Impractical Idea

India is not yet ready for joint theatre commands

Pravin Sawhney

The clamour for creation of two joint theatre commands – western theatre command for Pakistan and eastern theatre command for China – for better war-fighting has grown loud with senior serving military officers and, importantly, defence analysts (Business Standard, 14 July 2018) having jumped into the fray.

Attendees at the Unified Commanders Conference

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is seen as the villain of the piece with the army and the navy in favour of the new structural reform for optimal war results. The IAF believes that given its limited assets, enormous flexibility inherent in aircraft, and that the military is for defence of the nation and not for out-of-area operations, expensive assets should remain centralised and not distributed to theatre commands. Cognisant of this internal bickering, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman has taken a clever position by saying that while she liked the idea of joint theatre commands, she prefers a ‘bottom-up’ rather than a ‘top-down’ approach.

The basic argument of the army and navy is that the Indian military (three services) today have a total of 19 different commands which are neither co-located nor co-purposed. Since speed (in decision-making, allocation of resources and flexible operations) would be the essence in modern war, it is important that there should be only two commanders, one for each joint command theatre, instead of the present 19 which, given their prejudices, domain knowledge and so on, would end up as collective drag on speedy operations. Example is given of the Chinese military which has created theatre commands. Thus, against Chinese single Western theatre commander for India, the Indian military has three army (Northern, Western and Eastern), two air force (Western and Eastern Air Command) and one navy (Eastern Naval Command) commander-in-chiefs facing it.

To put this debate into perspective, the following three imperatives should be considered. One, modern warfare, which is driven by technology, has transformed in two ways. Instead of linear battlefields (either air-land, or air-sea), there are now six battle-fields whose optimisation would determine the war outcome. These are land, air, sea, space, cyber and electronic. Given these disparate battle-fields, the Chinese focus has shifted to non-contact war with limited or no loss of lives to own troops. China would use its stand-off, precision weapons including cruise missile, laser-bombs, armed unmanned aerial vehicles and so on for destruction, rather than fight soldier-to-soldier with the Indian Army. Given this situation, in India, the air force and not the army would lead the land war. This is not acceptable to the army chief, General Bipin Rawat, who recently said that the army should lead the land war. Thus, either the modern war is not understood by the army or there is a dogged attempt to resist drastic down-sizing of its bloated numbers.

Moreover, the desired outcome of military power by major powers (with nuclear weapons) is no longer deterrence or actual war-fighting, if deterrence fails. It is successful military coercion (compellence without fighting). However, if the compelling force is not credible, there are heavy costs to reputation of the coercing state. An example of unsuccessful military coercion is the 2001-2002 Operation Parakram initiated by India against Pakistan, where India withdrew its mobilised army without any gains after 10-months long face-off. On the other hand, the 2017 Doklam crisis between India and China which eventually led to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking peace with President Xi Jinping through the Wuhan understanding is an example of successful military coercion. India took the beating because its army mistook the land battlefield for war (total of different battlefields).

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