After a long hiatus and endless speculation, the country finally has a Chief of Defence Staff and successor to the late General Bipin Rawat — General Anil Chauhan. Like his predecessor in this post, he is a Gurkha officer and, more importantly, a native of Pauri Garhwal — an origin they fortuitously share with the National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval. The Pauri Garhwali fellowship aside, Chauhan’s time as Director-General, Military Operations during the Balakot strike operation that was, in reality, more a “political” and “public relations” stunt than a military success, may have earned him plus points at the PMO and appointments, after retiring as the Eastern Army commander, as Military Adviser to the National Security Council that Doval oversees and now as CDS and, concurrently, Secretary, Department of Military Affairs (DMA), and Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee. (The DGMO’s brief during the Balakot op would have been to keep the army primed for hostilities in case Pakistan followed up the chase by its F-16s of the Indian strike aircraft in scoot mode with army action.)
Chauhan seems a run-of-the-mill careerist type who got lucky (in terms of political connections). He has no paper trail in terms of writings, public speeches, etc. that would clue us to the views he holds on military and national security matters and, even less, about what he means to do. It is obvious that when Rawat was anointed CDS, Modi-Doval had no road map on armed forces’ integation and theaterisation of commands, and Rawat felt free to voice some very definite but wrong-headed views. Such as the air force as a support service, expeditionary forces as unnecessary and, not for the right reasons, aircraft carriers as unaffordable luxuries. They ended up stiffening the resistance to his initiatives from the get-go. Chauhan while publicly more circumspect is reported by “government officials” as saying that there have been enough “discussions” already and “it is now time to move forward” on implementing theaterisation of commands, his priority.
But realization of theatre commands assumes that all three armed services are on the same page and, moreover, that a certain level of integration of the services has already been achieved — neither of which is true! Indeed, the air force chief, Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari preempted the constitution of the ‘Air Defence Command’ by announcing on October 4 the establishment of a new and separate operational stream within his service — the so-called Weapons Systems Branch headed by an Air Marshal-rank officer to control all of IAF’s surface-to-air missile and surface-to-surface missile squadrons and fleet of surveillance and attack drones! And, doubling down, he stated plainly that his service’s air power doctrine cannot be compromised, and added that theaterised commands would only complicate operational and other decisionmaking by adding another layer to it! So, whatever Chauhan has in mind to do, the IAF is not on-board.
But what’s the thinking in his parent service — the army. Consider the views of two retired officers, Lieutenant Generals Raj Shukla, whose last two postings as Commandant, Army War College, and head of the Army Training Command in Shimla, presumably afforded him the time to mull over issues in some depth, and Satish Dua, a former Chief of the Integrated Defence Staff and GOC, XV Corps in J&K.
While conceding that “integrated theatre commands are an important structural correction”, Shukla in a somewhat confused and confusing Hindustan Times op-ed of Sept 30, considered them remnants of the “industrial era”, and hinted at “parallel pathways” to jointness courtesy “digital integration, tri-service clouds, Artificial Intelligence-enabled combat frameworks” which, he claimed, would produce “superior” “military autonomy” than theatre commands (but is military autonomy the objective of military integration?), before lurching sideways to urge General Chauhan to make “an immediate, accelerated and ambitious turn to the seas, even as we fortify our combat posture” on the disputed land border with China.
Delving into the challenges facing Chauhan, Dua’s op-ed on the same day in the Times of India was less futuristic and more hopeful that the new CDS will “carry forward” Rawat’s “endeavour”, further the cause of “civil-military fusion”, and prepare the system for “multi-domain warfare” by utilizing the DMA. He regards theaterisation as a means of using “existing resources for an optimised combat effectiveness”, which he admits will be no easy task to realize. But he advises Chauhan to take “strong decisions” if he finds “unanimity” among services chiefs missing meaning, apparently, that he should hold Air Chief Marshal Chaudhuri’s feet to the fire, ride roughshod over the IAF’s objections to the air defence command, while ensuring that this “transition” is “smooth”. How the CDS is to do all this, Dua doesn’t say.
Shukla’s and Dua’s writings — and one can refer to a bunch of other similar articles by serving and retired military personnel on the subject of jointness-integration-theaterisation, are symptomatic of the problem. It is all airy-fairy stuff. Everybody knows where to go but no clear-cut ideas of how to get there.
Some 20 years ago at an army symposium in Bangalore I presented a paper that envisaged four stages leading to forces integration — cooperation, coordination, jointness, integration. I said then that the Indian armed services are stuck in the first stage of cooperating, willy-nilly, during crisis and war, and that coordination some time happens if, say, NDA coursemates from different services decide to work closely outside usual channels in an emergency, and that the last two stages of jointness and integration are thresholds realistically so far beyond realization as to be mere abstractions! Into the third decade of the new millennium, little substantively has changed.
A major restructuring of armed forces is not a joke, or indulged in on a political whim. It requires a singularity of vision and, ideally, years of serious and sustained study and inter-services discussions, and interactions at the services HQ-level, in-depth reports from in-house and diverse external sources — informed analysts, academics, thinktanks and management consultants that explore the technology trends and management imperatives, different models of military manpower usage, systems of procurements and budgetary allocations, experiences of military integration in other countries, and involves fleshing out of alternative schemes of jointness and the costs of such transformation, and finally wargaming and practical exercises to test and validate the alternative schemata of operational wartime and peacetime decisionmaking to see what works best. That’s how the most effective mix of military and nonmilitary elements and the meshing of different decisionmaking. command and control designs, can be discovered and armed services restructured in the most effective way. As far as I know, none of this has happened and yet the country is embarked on a major reordering of its armed forces.
Surely, the Modi government can’t be very serious about military integration and theaterisation of commands, because as things stand now the underway efforts seem like passing political fancy. But two moves would still make a difference even if the ground is inadequately prepared for such overhaul. Because more time cannot be wasted on the preparatory work; it will have to be the trial and error method. The Prime Minister has, firstly, to be the principal stakeholder in this exercise and use the whip against the military pooh-bahs and laggards undermining/delaying the process. This may involve firing reluctant services chiefs of staff and retiring principal staff officers in Services headquarters. And secondly, and more importantly, he has to invest Chauhan with the necessary authority — the CDS cannot be the first among equals; in a military milieu that won’t work. He has to be a five star officer — a Field Marshal/Admiral of the Fleet/Marshal of the Air Force, who outranks everybody and whose orders and instructions the services chiefs can ignore or resist at their peril. Absent these steps, Modi may as well whistle for theaterisation.
The Prime Minister may care to learn a lesson or two from the American experience. In the US, President Harry Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson took ownership of the unification plan and were the political piledrivers, who pulverzied the objections of the military, especially the senior service — the US Navy, and brusquely dismissed the parochial fears of the Admirals of renown — the Chester Nimitz’s and the Arleigh Burke’s, who had gained fame in the Second World War and opposed military unification. There was also no great body of studies and reports leading to the military integration and the emergence of the Pentagon in Washington, DC. There was but a single design for unification outlined in a short paper authored by a single person, not a committee — Stimson’s adviser and confidante, a man named Ferdinand. The trial and error method here led to an exercise in rectification and a second defence system overhaul in the 1980s — the Goldwater-Nichols Act.