Nitin A. Gokhale: Hello and welcome to BharatShakti.in. I’m Nitin Gokhale. Theaterisation and creation of theatre commands in the Indian context has become another topic or has once again resurfaced as a topic of debate ever since the new Chief of Defence Staff or the second Chief of Defence Staff General Anil Chauhan was appointed by the government to head the Department of Military Affairs. Since 2020, when General Bipin Rawat was appointed India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, this has been a topic which pops up once in a while. But what exactly is theaterisation and before theaterisation happens of the Indian armed forces, what are the requirements is something that most people are not very clear about. And to shed some more light on where this debate must go, where this plan must go, we have with us Lt Gen. DS Hooda, former Northern Army Commander and now a very renowned strategist and analyst who works with the Delhi Policy Group and advises them on various military issues. So we are going to talk about this entire planning or what should be the planning for theaterisation in the Indian context. Welcome to this programme Gen. Hooda and thank you for your time.
Lt Gen DS Hooda (Retd): Thank you very much for having me on this programme. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you.
Nitin A. Gokhale: Thank you. So let me start first up. I remember you writing a paper when Gen. Anil Chauhan was appointed as India’s second CDS sometime late last year that before we get into what the theatre commands of the joint commands must look like, there are certain prerequisites which must be fulfilled. So if you can give us your thoughts on what do you think should be some of the prerequisites on that plan.
Lt Gen DS Hooda (Retd): So I think you’re right, I’d written about this, you know on how we should go ahead with the integrated theatre command. I think there is no doubting that this restructuring is required in the Indian military. You can’t have a silo approach anymore and you need to integrate the three services, however, I just want to point out what Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari said. He said, the Air Force has its own doctrine and we are concerned about how this doctrine could be impacted at the integrated theatre command. I think that is the fundamental issue, there is some concern about how the theatre commands would play out. So my suggestion was that we take a three-step plan, and the first step is to have a joint war fighting strategy. After having developed a joint warfighting strategy, we sit down to develop joint war plan with the three services and we take these war plans across the whole spectrum of conflict starting from hybrid conflict, low intensity conflict, all-out war. And once I think the joint warfighting plans are made, there would be great clarity on how the three services will combine together to achieve political and military objectives. How are the assets of each service to be employed in this scenario? How will you utilize common resources, for example, each service has BrahMos and UAV with each service, electronic warfare resources, etc.? Finally, I think the issue of command and control, which again is sort of up in the air and we could discuss this further, I mean how command and control will be executed in war. Once this is put in place, we could look at integrated structures.
Nitin A. Gokhale: Yeah, exactly. So in fact, taking the queue from, what you just said about looking at the command and control. And while the Indian military has acquitted itself very well since independence in several wars and several sub-conventional theatres, the fact is that like you mentioned and like all of us know, they work in silos. Their doctrines are separate. Their logistics used to be Australian is in a large part and a separate silo. Of course, their requirements also separate, but so far in the past three years now all that has been done is perhaps some tinkering of the logistics mode nodes rather, which have been established. But before that, I wanted to ask you, well, apart from the three steps that you’ve suggested, isn’t the requirement also there for joint training? Because except for NDA and then perhaps later at CDM and staff college and then finally at the NDC, there is not much that sort of is on offer for joint training of the three services not knowing each other’s feet, not knowing each other’s systems. So how do you go about it? Is there a need to have joint training also?
Lt Gen DS Hooda (Retd): Absolutely, joint training for two reasons. One, as you mentioned, which is the most important aspect, is that you understand each other’s service culture. You understand each other’s ethos, you understand how others operate. Because this is also some concern you know air assets in the hands of some infantry army officer and he just won’t understand how to use them and misuse it or something. So that is one aspect that is required. And I think we need to start combined training at levels lower than what we are doing now. Currently, it’s only at the National Defence College that really we have I know Staff College has, but then Staff College again trains largely with its own service. My suggestion is that at the high command level—now each service has its own high command—I think there needs to be only one higher command. So at the level of Colonels, everybody learns each other’s operating ethos and environment, etc. I think this training needs to start at a much, much lower level, at the level of commanding officer, at the level of colonels where we have combined high command courses, we have only one high command. So what my suggestion is to not have three different courses, also joint training in terms of look, we have a restricted kind of a budget, we need to make sure that our resources are properly utilized. I mean, why should we have helicopter training on the same platform separately for the Army and the Air Force? Why can’t we have one school? Why can’t we have one combined air defence school? The Air Force has one, the Army had one. A lot of the equipment that is coming in is common, for example, Akash missiles. So it’s even in these areas that I think we can sort of combine. And once you train together, you get a greater understanding of how other services work.
Nitin A. Gokhale: In fact, I think you hit the nail on the head because changing mindsets is the first step, I suppose, to understand each other’s service or operating ethos. And it’s a very valid suggestion to have one course because I see it every year when the three higher command courses get together for a period of a month, maybe month and a half in Mhow for the joint capsule, that’s about it that they know each other and then you have some of the cross deputations, the army people who go into the Naval war college and the Navy people coming to the Army War College, that happens. But that is very minuscule for a military of our size. You’re right. But to do that, I think the change of mindset now has to come right at the highest level of the leadership in the three services. And they will have to share some establishment or some turf to combine this together. How do you achieve that? Because that’s something that the politicians always ask that we try, we tell them, we do this, but the services seem to push back on each of these suggestions. You have any suggestions on that?
Lt Gen DS Hooda (Retd): I think the CDS was put in place primarily for this purpose, to ensure that they’re in jointness and this is something that we can push. My own personal view is the CDS has been and I know people could disagree. I think the CDS has been given too much administrative kind of responsibility and roles, he should have focused largely on how jointness has to be to be achieved and that is how the organization structure should have come up. And having said that, Nitin, in case the CDS is not able to do this due to push back from the services, I think it’s time for the political leadership to step in. They have given us a DMA, they’ve given us a Chief of Defence Staff to ensure that jointness and integration move forward. And if it is not happening, I think political directions coming down will have to ensure that.
Nitin A. Gokhale: True. So like you rightly said, I think there’s too much on the CDS plate. And the three different hats that he has to wear, one of the first secretary DMA, then that chairman chiefs of staff committee, then also some of the operations, I mean the role of advisor in the nuclear chain of command, all that. But to do that do you think there’s some tweak needed in this structure that he has inherited from the 2001 reforms of headquarter IDS or maybe VSDS, the vice chief of defence staff, is put in place who can take on some responsibilities, namely the administrative responsibility. Then the CDS is free to do policy conceptualisation, even of the jointness that must come in. You think that’s feasible?
Lt Gen DS Hooda (Retd): Absolutely. I think there needs to be further integration between that DMA and the Headquarters IDS. Why do we have these two organizations still functioning? Why can’t we integrate the DMA and the Headquarters IDS? And as you said, VCDS who takes on a lot of the administrative responsibility. And so the CDS is completely focused on what his key roles are. If you look at the roles of the CDS as given out by the government when he was appointed, I mean a lot of focus and on how to bring about integration, how to bring about jointness. So that should be the main set of focus area that he has.
Nitin A. Gokhale: The jointness, when we talk about it’s not just operational. And I think it was very clear in that cabinet committee of security note or at least the notification when the CDS was appointed, where there is a point about optimization of resources, then bringing in optimization in procurement, for instance, to avoid duplication. I think that’s where we are wasting our precious resources. So is that something that the CDS must take or should it be left to VCDS, if at all a VCDS is appointed?
Lt Gen DS Hooda (Retd): At the end of it, the CDS will have to give a set of policy directions that the VCDS is going to implement. Some of the routine as I said of manpower issues, postings, promotions, administrative matters, I think some of that can be left to the VCDS so that the CDS is functioning on the task that he has been given on optimization and integration, bringing about jointness, looking at a long term sort of procurement plan. Just on the issue of issue of sort of integration, look at the communication system that exists today in the military. All the three services have their own networks and these networks cannot speak to each other. The Army and the Air Force have developed separate air defence network where you can see each other’s operational picture. How are we going to talk about having integrated theatre command if right now our communication systems are so disparate? But so these are some of the I think key issue that brought out about training, about joint logistics, communication, integrated set ups, these are things that the CDS must be completely focused on.
Nitin A. Gokhale: True. I hope he is doing that after all, being appointed for almost 5 months since the new CDS was appointed. But moving forward a little bit about the proposed or possible structures of integrated theatre commands. Now we’ve had the Andaman and Nicobar Command as one of the crucibles of experiment, if you wish, and it’s completed more than 20 years now. In your view or experience, has the ANC been able to fulfill what it was set out to achieve?
Lt Gen DS Hooda (Retd): I would say it’s a mixed bag. The experiment has sort of succeeded in the sense that you had different officers from different services in the Andaman and Nicobar Command. Initially it was thought to be the Navy’s preserve, but you had officers successfully dealing with it. It is a tri-service command. The shortfall has been a little reluctance among the services to allocate resources to the ANC but largely it’s been a reasonably successful model in the sense that the three services have worked together. The only issue was allocating resources which is why I think perhaps its operational importance has not developed to the extent that it should. Everybody talks about the ANC as a game changer in the Indian Ocean but I think the lack of assets is something that has held it back a little.
Nitin A. Gokhale: Yeah, indeed maybe in Indian Ocean the upcoming structure will have a bigger role to play and proper resource allocation will happen. But if that is a mixed bag, some traditions have evolved, some understanding of each other’s services I think has evolved. Those who have served in the Andaman and Nicobar Command would testify to that. But looking ahead, what do you think should be the criteria for joint theatre command? Should it be geographical? Should it be needs based or adversary based, what is your view?
Lt Gen DS Hooda (Retd): It’s a mix of geographical and adversarial. If you look at the continental border, it would be good to have one integrated theatre command looking at one adversary so that assets can be properly utilized, you can have a holistic look at how the war plan should develop, how you need to fight the battle. And so on the land frontier, you would probably have one theatre command looking after the China side and maybe one looking after the Pakistan side. It’s all also because each command was, for example, along the Pakistan side, we had three commands looking after the border from Punjab downward. And so really where do you wanted to utilise assets of one command to reinforce another command and say you wanted a larger offensive through that southern theatre it faced a little problem so if you have one integrated theatre command, you can actually utilize the assets properly. On the maritime front, you’re going to face challenges from both China as well as Pakistan. And therefore there it will be a more sort of geographical than adversary related, but even though you may have been fighting only one adversity, you will still have to keep an eye out on the other one and what is going in the ocean, what’s happening, etc. So I would say it’s a mix of some geographical cum adversarial is what we will have to utilise.
Nitin A. Gokhale: Yes.
Lt Gen DS Hooda (Retd): In addition, do you need some functional commands I do not know. You are right. For example, do you need a logistics command or something like that?
Nitin A. Gokhale: Or even a training command.
Lt Gen DS Hooda (Retd): You were talking about an air defence command. I don’t know whether is still going to come up or not. There’s some debate on that. But that was more like a functional kind of command.
Nitin A. Gokhale: So, you know, I but, you know, that’s I think still some distance away going by what one hears hopefully it will be faster than what one hears that it’s going to take some time because given the challenges that India faces, what’s on the western and the northern front and in the Indian Ocean, I think the sooner the integrated joint commands come, the better it is for the country for various reasons. Of course, combat effectiveness and optimum resource utilization. But one final question I mean, this is not exactly on jointness. When you were in the Northern Command, I mean, you’ve served most of your life in Northern Command of course, superannuated as Northern Army commander. What role do you envisage for the Rashtriya Rifles? But there’s some debate within the service, within the army about what role and should Rashtriya Rifles play. And I think there is some debate even in the government on should it be there, should it not be there? What’s your view on that?
Lt Gen DS Hooda (Retd): Rashtriya Rifles was raised primarily or counter-terrorism initially it was deployed in also in the Northeast but now it’s completely deployed in J&K and now it’s for the government to take a call if they feel that there is no need of any sort of army operation in J&K it can be handed over to the central police force and to the local police and fine when you say that, look, we still need the army to be deployed for some role in counter-terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, then that role will have to be performed by the Rashtriya Rifles. What has happened also now is with increasing challenge on the on the LAC, we have seen a large number of regular troops that have were deployed along the LAC. The flexibility that we perhaps had in the past that we could deploy some regular instead of RR in counter-terrorism operation no longer exists. So it’s now up to the government. I don’t think we can say the situation in Jammu and Kashmir has come to that extent that we can completely pull out the army. And as long as the army is there, I think Rashtriya Rifles will be required. Whether we can wind it down a little, whether we can bring it from six companies, five companies and four companies based on the security situation, also based on the kind of pressure that is there on our manpower I think debate is going on. And you will probably find some downsizing of the Rashtriya Rifles but pulling them out completely at this stage in my personal view is that we have not reached that security situation yet.
Nitin A. Gokhale: Yeah, indeed, I think we will have to wait because Pakistan’s game plan hasn’t really changed fundamentally. But were Rashtriya Rifles not sort of trained to be dual task formations towards the last decade or so, will that be utilized in other places like in the Northern Command? I think they are being already used on the LAC in some cases. So is that possible? Even after downsizing the Rashtriya Rifles can still be used in roles other than counter terrorism?
Lt Gen DS Hooda (Retd): Rashtriya Rifles was being used very extensively in somewhat of a conventional role during operation. But what it would do during operation is raise security so that you don’t have to pull out regular troops for that. It was also reinforcing replacing troops in defensive, regular troops who could then be utilized for offensive operation. So it had and you’re right, it’s also been deployed now on the LAC. And so, yes, they provide you a great amount of flexibility during war and during operation. But whether the government will take that as its primary role, they might just come out with an argument that, look, we raised it for a specific purpose and if that purpose has been achieved, is there justification to keep these in the conventional role at a time when we are telling you that your conventional strength, at least in the Army, is large and needs to be reduced. These are the arguments that the government can make, which you really have to accept.
Nitin A. Gokhale: I think it’s a big dilemma for both the army and the government. And we’ll see how it pans out. But Gen. Hooda as usual, brilliant insights and I think your thoughts should reverberate amongst those who are debating this and amongst all the decision makers. Hopefully, will have integrated joint commands very soon for India’s security and to secure the country from the adversaries who are constantly sniping at the borders of India. But for this moment, let me say thank you again, and maybe we’ll have one more round of discussion when some things become a little more clear. Thank you for your time.
Lt Gen DS Hooda (Retd): Thank you, Nitin. It’s always a pleasure talking to you.