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Lessons Americans can teach Indians in military command

By Ajai Shukla
April 26, 2016 10:20 IST
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Opposition to tri-service structures comes not just from bureaucrats and politicians as the generals like to lament, but equally from within the military. Neither the army, navy or air force chiefs want to relinquish control over their theatre commands, with these cutting edge units placed under some commander who reports elsewhere, says Ajai Shukla.

IMAGE: A glimpse of the amphibious training exercise, Jal Prahar, held in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands between March 27 and April 18. Photograph: Indian Navy/Twitter

In a small amphibious training exercise called Jal Prahar that terminated last week, India's military paid token obeisance to the notion of tri-service command, which serious, warfighting militaries have embraced decades ago.

Jal Prahar was conducted by the Andaman & Nicobar Command, India's only tri-service command -- which means it owns assets from the army, navy and air force and is commanded, in turn, by general officers from all three services.

It involved a hundred soldiers, a handful of amphibious assault craft mostly borrowed from the navy's eastern command, and three Jaguar strike aircraft that the Indian Air Force kindly made available.

The ANC, which military reformers established in 2001 in the forlorn hope that this might catalyse similar tri-service structures across the military, has failed spectacularly in achieving this aim.

While this sideshow played out in the Bay of Bengal, the army chief's attention was focused on the high-profile Exercise Shatrujeet, involving tens of thousands of army soldiers, practising mechanised warfare and live fire tank drills in the Rajasthan desert.

True, there was a substantial air power component to Exercise Shatrujeet, but it was primarily an army exercise in planning and conception.

Meanwhile, early this year, the People's Liberation Army of China adopted a tri-service credo in full, signalling its determination to undertake the deep systemic reforms needed to create an effective command structure that might someday credibly challenge the United States.

In Beijing, on February 1, the PLA's seven "military regions", traditionally led by the army, gave way to five geographic theatre commands (termed "battle zones") that will now function on a tri-service basis, incorporating elements from the PLA Navy and PLA Air Force.

In India, the woeful debate over tri-service structures has focused mainly on appointing a tri-service commander -- a five-star "chief of defence staff" recommended by a Group of Ministers in 2001; or a four-star "permanent chairman chiefs of staff", a half-way house solution proposed in 2013 by the Naresh Chandra committee.

But there is little focus on the need to simultaneously restructure India's single-service theatre commands, merging 17 army, navy and air force commands into five-six tri-service commands.

Creating a CDS/PCCOS to oversee long-range force structuring and to deliver single-point military advice to political leaders would unquestionably make the military leaner and more effective.

But creating tri-service theatre commands is crucial for enhancing battlefield performance.

Opposition to tri-service structures comes not just from bureaucrats and politicians as the generals like to lament, but equally from within the military.

Neither the army, navy or air force chiefs want a military boss (CDS) or even another equal (PCCOS). And they certainly do not want to relinquish control over their theatre commands, with these cutting edge units placed under some commander who reports elsewhere.

But what really strangles tri-service babies at birth are ill-founded, political-bureaucratic apprehensions about concentrating military power in one hand.

The ANC and the IDS were spared this fate only because they were adjudged too weak to threaten either the three services or the political-bureaucratic class.

If the whispered (and to the military, deeply offensive) need to "coup proof" the command structure is standing in the way of this reform, it can be addressed structurally by creating tri-service theatre commanders, who report directly to the political leadership, like in the US.

The three service chiefs, with their combat units distributed between the theatre commanders, would be freed from command responsibility and mandated to focus on their respective services' manpower, equipping and training.

These are currently given short shrift, with the chiefs weighed down by time consuming daily responsibilities of operational command.

The non-operational commands -- such as the three services' "training commands" and the air force's "maintenance command" could remain under the service chiefs.

Operational commands like the Special Forces command, cyber command and the strategic forces command (the nuclear arsenal) could be hived off like the theatre commands.

Outside this command structure, the political leadership could select a five-star CDS, from any service, preferably on merit and trust rather than mere seniority, who would function as a "second opinion" military advisor.

In many ways, this would mirror the US system, which has functioned admirably through inter-continental global challenges.

While distributing power between more commanders, this could be made palatable to the military by upgrading ranks -- which would also somewhat flatten the military's unacceptably steep promotion pyramid.

Each theatre commander, now handling independent, tri-service operational responsibilities, could be upgraded to four-star rank.

The army, navy and air force chiefs would continue to be four-star generals, thus having a dozen four-star generals -- including the commanders of five geographical theatres, the ANC, and the Special Forces, strategic forces and cyber commands.

The five-star CDS would be a respected figurehead.

This would allow Prime Minister Narendra Modi to credibly lay claim to genuine military reform.

While making multiple promises in its April 2014 election manifesto and in numerous public statements since, the National Democratic Alliance government has delivered only on populist promises: like One Rank, One Pension, albeit in a diluted form; and sanctioning a national war memorial in New Delhi.

On the promised structural reforms -- like implementing tri-service command, involving the military in defence ministry decision-making; establishing a National Marine Authority to oversee coastal security; boosting defence R&D; improving border management, and setting up a Veterans Commission to look after retired soldiers -- there has been little delivery.

Addressing the military's top commanders on December 15, Modi declared: "We have been slow to reform the structures of our armed forces. We should shorten the tooth-to-tail ratio. And we should promote 'jointness' across every level of our armed forces. We wear different colours, but we serve the same cause and bear the same flag. Jointness at the top is a need that is long overdue. We also need reforms in senior defence management. It is sad that many defence reform measures proposed in the past have not been implemented. This is an area of priority for me."

Modi is right, promises of reform have never been implemented, particularly the move towards tri-service command structures. He should now implement this priority.

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Ajai Shukla
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