Recent comments by the CDS General Bipin Rawat and the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria has kickstarted a series of debates and discussions on different platforms on issues related to the Theatre Commands proposed to be set up in the country. Several highly respected defence experts have expressed their views on issues related to reforms at the higher command structure in the Indian armed forces. These debates and discussions have articulated varying aspects, contradictory at times.

There is however a common thread that binds them together. All agree that future conflict scenarios are going to be different from those of the past. Optimisation of force capability in an effective manner, in time and space, is going to be a battle winning factor. Such optimization needs to incorporate cutting-edge technologies to the extent possible. It is also an accepted fact that the current force structure of the armed forces warrants a review and consequent corrections made to effectively orientate the nation’s force capability towards the present and future national security demands. The main issue for discussion therefore is to analyse and identify the way forward in an effort to go about such force organisational and structural reforms.

A look at the past efforts at force modernisation would be an essential first step in such endeavours. Post the conflict with China in the early 1960s, several measures were put in place to upgrade, modernise and expand the nation’s armed forces. Results of these efforts were visible in the 1965 war with Pakistan and even more effectively during the 1971 war. Incidentally, the latter is one of the most successful campaigns in the history of warfare worldwide. It was swift and more effective than the Yom Kippur war of 1973. Several lessons at the operational and strategic levels, the level at which we are planning to restructure, must be revisited and extrapolated to the present and future context. Similarly, our operations in Sri Lanka and the Kargil War should be evaluated and the rights and wrongs taken a note of.

Throughout the 1970s, 1980s and to the present day, there have been continuous efforts towards modernisation of our armed forces. Excellent recommendations were made by highly respected military leaders of the day. These include the post Kargil and political-level studies too. However, for several reasons they were not implemented in their entirety. In the process, some modernisation did take place but it was not sufficient enough to cause a change in the basic philosophy of operations. These upgradations thus got absorbed into the existing doctrine. At best piecemeal and partial reforms served to improve and make the execution of the existing doctrine more efficient. The basic doctrine remained unchanged. The very purpose of modernisation was thus defeated. Economic aspects played a major role in this state of affairs. There was just not enough money to carry out the recommended changes. An important lesson, we must undertake only those reforms that the nation can afford and optimise our force effectiveness from within that. Affordability is an essential input.

It would not be out of place to conclude that the present doctrinal outlook of our armed forces is somewhat dated. Probably that is the reason behind the efforts aimed at the creation of the theatre commands and may also be the logic behind the statements of the CDS and the Air Chief.

Based on the theories of war enunciated by the likes of Clausewitz, who drew his conclusions from the Napoleonic campaigns and later by military thinkers like Liddell Hart and Fuller, many wars have been fought successfully all over the world and over time in the past. However, the foundations of these theories have undergone dramatic changes. Perhaps we have not been able to keep up with such changes. The very aim and purpose of war has changed. Capture of territories, carving out nations and countries and so on are not possible anymore. The aim and purpose of use of violence today is to get a people and a nation to conduct themselves in a desired manner or face consequences. Look at Balakot from this perspective. India sent a strong message to Pakistan through the application of precise destruction power with little collateral damage. The message was clear and needs no reiteration except that it was backed by a firm will and perceivable capability to escalate if required. Attrition therefore has given way to coercion. No longer is war conduct of policy by other means as enunciated by Clausewitz. It is a now an integrated effort between the political masters, armed forces, diplomats, economic factors including the security of financial markets and last but not the least media including social media.

As a result, many new terms have come up that do not find a mention in the classical theories of war. Economic embargos, collateral damage, peace keeping, peace enforcing are only examples. Use of media as a force multiplier has moved to its use as a weapon of war. This was effectively employed by Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam War. He managed to bring a nation as mighty as the US to its knees. His target was not the US forces on ground but the minds and psyche of the people of US. What followed is history. Closer in time the Arab Spring that shook the Middle East in 2011 is another example of the power of social media. One can thus conclude that the basic concepts have moved from nations at war to people at war. This is one lesson the Americans learnt the hard way in the Middle East. No longer is it enough to overrun a nation state and set up a desired governance system. The people that make up the target nation are equally important. So much can be discussed about this aspect, but it would be best to conclude here that destructive power can only go that far and no more. The sphere of warfare has expanded.

Information technologies have become central to the nature of future wars. Maybe it is because of this understanding that China has spent a major effort to catch up with the US. As a result, today the US has lost its ability to practice IT hegemony the world over as it has been doing here to fore.

Put together, warfare has moved radically away from the old notions of armed conflict and moved away from military power fighting military power. It has permeated across people, moved into space and outer space and sunk itself into all aspects of a nation’s affairs. A first look at recent operations the world over would serve to highlight the present nature of expression of military power by nations. The recent exchanges between Israel and Hamas, the US Seal operation deep into Pakistan to liquidate Osama Bin Laden and our own surgical strikes deep inside Pakistan in response to the Uri episode and Balakot as mentioned earlier. Add to this the increasing role of drones, the availability of precision guided missiles and counter systems and one will get a clearer perception of future conflict scenarios. We have not cranked in nuclear, chemical and biological aspects here. The Israeli raid at the Entebbe airport in 1976 to rescue hostages is a good example of such operations highlighting the vast and diverse nature of such missions. It all boils down to a measured application of destructive power to achieve the desired effect, send a message, so to say, to the target population and nation. This does not render the conventional force capability redundant. Far from it. The conventional capability is equally important as a backup and reinforcing strength to above operations. In our case a strong conventional capability for reason alluded to later, is an imperative must. In effect the nation has to take the ground realties into consideration while designing its force structure and capability.

Complete integration and cohesive force capability, not only within the armed forces but at the national level is an absolute must for achieving such missions. The Indian armed forces have demonstrated such capability from within the present structure twice successfully in recent times. The aim must now be to further enhance capability through a refined doctrine, introduction of cutting edge technologies and above all nurturing their greatest asset, the soldier. The vast and diverse nature of such operations envisages extreme flexibility and adaptability in all its connotations and at all levels. To say that one service is organised and structured to support another is a dated concept. There may be missions where the Air Force supports Army operations, while at other times the Army may be called upon to support Air Force operations under varying circumstances. The Army, Navy and the Air Force must become an integral part of mission-oriented force capability. The lower the level at which such integration is effected, greater will be force cohesiveness, while higher levels of integration would result in greater flexibility in employment of resources. The planners will thus need to strike an appropriate balance and levels of integration and flexibility. These are no doubt conflicting requirements.

Efforts aimed at creating an effective and pertinent force composition and orientation must begin at the highest level of the nation. The political masters should define the tenets of the nation’s security concerns and national interests. It is on these basic enunciations of national security doctrine and strategy that the armed forces can draw their own military doctrine and design their force structure accordingly. The armed forces cannot do so in isolation by themselves. Several allied aspects would need to be factored into this process. India has a major commitment of military resources in fighting insurgencies in different parts of the country. It has thousands of kilometres of border which is not recognized internationally. These areas have to be guarded round the clock. The troops doing so need to be supported; some in very hostile environment. Such aspects need consideration and taken a note of.

The US has an organisational structure based on theatre commands. They have divided the world into theatres and structured their commands and military presence accordingly. Another aspect is that in over 200 years of independence the US has been at total peace for approximately 15 to 20 years only. Rest of the time it has been in conflict with someone or the other in some part of the world. India on the other hand is a peace-loving nation and is focused only on its own national security. Our requirements are specific to our own security concerns. Our theatre commands will have to be orientated on these. Thus, our force structure has to be specific to our requirements and cannot be based on any external model. Of equal importance is our force location and infrastructure to support likely operations. The armed forces need to be optimally dispersed to be able to respond in a balanced manner to an emerging situation in time and space.

A number of factors would thus need consideration while giving a futuristic shape to our armed forces. The idea of integrated theatre commands is a step in the right direction, theoretically for now. Creation of such commands should never be at the cost of the frontline capability, the cutting edge. To the contrary they must serve to enhance the nation’s capability to apply and develop pertinent combat power in a decisive and a proactive manner in a developing conflict situation. We must guard against spreading ourselves thinner on the ground. The idea of theatre commands could be considered when we have built and consolidated our resources of man and machine to an optimal level and we have got a clear vision of our force requirements.  Let us get it right this time.