News India’s proposed military ‘theater commands’ a mirage

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SOURCE: Asia Times

On Monday morning, news that the Indian government was finally moving toward integrated theater commands (ITCs) caused much excitement. The Times of India headline “Govt moves on integrated theater commands; amends rules to bring three forces under single leadership” was met with a host of accolades.

The report, quoting official sources, said the government had given notification of new “statutory rules and orders” to ensure that an officer from any one service can now “exercise direct command” over personnel from the other two services, which are all governed by different acts and rules, in tri-service organizations. It has already been implemented in the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC).

Quoting a “top source,” the report went on to say: “It might seem a minor structural reform but represents a huge cultural and fundamental shift in the Indian military system, where the three services often pull in different directions. If the country is to have a Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) and theater commands in the years ahead, this tweaking of rules of the Army, Navy and Air Force is the first step towards it.”

It added that the NDA (National Democratic Alliance) government “had initially shown some drive for meaningful reforms in the country’s higher defense establishment in the shape of creating a CDS post and theater commands to ensure much-needed synergy in training, logistics, planning, procurement and operations among the 1.5-million-strong armed forces.”

However, the manner in which the above news was portrayed gave an impression that the “tectonic shift” required in the Ministry of Defense, as recommended by Dr Subhash Bhamre, minister of state for defense, had miraculously arrived given the news alluded to the “top source,” which obviously meant from the MoD.

The news might be good for building public perception, but a closer examination reveals that it typically fits the maxim “much ado about nothing.” This was done to overcome minor differences in provision of the three services: a Tri-Service Act to facilitate legal provisions, which was left languishing with the MoD for six years. It has nothing to do with the establishment of ITCs, on which both the Congress-led UPA (United Progressive Alliance) and Bhartiya Janata Party-led NDA governments have done little other than making periodic noises.

The “first step” being bandied about in the news is not even a “baby step” but a “pseudo step.” It will be interesting to know who the “top source” is that briefed the Times writer.

‘Serious weaknesses’

In 2001, the Kargil Review Committee and Group of Ministers (GoM) recommended appointment of a CDS. The GoM report says, “The functioning of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) has, to date, revealed serious weaknesses in its ability to provide single-point military advice to the government, and resolve substantive inter-service doctrinal, planning, policy and operational issues adequately. This institution needs to be appropriately revamped to discharge its responsibilities efficiently and effectively, including the facilitation of jointness and synergy among the Defense Services.”

The Naresh Chandra Committee recommended a Permanent Chairman of Chiefs of Staff Committee (PC COSC) in lieu of a CDS – a bureaucratic mischief.

Incidentally in 2005, then-defense minister Pranab Mukherjee statedthat the government had even decided who the CDS would be but there was “no political consensus,” adding in the same breath, “but then there is no political consensus on so many things but they do come through.”

Ten years later in March 2015, then-defense minister Manohar Parrikar stated publicly that a CDS was a must and hoped to propose a mechanism for the post within the next three months. In July, news reports quoting MoD sources said the proposal to create a PC COSC was at “an advanced stage.” Five months later, in December 2015, Parrikar lamented, “It is sad many defense reforms in past have not been implemented. This is an area of priority for me,” also indicating that CDS could be a reality soon. Nothing was heard after that.

In February 2017, media reported that the government was all set to “initiate independent India’s greatest military reforms” with creation of ITCs based on geographical areas of operation or functionality and a single-point military advisor designated as CDS. Perhaps that ended with the exit of Parrikar as the defense minister.

Neither the UPA nor the NDA has been interested in rectifying the antiquated higher defense set-up and usher in military jointness. The Headquarters of the Integrated Defense Staff, which was to be an integral part of the MoD, was kept apart, so bureaucrats without accountability continue to rule the roost.

It is not true that the government plans to establish US-model ITCs, because it opposes reorganizing the MoD on the lines of the US Department of Defense, which is jointly manned by military and civilian professionals. Similarly, a plan for privatizing Ordnance Factories was shelved after employees threatened a mass strike and some 300,000 reportedly did so when a few items were de-listed.

On the contrary, the army’s Advance Base Workshops with uniformed personnel, which are not more than 15% of all maintenance workshops, are being privatized and going under MoD jurisdiction. This is lowering their efficiency to Ordnance Factory level, with the latter excessively overpricing items sold to the military; the booty naturally shared by the MoD.

Comparing military reforms in China with what is happening in India, courtesy of the government-appointed Shekatkar Committee, it is difficult to decide whether to laugh or lament. The future is anybody’s guess.