Don’t rush into unviable theatre commands, with skewed structures
To deal with the challenge of China from a military perspective, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, has suggested that ”dissuasive deterrence” is the preferred posture for India and like-minded countries. The objective, General Rawat added, would be to “counter China’s attempts to dominate the Indo-Pacific region”.
In this context, a recent report about the Indian military restructuring the existing 17 single service commands to optimise existing resources and assets merits scrutiny. Since China will remain the primary focus for Indian military planners and the maritime domain is acquiring greater strategic salience, the possible creation of the first Maritime Theatre Command (MTC) with headquarters in Karwar needs to be carefully examined. The report indicates that the final MTC plan has been submitted to the government for approval and, once approved, the new command will be in place within a year. An integrated functional Air Defence Command is also in the pipeline and other commands dedicated to land border threats and other theatres will follow.
The MTC is being packaged as part of the long delayed re-wiring of the Indian military, whereby the first ”geographical” theatre command will enable the creation of “an integrated land-air-sea war-fighting machinery for greater combat punch in a more cost-effective manner”.
The subtext of this new operational command structure is puzzling. The new MTC is expected to ”subsume” the existing operational commands of the Navy (Western in Mumbai and Eastern in Vizag), the tri-service Andaman & Nicobar command in Port Blair and the Southern Air Command (Thiruvananthapuram). The puzzle increases, for the MTC envisions “service-specific-verticals” whereby air assets (fighter aircraft and cruise missiles) will be under the C-in-C of the Southern Air Command (an Air Marshal), who will, in turn, report to the freshly-minted C-in-C (Vice Admiral) of the MTC. To add to the “combat punch” that is the final objective, the C-in-C of the proposed MTC, as the theatre commander, will report directly to the joint Chiefs of Staff committee led by the CDS.
In this new MTC matrix, the CNS (chief of naval staff) is marginalised and the CDS assumes a supra-operational role that was not envisaged in the original conception of this post. Much the same fate awaits the current army and air chiefs when other theatre commands are created.
Some basic features of the theatre command merit recall. The United States (US) has such a model where the C-in-C of a theatre command (say the Pacific commander in Hawai) reports directly to the US Secretary of Defence (the equivalent of the Indian Raksha Mantri) without being mediated by a CDS equivalent. Furthermore, theatre commands are premised on the availability of dedicated strike and surveillance assets to the commander. The US model is distinctive given the huge defence allocation and the Pentagon’s operational requirements mandated by geography and geopolitical commitments. And the top brass is groomed at every level to acquire the professional competence to assume multi-domain theatre command responsibilities.
None of these characteristics can be currently applied to India and substantive funding for the Indian military over the next five years would be unlikely given the grim fiscal situation due to the Covid-19 convulsion. While seeking tri-service jointness for greater operational efficacy is desirable, it has morphed into what could become unviable theatre commands with meagre trans-border capable platforms/resources.
The creation of theatre commands needs to be reviewed holistically and discussed objectively both in Parliament and with professionals who can testify before select committees before embarking upon this restructuring.
The Narendra Modi government is to be commended for creating the CDS in the first place but a hasty MTC pursuit could become the equivalent of India’s military demonetisation.
Beijing will be watching as to how India will exude “dissuasive deterrence” from Karwar.