The Laboured Progress Of India's Defence Reforms

While the IAF was justified in taking umbrage at being described as a “support arm,” by the previous CDS, it is undeniable that as far as armies and navies are concerned, air power plays a “support function,” albeit, vital and indispensable.

The Laboured Progress Of India's Defence Reforms

India’s newly anointed Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), even as he tackles thorny issues related to the management of two live borders, force-modernisation, competing budgetary claims and new personnel policies, will be under pressure, to expedite the creation of new joint command structures. While he receives unsolicited advice, from many quarters, the only counsel that the CDS should heed is; “to make haste slowly.”  This, because, contrary to popular impression, the appointment of a CDS, did not call for the immediate creation of theatre commands.

The 24th December 2019, PIB note, announcing Cabinet approval for creation of the post of CDS, drew a clear line between achieving “integration” and the “creation of theatre commands.” In one para, the CDS is tasked, “As the Permanent Chairman of Chiefs of Staff Committee…to bring about jointness in operations, logistics, training …etc of the three Services, within three years”. A separate para mandates the Department of Military Affairs with “facilitation” of the “restructuring of Military Commands for optimal utilisation of resources, by bringing about jointness in operations, including through establishment of joint/theatre commands,” (italics added), with no time stipulation.

Possibly due to a misinterpretation of the Cabinet’s intent, the process of reform got off to a false start, in 2020, with coining of a new term, “theaterisation,” which became its driver. The creation of theatres, should have been an end-state, or ultimate aim of a process for engendering jointness and integration. But once the “cart was put before the horse,” the process, predictably, ran into inter-service conflict, resulting in a log-jam, which persists.

The nine-month delay, in the appointment of the second CDS may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, if it leads to introspection by our military and political leadership. Such introspection must take place against the background of the 30- month old military confrontation with China, and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Apart from this, there are some other imperatives, too,  that cannot be wished away.

Firstly, any conflict with China, will demand forces/resources from 4-6 of India’s fourteen single service, and two tri-service commands (none of them co-located), as well the Space, and Cyber Agencies and the Special Forces Division. Facing them will be PLA’s combined-arms forces, under the unitary Commander of its Western Theatre Command. One can imagine the command/control and logistic nightmare such a situation could create for India’s operational commanders, and the fiascos that could ensue. The obvious imperative is to integrate these 14 commands into 4-5 geographic or threat-based theatres, and place necessary forces under a single commander charged with conduct of operations.

Secondly, the service Chiefs have to reconcile themselves, to the reality that once theatre commanders assume the “warfighter” role, they will be divested of operational responsibilities, and assume the “raise-train-sustain,” functions, involving recruitment and training of personnel, as well as acquisition of combat wherewithal. The Theatre Commanders will have service “Component Commanders” of two/three-star rank, to render service-specific advice. Thirdly, while the Component Commanders may retain a linkage with their Chiefs, the question of who will provide operational guidance to the theatre commanders still remains open.

The last issue relates to air power, which has been the cause of fierce controversies over resources, roles and missions, ever since the first decade of the last century. Beneath the facade of inter-Service bonhomie hides this germ of discord, which no one wants to talk about. The idea that strategic bombing, alone, was the path to victory was propagated by air-power proponents, Billy Mitchell in America and Guilio Douhet in Italy. Command of the air, according to them, meant quick, cheap and decisive victory; making surface forces redundant.

Notwithstanding the failure of the WW II Allied bomber offensive, a continued western belief in the decisiveness of air power, via “air dominance,” has persisted during asymmetric conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Lebanon, Libya and Syria. However, none of these conflicts resulted in a “decisive victory”, for the west, nor did air power make a significant contribution.

While the IAF was justified in taking umbrage at being described as a “support arm,” by the previous CDS, it is undeniable that as far as armies and navies are concerned, air power plays a “support function,” albeit, vital and indispensable. One of the lessons of 20th century conflicts was, that wars are won and lost, neither at sea, nor in the air, but on the ground by armies. Possibly, the same play-book is being re-enacted in Ukraine?

While “indivisibility of air power” may have been a good hypothetical construct, in the past, the need of the hour is to find pragmatic modalities for sharing air power to enable future Theatre Commanders to counter the threat. The IAF’s reluctance to share assets, must be tempered by the fact, that the theatre air assets will be deployed on the advice of and by the IAF Component Commanders.

An area, where the Services have been remiss, is in failing to initiate changes in professional military education, even before the reform sequence was initiated. The very first step should have been to re-cast the present Staff College as a “Joint Services Staff College” with changes in its curriculum to produce “joint staff officers,” ready to serve in sister-service HQs; learning, in the process, to function as future Component Commanders and Theatre Commanders. Likewise for the three War Colleges.

Finally, for those on Raisina Hill, there is much to be learnt from study of the thorny path of the US National Security Act of 1947, pushed through by President Truman, in the face of bitter opposition from the US Navy. Or about the “Revolt of the Admirals,” over cancellation of the “super-aircraft carrier,” which followed in 1949. Or how Secretary Defence, Forrestal resolved the air power “roles & missions” conundrum via the “Key West Agreement” of 1948.

And lastly, how it was two deeply concerned politicians, who persevered through four years of bitter debate, in the Pentagon, Congress and media to have the Goldwater-Nichols Act, passed in 1986.

The article was first published by  Indian Express on Nov 1 ,2022 and  republished by MVI with kind permission of  the author.

Adm Arun Prakash is the former Chief of Naval Staff & pioneering member of 'Mission Victory India.' He is renowned strategic thinker & author who writes for leading strategic journals & publications.

(Views expressed are the author's own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Mission Victory India)

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