THE transformation of the Indian armed forces into integrated theatre commands is taking inordinately long to come to fruition. Once a decision in principle has been taken, with an inter-services legislation dealing with personnel matters passed by Parliament in August, further delay can only be ascribed to parochial interests. The benefits that will accrue from such organisational changes have been highlighted time and again, as has been its pressing need for a modern-day military, which faces constant challenges across the spectrum of national security.
While such a change does take time to concretise, the delay only shows a turf-guarding intent. A perceived reduction in the number of existing regional commands and concomitantly in the senior-level appointments and their roles appear to be reducing the enthusiasm for unified theatres. This, rather than the need for further deliberations, seems to be causing the constant deferring.
Some tangible factors guiding the formulation of these military theatres need to be emphasised. The issue has to be viewed in terms of our current challenges and in a time horizon of at least 20-30 years. India is neither expansionist nor covets foreign territory or aspires to act as a global security provider through deployment of forces overseas. The primary role of our armed forces is to deter war against the country and prosecute operations to safeguard our territorial integrity in case deterrence fails. The inimical situation on our northern and western borders is likely to continue for some time. China is keen to settle the border issue with Bhutan, leaving only the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India as unfinished business. Given the geopolitical realities in the region and China’s global aspirations, it is likely to keep tweaking its claims on this border in its endeavour to jockey for positional advantages. On the other hand, the nuisance value of Pakistan will continue, though force parities preclude any conventional threat. With the incorporation of state-sponsored terrorism into its military doctrine, Pakistan will remain an unpleasant reality that we will have to live with.
It is in this background that a holistic review of the boundaries of India, both land and maritime, needs to be done. Our northern borders are often mentioned as the 3,488-km long LAC. However, the LAC is punctuated by the 699-km India-Bhutan border and the 1,770-km India-Nepal border, while the adjoining boundary with Myanmar is over 1,600-km long, contiguous to the LAC. While it is often presumed that any conflict with China would not involve a third country militarily, it would be fallacious to suggest that war would never spill over into contiguous territories of neighbouring nations. With China, very little can be ruled out. This is something important while considering a unified theatre command for the north.
The PLA’s Western Theatre Command is responsible for the entire length of the LAC, but there is a stark difference in the type of terrain obtaining across in the Tibetan plateau and South Xinjiang, where China borders India. Further, the curvature of the LAC brings out that while the PLA operates along interior lines of communication with relatively better developed infrastructure, Indian forces are deployed along the exterior lines spread across the complete expanse of our country. It would, thus, be imperative to have two integrated commands opposite China — Eastern Theatre extending up to Sikkim and Northern Theatre covering the central sector and Ladakh.
The western border with Pakistan stretches for 3,310 km, of which the Line of Control (LoC) in J&K is around 740-km long. Though the security dynamics of the LoC and the International Border (IB) are quite different, the complete extent can well be handled by a single theatre, considering the potency of the overall threat and relative domination of the IB.
We have an over 7,000-km maritime border with seven nations. With the land mass of peninsular India jutting out deep into the Indian Ocean, this gets distinctly divided into the eastern and western seaboards, each with its own salience. India’s security interests extend up to the Strait of Malacca in the east and the Gulf of Aden in the west. Within this expanse lie our island territories of Andaman and Nicobar and Lakshadweep. This again necessitates two unified commands, the Eastern Maritime Theatre (EMT) and Western Maritime Theatre (WMT), which would require an adequate component of land forces equipped and trained for amphibious operations, other than the existing land and air force elements in these geographical areas.
The internal hurdle delaying the transition to a tri-services-integrated organisation is resistance to changes in the existing service-specific structuring. The number of regional, training and maintenance commands appear disproportionately high and there may be apprehension about reductions taking place. There still appears to be ambiguity about the relationship between future unified theatres and present command structures. This would impact senior appointments and their roles. Further, the charter and responsibilities of the three Chiefs in a theatre-centric environment should be clearly defined.
While we may consider five theatre commands (Eastern, Northern, Western, EMT and WMT), there is a tendency to classify them as service-specific. This defeats the very purpose of unification and integration. These future theatres are not service-specific, other than maritime, but primacy has to be as per the ground realities, evolving situations and the nature of war.
Another specious counter-argument has been about dividing air resources, which precludes the optimum use of air power. Integrated theatres are not to be looked at as structural silos; inter-theatre transfer of resources, including aerial platforms, as per security requirements and emerging threat scenarios would be the order of the day. In fact, aerial platforms, by their very nature, make for speedy redeployment.
The way forward definitely lies beyond parochial turf wars. If the three services led by the CDS are not able to arrive at a unanimous consensus for integrated theatres, non-domain experts might interfere in this highly professional issue and that would not be desirable.
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