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Here’s how India’s political and military class can see eye to eye on tri-Service integration

Tri-Service integration is part of transforming Indian armed forces. PM Modi and Rajnath Singh must catch the bull by the horns and assume full responsibility.

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When Defence Minister Rajnath Singh announced setting up “joint theatre commands in the country” last week, he was making a political statement merely reiterating a decision taken two-and-a-half years ago. In reality, the issue has been on the back burner ever since the untimely death of Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat in December 2021.

There is political and military consensus on the need for joint theatre commands. However, a lingering contentious issue is the role of the Indian Air Force (IAF).

There was a public spat at a seminar between the CDS and the Chief of Air Staff wherein the former called the IAF a “supporting arm” of the armed forces and the latter retorted, “It is not a supporting role alone. The airpower has a huge role to play. In any of the integrated battle areas, it’s not an issue of support alone.”

Recently, the incumbent IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhary, once again reiterated the reservations of the IAF: “…..creation of a [air defence] command may prove counterproductive because air defence operations are inextricably linked to counter air operations and all offensive [operations], as the success or failure of one will dictate the demands on the other.”

The progress on establishment of theatre commands is tardy to say the least. There is a lack of strategic direction and a time bound politically monitored execution process. The appointment of CDS – the prime mover of joint theatre commands – is lying vacant for over seven months. The current approach is flawed due to a bottom up and standalone process where everything has been left to the military, which is infamous for inter-Service rivalry. Non-resolution of the genuine reservations of the IAF only proves the point.

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Role of the IAF

Based on public domain information, the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) has proposed the creation of three land-based theatre commands (Northern, Eastern and Western), a Maritime Theatre Command and an Air Defence Command.

As far as the IAF is concerned, all air campaigns/operations will be controlled by the four theatre commanders, based on initial/reallocated resources except for the air defence resources, which will be controlled by the Air Defence Command. This model can only work with a large Air Force of 50-60 squadrons. With a force of 30 squadrons, the joint headquarters under the CDS or the COSC will have to constantly allocate/reallocate resources between the theatre commands and Air Defence Command.

‘Basic Doctrine of the Indian Air Force 2012’ spells out the employment of air power in the Indian context. In application, it is executed through three sub-strategies — strategic air campaign, counter-air campaign, and counter-surface force campaign — supported by combat enabling operations. Ideally these are conducted in the same order of priority, but in a short notice or short-duration war, these have to be conducted near simultaneously, particularly by a small/medium size Air Force which has to rely upon inherent flexibility to concentrate the effort for each campaign.

Strategic air campaign targets the enemy’s will to resist and capability to fight at the strategic level. The enemy’s strategic centres of gravity or critical vulnerabilities are targeted with concentrated employment of air power. These include leadership, command and control, and communication systems; industrial infrastructure/vital economic targets, and transportation systems; and fielded forces/reserves in depth areas. It is obvious that in our context, the strategic air campaign requires centralised control rather than by four separate theatre commanders.

Counter air campaign aims to create and maintain a favourable air situation to prevent enemy air power from interfering with operations of its own forces. Counter air campaign is executed through offensive counter-air operations and air defence operations. Offensive counter-air operations are conducted in enemy territory to suppress/destroy enemy air defences (including weapons systems and radars), infrastructure of air bases, aircraft on the ground and enemy aircraft in the air over their territory.

Air defence operations aim to nullify or reduce the effectiveness of enemy air/missile attacks over their own territory and include use of fighters and ground-to-air weapon systems along with command and control means. Air defence operations are reactive in nature and hence the mainstay of creating a favourable air situation are offensive counter-air operations.

Counter-surface force operations — air land operations and maritime air operations — are aimed at preventing the enemy from applying military power to interfere with operations of their own surface forces. This is done through air interdiction at the strategic level, battlefield air interdiction at the operational level, battlefield air strikes in proximity of own troops at the tactical level, tactical reconnaissance, and search and strike missions. Interdiction implies preventing enemy combat potential from reaching the battle area by destroying reserves, command and control means, road/railway network and logistics. At sea these take the form of air strikes on enemy shipping and maritime infrastructure.

Combat enabling air operations include airborne/air transported operations, air-to-air refuelling, surveillance and reconnaissance, employment of UAVs, airborne early warning aircraft, aerostats, electronic warfare, Special Forces operations, search and rescue, training, maintenance and logistics.

From the above it is obvious that ‘air defence’ is a relatively passive role of the IAF and the main reliance for neutralising enemy air threat is on offensive counter air operations in enemy territory. Also, counter-surface force operations and airborne/air transported/heliborne operations are the only classic “support” operations requiring intimate cooperation with surface forces.

Considering the limited resources of the IAF, omni role aircraft and very meagre combat enabling platforms in the form of Airborne Warning And Control System/Airborne Early Warning and Control Aircraft, aerostats and air-to-air refuelling aircraft, the parcelling out of air effort to the theatre commanders would be counterproductive.

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Strategic Air Command

A small Air Force like the IAF can only be optimally exploited through a concentration of effort. It is capable of generating up to 700 sorties in a day. Initially, the bulk of the effort will have to be allocated for strategic air campaign and offensive counter air operations over enemy territory, which have nothing to do with surface forces and require centralised control. In a two-front war involving Pakistan and China, the entire effort of the IAF may have to be applied against China in the first half of the day and then shift to target Pakistan in the second half.

It would be more prudent to create a Strategic Air Command, which must be responsible for carrying out strategic air campaign and counter-air campaign across all theatres. It must have an overriding lien over all resources. Since air and ground operations may commence simultaneously, initial optimum allocation of aircraft/missiles for counter-surface force campaign and for air defence in the form of surface-to-air weapon systems must be made for each theatre. All attack helicopters must be allocated to theatre commands.

Also read: 8 years back, Modi promised to transform India’s military. Today, the plan is in disarray

Streamline the transformation process

Tri-Service integration in the form of theatre commands is part of the transformation of the armed forces to fight the wars of the 21st century. Without a strategic review and a formal national security strategy, the transformation is without an aim and rudderless. It is the responsibility of the central government to formalise the national security strategy and the transformation strategy in consultation with the armed forces and other stakeholders. It must issue a detailed political directive for the transformation including the establishment of the theatre commands.

Political intent alone cannot transform the armed forces. Empirical experience dictates direct political intervention. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the defence minister must catch the bull by the horns and assume full responsibility. Formalise a national security strategy and a transformation strategy. Set up an empowered committee under the defence minister to steer the transformation. The committee must prepare a vision document that addresses all contentious issues that have emerged and lay down the timelines.

Appoint the CDS forthwith and issue a formal directive to prepare fresh, detailed proposals for transformation including creation of the theatre commands. Keep Parliament informed and ensure scrutiny through the standing committee on defence or a special committee. The transformation process must culminate with a National Security Act to ensure future accountability.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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