Leadership, asset split key concerns for air force on theaterisation move
IAF has been arguing in favour of having only one single theatre as its assets are inadequate for more than one.
The setting up of a high-powered government committee to iron out details of the theaterisation plan has turned the spotlight on the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) traditional resistance to the setting up of integrated theatre commands, and the need to bring IAF fully on board for speedy roll-out of new joint structures, people familiar with the developments said on Thursday.
The panel was set up last week after a lack of consensus on the theaterisation model emerged earlier this month during a key meeting of top government officials who reviewed a draft Cabinet note on the new joint structures.
Theaterisation has the full backing of the government, and it expects chief of defence staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat to bring about jointness among the three services by January 2023.
IAF has been arguing in favour of having only one single theatre as its assets are inadequate for more than one such construct, said one of the persons cited above, on condition of anonymity. Several top IAF officers and former chiefs have backed the one-theatre argument.
Terming a theatre as land-centric or martime-centric essentially “treats airpower as an adjunct rather than a joint partner in war-fighting,” he said.
But some experts point out that the three services cannot work in silos any longer, and air defence is integral to fighting future wars in an era of standalone aerial weapons such as armed UAVs, rockets, missiles, and swarm drones.
The air force also has reservations about the division of its air assets, nomenclature of commands, leadership of theatre commands and dilution of powers of chiefs, as reported by HT on June 21. Put simply, it fears key commands will be led by army generals.
“Deliberations are on to remove differences and build consensus. Theaterisation will be carried out within the prescribed timeline,” a top official said.
IAF’s opposition to theaterisation also stems from its belief that it has the speed, reach and potential to project military power across geographies without being confined to theatres.
“The operational tempo of the army and navy is relatively slow as compared to the reach and speed of the IAF which is many times faster. Fighter planes can be quickly deployed and redeployed for missions anywhere,” said the first person.
A former IAF chief publicly flagged concerns over theaterisation three years ago. In April 2018, then IAF chief Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa disapproved of the concept of theatre commands, arguing it would require the creation of more assets. “Compartmentalising will require more assets. We believe in one country, one theatre,” Dhanoa said. The IAF currently has 30 combat squadrons with 16-18 fighters each, compared to a sanctioned strength of 44.
While IAF’s resistance to the concept of theaterisation was well known, an explicit acknowledgment of that opposition by a serving chief was then seen as rare. In December 2018, then navy chief Admiral Sunil Lanba, who was also the chairman of the chiefs of staff committee (COSC) at that time, acknowledged that the IAF was opposed to the creation of theatre commands.
A senior IAF official, who did not want to be named, said the air force can operate from anywhere and carry out any mission assigned to it demonstrated three years ago during Exercise Gaganshakti-2018 that saw the IAF move its assets from the western to the eastern front in less than 48 hours.
“Fighter planes can take off from a base in south India, hit targets in the Bay of Bengal and land in the east. Division of assets under the current theaterisation model will rob the IAF of its flexibility,” the official said.
IAF is down to barely 30 squadrons and it’s not a good time to split its assets, said Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retd), director general, Centre for Air Power Studies. “India should have a single military theatre considering the threat it faces from the Western Theatre Command of China that covers a geographical area larger than the size of India. More deliberations are required between the services for creating a robust system,” Chopra said.
But theaterisation is also how the forces of most countries, including the US and China are organised. It has obvious advantages: better command and control, faster decision making and superior cross-service synergy, and India is very keen on it.
No service should feel that they will have an upper hand or become subordinate to another service, said Lieutenant General DB Shekatkar (retd), who headed a top committee that recommended the appointment of CDS and creation of theatre commands in a comprehensive report on military reforms submitted in December 2016.
“Such thinking does not reflect sound national strategic thinking. We should all be mature enough to take India’s long-term interests into account,” he said.
Rawat on Tuesday said new reforms do face hurdles, but the three services were in agreement on taking theaterisation forward. He said hurdles were necessary as they underscored the need for holding more discussions to fine-tune plans.
In March, Rawat said India’s military leadership will have to “more than match the political vision” that has mandated the creation of theatre commands to address future security threats. He said “service parochialism” will have to make way for “a combined services outlook” to take theaterisation forward, calling for the military’s transformation to “outthink and outfight” India’s adversaries.