Slow down, think it through

Slow down, think it through

Bulldozing over IAF’s reservations may help the CDS achieve a satisfying tenure, but he will end up leaving behind a dysfunctional set-up

CDS Bipin Rawat. Credit: PTI file photo

For some weeks before Independence Day, there were loud whispers predicting that the Prime Minister would announce the formation of military theatre commands on August 15, in conformance with the tradition of making some heavy-duty announcement from the ramparts of the Red Fort to an expectant nation. His 90-minute speech, however, skirted the theatre command issue, thus confirming the government’s acceptance of the problems that beset the issue and the need to deliberate on them for a little longer.

The die was cast for theatre commands when the retiring Chief of Army Staff (COAS) Gen Bipin Rawat was appointed the country’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) on January 1, 2020. Amongst other things, his mandate included “Facilitation of restructuring of military commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through establishment of joint/theatre commands.” The CDS betrayed inordinate haste in specifically addressing this part of his extensive mandate as soon as he took over. Possibly, the rush was impelled by the motivation to ‘tick’ this box within his tenure of three years.

As soon as he took over as CDS, Gen Rawat surprised many within (and outside) the military by announcing his plan to set up a joint, integrated Air Defence Command (ADC). He issued instructions to prepare a roadmap for it within six months, i.e., by June 30 last year. The announcement caught unawares the Indian Air Force (IAF), the main service involved, and did not seem to have come about as a result of any formal deliberation or assessment involving the IAF.

After the announcement, a committee headed by the Vice Chief of Air Staff (VCAS) was quickly formed to study the intricacies of what the CDS had presented as a fait accompli. Subsequently, in August last year, there were reports that the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) had said the ADC would be announced by the second week of October (possibly on October 8, Air Force Day). However, in an interview on that day, the Chief of Air Staff R K S Bhadauria responded to a question about the ADC thus, “The study for setting up the command is in the advanced stage.” Unattributed statements at the beginning of this year indicated that the ADC was planned to come up in Allahabad in April this year, but that has not happened either.

It is evident from the foregoing that the CDS’ assessment of the time frame for setting up the first of the theatre commands was unrealistic; aspects related to authority, command, control, integration, legal matters, budgetary allocations etc., continue to cause delays in freezing a design. The challenges in setting up the ADC are many and include the IAF’s misgivings on the doctrinal and philosophical fundamentals of the employment of air power.

Meanwhile, on July 2 this year, the CDS, addressing an event organised by an international counterterrorism think-tank surprised, nay shocked, the military and strategic community by proclaiming, “Do not forget that the Air Force continues to remain a supporting arm to the armed forces, just as artillery support or the engineers support the combatant arms in the Army.”

Coming at a time when the whole exercise of setting up theatre commands was caught up in an impasse, the statement vitiated the atmosphere. It may have been the result of the CDS’ frustration at not being able to meet his own milestones within designated timeframes, but it was nonetheless untimely and, moreover, delivered at an inappropriate forum. It was also insensitive as it sought to devalue the world’s fourth largest air force to a mere supporting arm, subservient to the Army, ignored decades of military scholarship, rubbished lessons learnt from melting pots of military history, and repudiated the practical wisdom of nations that have employed air power in many campaigns.

Contrary to expectations, there were no acrimonious ripostes or rejoinders and, indeed, reactions from serving officers, including the Chief of Air Staff, were subtle and subdued, confining themselves to facts and reasoned arguments, in contrast to the sensational content of the CDS’ statement. Many veterans, not restrained by legal shackles, have been critical, have vented their ire at the CDS and vociferously ridiculed his utterance. In a remarkable and healthy display of levelheadedness, serving and retired Army officers have refrained from cheering the CDS on for voicing his opinion on where the IAF should be pegged in his scheme of things.

The CDS’ perception does not match with current military wisdom nor with the tenets of air power. More importantly, it does not take into account a 2012 document titled the Basic Doctrine of the Air Force, which states the IAF’s mission thus: “To acquire strategic reach and capabilities across the spectrum of conflict that serve the ends of military diplomacy, nation-building and enable force projection within India’s strategic area of influence.”

Air Chief Bhadauria and several IAF veterans have explained that the IAF is not opposed to the concept of theatre commands but has issues with the way their establishment is envisaged. Bulldozing over these misgivings and reservations may help the CDS achieve a satisfying tenure but he would leave behind a legacy of theatre commands that are dysfunctional from the day they are erected. What is needed is a deliberate application of brakes on the process of theaterisation so that the IAF’s concerns are addressed and the challenges of an as yet untried concept are deliberated upon to forestall setbacks arising from hastening into uncharted territory.

(The writer is an IAF veteran and a former senior research scholar at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)

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