Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari has said a separate air defence command will be “counterproductive”. Top IAF officials have been opposing it, citing the air force’s limited assets

The genie of Theaterisation of Indian defence forces is out of the bottle again. Indian Air Force (IAF) chief Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari, on July 15, said that the proposed creation of a separate air defence command ”may prove counterproductive” as air defence was inextricably linked to counter aerial and other offensive operations. The comments come in the backdrop of the country’s biggest but protracted military reforms exercise of integrating 17 single-service commands of the army, air force and navy into five theatre commands.

Of the three services, the IAF has been apprehensive about the proposed Theaterisation; top IAF officials have been vehemently opposing it, citing the air force’s limited assets. Chaudhari, while addressing a seminar in Delhi, however, agreed on the need for close coordination between all elements of the armed forces to ensure effective air defence.

Military Theaterisation was the brainchild of the late General Bipin Rawat, who took over as India’s first chief of defence staff (CDS) in January 2020. The primary task was streamlining coordination between the army, navy and IAF and the creation of theatre commands for synchronised operations in future wars. Like in the US and China, General Rawat had plans to have five commands—northern, western, peninsular, air defence and maritime commands. India’s military planners were to start the process by setting up an air defence command and maritime theatre command in the first stage of the program.

General Rawat, who died in a helicopter crash last December, was of the view that there was a marked lack of synergy between the three military wings because they operated in isolation.

Sounding a note of caution, IAF chief Chaudhari said an independent air defence command was more likely to cause self-harm due to lack of common identification and communication protocols. As an example, some analysts cite the incident of the IAF mistakenly shooting down its own helicopter in Jammu and Kashmir’s Budgam on February 27, 2019 during a dogfight between the Indian and Pakistani air forces in the aftermath of the Indian air strikes in Balakot. All six occupants of the IAF helicopter were killed.

Agreeing with the IAF chief’s comment, Air Marshal M Matheswaran (Retd), former deputy chief of Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) at Headquarters, IDS, says: “He (IAF chief) is right. Clubbing everything together can become chaotic and unmanageable.”

In July last year, General Rawat had triggered a controversy by terming the IAF—the world’s fourth largest air force—a “supporting arm”, like the artillery or engineers, in the proposed military Theaterisation. Speaking at the same event, then IAF chief Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria had emphatically differed with General Rawat, saying: ”Air power has a huge role to play. In any of the integrated battle areas, it is not an issue of support alone. A whole lot of things go into any air plan. And those are the issues that are under discussion.” Bhadauria’s predecessor BS Dhanoa had, in April 2018, publicly disapproved of the concept of theatre commands, arguing that it would require the creation of more assets.

The Indian military currently functions under 17 single-service commands. It has eight commands to manage the China front compared to a single theatre command of the Chinese military responsible for the borders with India. The proposal to set up unified commands was first proposed after the 1999 Kargil war, but the concept remained in limbo, partly over fears that it would trigger an ugly turf war between the three services. If IAF chief Chaudhari’s remarks are any indicator, the issue of Theaterisation still remains hotly debated and polarising within India’s defence establishment.