India’s global ambitions not only imply sustained economic growth and a minimum quality of life for all its citizens, but also expeditionary military might. In the 15th year of this century, it may not be too early to ask a basic question: Is the Indian military optimally organised to face the challenges that would emerge tomorrow? In our opinion, no.
It would be prudent to list some of these military challenges; not a comprehensive list, but good enough to set the ground. First, future wars will probably not be a single-service business. They are more likely to be short, intensive affairs wherein all forces — including cyber, maybe space or even nuclear — could be deployed simultaneously or sequentially. Therefore, the ability of various services to operate jointly will be critical. Second, the Indian military could be increasingly called upon to play expeditionary roles far from Indian shores. Therefore, our military’s systems, processes, command and control should be flexible enough to be quickly deployable overseas. Third, overseas interventions would mean a much greater role for our naval and air forces, and would require the enhancement of capabilities like amphibious and air assault.
If these premises hold true, how should the military be configured? First, we propose a matrix structure, where the operational and support roles are split. As introduced by the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the US military has a chief for each service. The service chiefs are responsible for three roles: equipping, organising and training, but not war-fighting.
Operationally, the US military has divided the world into various geographical areas of responsibility (AORs), under a combatant commander, who commands all forces assigned to his theatre, and is responsible for all combat operations. The military’s chain of command runs from the US president to the defence secretary to combatant commanders. In addition to geographical AORs, they have functional commanders for special operations, transportation and strategic arms.
A similar operational and support matrix is proposed for the Indian military. To begin with, the military could have three geographical commands: an Eastern Command responsible for China, South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia; a Western Command responsible for Pakistan, Central Asia and West Asia; and a Southern Command responsible for littoral Africa and the Middle East. More theatre commands may be created as the scale and scope of military activities expand. In addition, we need to have functional commands for strategic forces and special operations.
There should be a chairman and vice chairman of joint chiefs of staff separate from the three service chiefs. The role of the chairman should be to act as a single-point military advisor to the defence minister and the prime minister. Once the operational roles get transferred to theatre commanders, the need for a five-star chief of defence staff (CDS), as is being currently discussed in some circles, would become redundant. All theatre/ functional commanders should hold a four-star rank. If there can be close to
100 secretaries to the government of India, why not have more four-star rank military officers?
Second, the role and mission of the military need to be revised. Currently, the military is involved in numerous non-core activities like counter-insurgency, border security, disaster relief, etc. For policymakers caught in an internal crisis, calling in the military seems the easiest option; consequently, if an incompetent state police cannot control a riot, call in the army; floods somewhere, send in the air force to drop food packets; terrorists come ashore from the sea, make the navy responsible for coastal security. All these blunt the military’s war-fighting capability, while stunting the growth and capability of the agency responsible for that specific task.
To ease the pressure on the military and get them to focus on military missions, we propose that the military be constitutionally banned from firing on Indian citizens, except in self-defence, or when the country is in a state of declared Emergency.
For border security, we propose three paramilitary forces: an air guard for air sovereignty control; a border guard by combining the BSF, ITBP and SSB for land border security; and the existing Coast Guard for maritime border security. These paramilitary forces should be staffed by military and paramilitary officers, not IPS officers as is the norm.
Third, we need to balance our existing military services. Our army is several times the size of the other two services combined. The disparity in size leads to disparity in egos, which makes a mockery of “jointness”. It would never be possible to achieve a perfect balance between a headcount-intensive service like the army and a machine-dependent service like the air force, but some rationalisation is definitely possible. It is proposed that an entire corps (three divisions) of the army be trained in amphibious warfare, converted into marines and placed under the navy. Similarly, the army should partner with the air force
to raise an air-assault corps. These troops will continue to be available to the army for operational tasks and in a joint theatre command, it would not matter which service they belonged to.
Militaries the world over have resisted the impetus to come closer. Every service wants to guard its turf and, as a first step, it may be prudent to transfer all the real estate held by the three services under joint control. As India dreams of global leadership, it is necessary that politicians understand the importance of strategic issues. The impetus for a reconfigured military, designed and optimised to support India’s aspirations, must come from them. War, as they say, is too important to be left to the generals.
Bansal is director, Centre for Security & Strategy, India Foundation. Bora is a former member of the BJP’s National Executive committee.
Views are personal