IAF spells out concerns on theaterisation; CDS differs

Updated on Jul 03, 2021 01:00 AM IST

Bhadauria also differed with Rawat’s assessment that IAF was “a supporting arm to the armed forces” and countered the CDS’s statement saying air power has “a huge role to play” in any integrated battle area.

IAF chief Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria. (File photo)
IAF chief Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria. (File photo)
By, New Delhi

Indian Air Force (IAF) chief Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria on Friday flagged concerns about the military theaterisation model, arguing that it was critical to first get the structure right, even as chief of defence staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat gave out details of the plan to achieve jointness and brushed aside the reservations.

Bhadauria also differed with Rawat’s assessment that IAF was “a supporting arm to the armed forces” and countered the CDS’s statement saying air power has “a huge role to play” in any integrated battle area.

The differences on the military’s theaterisation plan surfaced during a seminar organised by the Global Counter Terrorism Council -- both Rawat and Bhadauria addressed separate sessions of the seminar.

While the IAF’s specific reservations about the current theaterisation model were reported by HT last month, this is the first time that the two four-star officers addressed the issue publicly.

Bhadauria stressed that IAF wasn’t against theaterisation, but it was critical to get it right.

“We must understand that appointing CDS was a big reform. The next biggest reform is the integrated theatre commands. And it is much more complex. We are for the establishment of integrated theatre commands, but have raised issues in our internal discussions and it is about how we should do it. We must get it right,” the IAF chief said.

The air force also has reservations about the division of its air assets, nomenclature of commands, leadership of theatre commands and dilution of the powers of chiefs, as reported by HT on June 21.

Rawat, who spoke before Bhadauria during the seminar, said the theaterisation plan included the setting up of an integrated Air Defence Command to be led by IAF for the management of the country’s entire airspace.

“The AD command will be responsible for all the things that use the airspace – aircraft, helicopters, drones, artillery shells and missiles. There is a need to coordinate anything that uses airspace because you cannot afford to have fratricide,” Rawat said.

The CDS said the land-centric Western and Eastern Theatre commanders would be advised by Air Component commanders.

“We are creating land-based theatres for the western and northern adversary. The IAF is not just responsible for air defence, it also has the charter of providing close air support to land forces when they undertake operations and for offensive air support in case you go into the adversary’s territory…There will be air component commanders who will be advisers to the western theatre and the northern theatre while air defence will be done by one entity as is being done today,” Rawat said.

The CDS said IAF is required to provide “support” to the ground forces. “Do not forget that IAF continues to remain a supporting arm to the armed forces just as the artillery support, or engineers support the combatant arms in the army. They will be a supporting arm but they have an air defence charter and supporting the ground forces in times of operations. This is the basic charter which they have to understand,” Rawat said.

The IAF chief did not agree. The air force has concerns about being treated as an adjunct rather than a joint partner in war-fighting.

“It is not a supporting role. Airpower has a huge role to play. In any of the integrated battle area, it’s not an issue of support alone. And a whole lot of things go into any airpower plan that is made. Those are the issues that are under discussion,” Bhadauria said.

Experts said this is unusual that military commanders are expressing their differences in public.

Former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd) said, “We know there are some differences in how theaterisation should be carried out. It would be better if these issues are resolved behind closed doors. Airing of opinions in media glare by senior functionaries is unwarranted in such crucial matters. It will only harden positions.”

The military’s theaterisation drive is aimed at integrating the capabilities of the three services and optimally utilising their resources for future wars and operations. The current plan is to have two land-centric theatre commands (Western and Eastern Theatres), one Air Defence Command, a Maritime Theatre Command and a logistics command.

The armed forces currently have 17 single-service commands spread across the country. The Indian Army and the Indian Air Force have seven commands each, while the Indian Navy has three. Creating theatres would involve merging the existing commands (except the Northern Command).

Theaterisation refers to merging specific commands of the army, navy and air force, and placing them under a theatre commander. Such theatre commands are to be led by an officer from any of the three services, depending on the roles assigned to them.

The government expects CDS Rawat to bring about jointness among the three services by January 2023. The defence ministry and the armed forces are refining the military’s theaterisation plans through internal consultations and detailed discussions with other ministries involved before seeking the approval of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) to implement the military reform.

The government has formed an eight-member panel under Rawat to fine-tune the plans and bring all stakeholders on board, especially IAF, for speedy roll-out of new joint structures.

The issues under the panel’s consideration include the executing authority for theatre commands, the geographies they will control, command and control structures, budgeting, appointment of senior three-star officers who will take over as theatre commanders and placing some paramilitary forces under the commands.

The CDS on Friday addressed concerns about the dilution of the powers of the chiefs and distribution of assets.

“Even today the entire resources of IAF are not controlled by one agency. They have five operational commands where the entire resources of IAF are distributed. The case is the same with the army and the navy,” Rawat said.

“Depending on how threat develops, reallocation of resources takes place. What we are saying is when the theatre command come ups, in the peacetime you will have to allocate resources to them and as the threat evolves, depending on where the primary threat is and where the secondary threat is, you will accordingly reallocate resources,” the CDS said.

He explained how the existing system and the role of the service chiefs.

“This happens even in the army. Today all the army’s resources have been distributed to the army commands. The army chief has nothing at his disposal, same thing happens in the navy. There is nothing that lies in the control of CNS. Yet all the assets belong to the three service chiefs. They are at liberty to redistribute their resources. And now in the future this will be done by the chiefs of staff committee headed by the CDS with the three service chiefs giving him advice. So it will be a collective effort where redistribution of resources will be based on threats,” Rawat said.

“Now instead of three heads doing the thinking, you have four heads doing the thinking. That is all that has happened. There is no change otherwise. As far operational planning goes, that process is not undergoing a change. It is the same,” the CDS said.

Rawat also said Northern Command would stay intact, as reported by HT on Friday.

“We have terrorism and insurgency which is going on there. The Northern Command is one command that looks after both the fronts, the China front in Ladakh and the northern front in the Kargil sector. This is one area which will actually witness a two-front war... We have to be careful and not let our guard down. We do not want to disrupt the existing organisational structure of the Northern Command,” Rawat said.

The IAF chief said with the setting up of theatre commands, the Indian military should reach the next level to project the country’s military power. “We should be able to synergise and have more flexibility. We cannot have more boundaries. So there are issues in some of the options that are being discussed and we are discussing those internally. I would not like to go to the media and describe what my concerns are,” Bhadauria said.

He said the IAF was totally committed to theatre commands. “But we must get it right. And that is the focus area of all our deliberations. Issues are being looked at and there are deliberations between the three services. And that process is continuing,” the IAF chief added. .

“We are of course for it (theaterisation). Wrong to say we are against it. But every service has its own doctrine, has the best knowledge of how to employ the capabilities and capacities to get the desired results. And whenever we have a system that is integrated we must look at the entire doctrine and the ability of the services must be brought in. It must be a synergised result. We are discussing. There is no need to get concerned that we will not have a solution. When you sit and talk there will always be a result,” he added.

The perceived role of air forces changed after the Gulf War in 1991, and established their reputation as leading partners in warfighting. And that’s what the IAF believes itself to be. It feels the current theaterisation model will reduce its role to a secondary one.

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