In the past week, an unseemly controversy has broken out in the Indian defense establishment over the unified theater commands. The chief of defense staff, General Bipin Rawat, while overruling the Indian Air Force (IAF)’s objection regarding theater commands, called the IAF a “support arm” akin to the artillery or engineers in the army. This predictably drew a sharp response from Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria, who asserted the IAF‘s primacy in shaping the battlefield. This debate has once again brought into sharp focus the challenges being faced by the Defense Ministry in the bringing the three services under unified theater commands.
On August 15, 2019, speaking from the ramparts of Red Fort on Independence Day, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the announcement to establish the post of chief of defense staff (CDS) to increase coordination between the three services and provide a single point of military advice to the government. One of the first orders of business for the new CDS was to follow up on the government direction for the establishment of unified theater commands, as is the norm in the most modern militaries. A lot of studies and background discussions have gone into the establishment of these commands since 2019, but as the recent controversy suggests the plan is experiencing significant headwinds – especially from the Indian Air Force.
The need for higher defense reforms in India was acutely felt in the aftermath of Kargil War in 1999. The Vajpayee government at the time accepted most of the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) headed by K. Subrahmanyam – except the appointment of a CDS. As a half-way measure, instead of the CDS, the government created the Integrated Defense Staff (IDS) in 2002, which was to eventually serve as the CDS’s Secretariat. For 17 years, the chief of the IDS, a 3-star appointee, remained on the fringes of defense planning with no real say in military matters. In 2012, the Naresh Chandra Committee recommended the appointment of a permanent chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee as a measure to allay apprehensions over the CDS. The CDS was also one of the 99 recommendations made by the Lt. General D.B. Shekatkar (retd) Committee, which submitted its report in December 2016.
The announcement of the CDS by Modi in 2019 was thus the culmination of over 20 years of dithering and compromises over the post. Unfortunately, the same confused and half-hearted approach of successive Indian administrations that marred the setting up of the CDS seems to have taken over the next important reform: establishing unified theater commands.
India currently has 17 single service commands: seven of the army, seven of the air force, and three of the navy. Each of these commands is located at a separate base. With the creation of the CDS and the efforts underway for the creation of theater commands, the debate in India has now shifted from the need for theater commands to how to unify the 17 single service commands into fewer unified theater commands.
As India grapples with implementation of theater commands, the experiences of other countries like the United States and China may provide some insights into this process. In United States, the military was organized into geographical theater commands when President Ronald Reagan signed the Goldwater-Nicols Act of 1986. The act was the product of bipartisan drafting and discussion; it is named after Republican Senator Barry Goldwater and Democrat Representative William Nicols, who introduced it in the House. It eventually passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 383-27 and in Senate by 95-0. The strong bipartisan support for the act ensured that political will was clearly stamped over discordant voices in the military, and the Act survived successive changes of administrations over the years.
The Chinese implementation of theater commands has also followed highest political direction. In November 2013, the Third Plenum of 18th Party Central Committee announced the creation of a “joint operation command … and theater joint operation command system” and in November 2015, President Xi Jinping declared the “current regional military area commands (also known as military region headquarters) will be adjusted and regrouped into new battle zone commands supervised by the CMC [Central Military Commission].” On February 1, 2016, at a high-profile ceremony attended by the entire CMC, five new “theater commands” were established and their commanders and political commissars (PC) announced. It took the Chinese government just three years from the announcement to the establishment of theater commands. While the Chinese model may not be directly applicable to the Indian milieu, it is important to note the top-down political mandate and clarity provided to the People’s Liberation Army.
The disagreement in the Indian military over the structure and implementation of theater commands is a worrisome sign of lack of political direction and clarity on this important aspect of national security. To expect the CDS to do the heavy lifting and iron out the strong reservations from the services betrays a lack of understanding of inter-service dynamics. The constitution of theater commands is too important an issue to be left to the CDS or the individual services. The Modi government has shown commendable resolve to implement defense reforms stuck for decades, but the implementation of these reforms requires greater political mandate and guidance.
For a start, the government could consider formulating a draft bill on theater commands. This draft bill could be discussed in the relevant Parliamentary Committee(s) on Defense and thereafter introduced in both houses of the parliament. The Modi government has been able to pass many more challenging bills in the Parliament and with some bipartisan support the passage of such a bill should not be problematic. The bill must clearly lay down the geographical limits of the theater commands and the command structure from theater commanders to the civilian leadership. The chiefs of the Army, Navy, and Air Force can be assigned the responsibility of training, equipping and maintenance.
With the Chinese threat looming large on the LAC and security challenges from Pakistan continuing, it is important that the Indian government not only gets the most important defense reform in decades right but also gets the necessary bipartisan political and parliamentary heft behind the process to ensure smooth implementation and continuity. Half-measures like the ones for setting up CDS, which took two decades, will not suffice and it is a luxury which India cannot afford in the present security scenario.
If the Modi government gets the implementation of theater commands right, it could be its biggest legacy in national security domain for decades to come. Defense reforms of this magnitude are too important to be left to the generals and the admirals. The government must step in now and provide a clear political (and parliamentary) mandate and guidance for the implementation of theater commands.