Speculations are rife that political expedience may compel the announcement of military theatre commands system on the ‘Independence Day’. However, it would be most unfortunate were it to happen, as it’s an idea whose time has not come, primarily because of conflicting beliefs on the roles and missions of IAF’s aerospace power and how it is to be achieved in a joint warfighting scenario. The latest utterances from the highest military leadership inspires little confidence in the understanding of what aerospace power is all about and how it should be utilised to ensure a war-winning strategy with synergistic combined operations by the armed forces.
It may be recalled that two years ago, political expediency had come to the fore when the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) was announced from the ramparts of Red Fort on a similar occasion. But, when the post was finally created and the first incumbent installed, it was clear that due diligence had not been exercised in the entire process and there were confusions galore, both in terms of responsibilities and the status assigned to the post. These glaring anomalies have been discussed in detail in earlier editions but perhaps the most dichotomous one was the fact that the CDS – apart from being the head of the IDS, as also heading the newly created 5th vertical DMA (Department of Military Affairs) in the MoD –has also been made PC-COSC (Permanent Chairman-Chiefs of Staff Committee). CDS wearing the ‘3rd Hat’ as PC-COSC is not an issue as the same had been recommended by both KRC (Kargil Review Committee) and the Naresh Chandra Committee. However, the problem is that politico/bureaucratic establishment being highly apprehensive of putting too much power in the hands of one individual has deliberately kept CDS away from playing any operational role in the entire gamut of military operations. In the present scheme of things, this arrangement is simply not workable.
To redux, since its establishment on august 15, 1947 upon Indian Independence, the COSC has been functioning as the supreme professional body to advise the Government on all military-related matters, as also being the apex body to provide collective leadership for formulating unified strategy for the conduct of wars. However, hitherto, even though it would have the senior most chief donning the mantle of Chairman, its functioning has been on the principle of mutual consensus to bring about the necessary synergy in operations. It may also be recalled that while the nomenclature of the service chiefs was changed from Commanders-in-Chief to Chiefs of Staff in 1955, the three service chiefs continued to shoulder the overall responsibilities including operations of their respective services and the same continues till today.
When the joint strategy for warfighting was formulated at the apex COSC level as was the case in the 1971 War, the results were spectacular – Pakistan was cut in two. But, when only single-service (read Army) strategy was applied, outside the overall purview of the COSC and the other two services brought in only after being pushed to a corner, the results were less than optimal. The 1991 Kargil War was the latest example of a single-service strategy – at least in the initial stages – wherein unified warfighting strategy was not formulated, resulting in unnecessary large number of casualties in evicting the enemy which could perhaps have been avoided.
Incidentally, the Kargil War became the harbinger for reforms in the higher defence organisation which ultimately resulted in the creation of the post of CDS. And now that the CDS is a reality, needless to say he should have the authority as PC-COSC to be able to suitably direct the service chiefs to ensure unified strategy for synergising warfighting at the apex level. But, as mentioned earlier, with no operational role assigned to the CDS, his being PC-COSC itself becomes questionable in the present scenario.
And now, in the name of bringing about jointness through optimal and cost-effective utilization of resources, the establishment is hurtling towards creation of Theatre Commands without proper analysis of all aspects and wargaming various options. Once again, there is confusion galore, as functional and continental commands are being put together without clarity of thought. A standalone Air Defence Command for example has proven to be the bane of any country which tried it in the past for the simple fact that AD operations cannot be divorced from rest of the air operations. The most glaring example is that of the Egyptian Air Force in the 1973 Yom Kipur War Arab-Israel War when its AD Command shot down a large number of its own and its allies’ aircraft. Further, while the entire resources of the Indian Navy are being congregated to form a gargantuan Maritime Command, the IAF resources are being parceled out under the continental commands which incidentally are yet to be fully formulated. But, keeping in view the geo-political realities of our neighbourhood with deep-rooted nexus between China and Pakistan, how will one theatre command for one adversary would pan out is anybody’s guess. Notably, four land forces commands were created in the past citing unwieldiness of the long Pak border. If it is perceived now that a single command will be able to meet the challenge then so be it. In the same vein indivisibility of aerospace power should also not be violated and the notion that the country as a whole is but one theatre for application of airpower should be respected.
The mantra should be joint planning and synergised operations to make it a war-winning formula. It must also be clearly understood that CSFO (Counter Surface Force Operations that includes Close Air Support) is but one of the myriad roles of aerospace power.
Most importantly, it is not just a support arm, but a ‘SPEARHEAD’.
– Air Marshal VK ‘Jimmy’ Bhatia (Retd)