India is all set to create four new theatre commands and, in all likelihood, this will be announced by Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi from the Red Fort on August 15. These new commands will be raised and operationalised over a two-year period and will be viable by August 2023.

The new commands will include the integrated maritime theatre command (IMTC) and the integrated air-defence command (IADC), which had been earlier described as a low-hanging fruit in the radical rewiring of India’s higher defence management, a policy initiative that has been in stasis since the 1999 Kargil War. The other two commands will be China- and Pakistan-specific.

PM Modi announced the creation of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) in his August 2019 Independence Day address. The first incumbent, General Bipin Rawat, assumed office on January 1, 2020, and this was welcomed as a much-needed but long-delayed first step in the reorganisation of India’s higher defence management (HDM).

The lack of “jointness”, integrated planning and synergy between the three armed forces, has been a distinctive feature of the Indian military. In particular, there here has been less-than-satisfactory utilisation of airpower, perhaps due to a degree of diffidence and lack of clarity in the use of trans-border military capability embedded in Indian strategic culture. India did not use its modest-but-credible airpower in October 1962 when China chose to teach Jawaharlal Nehru a lesson in realpolitik.

And for the record, there was no reference to airpower in Galwan of 2020. Similarly, the 1999 Kargil War and the 1987 Indian Peace Keeping Force operation in Sri Lanka saw less than optimal integration of airpower in the military effort.

Thus the need for more effective jointness/synergy among India’s three armed forces was acknowledged post-Kargil and the report of the Group of Ministers (2000) recommended the creation of the post of a CDS and a VCDS as the “first major step in establishing synergy and ‘jointness’ among the Armed Forces”. Very soon, the first integrated, tri-service command was established in Port Blair as the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), with then Vice-Admiral Arun Prakash as the first Commander-in-Chief. It was expected that, progressively, greater jointness/synergy would be nurtured and that India would move towards setting up such tri-service commands, wherein the sum of their individual assets under a single commander would be more effective than that of their individual verticals that were disparately located.

However the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, at the time, was unable to pursue these initiatives with the requisite resolve and this went into the back-burner for over a decade. To his credit, PM Modi, after an indifferent scorecard in his first term in the domain of defence management, accorded this high priority in his second term, and hit the ground running.

In August 2019, CDS was announced. In August, the new commands are on the anvil and the directive is that these commands should become operational in August 2023. This taut timeline and the visible political direction is commendable, but this long-delayed reform towards enabling greater jointness in India’s HDM will call for making haste slowly, and only after objective deliberation among the principal stakeholders.

Recent media reports refer to a degree of dissonance within the military and the Indian Air Force has been painted as the dog-in-the-manger in the creation of the new commands. This is unfortunate and undesirable, whatever be the truth behind such aspersions.

India’s integrated tri-service commands (one is hesitant to use the word theatre) can become truly effective only when all the interlocutors are brought onto the same page consensually and by persuasion. The reforms in HDM and related military command structure cannot be effectively realised by political diktat. Compliance can be ensured, albeit in a sullen manner, for, in a democracy, the political direction must be obeyed by the military but giving all the three forces a robust sense of ownership would lay stronger foundations.

Thirty years after economic reforms, there are lessons for India as it embarks on the next phase of reforms in the defence domain. A combination of political leadership, technocratic talent, and willingness to build on work left behind by previous governments helped steer through the reforms. PM Modi has given the necessary direction and priority to reforming India’s defence management. Defence minister Rajnath Singh has an onerous responsibility and, given his political experience both as former party president and home minister, he would be able to provide the necessary political leadership and heft. But the rigorous staff work and internal deliberations within the government will have to be undertaken objectively and without any rancour and in a non-partisan manner. Effective and enhanced jointness to prevent another Galwan/Pulwama must be the objective.

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