It has just been one year and six months since the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) was set up on 01 Jan 2020

Airpower is a crucial contributor to accomplishing any military mission and is considered pivotal to win a war. Indian Air Force (IAF) in the present configuration has carried out its duties of not only defending the Indian skies throughout the history of independent India, but also ensured that the air assets are fighting fit and contemporary.

However, it is now being considered to absorb the professional arm of IAF into various Theatre Commands (of Maritime and Indian Army), for reasons still incomprehensible to experts.

While the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and his department are yet to define the Theatre Command concept clearly to satisfy the military experts, the re-distribution of a crucial fighting air arm based on incomplete appreciation of modern warfare has fanned controversy.

“IAF in the present form has carried out its duties of not only maintaining a fighting fit air asset, but also defended Indian skies efficiently despite the shortages of air squadrons,” opined a former senior IAF officer who wished to remain anonymous.

Financial Express Online has been regularly reporting on the multiple roles being played by the IAF in peace time, and has always been in a high demand due to the exceptional abilities it has to carry out Human Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR), ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) etc. It is well known that Indian skies are safe only because of the dedication and capabilities of IAF. The role of the Air Force world over has been understood to be for the offensive to win a war.

“Theatre Commands being formed with lesser understanding on principles of jointness, is akin to leaving each service on their own fate within the Theatre Command, with a hope that at some stage in future some sort of equilibrium is reached,” the officer quoted above stated.

Theatre Commands And IAF

It has just been one year and six months since the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) was set up on 01 Jan 2020. Military experts consider it too early for DMA to be non-service biased and independent enough to take a decision which influences all the Armed Forces, specifically setting up of Theatre Commands by reducing the efficacy of IAF.

The first CDS appointment itself was a historical step for India, and establishing Theatre Command within the tenure of the very first CDS seemingly looks over ambitious drive to achieve some end-goal which is militarily incomprehensible by most experts.

For a large Armed Forces like that of India, first CDS would have been expected to initially streamline the closer inter-services interactions, with joint training plans or enhanced active role of Integrated Defence Headquarter. The Armed Forces are yet to achieve interoperability within their own services, let alone inter-services.

“Instead of first upgrading the Indian Army through systems like the scrapped Battlefield Management Systems, DMA has somewhat compensated for these inadequacies by making IAF relinquish their advanced technologies like fighter-jets and helicopters,” observed another officer.

As per aviation experts, “Indian Army is not even geared to integrate IAF, let alone taking control of the Theatre Commands with modern era fighter jets. The grooming and training of senior level officers first need to be carried out for tri-services operations at least for next five years, before we have senior level officers with a deep grasp of each service’s tactical role.”

“Unfortunately, CDS himself simply changed positions from being a Chief of Army Staff (COAS) to Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) the very next day, without having any tri-services operational role experience. While on-the-job experience is always essential in the complex field of Army, Navy and Air Force, each Service Chiefs reach the specialized position at senior level after about four decades of work experience. A gap here is glaring, especially with no Service Chief with an operational Theatre Command experience, taking a decision for the IAF,” observed another officer.

As reported by Financial Express Online earlier, Multi-Domain Operations is an art and technology not yet known to India and it forms the basis of Theatre Commands world-over.

Concerns of IAF

There are concerns raised especially on the risk of the long term degradation of IAF’s efficient service. The more worrying aspect being highlighted is that those taking a decision today to dis-assemble IAF assets surely are not going to be there to see the next war India faces. Hopefully, those in a rush to dismantle IAF may not be held responsible by history. A war never has a replay button.

Expert View On The Comments By The CDS On The Process Of Establishment of Theatre Commands

Sharing his views with Financial Express Online, Col RS Sidhu, Indian Army veteran, “The remarks by Gen Bipin Rawat, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) at a seminar held on July 02, 2021, comparing the Indian Air Force (IAF) operations akin to the operational support role played by the Corps of Engineers and Corps of Artillery, has raked up controversy on the process of reorganizing the Armed Forces into Theatre Commands.”

“The CDS is also attributed to have remarked that the establishment of a Maritime Theatre Command (MTC), an Air Defence Command (ADC), and two geographical Theatre Commands against China and Pakistan have Government sanction and would be created in a time bound manner whether the IAF likes it or not. The existing Northern Command of the Army, is likely to remain untouched as it is actively involved in fighting a cross-border fuelled insurgency. Speculation is rife that an official announcement on establishing all or some of the above Unified Theatre Commands may be made by 15 August 2021.”

“The issue at hand is not the view of CDS on IAF, but the more serious aspect of adopting a harmonious process for the most comprehensive ever and long overdue reorganisation of the Indian Armed Forces by setting up of Theatre Commands. Here I see a jumbled mindset,” Col Sidhu opines.

According to him, “On one side the justifiable two Maritime Theatre Commands, Eastern and other Western, are likely to be amalgamated into one Maritime Theatre Command for such a vast maritime region. On the other hand, one Northern Theatre Command along Tibet frontier is deemed to be too large and the thought process is to carve out two Theatre Commands. Incidentally, China’s South Western Theatre Command is responsible for the entire frontier from Myanmar to Kazakhstan.”

“As per the initial Government Order (GO) on CDS and DMA, the appointment was not meant to be in the operational chain. The Theatre Commanders were to be directly under the Government, through RM, for operational matters.”

“Having two Theatre Commands opposing Tibet frontier willy-nilly necessitates a coordinating mechanism over them. Thus surreptitiously assigning operational roles to CDS & DMA. So we’ll be back to square one! It smacks of empire building and cutting IAF and Indian Navy to size,” the army veteran opines.

In conclusion he says, “The Theatre Commands are being used as ‘SPV’ to circumvent the GO! This is a specific case of well-intentioned reforms likely to be hijacked through bureaucratic machinations, with active connivance of military hierarchy.”