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10 April 2012, Gateway House

India: A unified defence command?

India must revisit the need for a unified command structure, to effectively use the enormous combat power it is developing at such astronomical cost. A balanced force-restructuring based on operational needs can enable the armed forces to project itself as a single, viable, effective war machine.

Brigadier (retired)

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India is an aspiring super power; it is also believed to be one of the largest arms importers in the world. But last week, after the defence procurement corruption exposé by army chief General VK Singh and the hullabaloo over supposed troop movements near Delhi, it seems that India is not ready to either effectively absorb the battle-ready equipment being imported, or even command it well. Once again, there was heated discussion over the necessity for India to have a unified command system, under which the three chiefs of the army, navy and air force, can operate coherently and to mutual benefit.

The debate should be even louder than it is. Our strategic and super-power ambitions are manifest in all the three armed forces: the Air Force, which is in the process of one of the largest arms deals ever in the acquisition of the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA); the Navy which has developed ‘Blue Water’ capabilities far beyond coastal defence; the Army which is raising two strike-corps capable of offensive operations into Tibet and for possible use against China. But we still don’t have the necessary organizational structure to wield such massive fire power as a coherent force, and be a truly well-supported defence to repel external aggressors or project India’s power overseas.

The reasons are many, but the most problematic one is the archaic Second World War defense institutions on which our armed forces are organized. They were adapted from the needs of a colonial power, whose main concern was the subjugation of the indigenous population, and not to repel external aggressors. There has been little or no change since then. Post the Kargil conflict in 1999-2000, the Kargil Review committee headed by noted strategist RK Subrahmanyam also recommended a unified command. This organization needs to be restructured and updated, and the quickest way to start is to have a joint Chiefs of Defence staff, to co-ordinate and synergise operations and equipment.

In war, the application of maximum combat power at decisive periods influences the outcome of a battle. Maximum combat power, however, is not an arithmetic sum of the forces used; it is the result of synergies – generated by using arms and services coherently. Today, the three services are autonomous and any synergy that may exist is purely by chance. Examples are the lack of, or minimal, use of the Air Force in 1962 against the Chinese and in 1999 during the Kargil incursion by Pakistan. In both instances, the Indian Air Force resisted the use of air power on various grounds, resulting in sub-optimal outcomes for the country. In 1962, air power was not used at all and in 1999 the Air Force came in many days later, arguably on orders of the civilian government in New Delhi.

India does not follow the integrated command system during peace or in combat.  So each armed force prosecutes war as they see appropriate (and possibly in a manner where they get the most glory). There are very few instances when the combat power of one force was deployed under a commander of another – but they do exist. One is the Andaman Command, which has elements of all three services operating under a single commander in war and peace. Other than that, at no time has the country has fought a war under a single commander.

Another reason is the inadequate executive power given to the apex body of the armed forces, represented by the Chiefs of Staff Committee, an organization that is just that – a committee. It has limited or no executive power. The current system of command by committee results in a situation where a service chief or a theatre commander (usually Army) is ‘advised’ by an Air Force advisor on whether or not air power will be suitable (or even available) for a particular operation. If aircrafts are not released by the Air Force, the theatre commander has no choice but to soldier on without air support at a huge cost in casualties and outcomes (China 1962, Kargil 1999).

This is hardly the first time a unified command system is being recommended. The Group Of Ministers (GOM) report, under the Chairmanship of L.K. Advani, including the then Defence Minister, External Affairs Minister and Finance Minister, recommended such a system in 2001. The Cabinet Committee on Security considered the GOM report on 11th May, 2001, and “decided that the recommendation in respect of the institution of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) be considered later, after Government is able to consult various political parties. It accepted all other recommendations contained in the GOM report.” The appointment of CDS has remained in limbo since.

Without such a system and a CDS, combat power (comprising men and materiel) accretions by individual services remain fiefdoms without any ability to use their awesome power as a single, war-fighting machine.

The armed forces will never accept such change from within; such change has always been politically driven from the top.

The U.S. is a typical example. The Goldwater-Nichols Act, 1986, was enacted by the U.S. senate to ensure unified command in the American armed forces, amongst other aspects. By this organisation, each combatant command is headed by a four-star general or admiral. One of the best-known unified combat commanders was Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. Central Command during Operation Desert Storm. He had absolute command over all land, sea and air forces operating in his theatre during the war in Iraq, resulting in the successful prosecution of that conflict.

India must urgently revisit the need for a unified command structure, to effectively use the enormous combat power we are developing at such astronomical cost (India accounts for about 10% of global arms imports with a defence budget of approximately US$ 34 Billion). For example, anti-piracy operations require naval power bolstered by some army and air power. Anti-Maoist operations need the army supported by air and naval power in coastal areas. Both operations would benefit tremendously from a unified command.

Many models for such a joint command have been proposed, we just need to adopt one that suits our needs. In view of the current infighting between the government and the armed forces, this structure, currently used by most countries around the world, could also be the most beneficial: a chief of defence staff will provide single-point advice to the government, allowing for a balanced force-restructuring based on operational needs and not individual service turf; and most importantly, it would enable the armed forces to project itself as a single, viable, effective war machine.

Xerxes Adrianwalla is a retired Brigadier of the Indian Army and a regular contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

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