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Sword arm of national power

Changing characteristics of conflict demand multi-domain capability under a unified command

Sword arm of national power

VISION 2047: India should be, and be seen as, an economically and militarily strong nation. ANI



Lt Gen (Retd.) S.S. Mehta

Former Western Army Commander

IN appointing the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), the government implemented a much-awaited reform to develop integrated processes, enable effective strategic direction, identify theatres for unified command, eliminate duplication, ensure optimal utilisation of resources and enhance levels of coordination in supporting the objective of Comprehensive National Power. In the pursuit of this objective, there is a need to reflect on some cardinal issues that impact the transformation.

Preserve peace, win the war before the war, and if challenged, ‘fight to win’ with the fist, not the fingers.

Vision 2047: India should be, and be seen as, a confident, democratic, multicultural and economically as well as militarily strong nation — ideologically committed to the principles of democracy as stated in our Constitution and be among the world leaders in science and technology. It will be an independent international force to reckon with in a multi-polar world, with the will and ability to face threats that it may face with pragmatism and confidence, without domination and hegemony. Also implicit is that a multi-polar order would be in the national interest and India needs to be prepared for the responsibilities that such a pole position entails.

Coordinates of our strategic borders: These stretch in the North from the Pamir knot till well beyond the Equator to the South Indian Ocean, to include the East Coast of Africa and up to and beyond the Malacca Straits towards the South Pacific. Any developing or existential situation within the coordinates of this geographical stretch is a matter for attention in our analysis, both immediate and in the medium term. Our geographical boundaries have nuclear-armed revisionist forces who have repeatedly demonstrated that they will pursue their territorial ambitions through war, confrontational or proxy, more than through negotiations. We thus have active borders on our North, East and West.

Changing characteristics of conflict: There is a shift from the battlefield to battle space, and from conventional to hybrid or grey zone warfare. Additionally, there are threats from proxy partnerships in the kinetic and non-kinetic spaces that include non-state actors engaged in terrorism, besides cyber, electronic and misinformation domains. All these are pointers to the breadth, spread and construct of our theatres with the mission to preserve peace and win the war before the war.

A mindset recast: Peninsular India provides a strategic landmass jutting deep into the Indian Ocean. Historically, the natural barriers in the North and the many assaults through it have made us insular and land-centric — all this to the negation of our strategic asset provided by our coastline and island territories that break away deep into the Indian Ocean and dominate choke points along the busiest sea highway of global maritime traffic. We are also witness to the dynamics of the great power competition in the Indian Ocean, both East and West of the peninsula, with serious security implications for a peaceful Indian Ocean Region.

Land theatre: The Army’s Northern Command engages the geographical location of our active borders with China and Pakistan with its apex in J&K. Providentially, we enjoy a strategic advantage in this area as the region is logistically supported by interior lines, with a hub that feeds the spokes, whereas our adversaries have to depend on external lines, with tenuous and stretched logistics. The key to security in the high-altitude terrain with sub-zero temperatures and rarefied air is logistics; and to that extent the geography of the theatre is well served for all eventualities. The Northern Command, with some realigned boundaries along the International Border (IB) south of Chenab with Pakistan, and with an extension of its eastern boundaries in Ladakh, qualifies as a land theatre. The second active border is with China in the East, presently under the Army’s Eastern Command. The third border is along the IB with Pakistan. The existing West, South Western and Southern Commands should be morphed into the Western Theatre. The continental threat will be well served by three land theatres: North, East and West.

Air theatre: Air as a theatre is the sole prerogative of the Air Force. However, for the Air Force, what is and will be generating greater salience is the multi-domain area of air and space, with the augmented capability of Special Forces for strategic tasks. This makes for two theatres: air defence and strategic aerospace. The argument sometimes advanced that air defence is not a unitary responsibility is unsustainable. Peacetime air defence, with the growing number of air vectors, has to be under unitary control. Additionally, vulnerable areas and vulnerable points, whose lists will grow exponentially as we build defence infrastructure and production facilities, will require air defence feasibility inputs as regards their location and viability for protection. In a conflict situation, all theatres will without doubt share the responsibility to include air defence.

It is in anticipation of this eventuality that the Army took a proactive step to have air defence as a stand-alone arm and severed it from its parent, the regiment of artillery.

Maritime theatre: Peninsular India divides our maritime assets, placing a multiple demand of surface, sub-surface, Exclusive Economic Zone and island security, both East and West. Our islands on our East and West that lie in the wake of the maritime choke points form our first line of defence due to their strategic location on both sides of the peninsula. As such, our current and emerging partnership on either side demands undivided attention and liaison with all who support a peaceful maritime environment as a global common. The Navy thus needs two maritime theatres — East and West.

It is a given that these theatres will be carved in phases. Each theatre will need affordable resources which will be built over time. However, two theatres for the Navy are a minimum must.

Command and control: Theatres must be in the direct line of command with the CDS. The CDS, as the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee, along with the Service Chiefs, implements decisions that require inter-theatre intervention in keeping with contingencies drawn out of the political directive. Once theaterisation is implemented, the Chiefs of the three Services need to assist the CDS in dynamic reallocation of assets to reinforce or redeem a developing situation which is beyond single-theatre control.

Intrinsic to command and control is the need to trim the existing structures at all Service Headquarters to a lean and mean support staff, with the limited role to ‘prepare, train and equip’.

The changing characteristics of conflict demand multi-domain capability under a unified command. This would be the ‘sword arm’ of our Comprehensive National Power to perform a triple function: preserve peace; win the war before the war; and if challenged, ‘fight to win’ with the fist, not the fingers.


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