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Raising theatre commands can’t be left to the military. It’s a govt’s job all over the world

The government made a fundamental error of judgement by making the CDS first among equals and not senior by rank/appointment to the Service Chiefs.

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On 1 January 2020, the Narendra Modi government initiated the most significant defence reform since Independence by appointing the Chief of Defence Staff or CDS and establishing the Department of Defence. But more than that, the government gave a cryptic political direction to the CDS, which made him responsible for “Facilitation of restructuring of Military Commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through establishment of joint / theatre commands.”

Logically, through the National Security Council/Ministry of Defence, the Modi government should have given directions on the process and timelines to be followed to implement the above reform. An empowered steering committee with all stakeholders and a parliamentary committee to oversee the execution should also have been formed. Unfortunately but predictably, this does not seem to have happened. Consequently, a bottom-up military-driven approach to tri-Service integration and creation of the theatre commands seems to have hit a wall due to lack of consensus.

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Theatre commands proposal hits a wall 

After the cryptic, but clear ‘political’ directions, it was left to the CDS and the Chiefs of the three Services to work out the detailed modalities for establishment of the theatre commands. This again brought to the fore the decades-old inter-Service rivalries.

No wonder that after the presentation to the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on 10 June, a number of issues were raised, necessitating a review to strive for a “broader consensus” with all stakeholders. Apart from fundamental inter-Service differences relating to command and control, and concentration/dissipation of critical assets, there seems to have been lack of coordination with the home ministry as well with respect to command of the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) and the finance ministry, on the additional financial outlay. The need to have geographical/country-specific threat-based theatre commands was also discussed. Extension of service to prospective theatre commanders to give them meaningful tenures was another contentious issue.

The proposal has now been sent back to the drawing board. A committee chaired by the CDS with Chief of Integrated Defence Staff, to the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, Vice Chiefs of the three Services and representatives of the home and finance ministries and other stakeholders as members has been formed to strive for reaching a “broader consensus.” The committee had its first meeting on 21 June.

Had the Modi government given clear directions on the planning and implementation process earlier, this delay could have been avoided.

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Logical process

The establishment of the CDS and theatre commands cannot be a standalone exercise. It has to be enmeshed with the transformation of national security and the armed forces. In fact, this momentous decision should have triggered holistic national security reforms. To achieve this, a strategic review is necessary to forecast the likely threats and the nature of conflict/wars that India may have to deal with in the next two to three decades. An economic review would indicate the likely financial outlay for defence. The end goal of the review is a formal national security strategy and size/structure of the armed forces to execute it.

Based on the above, a vision document needs to be approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) for the transformation, as also the implementation process. The whole process should culminate in an Act of Parliament like the Goldwater-Nichols Defence Reorganization Act of 1986 in the United States. This has been the experience of all major democracies. In the planning and implementation of transformation, the government and Parliament must be actively involved.

The current problems facing the creation of the theatre commands stem from a flawed bottom up and standalone process where everything has been left to the military, which is saddled with the baggage of inter-Service rivalry. There is an urgent need for a formal national security strategy. For transformation of the armed forces, an empowered committee must be set up. Ideally, this committee should be under the defence minister, with the National Security Advisor and the home minister as its political members. The panel should also have a balanced representation of the military and bureaucracy — CDS, Service Chiefs, secretaries of defence, home and finance ministry representatives — and domain experts. It should work in a time-bound manner to finalise reforms. Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence or a Special Committee, advised by defence experts/former senior officers, must also be set up to oversee the transformation process and eventually steer the passage of the new national security/ defence Act.

The empowered committee must prepare a vision document with timelines that must be approved by the CCS. All contentious issues must be addressed in the vision document. Based on this, a directive must be issued to the CDS to prepare the detailed proposals for the theatre commands.

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Analysis of critical issues

Based on public domain information, the Department of Military Affairs has proposed the creation of a Maritime Theatre Command, an Air Defence Command and three integrated commands for our land borders. Northern Command’s area of responsibility will remain as it is. Western Command will be responsible for the area from Chenab River to the Rann of Kutch. Eastern Command for the northern borders and eastern borders, minus eastern Ladakh. The northern borders of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand may either be placed wholly/partly under Northern Command or Eastern Command. Andaman and Nicobar Command will be subsumed by the Maritime Command. The Strategic Forces Command is already operational since 2003. Integrated Defence Cyber Agency, Defence Space Agency and Special Forces Division are operational under the Integrated Defence Staff since 2019. In due course, integrated Logistics and Training Commands will also be established. In my view, the above proposals are logical and cater for principal/collusive threats, unsettled borders, and insurgency areas.

In any reform process, there are winners and losers. The latter are the incumbents and their immediate successors in the existing system, apprehensive about loss of domain/power. They disappear after the reformed system settles in. In all armies, reforms have to be enforced by political will.

The government made a fundamental error of judgement by making the CDS first among equals and not senior by rank/appointment to the Service Chiefs. CDS, as the Permanent Chairman of Chiefs of the Staff Committee, is an unsatisfactory arrangement, particularly with respect to the command and control of the proposed theatres. It also encourages the Chiefs to tweak the tri-Service integration process to retain power.

In the United States, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the equivalent of our CDS. He functions through the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff that include all Service chiefs and equivalent. He is the single point advisor on all defence matters, and senior, by appointment, to the Service Chiefs who are responsible only for training and administering their respective Service. The theatre commanders function directly under the President/Secretary of Defence. But in a parliamentary system, this is an unsatisfactory arrangement and can also lead to politicisation of the armed forces. In the United Kingdom, it is the CDS who exercises operational command over all forces.

So long as the Service chiefs continue to exercise command functions, a true integration of the three forces will never take place. In fact, inter-Service turf guarding and squabbling will only increase. We should adopt the UK model. Make the CDS senior to the Service Chiefs, by appointment. He must exercise operational command over theatre commands. Service Chiefs must be restricted to training and administering their own Service. The operations directorates of the Services must merge with Integrated Defence Staff.

There is a also strong case for the DMA and Department of Defence to amalgamate. The defence secretary must either function under the CDS or become part of defence minister’s secretariat. Unless the Allocation of Business Rules wherein the defence secretary is responsible for the “ Defence of India”, are changed in letter and spirit, the military–bureaucracy rivalry is likely to scuttle this radical reform.

For appointment of CDS, commanders of theatre commands and other joint appointments, merit must prevail, with their deputy/deputies being from the other Service/Services. The main issue is joint planning, which is lacking at the moment. In any case, below the theatre headquarters, it is the respective Service commanders who will continue to exercise command. However, giving permanent command to the overwhelmingly predominant Service is also an option. Like Maritime Theatre Command and Air Defence Command being permanently headed by the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force, respectively. Due to geographical compulsions, our theatre commands will essentially be bi-Service. I see no reason as to why Northern, Eastern and Western Theatre Commands must not be  headed on merit by an Army or Air Force commander.

Another fallacy is the dissipation of limited and critical assets of the IAF. Today, the IAF virtually fights the air battle in isolation under its chief. He allocates the air effort on an as-required basis. The Air Force remains target-oriented and disassociated with the planning or having a stake in the ground/sea battle. Theatre commands will bring about jointness in the planning process. As far as the air assets are concerned, the CDS will perform the same function as the Air Chief does today. No resources of the theatre commands are permanent, be it of the Army, the Air Force or the Navy. The objections of the IAF stem from loss of domain/power by its hierarchy.

Similarly, the issue of command of CAPFs, Assam Rifles and Coast Guard policing the borders/sea is a bogey. It is common sense that in case of unsettled borders with frequent border incidents, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police Force/Border Security Force/Assam Rifles should be placed under the Theatre Commands. In other areas, they must come under operational command in event of conflict/war. In fact, all the border/sea management forces must have their staff representatives in the theatre commands.

For the officer corps of the three Services, it is going to be a hard blow. Nineteen General Officers Commanding and their equivalent in the three Services will come down to approximately eight. This can be compensated by giving the same status to the deputies in the theatres without the designation. Rather than extension of service to new theatre commanders, the government must carry out deep selection to make these appointments on merit, irrespective of seniority.

Military theorist and historian, Sir B.H. Liddell Hart, famously said, “The only thing harder than getting a new idea into the military mind is to get the old one out.” Militaries all over the world are status quoists by nature and rarely reform from within. The reform initiative of the government must not flounder for want of political will and a logical process.

Lt Gen H S Panag @rwac48, 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. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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