THE Inter-Services Organisations (Command, Control and Discipline) Bill, 2023, was introduced in the Lok Sabha on March 15. It provides disciplinary powers to the commanders heading tri-services organisations and is a requisite precursor to the creation of unified theatre commands, which are a long-awaited reform. During his address at the tri-services commanders’ conference on April 1, the Prime Minister spoke about this integration and it was one of the key issues discussed. A government decision on this matter is expected soon.
Integration of the armed forces into joint formation structures at the operational level is a very important issue, professionally impacting the functioning of the armed forces to best meet national security challenges. It is for the military leadership to evolve and nurture these into a robust organisation that optimally harnesses national military power. However, the turf war between the three services for safeguarding their parochial interests and importance has overly delayed its implementation. A clear directive from the political leadership was required and the same is now happening.
The impending move to establish integrated or joint commands will result in all manpower and assets of two or more services in a particular theatre being placed under the operational control of a single HQ, headed by a Lt General/ equivalent from the Army, Navy or the Air Force. This is likely to manifest as joint theatre commands — western, eastern and northern for the land borders, maritime commands for the eastern and western seaboards, and air defence.
With this exercise underway, it is essential to understand ground realities relevant to our national security and the existing geopolitical situation. To be a great power, India needs a large and modern Navy with a trans-oceanic reach, adequately equipped with surface, sub-surface and aerial platforms for varying roles. While the Navy is a potent player in furthering diplomatic reach, it also needs to be counted while tabulating force parities and deterrence capabilities, especially against our northern adversary. The maritime role is not a standalone exercise; acquisitions such as aircraft carriers should amply complement the efforts of the land forces deployed along the Himalayas. In the same vein, the Air Force must possess the capability to not only guard our vast airspace, but also provide operational reach and effective air support to the field army, thereby enhancing its deterrent value.
India’s current security problems are land-centric with unsettled and disputed borders with our two major adversaries. The 3,488-km Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China has become very live in the last few years and is likely to continue in this uneasy state with new pinpricks emerging by the day. A case in point is the recent statement by the Bhutanese Government, which provides legitimacy to China to get fully involved in settling boundary lines in the sensitive Doklam plateau, bordering east Sikkim.
Almost in continuation with the LAC is the disputed boundary with Pakistan on the world’s highest battlefield at Siachen Glacier. Thereafter is the Line of Control (LoC), stretching over 740 km through J&K; it has been a conduit for long to infiltrate militants and terrorists into India.
The live situation on the LAC and the LoC has to be handled by the Army, which it does by having a large number of its formations constantly deployed in a state of battle readiness. While the IAF provides valuable support in terms of logistics and transportation reach, in the less-than-war situation prevailing on these borders, it is the land forces which have to brace up for the long haul — from the icy Himalayan heights to the foothills of J&K.
Given these commitments on the borders necessitating the primacy of operations by the Army, with units and formations being deployed around the year, the issue of unified command structures has to be viewed in terms of our current challenges rather than through the seductive prism of a superpower with expeditionary forces. Our deployments beyond Indian shores are only under the UN aegis, with two brief exceptions in the past, and that too in the immediate neighbourhood.
The US, with its self-view of a world policeman, girdles the globe with its theatre commands and aircraft carriers. The wannabe superpower, China, has carved out its own version of such an organisation in keeping with its aspirations and perceived threats. India is neither expansionist nor covets foreign territory or aspires to act as a global security provider on its own. 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.
Considering the adversarial relations with our two major neighbours, it is imperative to maintain and equip the three services with state-of-the-art weapons, technology and platform-centric systems, so that desired deterrence levels are maintained. With these in place, as long as the disputes along the LAC and LoC are managed with resolve and sagacity, actual occurrence of a large-dimension conventional conflict can well be deterred. At worst, face-offs and intrusions could lead to local clashes, which would lie in the domain of the Army with support from the Air Force. It is within these parameters that the creation of theatre commands must come about, achieving greater synergy and optimisation of national assets and capabilities.
A concomitant aspect will be economisation of effort and resources. This can well be achieved by working in a time-bound manner towards commonality in procurement, logistics and administrative issues, which are not service-specific. There are many such areas that require patient examination and merger for all three services. In fact, this was one of the focus areas while creating the office of the CDS and it needs to be pursued vigorously, overcoming procedural and personality-centric hurdles.
With a history of defending our borders on multiple occasions and fighting insurgencies, the military has a vast and varied experience of operational management. In these conflicts, various assets of the armed forces — land, air or marine — have been used to the extent required and as per the exigencies of the situation. Unified theatre commands will formalise this system with attendant operational, logistic and economic benefits.
What perhaps is the most important requirement is an open mind in the establishments of all three services and total commitment by their leadership to achieve integration.
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