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The biggest challenge before India’s joint theatre commands plan — who will report to whom

India’s limited experience with integrated command structures may require a fair bit of “mid-course corrections,” as acknowledged by the Army Chief as well.

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Deliberate, thoughtful and well considered” is how Army Chief General M. M. Naravane has characterized the process of setting up integrated theatre commands. This process gathered steam after the appointment of Gen. Bipin Rawat as the first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) on January 1, 2020, and the creation of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) in the Ministry of Defence that he heads. In the GoI (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961, one of DMA’s roles is stated to be the “facilitation of restructuring of Military Commands for optimal utilization of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through establishment of joint / theatre commands.” India’s resolve to finally create integrated theatre commands, hence, seems clear and decisive. However, akin to the long list of defence-related reforms that have been in the pipeline for years, these proactive measures, while a step in the right direction, do not do away with the layers of complex challenges that come in between policy aspiration and implementation.

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Major challenges facing the CDS and the Indian defence establishment in this regard are first– the structure of command, i.e. who will report to who within the tri-services and joint theatre command configurations, and who will have operational command over personnel and machinery, service chiefs or theatre commanders; second– shortage of resources within the Indian Air Force (IAF) which has only 31 operational squadrons against a modest sanctioned strength of 42, would make it difficult for the IAF to permanently station assets in a particular command with territorial boundaries; third– the inter-services competition wherein each service zealously oversees its own assets and strives for a greater share of the defence budget and influence might prove to be an obstacle in creating synergy among the services; and fourth– India’s limited experience with integrated command structures may require a fair bit of “mid-course corrections,” as acknowledged by the Army Chief as well, which would require problems to be timely identified and remedied, and slowdown the integration process regardless.

Even amidst such complicated challenges, the military establishment seems to be making headway at a great pace. India’s military is reported to be reorganized into five theatre commands by 2022. These commands, namely the Northern Command- along the border with China, the Western Command- along the border with Pakistan, the Peninsular Command, the Air Defence Command, and the Maritime Command, would be headed by commanders of Lieutenant General and equivalent ranks who would have operational control, while the service Chiefs would be tasked with mobilizing resources to the theater commanders. Further, to avoid splitting the Air Force’s assets across different commands, they would be placed under the Air Defence Command which would be tasked with defending the Indian airspace.

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This speed and agility with which hurdles are being cleared signifies an awareness about the need to implement this long-awaited reform. The same sentiment was highlighted by the Army Chief when he hailed the formation of integrated theatre commands as “(t)he next logical step in the process of defence reforms to synergise the capabilities and combat potential of the three Services during war and peace.” The two aspects that spell out this need are economic and strategic. On the economic front, with 28% of Ministry of Defence’s 2020-21 budget of ₹3,23,053 crore allocated to pensions, and another 40% of it going toward payment salaries and allowances, reducing redundancies across the services by integrating manpower within theatre commands has the potential of redirecting a sizeable portion toward maintenance and modernization of equipment and capabilities. This strategy is clearly visible in the proposal of integrating medical services, hospitals and training facilities. Reducing expenditure in this manner would also shield the armed forces from being stung by a potential future decrease in the defence budget due to the economic strain brought about by Covid-19 and safeguard the effectiveness of the Indian military from being adversely impacted.

Furthermore, with an integrated approach toward procurement, sans capital acquisitions, the requirements of the military as a whole would be able to be formulated. This in turn would ensure synergy among the tri-services, lead to systematic planning in the acquisition of resources, hopefully be the end of the piecemeal approach to purchases done by individual services on an urgent/emergency basis at higher prices, and lead to significant cuts in the cost of maintenance and management of assets. Examples that illustrate how the latter may be done are procurement of similar vehicles that would facilitate easier maintenance and spares management, and jointly contracting specialized equipment for the tri-services. Giving orders in bulk, preferably to the domestic defence production sector under Make in India, would not only result in the military getting a better rate for their purchases, but would also enable the growth and expansion of the domestic sector and allow them to make investments enhancing their capabilities and production quality with confidence.

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Integration of logistics by the formation of a Joint Logistics Command is another avenue by which reduction in expenditure can be achieved and the existing resources can be more efficiently utilized. As stated by the CDS, the command “would look at common contract management for the three services and be responsible for common inventories for maintaining reserves.” The need for such integration has become all the more pronounced with there being every indication that the conflict with China in Ladakh would be a prolonged one and movement of forces, machinery and rations set to become all the more difficult at increased troop levels, through the mountainous terrain and throughout the harsh winter. Additionally, jointly catering to the Army and the Air Force, both stationed in the northern union territory, would synchronize transportation of logistics among the services, thereby leading to monetary savings and better inter-services coordination and cooperation.

Coming to the strategic end, many of the economic benefits mentioned above would also directly contribute to realizing the strategic goals that the integrated theatre commands model hopes to achieve. As detailed before, these include more efficient utilization of resources, greater coordination among the services, and more accurate and coordinated logistics planning, among others. An example that perfectly sums up the advantages that the Indian military would gain is that of the Air Defence Command. Currently, all three branches of the military possess air defense assets such as missiles etc., even though the primary responsibility of air defense of the country currently lies with the Air Force. The Air Defence Command, hence, would assimilate all these assets under one roof and one command and control. This would ensure that if a situation arises in which swift action needs to be taken, then the same can be done without losing any time at the theater command level itself.

Also read: Next military reforms should be to set up integrated theatre commands, says Army chief

Perhaps one the most vital changes that may come about with the adoption of integrated theater commands, though, would be how the three arms of the Indian military operate with one another, not as individual services, but as the “armed forces of the union.” There has been some criticism of this integration by suggesting this might perpetuate the dominance of the army and give it greater operational control. This perception may have come about from the fact that among the three services, the Army has always been the most visible and its officers represented more in leadership positions of joint military institutions. This, however, does not translate into the Army getting more control under the integrated commands structure, emphasized by the proposal that the Air Force should helm the new Air Defence Command due to their expertise and direct responsibility. Integration as being planned, therefore, does not revolve around the army. Moreover, to achieve a more efficient command and control configuration, as is desired, it would be vital to ensure that bureaucracy is kept to a minimum. A “deliberate, thoughtful and well considered” approach to this important reform should ensure that.

Indian defence reforms are moving apace and the idea of integrated theatre commands is one whose time seems to have finally come in India.

Professor Harsh V Pant is Director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme at Observer Research Foundation. Javin Aryan is Research Intern at ORF. Views are personal.

The article originally appeared on the Observer Research Foundation website.

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  1. “Who will report to whom?”
    In the recently concluded 2+2 dialogue the USA, Defence part, was represented by Secretary Mark Jesper.
    Jesper, a thorough professional with a remarkable record – an infantry officer with the 101st Airborne (“Screaming Eagles”) who saw active service during Desert Storm and the Gulf War (awarded the Bronze Star); graduated in engineering from the Military Academy at West Point, New York; holds a master’s from Kennedy School at Harvard and a PhD from George Washington University; and was Secretary of the Army before taking over as Pentagon chief. Pentagon unlike our MOD is (wo)manned by a mix of soldiers and bureaucrats – as how a Defence Apex body should be.
    India has seldom placed competent person at the head, Cabinet level, in Finance and Defence. Never ever in Defence. The answers or solutions are there for even a layman to see.. Only a gumption to act by the political dispensation of our democracy is required.

    • Within the Command the predominant a Service should take charge. Yes, some new regulations will be required to streamline the system here.

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