The death of General Bipin Rawat in a helicopter crash on December 8 has brought the discussion of military modernisation to our drawing rooms. There is an apprehension that the demise of the chief of defence staff (CDS) of the Indian armed forces may cause a setback to military modernisation, which is not without reason. The department of military affairs is a new set-up and the CDS had his plate full. An important issue under modernisation has been Theaterisation of the military. The Kargil committee report had recommended the need to have a permanent CDS for better jointmanship. Theaterisation is a step beyond that. It implies the distribution of the army, navy and air force component on theatre basis, under a single commander. World over, Theaterisation of the military has been a sticky issue because of the inter-service perceptions and turf issues. The US Government had to pass an Act called Goldwater-Nicholas Act to make its military agree to Theaterisation.

Our politicians are not so well-versed with military intricacies. The government assumed that the CDS should be able to take care of all inter-service issues, including Theaterisation. However, according to the initial charter, the CDS had no operational role, which was left to the service chiefs. General Rawat in due course came to a conclusion that the theatre commanders may have to report to the CDS, which indeed makes the CDS an operational commander. This arrangement could put the entire military under one military man, the CDS. In the US, the theatre commanders report to the defence secretary (defence minister), not to the chairman joint chiefs of staff, who is the equivalent of our CDS.

US Model Has Some Good Lessons

In the Theaterisation context, the US model has some good lessons, especially for a big military like ours. The US army consists of 4.8 lakh personnel on active duty, air force 3.3 lakh, navy 3.36 lakh and US marines 1.8 lakh. The air force and navy are equipment heavy forces; therefore, manpower figures only indicate their size, not actual capability. However, these figures are useful, when we compare them with our military. We have the third largest military in the world, 12 lakh army personnel, 1.4 lakh air force personnel and 70,000 navy personnel. The US has no land disputes like ours but its military operates around the globe. Though their active commitment at all times is not as much as the Indian Army’s, the US has divided its military into six theatre commands and five functional commands. Only the US Marines are a truly integrated force that operates around the globe, its nucleus is from the infantry.

The US has managed its Theaterisation concept by decentralising the command and control, and increasing the number of 4-star Generals. The US army has 15 four-star Generals, air force 11, navy nine and marine corps three. The senior most 4-Star General is chairman joint chiefs of staff. He has the chiefs of the army, air force, navy and marines under him. He is the adviser to the defence secretary (defence minister) and the President. However, the chairman JCS has no operational responsibilities. The respective service chiefs too have no operational responsibilities. They primarily look after training, equipment and manpower issues. The chain of operational command in the US military flows directly from the President and defence secretary to theatre commanders, who are also 4-star Generals or equivalent.

Division of Military Area of Responsibility

The Indian military does not operate around the globe like the US military but our land borders are long and disputed. Therefore, India has a big military, particularly army. Indian military has just three 4-star Generals and a CDS. We possibly cannot fit our Theaterisation model under just four Generals. One way to solve this problem is, the way the US has done. Division of military area of responsibility into theatres, not only makes it more manageable, it becomes easy to decide whether a particular theatre should be commanded by the army, navy or air force officer, because that gets decided to a large extent at the time of creation of the theatres, which is based on the nature of operations in that particular theatre. For example, in the US, the Indo-Pacific Command has always been commanded by the navy, space command and transportation command by the air force. The Central, African, Southern and Special Operations Commands have been mostly commanded by the army or marines. To satisfy all its services, the US had initially conceived that chairman JCS would be in rotation. In actual fact, of the 20 chairman JCS so far since 1949, 10 have been from the army and two from the marines.

One Man Can’t Be Master of All 3 Services

Our biggest disputes being land-centric, it was logical for General Rawat to have concluded that the Indian military needs to have two theatre commands for China and Pakistan borders, one maritime theatre command and one air defence command. China and Pakistan theatres will need to be commanded by army officers, maritime theatre by a naval officer and air defence theatre by an air force officer. A little problem with our Theaterisation model conceived by General Rawat is, our corps commanders and equivalent are 3-star, our army commanders are also 3-star and our theatre commanders too have been envisioned to be 3-star. They are unlikely to make a happy functional hierarchy. If we are to cut army commanders out, none of the services will be happy.

The promotion pyramid in the military is already too steep. This problem can be solved if our theatre commanders are made 4-star like the US military. It is not clear if the Government of India will be comfortable making all theatre commanders report to one military man, the CDS. It may also not be the most professional option because it is not possible for one man to become a master of all three services. The theatre commanders could report directly to the defence minister like the US. The variation from the US model could be that the CDS may also be present during such briefings. In that case, whether the CDS is from the army or air force or navy, it really wouldn’t matter. This kind of model could solve most of our problems.

This major inter-service issue had been entrusted to the CDS in the past. The CDS could not have taken such far-reaching decisions on his own. If we don’t make theatre commanders 4-star and the operations continue to be under the service chiefs, the army chief in particular will have a lot on his hands, including the theatre air component, which may nullify the Theaterisation advantage. According to the present indications, if the CDS appointment is to be rotated between the three services, then the service chiefs or the theatre commanders will need to accompany the CDS, when he goes to brief the defence minister. There is no harm in that. A single point adviser is a mirage. US chairman JCS appears to be so, but actually he is not a single point adviser because the theatre commanders are reporting directly to the defence secretary. Our present CDS model is meant for small militaries. The Kargil Committee had worked on a limited mandate, which did not include Theaterisation. The government needs to take the call before this issue delays the modernisation any further.