Immediately after the Prime Minister had announced the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff in 2019, we at BharatShakti.in had published three articles by RAdm Sudarshan Shrikhande (Retd) looking ahead at what shape the higher defence reform process could take. Nearly two years down the line, these thoughts remain relevant and provide food for thought. Here’s the second of the three-part series we are reposting.
As reported in the media on 17 February 2020 —during a time when most of the world was yet not quite admitting that a global crisis might be around the corner—the Chief of the Defence Staff said that among other graduated steps being taken to steer the country towards Joint Theatre Commands (JTC), studies would be commissioned to formulate the contours, constituents and purposes of the so-called Peninsula Command. To quote a report (ET), “The proposed peninsula command will be formed by merging the navy’s western and eastern commands and will spread from the Sir Creek near the Arabian Sea to the Sunderbans in the Bay of Bengal.”
One can assume that preliminary work on the form and functions of this planned command may have started in all three Service Headquarters (SHQs) and the newly set up Department of Military Affairs (DMA). This article delves into some aspects that could be considered to make such a command an effective and vital constituent of the nation’s ability and capacity to be ready across the spectrum of conflict. The spectrum starts from the conditions of peacetime to inter-state war and the nuclear deterrence postures that span the entire bandwidth itself.
This author had suggested earlier what a possible road-map that leverages integration as input and enables jointness as output could look like. Among other things, a phased approach to setting up joint theatre commands as suggested such that by the end of six years, all such commands would be in place. By then, perhaps we could complete the necessary transition to the CDS exercising military command through the JTCs. Simultaneously, SHQs would be able to make the transition to the very important functions of “Raise, Train and Sustain” without which the JTCs would not have the bite required for the types of future warfare complexities we need to remain ready for. The pace at which these important transitions are actually made would, of course, depend on the directives that the government gives the DMA, MoD and SHQs. It could certainly be done earlier than my proposed period.
- The name of this planned JTC, at least as a first cut, seems to be “Peninsula Command.” One hopes it won’t be institutionalised. Here are some reasons:
- India’s increasing interests and China’s spreading power, presence and pursuit of its own interests make it imperative for India to be more expansively oriented. “Peninsula” has a connotation of a very limited triangular conception that may seem – perhaps unwittingly — a continental and defensive orientation of a perpetually bashful middle-power.
- Fundamentally, a peninsula command cannot include the island territories of India, notably the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and consequently the A & N Command. The exclusion of ANC from this JTC could be counter-productive but there seems to be no indication in the open domain that this is under consideration. One hopes it is or will be.
- A theatre that is oriented away from the contiguous, continental borders mainly with Pakistan and China ought to include the leverage that our islands provide. This leverage is geostrategic; it is military-strategic in both defensive and offensive strategies and operations.
- Importantly, many Afro-Asian countries and others within the IOR littoral are more likely to look to a democratic, open India to step up in balancing China. There may be complex drivers for this, but the scale, open ambition, debt-traps and domestic political side-effects of Beijing’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) have begun to worry several governments. Current concerns about the ‘Viral’ Silk Road may further exacerbate these anxieties and with good reason. China, of course, will push its statecraft into an all-wheel-drive to counter the considerable negativity it may face. In the coming environmental change, Indian statecraft’s DIME strategies (Diplomatic, Informational, Military and Economic) would also need to up their game. In all this, a fully geared, new JTC would be an important component of DIME in peace and of course, for deterring and fighting to win in conflict. The “S” for Security in SAGAR (Security and Growth for All in the Region) would benefit from more efficient husbanding in the years ahead.
- So, what would be a better name for such a JTC than perhaps the interim nomenclature above? Some thoughts:
- Yes, the command would have a primarily oceanic orientation and, most significantly, the Indian Navy would contribute almost all its fighting resources to it. The same command would also allocate fighting forces to maritime operations that would be necessary for the support of the other commands, notably the one that deals with Pakistan. China would loom largest in its schematic, of course.’
- It would thus be logical to call it the Maritime Command. One could suggest that this would have two main problems. First, all warfare would be multi-dimensional and therefore, joint. This is nothing new. War was always about attaining political objectives or preventing the enemy from achieving his. The political/policy dimension always ought to be paramount. In fact, neither is there anything new or novel about multi-dimensional, or hybrid or even grey zone warfare. Warfare has been multidimensional since land power and sea power collaborated. Then came airpower and now we may add the cyber and space dimensions. This intended command may often be predominantly maritime, but never exclusively so. It would be no more exclusively maritime than say, the Northern (or China-oriented command) may be exclusively continental or about landpower. Second, there would very rarely be a singularly maritime conflict. However, conflicts could have maritime dimensions of varying significance, opportunities, and possibly even centrality in a few cases. Third, accepting the realities of turf sensitivities, and of the pressures of fighting on other fronts and in other dimensions, it might take some time before the other Services feel totally at ease devoting resources to a “maritime” command. The advantage of this name does lie in its flexibility to mount operations using the oceans anywhere in the world; at least in theory. We will see that there is an option that incorporates this advantage while working around the other disadvantageous aspects discussed earlier.
- The third name could be the Indian Ocean or even the Indo-Pacific or merely the Oceanic Command. The middle, i.e., Indo-Pacific could be ruled out because there is an American JTC of the same name. But that is the smaller issue. It is also not commensurate with the inclusion of say, the South Atlantic or the Mediterranean as a future area of interest; and third, the inclusion of the Pacific puts the onus of a fairly regular and considerable presence and operations in all periods of peace to justify the name. The simpler prefix, Indian Ocean, has the drawback of being restrictive in a manner not fundamentally different from calling it the Peninsula command. Besides, our interests exist, even at this moment in the Pacific, which becomes semantically excluded. Importantly, sea power provides leverage and influence which can be exceedingly important for a nation but oceans are ultimately enablers and an oceanic name to a command that sets its eyes on future interests, needs and methods may have similar problems that maritime or named oceans may have.
- Therefore, the fourth possibility is to simply call it the Southern Command. Here are some possible factors in its favour:
- It is dimensionally neutral. This would enable easier amalgamation of the Army’s and IAF’s existing southern commands to the extent determined as well as of the Coast Guard;
- It could include any ocean areas and littorals, even those that may eventually point other than southwards.
- It would be in consonance with the very likely possibility of choosing cardinal and perhaps internal cardinal compass points like Northern, Western, South Western, Eastern Joint Commands (also Central, etc., as required) on the anvil.
- It would be no different from the very sensible system adopted by our military forefathers in every service for the single service commands that exist as of now.
- As a corollary, China too has named its joint theatres in a similar wayand with good reason as well.
- Finally, it remains simple enough for strategic and operational flexibility while not being restrictive as in “Maritime/ Peninsular” or problematic as in “Indian Ocean”;“Oceanic” or “Indo-Pacific.”
Functions and Strat-Operational Issues
A quick, but the macro-level point that I would like to suggest here is that in due course when the CDS is the war-fighting principal commander, and while he also remains the principal military adviser, he may benefit from having a VCDS and VCDF. The VCDS would help the “Integration” part and the longer-term issues of force planning, human resources, defence budgeting, Civil- Mil interface and those liaison and coordination aspects of “raise-train-sustain” that the current MoD (other than the DMA) and the SHQs would be responsible for. In essence, the VCDS could handle the DMA part on behalf of the CDS.
The Vice Chief of the Defence Force(s) [please see the reference to the Australian “Three Services but One Force” approach] could head the joint output functions that are the key to bring jointness into warfighting. The PM’s 15th August speech seems very clear and unambiguous in that the government is looking ultimately at the armed forces to better address these output issues. I may add here that having a parallel, but an interconnected arrangement of a VCDS and VCDF under the CDS is only an outline proposal I am working on. However, further internal staff studies by all concerned would be very necessary to give it full meaning.
Naturally, a transition should avoid creating internal disruption as such. Therefore, initially, it seems very appropriate that the CNS and NHQ would be the lead agent in drawing up the functions, form and fit of this new JTC in conjunction with the DMA and other SHQs. One supposes there would be analogous lead agents for the Air Defence Command and so on. At appropriate times and in smooth steps, the military command could be transferred to the CDS via the VCDF and the Joint HQ.
The suggested Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) would be outward-oriented for furthering and protecting India’s interests in which the seas and oceans are vital highways to our neighbours, trading partners, friends and adversaries. At all times and in all conditions, the SOUTHCOM (which must include the ANC in the final stages of the command being raised) will do its bit in the DIME rope of statecraft, especially in military diplomacy, multi-dimensional security, defence partnerships and economic well-being of India and our friends.
One supposes that a major portion, if not almost all of the navy’s forces, will be under the primary operational responsibility of this theatre’s commander. Significantly, and to illustrate, the theatre responsible for deterring and countering Pakistan would be under – say – a JTC called Western Command. In several ways, assets of SOUTCOM would be periodically assigned to it and would jointly train and exercise with it. Some quick-strike and coastal patrol naval assets could be permanently assigned to this WESTCOM, of course, but to be augmented as required. Likewise, there would be some IAF assets that would be on general permanent strength of the SOUTCOM and, depending on the tasking required, augmented by IAF assets and resources from other commands. The same rationale applies to Army assets.
The details are important but need not be gone into here. The late Colin Gray’s guidance, “Geography is not joint but warfare is” is a very useful one. While the CDS and VCDF will be in the chain of military command, a future CNS would be fully engaged in the raise, train and sustain functions while having a say in the operational arena not as a commander, but as a military adviser and member of the Chiefs of Staff Committee.
From Teething Problems to Sharpening the Bite
There are bound to be teething problems in setting up this or any other JTCs. Yet, fundamentally, it is not something that takes us into uncharted waters. At its simplest, a JTC is a better way of handling the business of joint military outputs across the spectrum of peace and conflict. There is another maxim, if you will, that would help planners and decision-makers at all levels of government, but especially so, in the armed forces, which are required, more than anyone else to integrate the inputs and generate the joint outputs. The maxim could be simply stated: If in doubt, think of what would be best for the nation!The right answer will surely stare us in the face!
R Adm Sudarshan Shrikhande (Retd)
This article first appeared on 26 April, 2020, at bharatshakti.in