Without doubt, the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff and the decision to reorganise the armed forces into joint theatre commands are the most significant defence reforms in independent India. The defence ministry and the top military leadership deserve commendation for moving to implement the changes quickly, in the face of multiple challenges: a pandemic, confrontation with China, upsurge in conflict along the western boundaries and a tightening fiscal position. This reorganisation is an extremely rare opportunity to put in place structures, processes and organisational cultures necessary to defend India in the 21st century — for that reason, it is vital to get it all right. As Admiral Arun Prakash, former Chief of Navy Staff and Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, told me “there will not be a second chance”.
That is why journalist Rajat Pandit’s report of the proposed Maritime Theatre Command, which is currently awaiting the Narendra Modi government’s formal approval, worries me. The plan is to have a single Maritime Theatre Command, headed by a Navy vice-admiral and based in Karwar, Karnataka, responsible for the entire maritime domain. It will subsume the Navy’s current eastern and western commands, as well as the tri-Service Andaman and Nicobar Command, and include the Army’s amphibious formations. The Air Force’s surveillance, strike and missile assets will be available to the Maritime Theatre Commander, but this integration will be looser than that between naval and army assets. Also, the Maritime Theatre Commander will report to the Chiefs of Staff Committee, effectively making the Chief of Defence Staff the highest military commander.
Ideally, the entire picture — all the commands, their roles and their relationship to the defence minister, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) and three Services — should be announced so that the design can be understood and discussed by a wider body of analysts within and outside the government. It is expected that there will be three other commands — a Western Command, a Northern Command and an Air Defence Command — and it would have been optimal for all four to be officially announced at the same time, even if the implementation timelines are different.
Seas not a single whole
The design of a single Maritime Theatre Command presumes that all maritime is one theatre. Yet, that is hardly the case. There are three distinct maritime geographies to the west, south and east, making them distinct theatres. The adversaries, geopolitics, operational contexts, missions and roles in the waters to India’s west, south, east and beyond are vastly different in each of these theatres. The argument that the oceans are an inseparable whole has something to it, until you see that the same applies to land and air as well. The idea of a single Land Theatre Command or an Air Theatre Command is considered absurd because geography, adversary and threats are distinctly different in the west, north, south, and east, despite the domains themselves being arguably an “inseparable whole”. The maritime domain is no different, and no more a “single theatre” than land and air are.
Our geographical and geopolitical context suggests that we need at least two maritime-focused commands, facing west and east. These should include the requisite land, air, space and cyber components so that the theatre commander has the complete complement of assets necessary to handle the range of anticipated threats emerging in that theatre. To be sure, the theatre commander need not always be a Navy officer, but can come from any Service. Indeed, one urgent task for the CDS would be to ensure that the career track of officers is restructured such that the top echelons of the theatre command consists of officers who have cross-Service experience.
Had India’s changed economic and fiscal trajectory not been a factor, I would have advocated for the small Andaman and Nicobar Command to evolve into a regional power projection role, specialising in traditional “out of area” operations in deeper partnership with friendly foreign armed forces. Even so, we should not let present-day constraints permanently limit our thinking. If India has to be a major regional power in this century, we need expeditionary capacity.
Being budget wise
It is understandable that decision-makers have to worry about the cost factor. With higher pension and revenue expenditure commitments and tightening defence budgets, it is inevitable that the defence ministry will seek “an integrated land-air-sea war-fighting machinery for greater combat punch in a more cost-effective manner”. Therefore, it is possible to argue that a single Maritime Theatre Command will allow limited naval assets to be repositioned east or west depending on the need.
There are two counters to this argument. First, the formation of theatre commands does not do away with the need to move limited assets to where you need them. In fact, the role of the CDS and COSC is to plan, prioritise and decide on cross-theatre asset allocation, based on their professional appreciation of political goals and the military means to achieve them. Where we have two maritime-focused commands, the decision to move assets from one to the other will be made at the COSC level, which is more appropriate. Second, India is underinvested in sea power: there is only so much you can do to move naval assets from one side of the peninsula to the other. If the pressure on defence expenditure is high, we must prioritise naval acquisitions.
The Arabian Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Bay of Bengal and the Straits of Malacca are all connected to the Indian Ocean, but have distinct names for reasons of history, geography and the resulting politics. Strategy should recognise this reality.
Nitin Pai is the director of the Takshashila Institution. Views are personal.