There has been quite a bit of commentary in the public space about the proposed reorganisation of the Armed Forces into theatre commands. A large number of retired defence officers, including former chiefs of both the Air Force and the Navy, have written profound opinion pieces expressing apprehensions and reservations about the process and the fact that it is being rushed through rather impulsively.
Let us first understand what is being attempted. On December 24, 2019, the government announced the creation of a chief of defence staff and a new department of military affairs (DMA) in the ministry of defence. This was followed by the appointment of the outgoing Army Chief General Bipin Rawat as the first CDS on December 31, 2019. This new paradigm brought into sharp relief the question of the proposed institution of Theatre Commands for the Indian Armed Forces.
The fundamental concept underpinning the Theatre Commands paradigm is achieving jointness. Jointness means the synergy and synchronisation of different branches of the fighting arms into one cohesive and integrated organisation.
The idea is neither new nor novel. Over three dozen countries in the world have evolved and adopted a combined services template for their militaries. Major powers like the United States, Russia, China and even the United Kingdom from where we have inherited our military ethos are all tasked on this jointness archetype now.
In the US, prior to 1986, each service had its own chief. The service chiefs together stood constituted as Joint Chiefs of Staff. Its elected chairperson reported to the defence secretary. The defence secretary, in turn, was accountable to the President.
This arrangement was analogous to India before the appointment of the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff in the US as the principal military advisor the President, National Security Council, Homeland Security Council, and the defence secretary post the implementation of the Gold Water-Nichols Act of 1986. He assists the President and the defence secretary, both civilians, in giving strategic direction to the Armed Forces. He proffers advice with regard to force structures and budgetary practices. When rendering counsel he is obligated by law to confabulate with the service chiefs who act as secondary military advisors.
This Act promulgated in 1986 transformed both the character and configuration of the US defence forces. The important thing to mark is that the reorganisation came through legislation and not via an executive fiat.
The Act provided the latitude for both joint and single service commands. It ordained that a unified combatant command means a military command that comprises personnel from two or more military realms. The command hierarchy of a unified or specified combatant command travels from the President downwards to the secretary of defence, and from there, directly to the theatre or the combatant commander. The President only selects an officer to lead a combatant command, if the officer concerned has diverse experience and has served in at least one joint responsibility role in a senior command position.
Democratic nations must be extremely vigilant about excess centralisation of authority in any one defence official. The US arrangement guarantees this by mandating the chain of operational command runs from the President to the defence secretary — a cabinet-level position in the US and then directly to the theatre commander. The chairperson of the joint chiefs of staff, therefore, has no operational command authority.
Even in the United Kingdom, a new epoch for the British Armed Forces is emerging. On March 22, 2021, the government officially released its Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy. It delineates the government’s visualisation of the UK’s role in the world over the next decade and thus provides a clear roadmap to the Armed Forces in terms of what the policy priorities of the state are over the medium term.
Thus whatever operational concepts the defence establishment wants to evolve need to be clearly fine pointed to cater to the tactical, diplomatic and foreign policy priorities of the United Kingdom’s civilian government. What is noteworthy is that defence reform is a part of a larger strategic horizon and not merely an act of internal reorganisation.
That is why in India, across the board, strategic experts, specialists and researchers have been arguing for transparency and openness on the specificities of the proposed theatre commands in India. Even among the services, the opinion seems to be split. It is not a mere coincidence that retired Air Force and Navy officers are forcefully arguing against theatre commands. Even the proxy views of these two services are being aired in the public space and social media suggesting that there is trouble in paradise.
The fundamental decision that must be taken even now is that, if we are to head in the direction of theatre commands, this transition must be carried out through legislation like in the United States and not by mere executive instructions of the department of military affairs in the ministry of defence.
Moreover, politicians who understand India’s strategic imperatives, especially the two-front challenges, that India confronts must pro-actively guide this transition.
They need to be assisted by a foreign policy and strategic affairs professionals who never lose sight of the big picture. A generic bureaucracy where an officer serves in the department of animal husbandry one day, department of cooperation the next day, and the ministry of defence the third day will never measure up to the task of guiding the defence forces through the single biggest transformative change attempted by them ever since their inception. Neither should this task be left to the CDS and a bunch of military officers to superintend this makeover as just another internal reorganisation process unique to the Armed Forces being implemented in a strategic vacuum.
When this osmosis of the defence establishment played itself out in the US politicians, defence professionals, strategic thinkers, foreign policy practitioners, and, most vitally, the media absorbed themselves in five years of knowledgeable and cogent public discussions before the US Congress finally passed the Goldwater-Nichols Defence Reorganisation Act of 1986.
Since India’s military reform process will be equally intricate, protracted, and even complicated with competing and conflicting demands, claims, issues, and even turf battles that would have to be reconciled, the legislature needs to play a far more pro-active role. It must seriously apply itself to the establishment of a Dedicated Standing Committee of Parliament staffed with military advisers and other professionals to independently monitor this transition very minutely.