AFTER prolonged inter-service confabulations, the Integrated Theatre Command structure for the armed forces appears to be on the anvil. There is speculation about the number of such commands and the service and rank hierarchy. In all likelihood, our major external challenge on the northern border with China will be handled by a single unified command. That would necessarily include the three regional commands of the Army and two of the Air Force, which, at present, share responsibility along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).
The principal gain from creating theatre commands would be synergy in operational deployment and administration. A reform of this scale and scope needs a pooling of all existing resources. A very important goal should be to achieve cohesion and synergy with another force which is deployed along the LAC — the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) — which is a Central Armed Police Force (CAPF) under the Ministry of Home Affairs. Having 60-odd battalions, its primary role is to patrol the India-China border along its entirety from the Karakoram Pass in Ladakh to Diphu Pass in Arunachal Pradesh. However, ITBP units are also deployed on a very different type of security duty, which has nothing to do with border policing.
The Kargil Review Committee report had recommended to the government the concept of ‘one border, one force’. Accordingly, the ITBP mans the China border; the Pakistan and Bangladesh borders are the responsibility of the BSF; the Bhutan and Nepal borders are with the Sashastra Seema Bal; and the Myanmar border is with the Assam Rifles. These are all CAPFs, except the Assam Rifles, which is under the operational control of the Army but is financed and administered by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA).
However, such a responsibility can be viable for police forces only along settled borders, where the primary role is to check illegal immigration and smuggling. Even in the case of the western neighbour, while the international border (IB) has sole deployment of the BSF, the Line of Control in J&K, which is prone to terrorist infiltration, has primarily Army presence at all posts.
The LAC is an altogether different matter, especially since the 2017 Doklam faceoff and the bloody clash at Galwan in eastern Ladakh in 2020. An unsettled and live border with our major adversary, where the threat is not of militant infiltration but of intrusions and encroachments by PLA troops of China, cannot be guarded by the border police. During all recent clashes and standoffs, the Army formations and units have been fully involved from the outset, resulting in their enhanced deployment all year round.
The ITBP has hardy troops who are also deployed on far-flung heights, from Arunachal to Ladakh. However, the present deployment pattern of the ITBP is not conducive to tackling the threat from across the LAC. Battalion headquarters and sector headquarters of the ITBP are located too far away to influence operational situations that may emerge at a short notice, given the tenuous state of affairs along the India-China border. Thus, its potential remains underutilised. Perforce, the Army units and formations, deployed well forward, have to safeguard the LAC. Ironically, the ITBP is not under the operational control of the Army and we have disparate forces under two ministries located in the same area for purportedly the same purpose. In contrast, the Chinese border defence regiments are directly under the PLA formations in the region, resulting in a seamless and homogeneous operational functioning.
The Army appears to be fully stretched at present, not only due to enhanced deployment, but also troop shortage linked to the new recruitment policy. Despite the clamour for downsizing the Army with more reliance on technology, it needs to be clearly understood that the vigil on the borders will remain manpower-intensive in the foreseeable future.
The ITBP has seen rapid expansion despite its handicaps in guarding this border. In February, the Centre sanctioned the hiring of 9,400 recruits for raising seven battalions, which will cover 47 new border outposts and 12 staging camps. The battalions are expected to be raised by 2025-26, increasing the strength of the ITBP from the current 88,000 to 97,000, making it the fourth largest CAPF. However, in its present form, this force may not be best suited for managing the volatile northern borders. In fact, unlike the BSF, which has a regular interaction with its Pakistani counterparts along the IB, the Chinese PLA and border defence regiments refuse to have any truck with the ITBP, probably due to the word ‘Tibetan’ in its name. Flag meetings, at any level, are held only with the Indian Army.
The optimum way ahead would be to transfer ministerial control of the ITBP from the MHA to the Ministry of Defence and designate it as a paramilitary force (PMF) rather than a CAPF. This paramilitary organisation should then be placed under the operational control of the Army for effective deployment along the LAC, in synergy with the formations located there. This transformation would have no financial implications for the government and can be well achieved with a top-down approach by the political leadership — the only way to overcome the turf-guarding by vested interests.
The benefits of the ITBP donning a paramilitary mantle and working under command Army formations on the border with China are more than obvious. It will overcome manpower shortage and provide a more robust and stronger defence matrix, apart from attendant benefits of equipment, training and infrastructure support from the Army. A concomitant change will be required in the officer cadre of the ITBP at higher levels. Currently, the force is primarily officered at range and command levels by IPS officers on deputation from various states and union territories. They may not have had a hands-on experience of serving at the frontline. The ITBP, as a PMF, would need to have its own cadre of officers all the way to the top, akin to the Army.
Dovetailing the ITBP with the integrated restructuring of the armed forces, which is taking shape, would not only be a positive step, but also one that is logically self-evident. It will bring depth and fullness to the theatre command envisaged for the northern border.
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