The story of General Rawat’s efforts as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) to infuse critical velocity into the military’s jointness process is well known. Empowered by the amendment to the Allocation of Business rules that called for the CDS to facilitate ‘restructuring of Military Commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through establishment of joint/theatre commands,’ General Rawat proposed a prototype model of jointness.
The command and control issue over front-specific ITCs poses a conundrum as to how the chain of command will be configured.
In the main, the prototype had front-specific theatres, with the landward theatres facing Pakistan and China respectively and a maritime theatre. These theatres would be the provenance of joint Integrated Theatre Commands (ITC). There are also to be joint functional commands, such as for logistics and training.
The genesis of the front-specific ITC is in the ‘two-and-half-front’ dilemma. The prototype copes with the two-front challenge by delegating operational responsibility on each front to respective ITC, while the ‘half-front’ – short hand for Pakistan’s proxy war in Kashmir – has the Army’s Northern Command continuing its counter insurgency role, besides coping any collusive, China-Pakistan, threat.
The command and control conundrum
The command and control issue over front-specific ITCs poses a conundrum as to how the chain of command will be configured. Though this has received attention, with two options finding mention, there has been no authoritative conclusion to the debate so far.
The first is modeled on the US system in which the Joint Chiefs of Staff body is in an advisory role to the defence secretary, who has command authority over the ITC equivalent formations, their Combatant Commands. In the case of China, that also has theatre commands – with its Western Theatre Command facing India – the command authority vests with the Central Military Commission (CMC).
However, the suitability of both models for the Indian system is suspect. Here, the CDS is the principal military adviser to the defence minister and the government. Even with the advice of the CDS, a defence minister with limited domain knowledge and assisted by a bureaucracy with a known deficit in strategic expertise would not be able to exercise command authority adequately, while there is no equivalent of the Chinese CMC.
This continuity on two counts – geographic commands and command authority with the Service Chiefs – makes for acceptability of this way forward.
The second option is that the Chief of Defence Staff system (CDS) could be suitably modified with the CDS in his capacity as Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (PC COSC) taking on command responsibility. This too would not fit in with India’s civil-military relations since the CDS would be inordinately powerful, as was the commander-in-chief during the pre-Independence era. India’s civil-military relations have moved on considerably since, subordinating the military to the civilian political sphere.
Instead, conceptualizing and structural change towards geographic ITCs is a way forward. This would enable respective Service HQs to retain operational authority – as hitherto – over operations in the medium of respective responsibility: land, sea and air. This continuity on two counts – geographic commands and command authority with the Service Chiefs – makes for acceptability of this way forward.
Tackling the conundrum
Geographic theatres of operations have figured among the lessons of past wars. For instance, instead of one front-specific ITC against Pakistan, there could be more number of geographic ITCs along the front. In the 1965 War, one field army, the Western Command, looked after the western theatre. The 1971 War witnessed two field armies on the western front, with the Southern Command looking after the southern stretch of the front. After the 1971 War, the Northern Command was added, making for three field armies deployed. The Operation Parakram experience led to addition of another field army, headquartered at Jaipur. Likewise, the China front saw the creation of the Central Command after the 1962 War and the Northern Command taking over the Ladakh sector on its raising after the 1971 War.
Likewise is the case with the maritime domain, where three theatres are possible to envisage: one each astride the two seaboards and the Andaman and Nicobar Command. A configuration with more number of ITCs relegates the front-specific ITCs favoured in the prototype. To the extent the Chinese move to a front-specific command facing India has been inspiration for the prototype, it needs adapting to the Indian genius.
The military jargon spelling out the distinction in the arrangement is ‘under command’ and ‘under operational control’…
Even so, the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) reservation on ITCs needs being factored in. The IAF finds it inadvisable to parcel out its limited numbers of multi-role aircraft to ITCs. The higher the number of geographic ITCs, the keener rings the IAF’s critique.
This can be reconciled by having the IAF delegate its counter surface operations role to the ITCs, with the inescapable minimum number of platforms under respective ITC, with the caveat that the Air HQs could allocate assets out of the ITC jurisdiction when necessary. The military jargon spelling out the distinction in the arrangement is ‘under command’ and ‘under operational control’. The ITCs would have only the latter authority over air assets seconded to them. Currently, the IAF’s regional commands locate an Advanced HQ with the field army HQs for liaison, joint planning and coordination. An ITC HQ would have this appendage merged into.
The IAF would retain its counter air campaign and strategic air campaign roles that it could exercise through dedicated functional air commands. Thus, the Air HQs would also have three functional commands, including the air defence command, reporting to it.
The CDS would additionally have authority over capabilities in the other domains significant in grey zone war, visualized as the future of war: space, cyber and Special Forces. HQ IDS could have its operations directorate enhanced to service the COSC.
The jointness process is currently paused, with the Services having been asked to provide studies on how each contemplates next steps in and outcome of the jointness process.
The Strategic Forces Command (SFC), also a joint command, has a reporting line to the PC COSC. Since the CDS is the principal military adviser also to the government, the 2003 nuclear doctrine could be suitably updated to include him in an advisory capacity in the Political Council of the Nuclear Command Authority in tandem with its secretary, the National Security Adviser (NSA). Alongside, the mandate of the CDS must include a mention of his nuclear advisory and, if added, command responsibilities. The latter will remove the current anomaly in which the commander SFC receives his operational orders from an unelected civilian, the NSA, an arrangement without parallel elsewhere. If the PC COSC figures in the Political Council, he can receive the orders directly from the civilian political leadership and be responsible for its execution.
The government needs to step up
This variation to the prototype is in keeping with India’s civil-military relations. The jointness process is currently paused, with the Services having been asked to provide studies on how each contemplates next steps in and outcome of the jointness process. These could do with suitable political guidance through authoritative means as an updated Raksha Mantri directive or release of a national security policy. The fortuitous changeover of the CDS provides an opportunity for the government to step up on defence reforms.