When one has lacked coordination & jointness for the better part of 70 years, the natural tendency is to overdo it. India’s new integrated theatre commands is a classic case of overdoing it to the point of abject foolishness. Obviously most of the defence
media has been overwhelmingly positive about the idea of the armed forces fighting seamlessly. What could be wrong about that? Well as it turns out lots – because the proposed new Integrated commands are less about jointness and more about perpetuating army
centrism, giving the army
more control and in fact dangerously eroding the air-force.
Yes other countries have done the same thing – specifically the US and PRC. For the US one theatre alone is more than what the entire Indian military covers. More importantly except Europe, these are either under Air or Naval command recognising the fact that Air & Naval power (or uniquely in the US case Naval Aviation) is what wins fights – not the Army. In China’s case the re-organisation was done very specifically to bypass the military bureaucracy & establish direct political control over the military – a process fraught with danger.
Now consider this haphazard plan for integration. Basically the 4 army
northern commands remain as they are – with separate assets and separate fields of action. If US style integration was the purpose then the Army
should have agreed to reduce these commands to either two; one to deal with Pakistan and one to deal with china, or just simply one, so that assets could be moved around. But No – you see the army
simply doesn’t want to be more efficient, it simply wants to get air assets. Far from being a move forward it is a move that takes us 80 years back to when the US Air Force was th the US Army-Air Force whose actions were directed and commanded entirely by the army.
In the army’s case the problem is clear – Tanks are required in the western desert and foot soldiers in the mountainous east. Having locally acclimatised troops in different sectors is important with their own different supply chains given the different supply conditions. However this does not work with air power. Consider this – the Rafale that we procure will in the same sortie, be able to lob bombs deep inside Pakistan, and then fly to the Chinese border and carry out and air to air role. Bogging it down to one artificially demarcated geographical rump then does not make sense as in the space of about 45 minutes it could have provided offense or defence
to all 4 northern army
commands. A ground based army
radar can only surveil a limited amount of air space given line of sight limitations. However an air based radar like India’s Israeli Phalcon – can flying north of Delhi look deep both into Pakistan and China. Once you allocate this Phalcon to any one command, its operation utility is automatically reduced by a full 3/4th because unlike a lumbering army
radar that takes days and a massive logistics chain to move – an AWACS can fly the distance in a matter of one or two hours.
This is the fundamental problem with the integration plan – integration revolves around the weakest link in the chain, in this case the army. Effectively then this so called integration turns into a farce since the army
refuses to integrate its 4 commands into one, but insists on splintering and geographically confining an already numerically challenged Air Force to 4 separate commands. The plan then does not increase combat efficiency, because the army
refuses to reform, but it does dangerously reduce combat efficiency because it downgrades and divides and already small air force. Consequently the concept of a theatre command will focus us on fighting battles, rather than fighting a War – reducing our ability to either win battle or the war.
Modern war victories are not achieved by ground troops – they are sole preserve of air power – be it land based or carrier based. It is only in India and other backward developing countries that the notion that “armies win wars” goes unchallenged. In this day an age at best ground forces are merely a symptom of a victory already won by airpower – excluding messy urban combat and insurgency scenarios. This means that if India is serious that it does not covet Pakistani or Chinese territory – the issue of urban combat or insurgency does not arise and the only force which is the game changer in either the single front or two front scenario is the air force. By dividing the air force to fight battle focussed operations, you have denuded your own advantage.
The problem with the theatre commands is that they also seem to be adding layer upon layer of bureaucracy and control. Far from being the simplification that it is being touted as – it in fact adds much more complication than exists at present. First and foremost the Army
should set its house in order getting some semblance of internal jointness within its various arms be it the Infantry, Armoured, Engineers, etc. The pro-rata promotion policy has ruined the unity within the Army
as was evidenced in the Supreme Court ruling. Integration cannot be Pro-rata. Combat does not happen pro-rata. That being the case this is not an integration of command it is a dumbing down of command to the Lowest Common denominator.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is an independent defence analyst. He has coordinated the National Security at the Observer Research Foundation & been visiting fellow at Sandia National Laboratories and the Stimson Centre. He writes about defence policy, technology & defence cooperation on his blog, Tarkash, a part of Business Standard's platform, Punditry.