Rushing the Military's Integrated Theatre Commands Will Do More Harm Than Good

At a recent webinar, senior retired military officers and defence analysts were wary of the commands being implemented before differences are ironed out.

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New Delhi: India faces the problematic prospect of imminently beginning the formal institution of Integrated Theatre Commands (ITCs) to augment inter-service synergy, despite the lack of clarity regarding either their overall structure or their operational command and control hierarchy.

Senior serving and retired military officers and defence analysts concede that over the past two decades, several multi-service organisations and specialist defence think-tanks, had collectively failed to come up with a blueprint regarding ITCs, rendering their formation, at best a ‘work in progress’.

At a webinar organised by New Delhi’s India International Centre (IIC) last weekend, former service chiefs and retired senior Ministry of Defence (MoD) officials suggested that the ITCs should not be ‘rushed through’, as their entire concept still remained nebulous and riddled with inter-service trepidations.

“If we do anything in a hurry (with regard to ITCs) or leave some element of dissatisfaction amongst the stakeholders, then this venture may not meet with total success, and it’s important that it does,” declared N.N. Vohra, retired defence secretary and former governor of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir state. He stressed that clarity was needed on the ITCs’ operational working, including the specific roles of the defence minister and the defence secretary, which currently remain unenumerated and ambiguous.

Vohra’s remarks were a subtle hint to the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat, who is reportedly under pressure to fast track the formation of the ITCs, as media reports indicate that Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to announce their founding with a great sense of accomplishment on Independence Day.

For General Rawat, this has leant urgency to a project that remains woefully incomplete in almost all its aspects, as the Department of Military Affairs that he heads endeavours to somehow reduce India’s 17 existing military commands into five ITCs. “Any rushed announcement on ITCs would, at best be premature or at worst unfortunate, as it would be difficult, if not impossible, to roll back the new command structure once it is announced,” said a two-star Indian Army (IA) officer, declining to be named.

After all, the Indian Air Force (IAF) has openly expressed serious reservations over the ITCs recently, prompted by concerns over its depreciating combat assets being spread thinly over the prospective commands. New concerns had also arisen over the operational efficacy of combining all three Indian Navy (IN) commands into a single colossal Maritime Theatre Command based at Kawar on India’s southwest coast.

Further queering the pitch is the government’s decision to retain the existing structure of the Udhampur-based Northern Command that oversees the counter-insurgency operations in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, besides guarding the borders against irredentist China and its military and nuclear ally, Pakistan. Military officers said this would simply render the intended ITCs incomplete in terms of manpower, assets and organisational pivots, as this Command comprises three inordinately large IA corps.

In the IIC webinar, former Indian Navy (IN) Chief of Staff Admiral Arun Prakash stressed that the military’s priority was to enhance jointness first and that the ITCs could come later. He emphasised that there should be no limit of three years in establishing ITCs, till there was ‘complete consensus’ between the three services on their composition and operational tasks. And, in a direct broadside at the IA, former Air Chief Marshal Fali Major categorically stated in the same webinar, that ITC formation was riddled with ‘ownership and supremacy issues’. ACM Major was merely voicing the apprehensions, that besides the IAF, the IN too faced the prospect of being ‘dominated’ by the larger, older and more visible IA.

Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat at the press conference on May 1, 2020. Photo: PTI/Manvender Vashist

Need not have been so muddled

But the ITC issue need not have been so muddled, as at least two high-powered multi-service organisations had been created in 2001 and 2007 to foster jointness between the three armed forces, as a precursor to forming ITCs once a CDS was appointed, which was in January 2020. “The CDS could have hit the ground running if the building blocks had been in place, which they were not,” said the two-star IA officer. There was obviously no draft in place to make it happen he lamented.

The first such body was the multi-service 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. The Group had proposed that the IDS-projected to eventually becoming the CDS’ secretariat-function as an interface for military jointness and enhanced coordination between the armed forces and the civilian and political establishments.

Operationally, the IDS managed India’s first two tri-service commands – the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) and the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), tasked with ownership of India’s nuclear assets deliverable by land-based mobile platforms and air and underwater assets. Other tasks assigned to the IDS included higher defence planning, training, exercises, equipment acquisition, budgeting, international cooperation, and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). It also controlled institutions like the National Defence College in Delhi and the College of Defence Management in Secunderabad.

The Group reasoned, at the time that being a mixed organisation, staffed by service and civilian personnel, HQ IDS would easily be able to integrate policies and doctrines of the individual services into joint documents. In turn, the IDS furthered its agenda of jointness by promoting discourse on higher defence planning through the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS) founded in 2007. Like the IDS CENJOWS too was a multi-service think-tank that functioned under the former’s patronage.

Thereafter, HQ IDS partially vindicated itself in performing varied tasks like materiel procurements and overseas exercises, but it provided little or nothing with regard to a consensual plan for jointness or ITCs or for that matter, pertinently defining the CDS’ role. CENJOWS too was similarly culpable, busying itself merely with seminars and discussions of limited value.

Apart from HQ IDS and CENJOWS, there were three other service-specific think tanks, who too had little to offer on ITC’s. The first of these was the Centre for Air Power Studies or CAPS that came up in 2001, followed by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, or CLAWS, created in 2004. The National Maritime Foundation or NMF was the last to be inaugurated, in 2005. Additionally, there was the MoD-financed Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), that too, like the other military research and planning bodies was either not involved by the MoD or was unable to take the lead in recommending even an embryonic proposal for higher defence reforms, leave alone ITCs.

Meanwhile, some analysts argue that since a consensus on ITCs is unlikely to emerge soon within the military, the government needed to enforce it via legislation analogous to the US Government’s Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganisation Act of 1986. But conveniently, or through ignorance, they fail to realise that one of the fundamental tenets of this Act is to “reorganise the (US) Department of Defense and strengthen civilian authority in the Department of Defense”.

This element is neither discussed nor mentioned by the Indian military in its discourse on either the CDS or the ITCs.  The US Act also streamlined the chain of command, which now emanates from the American President to the Secretary of Defence and thereafter directly to the unified and specified combatant commanders for the accomplishment of the assigned missions. This organisational facet too is missing in domestic dialogue on ITCs and their functioning on the ground.

Besides, given the nature of bitter inter-services disagreements and rivalries in India and the growing scarcity of resources, it is arguable whether the US model would ever work domestically. Concomitantly, it’s also paradoxical that the strategic community, ever so wary of the perceived incompetence of the politicians and civil servants and ignorance in matters military, would ever want them to be arbiters in resolving their dilemmas and spawning ITCs.

In conclusion, the advice of the IIC webinar participants to postpone the ITCs needs following and fundamental inter-services differences ironed out via closed door confabulations. More importantly, a composite set of reforms that address related issues like the role and functions of the CDS, civil-military integration, drawbacks in defence planning, and proliferating budget constraints also need amplification and resolution.

Jugaad or disjointed and ad hoc measures are simply not the answer for such critical issues like overhauling India’s entire military machinery irrevocably. It’s too serious a matter to be left to the generals.