Why General Naravane’s Criticism of Approach To Integrated Theatre Commands Is Significant

The former Chief of Army Staff declared that unless a National Security Strategy was in place, all talk of theaterisation amounted to putting the cart before the horse.

Chandigarh: It took former Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) General (Retired) M.M. Naravane to unambiguously declare that without a clearly enunciated National Security Strategy (NSS), it would be foolhardy to pursue the enduring goal of creating tri-service integrated theatre commands (ITCs).

Delivering the Gen K.V. Krishna Rao memorial lecture in New Delhi last month, General Naravane declared that unless an NSS was in place, all talk of theaterisation was simply putting the cart before the horse. “Theaterisation is not an end. It is only a means to an end. And that end must be specified first in the form of a national defence strategy (NDS), which will flow out of the NSS,” the former COAS declared candidly, but did not elaborate.

He also recommended the establishment of a higher defence organisation (HDO), with representation from all ministries for a comprehensive approach to theaterisation, which would serve as the “interface” between the government and the ITC commanders on the ground. “Once these two pillars – NSS and HDO – are in place, then we can start thinking about theatre commands,” said General Naravane, who retired as army chief last April.

The charter of these theatre commands has to come from the top, he stated. And the NSS, once formulated, would make it clear whether the military’s role was just to defend the country’s land borders and territorial waters, or extends to the wider primary strategic arc stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Malacca Strait, the former CoAS added. Surprisingly, this was also the very first time that a former Indian Army chief had so blatantly signposted the absence of an NSS.

However, his successor and current CoAS General Manoj Pande, speaking at the same venue, took a contrary view. He stated that the Army was ‘fully committed’ to theaterisation, and supportive of efforts towards evolving ITCs. “We are convinced that jointness and better integration is the future,” he said, adding that the military was also looking at how best it could aggregate the capabilities of the three services and achieve the ITC model.

The two contrary views on creating ITCs come at a time when the recently appointed Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Anil Chauhan, backed by the three service chiefs, is proceeding apace in formulating at least four ITC’S to jointly manage and fight future conflicts. These include multi-service commands for air defence, maritime operations and two land-based ones for deployment against irredentist nuclear rivals Pakistan and China, down from the present aggregate of 17 single-service commands.

The architecture of the contentious ITCs was to have been in place by 2023. But the timeline was deferred after the death of CDS General Bipin Rawat in a helicopter crash in December 2021, and the hiatus of nine months in appointing General Chauhan as his successor. No new deadline has officially been declared.

Opinions of retired and serving military officers and defence analysts on creating ITCs were also divided, with a majority appreciating General Naravane’s top-down approach in creating irreversible joint service commands at great expense, and ones that would forever alter the entire complexion of the armed forces permanently. “The government appears to have decided on the ITCs without adequate consultation and due diligence or putting the building blocks for them in place,” Major General A.P. Singh (retired) told The Wire. It is ad hocism at its best and displays an arbitrary politicisation of military matters, he added.

The Indian Air Force (IAF), for one, has fundamentally opposed ITCs, fearful that its dwindling combat assets – down to around 30 fighter squadrons presently, and shrinking – will be dispersed thinly over the respective commands, considerably diminishing its operational primacy in interchangeable strategic and tactical roles. And, internally too, the IAF was concerned that it would be ‘eclipsed’ by the much larger Indian Army in the ITCs, or worse, relegated into operating – as General Rawat had declared – as the army’s “back-up or supplementary force”.

“Do not forget that the air force continues to remain a supporting arm to the armed forces, just as artillery and engineers support the combatant arms of the army,” General Rawat had dismissively declared at a seminar organised in Delhi by the Global Counter-Terrorism Council in July 2021. “They (the IAF) have an air defence charter and a charter for supporting ground forces in times of operations,” he had added as justification for downgrading the IAF. Understandably, Gen Rawat’s flippant dismissal of the IAF raised many hackles at Air Headquarters, with even Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari declaring last October that his service harboured ‘reservations’ over the ITC structures, even though it fundamentally endorsed theaterisation.

Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari. Photo: @IAF_MCC/Twitter

Why does India lack an NSS?

Meanwhile, it is astonishing that India still lacks an NSS, despite the existence of several newly created organisations to formulate one.

Heading this list is the high-rolling, but seemingly dormant, Defence Planning Committee (DPC) created in April 2018 as an ‘overarching’ body to manage India’s defence and security strategy, prepare military capability plans, fast-track materiel acquisitions and augment military diplomacy.

Parallelly, and as part of the national security apparatus, is the attendant Strategic Policy Group (SPG), revamped some six months later the same year as the first level of the three-tiered National Security Council, and constituting its decision-making nucleus. The Group’s founding responsibility was to foster inter-ministerial coordination and integration of relevant inputs formulating national security policies like the NSS and related policies and procedures.

Both organisations are headed by National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval, and their membership too was more or less analogous, comprising the three service chiefs and the defence and foreign secretaries. DPC members also include the federal revenue secretary and Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee – a responsibility that transferred itself to the CDS in December 2019. The Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), also headed by the CDS, was the designated secretariat of the DPC that encompassed four sub-committees to execute its myriad responsibilities.

SPG membership, on the other hand, was larger and included heads of the domestic and overseas intelligence gathering agencies, the cabinet secretary and the respective secretaries of home, finance, defence production, revenue, atomic energy and space. The scientific advisor to the defence minister and the NITI Aayog vice-chairman too were members of the SPG which earlier was chaired by the cabinet secretary. But after its refurbishment and expansion, the cabinet secretary now reports to the NSA.

In short, both the DPC and the SPG were more than qualified to construct an NSS and the attendant national defence strategy, as General Naravane had recommended, but had simply failed in doing so.

It is nobody’s case that internal deliberations of either the DPC or the SPG be publicised, as their workings are without doubt classified. But senior service veterans and security officials concurred that these two bodies had little or no output to show for themselves over the past five years. “Nothing of much policy import has been forthcoming from either the DPC or the SPG whose meetings too have been infrequent,” said a two-star Indian Navy officer, preferring anonymity. At best they appear to be talking shops, centred broadly on inconsequentiality, he added.

Furthermore, these exalted groups were further supplemented by a host of think tanks backed by either the Ministry of Defence (MoD) or hand-held by the individual services.

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These included the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in Delhi, the country’s foremost think tank, whose founding charter encompassed advanced research in defence, strategic and security issues, amongst other related matters. However, in recent years the IDSA had lost a large proportion of its former import, with a cross-section of analysts declaring that its advisory and academic performance had qualitatively waned compared to its earlier performance and relevance in formulating security policy.

Then there were the three service-sponsored think tanks: the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), the National Maritime Foundation (NMF) and the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), all operating out of Delhi. Supplementing them was the high-maintenance but low-performance Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS), created in 2007 in Delhi to “rise above sectoral and departmental legacies and to examine joint warfare and synergy issues in their entirety” and more than qualified, even by its name, to provide input for an NSS.

However, all these cerebral bodies which remain hyperactive in conducting seminars and discussions on national security and India’s exalted, but elusive, role as a major player in global strategic matters, remain mum publicly on anything to do with an NSS.

But given the pace at which the ITCs are being pursued, the CDS does not seem overly mindful regarding the lack of an NSS, convinced perhaps that the chimerical Indian Rope Trick – or alternately jugaad – would miraculously deliver the goods.