While the chiefs of the three defence services appeared together to issue the Joint Doctrine last month, the three forces disagree on the proposal to create integrated theatre commands. The Army is in favour of the proposal, while the Air Force is strongly opposed to it. While the Navy’s view is more nuanced, it too is not in favour of implementing the proposal currently.
Following the recommendations of the expert committee headed by Lt General D B Shekatkar (retd), which submitted its report to then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar in January, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has sought the views of the three service chiefs by the end of the month.
According to MoD sources, the proposal is to create three integrated theatre commands: northern command for the China border, western command for the Pakistan border and southern command for the maritime borders. As the borders with Pakistan and China are land-centric, it is expected that the northern and western commands would have to be headed by an Army General. The southern command would have to be headed by a Navy Admiral.
The Army’s rationale for integrated theatre commands is based on the need to have a unified direction and control of war. This was put forth by the Army during deliberations on the proposal at the combined commanders conference, chaired by the Prime Minister, at Dehradun in February. According to an official who attended the conference, Eastern Army Commander Lt General Praveen Bakshi remarked that while the opposing side in China has a single command, the Indian side has seven commands of the Army and Air Force for the same task.
“Why should we have 17 military commands in the country? We need combat efficiency and economy of resources. With a single commander, you can have all the military assets under him. For eg, on the Pakistan border, there are at least three Army commands and two Air Force commands. We should ideally have one integrated command, as all modern militaries have, such as the United States or even China,” a senior Army officer told The Indian Express.
But the Air Force contends that foreign examples are not applicable to the Indian situation. “The US has global roles where it can’t move assets from one theatre to another. We have no such problems of distance and time. The Chinese have the theatre commands because Xi Jinping wanted to reduce the power of the PLA (Chinese military),” said a top Air Force officer.
According to the Air Force, India should be considered as a single theatre where resources can be easily moved between various areas as required. “With only 34 fighter squadrons instead of 45, do we have the luxury of allocating them to individual commands. When we have 60 squadrons, we can do that. Also, we have three AWACS and six mid-air refuellers. How does one distribute them? Do we even need to, unless the country is willing to spend even more to buy these platforms,” said the Air Force officer.
The Navy’s position on the matter is more nuanced. “While there is a need for greater jointness among the three services, it is not appropriate to move to integrated theatre commands anytime soon. The Navy has a much wider maritime role across the seas, where a lot of coordination between various commands is done by the Naval headquarters. If these individual commands go under different theatre commanders, these assets will not be available practically,” a Navy officer explained.
“There is a myth about common assets between the three services. The helicopters and the UAVs are used by all the three services. But while the Army wants these helicopters to fly at Siachen, we want them to fly at sea level. How are they the same,” the officer said.
The diversity of views means that it will require the ministry and the government to take the lead. But, adding to the uncertainty is the fact that Defence Secretary G Mohan Kumar is scheduled to retire later this month and there is no clarity on the appointment of a full-time Defence Minister. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley currently has additional charge of the MoD.