Service chiefs: Why one is better than three!

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Mohan Guruswamy

It was heartening to read that the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa, had recently said that “all three services will have to adopt a coherent approach to effectively deal will all possible security threats facing the country”. Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa said in an interview to PTI that it was “imperative that the three services promote joint planning and exploit the strengths of the three services to help India win a war in the shortest possible time”.
Way back in the early 1980s at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, I took a survey course called “Current Issues in US Foreign Policy”, that was taught by two top specialists in international security issues, Joseph Nye and Al Carnesale. In those days with the Cold War blowing hot, the United States and the then Soviet Union together had over 50,000 nuclear warheads, each one of them on hair-trigger readiness to render each other and a good part of the rest of the world “into a smoking radiating ruin”. On the very first day they said the course would really be about the relationship between three superpowers — the US Air Force (USAF), the US Navy (USN) and the Soviet Union! Because of the rivalries of the USAF and USN, the nuclear arms race got bigger, far more than they actually needed to be. It is only after the demise of the Soviet Union and the deep cutbacks in nuclear arsenals that the US Air Force and US Navy nuclear arsenals got integrated into a single inter-services command.
When the BJP first came to power in 1998, one of its two main promises was to enhance national security by integrating the three services into the defence ministry and also to integrate defence planning and operations. This was meant to pave the way for a new system that would have given the military a greater role in making policies pertaining to national security as well as in managing itself. It is generally agreed that India needs a Combined Defence Staff to integrate defence planning and operations. If this has not happened yet, much of the blame must fall on the services themselves.
The Indian Army has its own notions about who should get primacy, especially since it has a tradition that goes back to 1778 when it began as the Army of Bengal in the East India Company days. But its pitch is queered by the IAF, that often marches to the beat of a different drummer. The consequence of this reluctance to plan and work together showed up in Kargil. The IAF did not have the tactics and even the appropriate weapons when called to assist the Army. The Indian Army didn’t seem to know what kind of support can be called for. It wanted attack helicopters but didn’t seem to know that they couldn’t be operated at high elevations. It wanted drones, at a time when the IAF didn’t have any.
So intent are the three services on fighting their own wars that they even maintain command systems that are out of sync with each other. The IAF has a Western Air Command headquartered in New Delhi to ostensibly work with the Indian Army’s Northern and Western Commands, which are headquartered near Chandigarh and Udhampur. Similarly, the IAF’s commands in Ahmedabad and Shillong are out of alignment with the Army commands in Pune, Jaipur and Kolkata; and the naval commands in Mumbai and Visakhapatnam. I make a special mention of the IAF as in any modern war, the Air Force is the all-powerful queen on the geopolitical chessboard.
The IAF has a long record of waging obdurate turf wars. It fought a long battle to keep all military helicopters under its control till good sense finally prevailed and the Army was given command of the Chetak helicopters used for artillery spotting, anti-tank operations, tactical supply and medical evacuation. The Indian Army won yet another bureaucratic war when it prevailed over the legendary indecisiveness of A.K. Antony, then defence minister, to grant it control of the new Boeing Apache 64E attack helicopters, so vital in anti-tank warfare. The IAF’s single-mindedness is best evidenced by the fact that it took it more than a decade to optimise a squadron of Jaguars for maritime operations with Ferranti radars and Sea Eagle missiles.
We have a joint chiefs system, but it is a rotational system with the seniormost of the three chiefs as the chairman. They do even one better in Pakistan, where they have a separate Chief of Defence Staff, four stars, house, flag and all, except that the job does not matter at all because it is the Chief of Army Staff who calls all the shots — quite often literally. This is what seems to be in the cards for us as the chiefs want to hang on to their turf and all they seem to be looking forward to at best is another four-star job for one of their own. What they seem to have in mind is a really the last among equals, when even a first among equals may not do.
What we need is a commander-in-chief who can whip all the three services into a united, efficient and cost-effective fighting machine. This person must be chosen on the basis of ability and not the date of birth or entry into service. If we need to pin a fifth star on someone’s lapels to get this, we must not hesitate to do so. In matters relating to the military, it is better to have one chief rather than three or four.
The mere creation of a CDS will not do the job unless it is followed up by the integration of operational or theatre commands. The military organisation needs to be restructured not only by allowing it to take part in the framing of policy, but also to make it more capable of implementing policy. We need just three theatre commands, the Northwestern Theatre Command incorporating the Indian Army’s Northern, Western and the bit of the Southern Command that covers Gujarat; and the IAF’s Western and Southwestern Commands. The Eastern Theatre Command should integrate the Indian Army’s and IAF’s Central and Eastern Commands. The third theatre command should be the Peninsular Command, which includes the Indian Navy’s Eastern and Western Commands, the Indian Army and the IAF Southern Commands. It also makes sense to bring BSF and Coast Guard units under the operational authority of the theatre commanders.