Let us choose the harder right than the easier wrong as the adverse consequences will be detrimental to the integrity of the nation

by Group Captain Johnson Chacko

The prime minister in his address to the combined commanders conference held at Kevadia, Gujarat, on 6 March 2022 “stressed the importance of enhancing indigenisation in the national security system, not just in sourcing equipment and weapons but also in the doctrines, procedures”. Taking note of the rapidly changing technological landscape, the prime minister highlighted the need to develop the Indian military into a “future force”.

The subsequent articles in the media harp upon an Air Defence Command, which the air force is not in favour of and the form of Theatre Commands that is taking shape, whereas the prime minister intended a future force with greater jointness. This highlights the realisation that the effectiveness of the armed forces is sub-optimal when all three (army, navy and the air force) are required to act in an integrated manner to produce results greater than the sum of all three.

Combat effectiveness could be described as the systematic military application of selected management and behavioural science skills and methods, to bring about change so as to improve the functioning of the total organisation (armed forces as a whole or military prowess) to accomplish assigned missions and thus increase combat readiness, complementing basic values, traditions and leadership principles prevalent in each of the armed forces.

The armed forces need to have a goal orientation defined by the national leadership. As the unstated goal of the nation is Comprehensive National Development, the armed forces need to provide a conducive environment by preventing external interference in achievement of this goal. The involvement of armed forces personnel has a major bearing on the degree of goal attainment. They have internal structures which are unique to each force that determine relationships within and between them based on a conceptual framework. All these need to be addressed to enhance combat effectiveness and transform the armed forces to a Joint Future Force as desired.

Evolution of Armed Forces

The Indian armed forces have evolved over the centuries. The Indian Army has been amalgamated from the armies of princely states and fresh recruitment during the British Raj. The Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force were established by the British during colonial rule. The roles of the army and navy are clearly defined and are specific to the medium that they operate viz land and seas. The air arms of the armies were started to gain advantage over the enemy through the medium of air.

The battle experience in the initial stages of World War I revealed that the tenets of land warfare were not applicable for war in the air and the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Services amalgamated to form the Royal Air Force in 1917, an autonomous entity to prosecute the air war. The US followed suit in 1947 and US Army Air Corps became the US Air Force. Wherever the army and air force were integrated in a synergetic manner the resultant victory was huge, like the blitzkrieg where Poland surrendered in a day and it took only three days to defeat France, facilitated by effective integration and network centricity. It took three years for a British General to understand what the Germans did and employ the same in the battle of El Alamien.

With these lessons in mind, the founding fathers of independent India realised the potential of integration and set up the National Defence Academy where the cadets of all three Forces were trained together. While this provided valuable inter service camaraderie, required at junior levels, it failed to provide jointness at the higher levels. Each force tends to guard its turf vehemently primarily because of competition for low resources the nation allocates in each budget. The prevention of poaching for roles and assets, with perceived perks and privileges may be another reason to divert attention from the task at hand that is providing defence of the nation. These and many more may be obstacles to jointness at the top level.

Existing Organisational Structures: The organisation structure of each force has evolved to suit its goals. The army is more “mechanistic”, whereas that of the air force is more “organic” and the navy in somewhere in between. How do we integrate the forces with different organisational philosophies? In the army the Command Structure (Line authority) in war, flows from the army chief to the army command (colloquially known as army commander) to corps, divisions, brigades and battalions. Battalion being the smallest fighting unit. In the navy it flows from the naval chief to naval commands, to the fleets and then ships (smallest fighting unit). The naval commands control the submarines. Smaller ships function in squadrons under a flotilla commander who reports to the command. Aircraft based on land function in a similar manner to the IAF. In the IAF it flows from the air chief to air force commands and then squadrons (smallest fighting unit). The problems between the army and navy are minimal as the navy cannot use the land and army cannot use water as a medium for warfare.

IAF is involved with both and retaining flexibility of use of air assets should not be sacrificed to fulfil the need for a theatre command. An effective organisation for a theatre command needs to achieve coherence among all the armed forces and one force should not be changed without considering the consequences to all other forces.

Goal Orientation

Enhancement of integration of the armed forces needs macro-level clarity. We need to assess “Where” India is now, “Where” India wants to be and “How” we intend to reach there. We need to define where India should be in, may be, 50 years and formulate a national doctrine. The national doctrine would be the conceptual fountainhead from which all other doctrines flow. After that is formulated, we need to have doctrines for various fields of development since the aim of the nation is loosely described in the Constitution as Comprehensive National Development. The National Security Doctrine would look into the issue of how security can be provided to ensure Comprehensive National Development. The Indian Military Doctrine would flow out of this and then the Individual Forces Doctrines based on the medium of operation.

In the unstable realm of geopolitics, many scenarios may change or new ones emerge. Each scenario will need a different strategy. National security strategy may be selected from the strategies ideated upon for that scenario. Indian Military Strategy would flow out of this. Policies or guide to action are dependent on this selected strategy. There is no doubt that the integrated force application is a must for best effectiveness of the military strategy. It is obvious that force structures cannot be changed in this fluid realm, hence capability development based on where India wants to be is the right approach.

Envisaged Re-Organisation

Analysis of what is available in the public domain reveals that there are to be a West Land Based Theatre Command, an East Land Based Theatre Command (both headed by the army), a Maritime Command (headed by the Navy), Air Defence Command (headed by the Air Force) and Andaman and Nicobar Command with rotational helmsman ship. The Northern Command is to be left undisturbed. The reasons for such domain specific heads for Theatre Commands is unclear and does not appear to have been after due diligence by the stakeholders. These domain-based commands go against the spirit of jointness/integration and is best avoided. It is divisive in nature and kills the idea of jointness/integration or enhanced organisational effectiveness.

Theatre Commands: Theatre Commands are expected to be organised as above. However, why the current Northern Command of the Army is left undisturbed is not understood. In the Northern Command, there have been skirmishes taking place with the PLA in eastern Ladakh. This would be the ideal test bed for projection and application (if needed) of a joint force. Once we show our resolve to project a joint force of the army and the Air Force then it can change the attitude of the PLA even though some may consider it as escalation. There is an urgent need to involve IAF officers on the negotiating table rather than project a single service solution. Muscle flexing changes the attitude on a negotiating table.

Countries that have Military Districts which one can call theatres such as Russia and China have large areas and huge military resources to allocate to them. The US being the global policeman has theatres of huge dimensions such as the Indo-Pacific, etc. If one theatre is activated it does not affect the other theatres as they are highly autonomous, whereas in our case if any one theatre is activated others automatically get activated, especially the Maritime Theatre Command. The US still has Tactical Air Command, Strategic Air Command, Military Airlift Command, and Space Command. The responsibility for Training and Combat Readiness is that of the USAF.

The Russian military districts have one Air Force allocated to that district controlled by an air component commander. Similar is the case with China and they have done this reorganisation recently after having built up the required resources. Since our goal can be translated to defending the territorial integrity of our country, creating theatre commands with expeditionary intent may not be advisable. Do we have those kinds of assets? We have but one depleted air force with 33 squadrons against the JRD Tata Committee recommendation of 65 squadrons.

To a logical mind there is no way that these resources can be frittered away in penny packets among three or more theatres with the Theatre Commanders sitting on them when there is a crying need for them in another region resulting in degraded Combat Effectiveness which will prove suicidal. The air force functions on the dictum of centralised control and de-centralised execution. Where the control can be delegated to, can be decided depending on the situation that needs to be addressed. The IAF has ability to project air power from the straits of Hormuz to the straits of Malacca and from the northern reaches of Tibet to southern extremes of the Indian ocean without any support bases in any other country.

This capability should not be curtailed by allocation of these assets to a theatre. Mere allocation of an asset to the air command where they are currently based does not restrict its utilisation anywhere and this flexibility will be lost if a silo of a theatre command is created. The prime minister has rightly stated that we need to develop organisational structure based on indigenous doctrines and we should not ape any other model.

Air Defence Command. The air defence of the country has been looked after well by the IAF, which is its responsibility except for pockets of the army where air defence weapons integral to the formation cater to it during war. It functions through an Air Defence Grid of Integrated Air Defence Command and Control System (IACCS) consisting of sensors, identification of threats and control of weapon systems to intercept the threats. It has provisions for integrating the Akash-Teer of the Army and Trigun of the Navy. However, for unknown reasons these have not been integrated yet. There are organisational structures such as Joint Operations Centres (JOC) and Joint Air Defence Centres (JADC) and Advanced Head Quarters of the IAF with each Army Command which are functional.

The task of integrating the Control & Reporting centres, Control of Weapon Systems or Ground Air Defence Weapon Systems (GADWS), movement of AAvC helicopters, UAVs, arc of fire of artillery guns, rocket systems, missiles such as the BrahMos etc. of the army is well understood and can be integrated with the IACCS easily. With adequate encryption, even the Naval Trigun system can be integrated. Unfortunately, all these don’t appear to have been activated.

Currently there is no issue with its functioning nor will there be an issue in future, organisationally, if the available integration is activated to the fullest extent. At present the Air Defence Commander of each IAF Command is responsible for air defence of the geographical limits of his Command during peace. During war he is collocated with the Senior Air Staff Officer who is responsible for all air operations of the Command. Decisions on tasking, switching of roles etc., for the task at hand is taken by them for maximising utility of available assets using flexibility and call for assets if needed. If we reorganise as per what is suggested this issue will get resolved only if we accept under-exploitation of the resources we have, to the detriment of combat effectiveness. When there are no issues from professional air warriors, why is an Air Defence Command being forced upon by those who know little about air operations? Is there a hidden agenda? Egypt had an Air Defence Command which shot down more than 50 of its own aircraft in one of the Arab Israeli wars.