Comment

The roadmap to military reform

We need to understand the Indian Air Force’s arguments on any piecemeal integration initiative

In the debate on reform in the Indian military, there is a need for clear policy-driven directives that meet India’s national security needs and challenges.

A recent historical overview would indicate just how confused things are, which doesn’t augur well for a ‘leading power’. The initial flavour of the debate in the decades following the Group of Ministers’ report, the Kargil Review Committee report, and the Naresh Chandra Committee report focussed on a restructuring of higher defence organisation as the first step. This was intended to improve synergy among different tools of statecraft (bureaucracy, military, research and development, intelligence, internal security mechanisms, and more). When very little traction was seen in converting this into structural changes within the Ministry of Defence, and sharing of expertise, the debate shifted to the second tier of reform in the operational realm. This has unfortunately pitted the three services against one another in a series of turf wars that have ranged from control over space to control over cyber and special forces.

Targeting the IAF

When these turf wars did not result in the proposed space, cyber and special forces commands that were to complement the Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff and the Andaman and Nicobar Command as stepping stones to integration, one more hat was thrown into the ring — that of standalone integrated theatre commands. Without considering any restructuring of higher defence organisation, creation of Chief of the Defence Staff, or debating whether these theatre commands would be accompanied by a dilution in the operational control of the respective service chiefs, the debate now largely targets the Indian Air Force (IAF) in a subtle manner as being the ‘spoiler’ in what is otherwise a largely consensual approach to integration.

It is important to reiterate some of the core arguments that the IAF has in opposition to any piecemeal integration initiative. If there is any service that is truly ‘joint’ in terms of participation in statecraft or military operations in tandem with other tools, particularly as first responders, it is the IAF. There has never been any recorded criticism or shortfalls in the contribution of the IAF reported by the Indian Army or Navy to the political executive at apex forums like the Combined Commanders’ Conference. If the flying task of the IAF in terms of its distribution between joint and exclusive tasks is scrutinised, conservative figures would reveal more than 60% as being committed to the former. The IAF is cognisant of its pivotal role in determining the trajectory of any limited high-intensity conflict in any kind of terrain.

Capturing ground beyond a few kilometres or taking physical control of vast maritime spaces for prolonged durations are no longer sustainable operations of war as they arguably result in avoidable depletion of combat potential. This causes unacceptable attrition in limited but high-tempo operations. It is in this context that air power would offer a viable alternative by shaping ‘battle spaces’ adequately before the other services enter combat.

The creation of large Naval and Army aviation arms demonstrates the IAF’s understanding that there is a need to complement its dwindling resources with air arms that could act as tactical responders at best till the IAF brings its cutting-edge skills into the area to act as a decisive sword-arm.

Apprehensions over reserves

With such a deep understanding of joint operations, it is impossible to imagine that the reservations expressed by the IAF leadership in supporting the creation of integrated theatre commands in isolation is tantamount to stonewalling. Dissection of the recently conducted exercise, Gaganshakti, would provide a quantitative analysis of this assertion. The main apprehensions of the IAF leadership not only revolve around how best to exploit its dwindling offensive resources if they are hived off to multiple theatre commands, but also how the limited availability of enabling equipment and platforms (AWACS, refuelers, electronic warfare platforms and more) could seriously jeopardise operations even in a single-adversary limited conflict. (This conflict could involve up to three of the proposed theatre commands, including the Indian Navy.) To explain the resource crunch, the U.S.’s Pacific Command (PACOM) and Central Command (CENTCOM) have their own air assets that are first supplemented by reserve units from the U.S. in emergency situations; they are not pooled in from other theatre commands. So, where will our reserves come from when the mantra today in the IAF is ‘to do more with less’?

It is not my mandate to argue why the Indian Army and Navy may be able to support the theatre command concept without much churning/ diversion of assets. I will only say this: please listen to the operational argument offered by the IAF and carry out an independent analysis of how India’s combat capability will be distributed if a theatre concept is to be viable.

India’s armed forces have little experience in training, staffing and exercising Joint Task Forces based on at least a division-sized land component. Creation of three division-sized task forces for operations in varied terrain, including out-of-area contingency operations, could be mulled over. These would be commanded by an Army, Navy and Air Force three-star officer, respectively, reporting to the Chairman of the Chief of Staffs Committee. This could offer real lessons in integration.

The solution for reform

Along with these turf wars has been an out-of-the-box proposition that a bottom-up approach may be the answer to India’s quest for integration. Historical evidence of military reform (in Prussia, the U.S., the U.K., France and now China) shows that successful reform has always been driven by either a multipronged and simultaneous approach at all levels, or a sequential one beginning at the top. Any other approach that leaves the bottom and the top unattended is fraught with risk.

National security reforms and restructuring are bound to have far-reaching consequences and call for political sagacity, wisdom and vision. Ideally speaking, a concurrent three-pronged approach to military reform would be ideal. Such an approach should respect the collective wisdom of past reports and take into account contemporary political and security considerations.

Arjun Subramaniam is a retired fighter pilot from the IAF and a military historian. He is currently a Visiting Professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, U.S.

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Printable version | Feb 28, 2020 1:16:56 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-roadmap-to-military-reform/article24698213.ece

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