Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat’s recent characterisation of the Indian Air Force (IAF) as a ‘support arm’ of Indian Army (IA) combat units displayed not only abject ignorance of air power efficacy in battle but also ignored decades of demonstrated military beliefs, strategies and doctrines worldwide.
Speaking at a webinar organised by the Global Counter Terrorism Council earlier this month, General Rawat patronisingly equated the IAF to the IA’s support arms like the artillery and engineers in warfighting. The CDS, it appeared, gauchely invoked the superiority of his service over the IAF, simply because of its age, size and above all, visibility.
The 1.3 million strong IA can trace its antecedents to the British East India Company in the late 18th century, whilst the IAF and the Indian Navy (IN) were founded by the British colonial administration in 1932 and 1934 respectively. Traditionally age, irrespective of its inherent merits or role and behaviour, demands far more deference in India than anywhere else in the world.
General Rawat’s unseemly observations were delivered against the backdrop of finalising the formation of five Integrated Theatre Commands (ITCs) – down from 17 at present – to operationally combine India’s tri-service manpower and assets by 2023, to jointly fight future conflicts. Media reports, quoting unmanned officials, claim that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is likely to announce the ITCs in his Independence Day address next month, much like he did the CDS’s appointment in August 2019.
The IAF, however, fundamentally opposes such ‘theatreisation’, fearful that its dwindling combat assets – down to around 30 fighter squadrons, and shrinking – will be dispersed thinly over the respective commands, considerably diminishing its operational primacy in multitudinous interchangeable strategic and tactical roles. Internally, however, the IAF was also concerned that it would be eclipsed by the IA in the ITCs or worse, be ‘dragooned’ into operating like General Rawat declared, as the army’s back-up or supplementary force.
General Rawat, for his part, seems to either ignore, or forget the well-established doctrinal axiom, especially of 21st century warfare, that whoever controls the air, normally controls the surface. All the world’s air force’s strike role – and the IAF is no exception – entails degrading the enemy’s centre of gravity, including its command-and-control and communication centres and economic targets euphemistically termed the ‘engines of war’. The IAF is also primed to provide close-air-support or CAS to the Army – like in the Kargil war – and navy respectively, in addition to performing an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) role for ground forces.
Other than conducting parallel operations at all levels of war, the IAF’s multi-role fighters can easily switch roles and missions for employment in counter air, tactical ground strike or air defence missions over a short time span, as they have demonstrated in numerous recent exercises. Additionally, the force’s precision guided munitions are capable of generating physical and psychological shock over adversaries, while its modern transport capable fleet, largely comprising advanced US platforms, can also double as bombers.
The IAF’s only drawback, which possibly prompted General Rawat to demote the IAF to an IA adjunct, is that the former cannot occupy territory, which is the latter force’s remit, and one for which it trains and is orientated. But, once again General Rawat appears to ignore recent history, as over five wars that India has fought since Independence, it has never exhibited even the slightest irredentist tendencies. On the contrary, it had lost territory it claimed – first in 1947 in Kashmir and then in 1962 in Aksai Chin. In 1965, on the other hand, India handed back to Pakistan the militarily hard-won Haji Pir Pass in Kashmir and thereafter, in 1971 it gracefully retreated from Bangladesh without enforcing a victors lien on any territory.
“I am dismayed by General Rawat’s comments regarding the IAF that are tantamount to unlearning what generations of Indian military officers have imbibed at tri-service institutions like the National Defence Academy, the Defence Services Staff College and the National Defence College,” said retired Air Marshal V.K. ‘Jimmy’ Bhatia. The CDS’s remarks also sadly disregard the long transformed nature of modern warfare in which air power has been instrumental, and not an appendage, in securing declared political goals, the military analyst added.
Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhaduria gamely and subtly countered General Rawat’s put-downer by showing up his belittling attitude and iterating the value of air power projection in multi-service operations. “When we do ITCs, we should reach the next level of ability to project our comprehensive national power,” he magnanimously declared at the same webinar. We should be able to synergise to get it right, he advised the CDS.
ITCs imminent, but will need work
But that said, the imminent establishment of five ITCs appears to be fait accompli despite the fracas over the CDS’s comments and the attendant turmoil over the re-organisation, leaving the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to resolve innumerable fundamentals in this regard as the chaotic situation unfolded. “The decision (for ITCs) seems to have already been taken by the government and it is keen on announcing it shortly,” said a senior two-star IA officer. It’s now up to CDS and the Department of Military Affairs he heads to work out the details and seek the Cabinet Committee on Security’s approval, he stated, declining to be named. The ITCs, however, he cautioned, will continue to remain a work in progress for a long time to come.
Meanwhile, other than operational matters, regarding which there has been extensive media debate, there are a host of other complex personnel and fiscal issues that threaten the formation of the ITCs, which had reportedly not received adequate, if any, attention.
One of these is the planned absorption into the ITCs of establishments like the Border Roads Organisation and the Indian Coast Guard, both managed presently by the MoD and Central paramilitary forces like the Border Security Force, Assam Rifles and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, that 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 debilitating litigious environment that take years to resolve.
The other, more critical issue is of parity in status and seniority of military officers with regard to their civilian counterparts, that is of vital importance to the former.
Each of the 17 existing commands – seven each for the IA and the IAF and three for the IN – is headed by a secretary-level three-star service officer. But with these numbers reducing to five, after the ITCs are established, one of the immediate challenges would be to accommodate – and placate – 12 three-star officers, who would be dispossessed of their elevated statuses. Additionally, some Principal Staff Officers or PSOs at all three respective Services Headquarters, who too enjoy the same standing as federal secretaries, may become redundant in the new ITC command and control structure, further engendering disaffection amongst higher military levels.
Creating infrastructure for the ITCs will also necessitate massive funding, which the impecunious MoD simply does not have, leaving the government with the Hobson’s choice of juggling India’s long-deferred military modernisation with its new, but poorly equipped revised order of battle in the ITCs. Securing both in times of depressed economic activity and the enduring COVID-19 pandemic would be difficult, if not impossible for several years to come, however gradually the ITCs progress.
The Western Theatre Command, with responsibility for the Pakistan front, for instance, is likely to be located at Jaipur, which is where the IA’s South Western Command was established in early 2005. But by no means is the SWC’s infrastructure adequate to accommodate the proposed gargantuan ITC. Expanding it to make it ITC-worthy would be costly, to say the least, involving additional land acquisitions which, in turn, could well entail extended litigation in the country’s notoriously slow judicial delivery system.
This latter occurrence is precisely what happened in Karwar in Karnataka – projected to be the headquarters of the proposed Maritime Theatre Command – when it was being developed as INS Kadamba, the IN’s largest base, from 1999 onwards, before being completed six years later. The entire project was embroiled in civil lawsuits for years in cases filed by landowners demanding higher compensation which in many cases was disbursed, considerably inflating the project’s overall budget.
Besides, establishing other essential services like water, electricity, approach roads, schools, and shopping centres for tens of thousands of military officers and their families too will be an equally onerous exercise, with environmental consequences. Conversely, the future use of military land that is vacated across the country as the ITCs come into being too will need consideration, and under General Rawat’s recent proposals, might end up being monetised in what once again could prove to be a problematic outcome.
The other, rarely talked about concern is intra-service rivalry in the ITCs, with preconceived prejudices that each of the three forces harbour about the others surfacing adversely. The rivalry between the IA and 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.
“Jointness does not come about through a fiat, but is a lived experience and nurtured gradually,” said a two-star IN officer. It needs careful planning and execution in the ITCs, or the entire exercise will merely morph into reforms for reforms sake, he declared, declining to be named. Shortcuts, he warned, will lead to dysfunctionality which the Indian military can ill afford, considering it faces two hostile neighbouring nuclear-capable rivals with whom it has unresolved territorial disputes, acting in concert.
Hence, it would be apposite to recall a ditty attributed to Benjamin Franklin, one of the US’s founding fathers:
For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horse-shoe nail.
Perhaps General Rawat needs to nail that efficiently and in time, to make India’s military theatrisation work.
Amit Cowshish worked in the ministry of defence till his retirement.
Rahul Bedi is a journalist specialising in defence matters.