In war, and more importantly, in preparing for war, uncertainties abound. The spectrum of conflict is becoming larger and time compression due to computing technology and the opening up of the aerospace frontier demands acquisition of knowledge. The arena too has expanded from land/sea/air to the cybersphere, space and the electromagnetic domain. Call it new generation or hybrid warfare, it is incumbent on decision-makers to plan India’s approach towards capability building to meet the threat of war.
While casualties have a deleterious impact on society, it is the country’s standing in the comity of nations that is at stake. The mantle falls on people charged with the brief of war prevention, war planning and war making; the political executive has a major part in all three since policy formulation directly effects the creation of deterrence.
There are two macro issues that demand attention. First, the restructuring of the Higher Defence Organisation (HDO), characterised presently by the incessant demand for a Chief of Defence Staff linked with theatre commands, a la the US, and now China. Clinical analysis is necessary to tackle this issue, which has become an emotive one. Second, for too long have we pussy-footed on the need to develop an indigenous defence manufacturing base — changes are happening, but just about.
The narrative for an HDO revamp must start at the top. Discussions revolve only around how the three services can be re-structured, missing the point that the responsibility of the defence of India lies with the department of defence. Hence, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has to be a part of HDO re-structuring with cross-postings of uniformed personnel at the joint secretary level and above. At the operational level, war is directed by regional command headquarters which, in the case of the army and navy, are terrestrial/surface combatants. The air force, however, due to its long reach and an almost “cold or freeze start” responsiveness, has the strategic flexibility to bring force to bear across boundaries of surface commands: A Su-30 from Pune can address maritime threats down south as well as those across the Thar desert.
The analogy of theatre commands of the US/China is misleading as it would only address the “under command” syndrome of the ground-based forces in India. The truism that “air power is indivisible” and works best under an airman should not be violated. Since India has a status quoist stance on boundary matters, the blocking of air assets by splitting them under theatre commanders would be sub-optimal. If one were to follow the US/China model, then there would be just two “theatres” — the Northern and Western. Both would be unwieldy considering the diverse requirements of equipment and training for troops (desert, plains and hills) — so more (smaller) commands would be required, bifurcating air assets further, reducing their potency.
This argument does not detract from the urgent requirement of enhancing jointness. The previous air chief had stated that the time for a CDS has come. It needs to be remembered that though the Kargil Review Committee had recommended that the CDS be the single-point advisor to the government, it had not made him the single commander to direct war — service chiefs still retained command authority. Thus, the powers of the CDS should be thought through carefully to match India’s environment. Joint procurement, commanding future commands like cyber, space and special forces and a role in budgeting could be the starting point.
The second issue for the political executive is of creating an indigenous defence industrial base. The intentions of successive governments have been stymied by the requirements of modernising the armed forces and that of indigenisation of war-making implements. Modernisation must be effected in the shortest possible time while indigenisation requires decades as it involves R&D and infrastructure accretion. Strategic partners from the private sector must be appointed and a procurement executive mandated to equip the soldier, formed outside the structure of MoD. These two recommendations are at the heart of the Dhirendra Singh Committee report on defence acquisitions and can be slighted at our own peril. Decisive political decision-making is the need of the hour if we want to move forward.