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‘Theatre’ of Theatre Commands: To Paint IAF as Lone Ranger Opposing Reform a Bid to Influence Discussions

Indian Air Force soldiers march during Republic Day parade in New Delhi. Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Indian Air Force soldiers march during Republic Day parade in New Delhi. Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Augment IAF’s strength first, and in the interim re-organise the orbat in a way that the limited ‘mass’ can be brought to bear on targets effectively.

The theaterisation saga of the Indian armed forces, and the recent sudden penning of articles after the government ordered a review of the proposals, calls for paraphrasing Shakespeare—‘All India’s a theatre, and all the services are merely players….’ The ground reality is that the government has taken a decision for deep structural changes in how India’s defence architecture is configured, starting with the setting up of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) and creation of the post of CDS. This is the ‘strategic’ part of the framework while the operational level is sought to be re structured through ‘theaterisation.’

The political executive is the decision maker while the services are the players in this ‘theatre’. There is, however, a vital intermediate actor called the scriptwriter, and on him rests the success or failure of the play. In the ongoing reforms of the Higher Defence Organisation (HDO), we are at the stage of script writing; and, on the structural integrity of the script would depend the success of the play—in this case, the ‘theaterisation’ of India’s war fighting tools and human resource to enable it to win future wars. To say that the script needs to be thought through, put through an academic crusher, debated, criticised (if required) and war gamed would be stating the obvious.

To take a jaundiced view of suggestions and consider valid professional objections as speed-breakers in order to satisfy non-professionally dictated deadlines would be jeopardising the security of the nation. One just cannot get the script wrong – period! To put it in perspective, the Goldwater-Nichols Act in the US was discussed for about four years before it came into force, and discussions on instituting the post of CDS in the UK took almost a decade—it has been just two years since the PM announced the government decision on re organisation of the HDO.

So, where do we stand? As per media reports, the Air Defence Command will stand up first and then the Maritime Theatre Command, as if these are low-hanging fruits (whatever that means in the realm of national security); the rest would then follow, is what is being said. Ever heard of a painter presenting his painting in bits and pieces? The HDO cannot be re-organised in this piecemeal fashion as it is a mosaic, a jigsaw puzzle that has to be tackled as a whole and not through sub-parts to be stitched together later.

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Some basic conclusions need to be arrived at, starting with the threats to be tackled. How would these threats manifest themselves? And would the response be through geographical entities under a single commander via jointly made plans or plans that are joined together? Who would the theatre commanders be reporting to? If it is the CDS, who is also the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee, then it would mean setting up a new full-fledged headquarter to steer a war; but, doesn’t this go against the basic concept of the CDS being an advisor to the defence minister and not a war fighter? If these fundamentals are the sticking issues, as reports say, then it speaks poorly of the ‘interactions’ that have been held till now. It speaks even more poorly of the absence of a spirit of acceptance of the strong points of individual services.

This writer, as so many other exponents of air power (to include some Army and Naval officers too), have cautioned against over-riding the basic tenet of air power—that air power should not be divided into penny packets; this is especially valid now when the IAF is at rock bottom vis-à-vis its squadron strength, and vital combat enablers like AWACS & AEW&C aircraft (just three and two respectively) and flight refuellers (only six, with some due for major servicing) need urgent accretion. The COVID-induced financial squeeze would have only dashed hopes for any early amelioration of the situation.

The answer lies in augmenting IAF’s strength first, and in the interim re-organising the orbat such that the limited ‘mass’ can be brought to bear on targets effectively. The same is applicable for Army and Naval assets too and one needs to remember what Brig Gen PRC Groves, an RAF officer (seconded from the British Army), said in 1922, “Owing to the development of aviation, war has altered in character. Hitherto primarily an affair of “fronts,” it will henceforth be primarily an affair of “areas.”” And if it’s true that the theaterisation proposal calls for creation of a Northern Land Theatre Command, and similar ‘land theatre commands’ for the Eastern and Western borders, then certain basics need revisiting.

So, should theaterisation not happen? This is an infructuous question as the government’s decision is firmly made. While the subject is under discussion, as it should be (and as vigorously as possible), it is surprising that leaks are being made to influence the environment and paint a service as the odd man out and ‘ploughing a lonely furrow,’ as a national daily put it. It is not a question of the IAF not agreeing as both, the present Air Chief and his predecessor, are on record for supporting theaterisation. The discussions, and decisions that flow, should centre on clear logic and principles that determine the best way to get jointness in the nation’s armed forces. The script writers in this ‘theatre’ must be allowed to do their job assiduously so that India’s deterrent posture is strengthened, and if the balloon goes up, victory comes our way.

Disclaimer:The writer is a retired Air Vice Marshal and former Addl DG, Centre for Air Power Studies. Views are personal.

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