. Flexible combinations of military instruments during force application is best carried out when the notion of ownership is replaced by a custodial and shared ethos.
There is nothing strategic that inheres in any form of military power whether it is air, sea, land, cyber or space. Whether it is strategic or tactical depends on what effects are generated when used in a particular context. No service can claim superiority over the other. The predominance or importance is determined by the context alone. It seems that the higher Indian military leadership is missing out on this truism.
The newly appointed PC-COSC has to first repair the psychological damage and nurture the story based on perceiving the military as one instrument that is more than the sum of its parts. The story must promote the idea that the military instrument is like an orchestra or a musical band that can be flexibly assembled depending on the mission at hand. The story has to be first sold at the top and percolate downwards through personal examples that are buttressed with other forms of communications. It should be ingrained in the professional military education system from the entry level.
But right now, it is the extant top level military leadership that must receive the booster dose, which the PC-COSC must initiate and monitor. When professional reasoning is oriented towards jointness, it can foster synergistic efforts. None of this is going to be easy but without the senior military leadership being reoriented first, there is no hope for the theatre command system.
Fear and hope in Indian military
One of the undercurrents weakening the reform is the fear of domination by the Army and also the possibility of losing some three or two-star ranks. The CDS seemed to speak for the Army and his diminution of air power as a support force has understandably touched the rawest nerve of the IAF. It would have confirmed the Navy’s suspicion too. Only another PC-COSC can repair this damage. Not only will it take time but also require persistent tending.
The fear of inequity in distribution of various appointments is soaked in individual self-interests and should not be allowed to impede decisions that ought to be based purely on professional imperatives. However, since human ambitions are natural spirits that haunt the innards of professionalism, an assurance that no service will lose any of its sanctioned ranks may assuage the fear.
The IAF chief’s professionalism was displayed when he gave an assurance that despite the differences of opinion, the efforts towards the creation of theatre commands will be sustained. There is hope and maybe this episode could be the harbinger of change in mindsets that seem to be the major stumbling block obstructing, what is, a laudable PMO-driven reform.
In a discussion document, India’s Theatre Command System: A Proposal, the role of the military leadership in the transition was described thus by this author — “The military leadership will have to more than match the political vision that has mandated the Theatre Commands. Service parochialism must give way to a combined services outlook. It will not be easy and the transition to Theatre Commands will be a challenging process and its main threat will come from within the Armed Forces.”
The threat has surfaced on the public domain. The actors in play must change their outlook or have it reoriented through political diktat. The decision is for the political leadership to take. But one way or the other, they cannot be spectators and believe that the winds of discontentment will go away. Such a belief can pose a security threat for which they will have only themselves to blame.
Lt Gen Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, and former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)