Each of the 17 existing commands is headed by a secretary-level three-star officer. Assuming that Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA) is willing to play ball, integrating them with the Integrated Theatre Commands (ITCs) structures is not going to be an easy task

by Amit Cowshish

Speaking at a webinar organised by the Global Counter Terrorism Council, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) described the Indian Air Force (IAF) as a ‘supporting arm’ akin to artillery and engineers that support the combatant arms of the Indian Army (IA). He also added, somewhat patronisingly, that the IAF must understand that its charter is to provide support to the ground forces in time of operations, belittling the force that turned the tables in the last war fought in Kargil in 1999.

Coming from someone who is tasked with the responsibility of bringing about operational jointness by compressing the existing 17 commands, the three services presently operate, into five Integrated Theatre Commands (ITCs), the statement was iniquitous and untimely. The IAF’s role is not confined to air defence. In recent years, it has played a stellar role in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) operations, which are not a part of military operations. More importantly, IAF has an important role to play in future wars that are more likely to be fought in air and space.

While Air Chief RKS Bhaduria quickly refuted the CDS saying that ‘airpower has a huge role to play’, mirroring the reservations IAF has had for more than two decades, it is unlikely to stall the inadequately planned move to create the ITCs. However, this disagreeable and entirely avoidable public spat indicates that other complex issues -and there are several of them- impacting establishment of the ITCs may also get similarly brushed under the carpet.

Each of the 17 existing commands is headed by a secretary-level three-star officer. With the requirement coming down to 5 after ITCs are established, one of the immediate challenges would be to accommodate 12 three-star officers who would become redundant after the ITCs are formed. Additionally, some Principal Staff Officers (PSOs) at the Services Headquarters (SHQ) who also enjoy the same status may become redundant in the new command and control structure. The problem may seem insignificant, but it is not a trivial matter for an organisation that is extremely sensitive about pay, perks and status, especially vis-à-vis the civilians.

Talking of civilians, the indications are that the ITCs would subsume not only some of the entities presently administered by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), like the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) and the Indian Coast Guard (ICG), but also the paramilitary forces like Assam Rifles and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police that are presently controlled by the MoHA. Assuming that MoHA is willing to play ball, integrating them with the ITC structures is not going to be an easy task.

The organisational ethos of the services, especially the IA, is largely incommodious and domineering. The prejudices, biases and grudges have got ingrained in their outlook which is not conducive to integration of ‘outsiders’, generally considered inferior. This attitude is more pronounced when it comes to dealing with the civilian officers who too are expected to be inducted into the ITC set-up.

No thought seems to have been given to how this attitudinal change will be brought about to not only get over the decades long inter-services rivalries and turf wars -amply demonstrated by the CDS’s statement and the Air Chief’s rejoinder- but also the adversarial views about having the civilian bureaucracy as a part of the decision-making in the new set-up on an equal footing. This too may not be so easy for the protocol-conscious services.

These issues are not as fanciful as they may appear; those familiar with the inner functioning of the BRO and ICG, or the Military Engineer Service (MES) which has a fair sprinkling of civilians, would vouch for it. And so would the officers of the Armed Forces Headquarters Service (AFHQ) which is a civilian cadre manning the SHQs. This attitudinal propensity is best illustrated by the posting of two civilian officers to the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), headed by the CDS as its secretary, who have been assigned the mundane tasks of managing the establishment, coordination, works and parliamentary affairs.

Last but not the least, one of the first things the impecunious MoD needed to do was to estimate the cost of establishing the ITCs, but this does not seem to have been done. Going by common sense, huge sums of money will be required to create the infrastructure for the ITCs as it is almost certain that the existing infrastructure at none of the stations where the existing command headquarters are located would be considered adequate by the ITC commanders.

For example, going by the media reports, the Western Theatre Command is likely to be located at Jaipur which is where the IA’s South Western Command (SWC) is presently located. Set up on 15 April 2005, the SWC’s infrastructure may not be adequate to accommodate the entire establishment of the new Western ITC. Expansion of infrastructure would involve acquisition of additional land which, apart from being an expensive and time-consuming process, can get mired in litigation. This is precisely what happened in Karwar in Karnataka, which is being developed as a naval base.

The first phase of this naval base, called INS Kadamba, was completed after several years of work in 2005. The second phase of development that started in 2011 is yet to be completed. For quite some time, the project was embroiled in court cases filed by the landowners, whose land was acquired for the project, for higher compensation. Besides, establishing other essential services like water, electricity, approach roads, schools, and shopping centres can be an equally onerous exercise. It would require careful planning to pre-empt such delays in raising or augmenting the infrastructure of the new ITCs.

Meanwhile, at least 12 of the existing Command Headquarters will have to be downgraded, possibly rendering some of the infrastructure surplus to the requirement. It is not known to what use the surplus infrastructure is planned to be put. Financial planning is critical to minimise the cost by making optimum use of the existing infrastructure and resources. While it is important to resolve the larger operational issues, such as the new command and control structure, before the ITCs are created, it would be a mistake to play down the above mentioned seemingly mundane issues as these could frustrate the process.