New Delhi: The newly re-commissioned Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Anil Chauhan faces serious challenges in undertaking multiple unresolved military tasks, of which the creation of integrated theatre commands (ITCs) to augment and fine-tune inter-service synergy remains the foremost.
A cross-section of serving and retired military officers and defence analysts said that formulating ITCs topped General Chauhan’s to-do list, as their establishment would eventually determine, not only the future configuration and structure of India’s armed forces, but more importantly, the operational role of the three service chiefs in the higher defence management.
They maintained that the service chiefs’ collective responsibilities in inverse proportion to the CDS’s burgeoning authority could, in an ITC environment, be reduced, sooner than later, to them performing merely administrative duties like overseeing personnel recruitment and training, and providing logistics support to the new commands. Operational responsibilities would, from then on, be vindicated by the ITC chiefs.
After all, these officers argued that elementary logic dictated that once the 17 existing individual service commands were amalgamated, as envisaged by General Chauhan’s predecessor, General Bipin Rawat, into four or five ITCs, their respective three-star commanders would report not to their individual Chiefs of Staff, but to the unitary authority of the CDS.
And once that chain of command is established, the role of the respective military chiefs would automatically be depreciated to little or limited significance.
The CDS, on the other hand, in such a scenario would perform his mandated role as military advisor to the defence minister, but without direct operational authority as decreed in the founding charter in late 2020. In turn, the defence minister would report to the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) headed by the Prime Minister.
The CCS’s decision, thereafter, would follow a reverse trajectory, flowing back to the defence minister and onto the CDS and thence onwards to the ITC commanders for eventual execution. Official sources indicated that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, though without executive authority, could also be part of the overall decision-making loop, considering his overarching influence over security and military issues, and proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Consequently, single service chiefs would end up playing a marginal role, much like in the US system, in which the Indian CDS template appears to be loosely modelled. After the Goldwater-Nichols Act, 1986, the single service chiefs in the US, too, were reduced to performing administrative tasks under the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the country’s highest-ranking military officer, who was also the principal military adviser to the president, the secretary of defence and the national security council, but without operational command authority.
Conversely, the US chain of command descended from the president to the secretary of defence and thence onwards to the regional combatant commanders or rough equivalents to India’s proposed three-star ITC heads.
Domestically, General Chauhan is the military advisor not to the prime minister, but to the defence minister, and as permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, is primus inter pares – or first among equals – in relation to the other service chiefs. He is also secretary of the newly created Department of Military Affairs (DMA) and advisor to the tri-service Nuclear Command Authority, in addition to serving on multiple advisory bodies committees and councils responsible for prioritising and effecting materiel procurements and defining military and security policies.
Meanwhile, security sources indicated that General Chauhan is currently evaluating the analyses requisitioned by General Rawat from all three-service headquarters in late 2021 on formulating ITCs by 2023, to manage future conflicts, streamline operations and economise defence expenditure, besides executing other long-deferred military reforms.
However, in all likelihood, the 2023 deadline for creating ITCs stands advanced, as it inexplicably took the government over nine months to elevate retired Lieutenant General Chauhan to the country’s topmost military post as the second four-star CDS.
‘Another layer of layer of decision-making’
The recurrent obstacle in creating ITCs has centred around their basic structure, the overall chain of operational command, optimisation of all assets and manpower resources of the three services and their individual budgetary allocations. “Details surrounding the conception of ITCs should have been crystalised by now, as the process has been in the pipeline for several years,” said Brigadier (retired) Rahul Bhonsle of the Security Risk consultancy in New Delhi.
The absence of a clearly enunciated National Security Strategy by the government, too, has not helped matters either, he added.
Other veteran military officers maintained that ‘total opacity’ surrounded the establishment of ITCs, which reports indicate are expected to include two or even three land-based commands to manage the threat from Pakistan and China along the disputed frontiers in the north, east and west, alongside an overarching maritime and an air defence command.
Military analyst Air Marshal V.K. ‘Jimmy’ Bhatia said, “Attitudinal jointness between all three services is needed more than ITCs and their headquarters.”
The headquarters, warned the Indian Air Force (IAF) fighter pilot, do not fight wars; they merely create one more layer of decision-making that will eventually depreciate operational efficiency.
The Air Marshal was merely echoing the IAF’s opposition to ITCs, which General Chauhan will need to neutralise if he is to succeed in his endeavours as its concerns are prompted primarily by its depreciating combat assets being spread thinly over the prospective commands. Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari cautiously iterated recently that the IAF was not opposed to ITCs, provided their proposed structures did not ‘compromise’ its war-fighting doctrine.
“Air power,” the Air Chief Marshal said at his annual press briefing earlier this month, “has the unique capability of undertaking independent strategic operations, and operations coordinated with sister services and other national security arms”. Nevertheless, he added, the IAF had “certain reservations” over the proposed [ITC] structures and that a separate Air Defence Command could prove ‘counterproductive’ in future wars.
“Air defence and offensive missions are interdependent, and if executed in isolation, they would not only be disjointed but also ineffective in design or execution of the joint strategy,” Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari added.
Corresponding rumblings had also arisen over the operational efficacy of combining all three Indian Navy (IN) commands into a single colossal Maritime Theatre Command based at Karwar on India’s southwest coast.
In short, the projected ITC formation remains riddled with confusion, indicating that such a major transformation guaranteed to completely alter the military’s overall structure, had entailed little or no credible planning. This was despite the creation of two multi-service organisations in 2001 and 2007 for the specific purpose of fostering ‘jointness’ between the three-armed forces once a CDS was appointed, which was in January 2020.
The first such recommendatory body was the Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff or HQ IDS, created in October 2001, following the recommendations of a ‘Group of Ministers’ after the 1999 Kargil war with Pakistan, with the remit of evolving the blueprint for tri-service cooperation in addition to reforming numerous other inherent shortcomings to enhance operational efficiency.
Accordingly, the IDS was given charge of the country’s first two tri-service commands, of which the Andaman and Nicobar Command or ANC was the one to safeguard India’s strategic interests in the Indian Ocean Region by creating the potential for rapid multi-service deployment. The other was the Strategic Forces Command, or SFC, tasked with ownership of India’s nuclear assets deliverable by land-based mobile platforms and air and underwater assets.
At the time, the ministers’ group had reasoned that being a mixed organisation, staffed by service and civilian personnel, HQ IDS would be able to integrate policies and doctrines of the individual services into joint documents, but little had since emerged or been achieved. Furthermore, the IDS advanced its ‘jointness’ agenda by promoting a discourse on higher defence planning through the multi-service Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS) founded in 2007, which, too, had proved disappointing as did the three other service-specific think tanks, founded by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
These included the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS) that came up in 2001, followed by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), created in 2004, while the National Maritime Foundation or NMF was the last to be inaugurated, in 2005. Additionally, the 56-year-old MoD-financed Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) has proven unable to recommend even an embryonic proposal for higher defence reforms, leave alone the ITCs. Of course, there are plenty of media and journal articles by IDSA affiliated scholars.
In the meantime, several complex personnel and fiscal issues threaten the ITCs’ formation, which have not received adequate, if any, attention.
These comprise the planned absorption into the ITCs of establishments like the Border Roads Organisation and the Indian Coast Guard, both managed by the MoD and the Central Para Military Forces such as the Border Security Force, Assam Rifles and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, which are run by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
Integrating all these organisations, albeit partially, into the ITCs is not going to be without problems, as it will entail service, salary and retirement matters that invariably present challenges in India’s litigious environment that take years to resolve.
The other more critical issue is parity in status and seniority of military officers.
Each of the 17 existing commands – seven each for the Indian Army and the IAF and three for the IN – is headed by a three-star officer. But with these numbers eventually reducing to four or five, after the ITCs are established, one of the immediate challenges would be to accommodate – and placate – some 11-12 three-star officers, who would be dispossessed of their elevated statuses.
Additionally, some principal staff officers at all three services headquarters are also likely to become redundant in the new ITC command and control structure, further engendering disaffection among senior military officers, presumably to General Chauhan’s chagrin.
Creating infrastructure for the ITCs will also necessitate massive funding, which the impecunious MoD simply does not have, leaving the government a Hobson’s choice of deciding between India’s long-deferred military modernisation and its new, but poorly equipped revised ITC order of battle.
Besides, establishing other essential services like water, electricity, approach roads, schools, and shopping centres for tens of thousands of military men and their families, too, will be an equally onerous exercise, with environmental consequences.
And, the other rarely talked about concern is intra-service rivalry surfacing adversely in the ITCs, considering the preconceived prejudices that each of the three forces harbours against the other two. The rivalry between the Indian Army and the IAF officers is well known, while the IN, the smallest and possibly the most professional and competent of the three armed forces, is considered the ‘silent service’ by the other two, and treated as such.
Considering the overwhelming hurdles, perhaps it would be better for General Chauhan to hasten slowly with regard to ITCs after due consultation with veterans who have fought wars successfully.
Perhaps, it would also be judicious for him to consider that if the system ain’t broke, it doesn’t really need fixing; or at best, some minor tinkering.
Note: This story has been edited on October 19, 2022, to clarify the reference to IDSA.