When creating new joint command structures, the new CDS must proceed with caution

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India’s new Chief of Defense Staff (CDS), even as he grapples with thorny issues of managing two living borders, modernizing forces, competing budgetary demands and new personnel policies, will be under pressure to expedite the creation of new joint command structures. Although he receives unsolicited advice from many quarters, the only advice the CDS should heed is to “hurry slowly”. Indeed, contrary to popular impression, the appointment of a CDS did not necessitate the immediate creation of theater commands.

The December 24, 2019 GDP memo announcing Cabinet approval of the creation of the position of CDS made a clear distinction between achieving “integration” and “creating theater commands”. In one paragraph, the CDS is charged “As permanent chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff…to ensure the cohesion of operations, logistics, training…etc. of the three services, within three years”. A separate paragraph directs the Department of Military Affairs to “facilitate” the “restructuring of military commands for optimal use of resources, ensuring cohesion of operations, including through the creation of joint commands/theatres,” with no time stipulation.

Perhaps due to a misinterpretation of Cabinet intent, the reform process got off to a false start in 2020 with the coining of a new term — “theatricalization” — which became its driving force. The creation of theaters should have been an end state or an ultimate goal of a process aimed at bringing about solidarity and integration. But once “the cart was put before the horse,” the process predictably ran into interdepartmental conflict, resulting in a stalemate that persists.

The nine-month delay in appointing the second CDS may prove to be a blessing in disguise if it leads to soul-searching by our military and political leaders. Such soul-searching must take place in the context of the 30-month military confrontation with China and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Apart from this, there are other imperatives which cannot be removed.

First, any conflict with China will require forces/resources from 4-6 of India’s 14 single services and two tri-service commands (none of which are co-located), as well as space and cyber agencies and the special forces division. Facing them will be the combined arms forces of the PLA under the unitary command of its Western Theater Command. One can imagine the command/control and logistics nightmare such a situation could create for Indian operational commanders and the fiascos that could ensue. The obvious imperative is to integrate these 14 commands into 4-5 geographic or threat-based theaters and place the necessary forces under a single commander charged with the conduct of operations.

Second, department heads must come to terms with the reality that once theater commanders assume the “combatant” role, they will be stripped of their operational responsibilities and assume the “relaunch-train-sustain” functions, involving the recruitment and training of personnel as well as the acquisition of means of combat. Theater commanders will have two/three star rank service “component commanders” to provide service specific guidance.

Third, while component commanders may maintain a link with their leaders, the question of who will provide operational guidance to theater commanders remains open.

The final issue concerns airpower, which has been the source of much controversy over resources, roles and missions. Beneath the facade of interdepartmental bonhomie hides this germ of discord, which no one wants to talk about. The idea that strategic bombing alone was the way to victory was propagated by the proponents of air power, Billy Mitchell in America and Guilio Douhet in Italy. Command from the air, they believed, meant quick, cheap, and decisive victory, rendering surface forces superfluous.

Despite the failure of the Allied bomber offensive of World War II, a lingering Western belief in the decisiveness of air power via “air dominance” persisted during asymmetric conflicts in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, in Kosovo, Lebanon, Libya and Syria. However, none of these conflicts resulted in a “decisive victory” for the West, nor did air power make a significant contribution.

While the IAF was justified in taking umbrage at being referred to as a “support arm” by the previous CDS, it is undeniable that as far as armies and navies are concerned, air power performs a “support function”, yet vital and indispensable. One of the lessons of the conflicts of the 20th century is that wars are not won and lost neither at sea nor in the air, but on the ground by armies. Maybe the same playbook is being pieced together in Ukraine!

While “the indivisibility of air power” may have been a good hypothetical construct in the past, the need of the hour is to find pragmatic ways of sharing air power to enable future theater commanders to counter the threatens. The IAF’s reluctance to share its assets must be tempered by the fact that theater air assets will be deployed on the advice and by IAF component commanders.

One area in which the services have been negligent is in not initiating changes in professional military training even before the sequence of reforms was launched. The very first step should have been to redesign the current Staff College into a “Joint Service Staff College” with changes to its curriculum to produce “Joint Staff Officers”, ready to serve in sister service HQs, learning in the process to play the role of future component and theater commanders. Likewise for the three war colleges.

Finally, for those on Raisina Hill, there is much to learn from studying the thorny path of the US National Security Act of 1947, pushed through by President Truman in the face of bitter opposition from the US Navy. Or about the “revolt of the admirals” following the cancellation of the “super-aircraft carrier”, which followed in 1949. Or how Secretary of Defense Forrestal solved the enigma of the “roles and missions” of airpower via the 1948 “Key West Agreement”. Goldwater-Nichols Act in 1986.

The author is a retired Navy Chief of Staff

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