Defence rejig: India must move faster on theatre-focused armed forces



Opinion


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14 May 2024,
08:30 AM IST





For the idea of getting India’s Army, Navy and Air Force into joint formats for action in specific theatres to prove effective, how the chain of command will work is crucial.

Summary

  • Integrated theatre commands should boost India’s defence preparedness. We must get the basics of this plan right even as we address the ‘command’ dilemma of tech-enabled warfare.

For efficiency, the form of an instrument must follow its function. This logic applies to India’s defence too, which is why there is no valid argument against aligning our armed forces to focus on potential theatres of war. How well we fare could depend on how well we’re geared for hostilities on a particular front—be it western, northern or maritime. As a departure from the legacy of different forces armed and trained apart for land, air and sea combat, it may seem disruptive to go in for a theatre-focused overhaul, but a better fighting stance would be worth the effort. 

This rationale is well understood in policy and defence circles. Yet, the going has been slow. Nearly half a decade after the country appointed its first chief of defence staff (CDS) to oversee this project, reports recently surfaced of a concrete plan for integrated theatre commands (ITCs) to replace the old command system. As proposals go, it is inarguably pragmatic in terms of the leadership roles and command centres it envisages.

Apart from a CDS on top of an apex apparatus for defence, the reported plan would have a vice-CDS appointed of a general’s rank (or equivalent) to look after strategic planning, capability development and procurement matters. It also envisions a deputy CDS of a lieutenant-general’s level to overlook operations, intelligence and asset allocations. For the idea of getting India’s Army, Navy and Air Force into joint formats for action in specific theatres to prove effective, how the chain of command will work is crucial. 

Under the plan, as reported, all forces assigned to the western theatre facing Pakistan will be under Jaipur’s army base as their command headquarters, those braced for China in the northern theatre will be placed under the Lucknow base, and India’s joint sea-facing forces will be commanded by a base in Coimbatore. 

While the three existing service chiefs will continue to lead their three classic forces designed for land, air and sea warfare, combat operations will be led by top-bracket officers who have a strategic view of an entire theatre in all its satellite-scanned complexity. Who will perform which role is expected to be chalked out later, as also the details of how armaments and other resources will be carved up or shared to optimize their use.

While care must be taken to ensure no reckless moves are made that might expose chinks in our armour, the adoption of a defence shield based on task-oriented ITCs should not be prolonged beyond a point. Crucially, it must not distract our strategists from the challenge of an equipment upgrade and all that it would imply if our forces are pressed into action. The very concept of ‘military command’ is under debate, globally, and we must keep pace with evolving doctrines. This is not just about taking a posture on nuclear weapons that’s strictly in line with their stated purpose.

 Tech-enabled warfare has shrunk the old gaps between identifying a target, taking a decision, and acting upon it, as AI algorithms can do all three in a flash without any human restraint. This poses a dilemma. Studies on new technologies are usually kept under wraps, but the ‘collateral damage’ that autonomous weapons may cause is reason enough to deploy these with extreme caution. 

The extent to which we are ready to tolerate inaccurate AI-led strikes must have a consensus not only among military commanders, but among the rest of us as well. Let’s align forces to fend off threats the best way we can, but also aim for utmost accuracy in our use of firepower.

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