Creation of Integrated Theatre Commands must be thought-through

Updated: July 26, 2021 10:49 AM

The fractious public utterances by some of the serving and retired service officers indicate that a consensus is unlikely to be reached any time soon on the structure, command, and control of the ITCs.

indian armyBringing about jointness among the armed forces by restructuring the existing military commands, which does not rule out creation of the ITCs, is not a new idea. (File photo: IE)

By Amit Cowshish, 

The animated debate on demarcation of the Integrated Theatre Commands (ITC), that the Chief of Defence (CDS) Staff General Bipin Rawat seems to have taken upon himself to create before completing his tenure, has fuelled speculations that the government wants to announce their formation on the Independence Day next month. If true, the announcement would be premature and potentially disruptive.

The fractious public utterances by some of the serving and retired service officers indicate that a consensus is unlikely to be reached any time soon on the structure, command, and control of the ITCs. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has been expressing reservations for the past two decades and now questions are also being raised about the advantage of combining all the three commands of the Indian Navy (IN) into a single colossal Maritime Theatre Command.

Amidst this confusion, the government has decided to retain the existing structure of the Udhampur-based Northern Command that oversees counter-insurgency operations in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, besides guarding the borders against irredentist China and its proxy, Pakistan.

Bringing about jointness among the armed forces by restructuring the existing military commands, which does not rule out creation of the ITCs, is not a new idea. Some experts believe that creating ITCs is not an essential precondition for bringing about jointness. This was indeed among the several tasks assigned to the Headquarter Integrated Defence Staff (HQ IDS) set up by the government in November 2001 based on the recommendations of a Group of Ministers.

Other tasks assigned to HQ ITC included higher defence planning, training, exercises, acquisition, budget, international cooperation, and Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). It also controlled institutions like the National Defence College and College of Defence Management.

The expectation was that being a mixed organisation, staffed by officers from the three services and civilians, HQ IDS would be able to integrate policies and doctrines of the individual services into joint documents and promote the discourse on higher defence planning through the inter-services think-tank, Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS), which too functions under its patronage.

The HQ IDS has served many a useful purpose since inception, but it has little to show by way of a consensual blueprint for jointness, with or without creation of the ITCs, and other related matters like integration of the civilian and military components or defining the role of the CDS. To be fair, it can be excused for this failure as it was perhaps never specifically asked to prepare such a blueprint, but no such excuse can be given by it for not encouraging CENJOWS to take the lead in this field.

Apart from CENJOWS, three service-specific think tanks have been functioning for more than a decade but, as it turns out, they too did little in this regard. Even the MoD-funded Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) did not take the lead, either on its own or on the MoD’s direction, to confabulate with all stakeholders and recommend the blueprint for defence reforms. Consequently, no one has any clue about how to resolve the enduring imbroglio.

Some analysts helpfully suggest that since a consensus is unlikely to emerge, the government should enforce its decision through suitable legislation on the lines of the US Government’s Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. Among other things, the objective of this Act was to reorganise the US Department of Defence (DoD), improve the system of military advice provided to the President, and strengthen civilian authority. The last element is missing in the current discourse on the ITCs.

The Act also streamlined the chain of command, which now runs down from the US President to the Secretary of Defense and thereafter directly to the unified and specified combatant commanders for accomplishment of the assigned missions. On this crucial issue too, there is no consensus in India.

Enactment of analogous legislation in India presupposes clarity about every single aspect of structural reorganisation. While it is true that even in the US, inter-services disputes had erupted in the run up to the legislation, most of these were resolved through concerted efforts by the US Administration -relying heavily on the suggestions made by the Packard Commission set up by President Reagen in 1985- before the bill was introduced in the Congress.

The developments in India have followed a different trajectory, making it difficult to legislate on the lines of the US law. At any rate, given the nature of inter-services disagreements, the role armed forces are expected to play in future, and the scarcity of resources, it is arguable if the US model would work in India. Such a legislation would be a huge gamble in the country where the enacted laws are often forced to be put on hold by those opposed to them, deepen their sense of alienation, and generally sully the political environment.

The government cannot afford to take any risk with matters concerning the defence and security of the country. There is no guarantee that the armed forces and the strategic community, which ceaselessly questions the competence of politicians and civil servants, would unreservedly welcome the government’s decision.

No precipitous action should be taken, differences must be resolved discreetly and, most importantly, a composite set of reforms should be implemented in one stroke addressing all related issues like the role and functions of the CDS, integration of the civilians and military components at the level of the ministry and in the new structures, drawbacks in defence planning, and budget constraints, just to name a few. All these issues are inter-related and crucial for the success of the proposed organisational restructuring; disjointed reforms cannot yield the intended results.

(The author is former Financial Advisor (Acquisition), Ministry of Defence. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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