Monday, 25 April 2016

The way forward in military command

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 26th April 16

In a small amphibious training exercise called Jal Prahar that terminated last week, India’s military paid token obeisance to the notion of tri-service command, which serious, warfighting militaries have embraced decades ago. Jal Prahar was conducted by the Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC), India’s only tri-service command --- which means it owns assets from the army, navy and air force and is commanded, in turn, by general officers from all three services. It involved a hundred soldiers, a handful of amphibious assault craft mostly borrowed from the navy’s eastern command, and three Jaguar strike aircraft that the Indian Air Force (IAF) kindly made available. The ANC, which military reformers established in 2001 in the forlorn hope that this might catalyse similar tri-service structures across the military, has failed spectacularly in achieving this aim.

While this sideshow played out in the Bay of Bengal, the army chief’s attention was focused on the high-profile Exercise Shatrujeet, involving tens of thousands of army soldiers, practising mechanised warfare and live fire tank drills in the Rajasthan desert. True, there was a substantial air power component to Exercise Shatrujeet, but it was primarily an army exercise in planning and conception.

Meanwhile, early this year, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China adopted a tri-service credo in full, signalling its determination to undertake the deep systemic reforms needed to create an effective command structure that might someday credibly challenge the United States. In Beijing, on February 1st, the PLA’s seven “military regions”, traditionally led by the army, gave way to five geographic theatre commands (termed “battle zones”) that will now function on a tri-service basis, incorporating elements from the PLA Navy and PLA Air Force.

In India, the woeful debate over tri-service structures has focused mainly on appointing a tri-service commander --- a five-star “chief of defence staff (CDS)” recommended by a Group of Ministers (GoM) in 2001; or a four-star “permanent chairman chiefs of staff (PCCOS)”, a half-way house solution proposed in 2013 by the Naresh Chandra Committee. But there is little focus on the need to simultaneously restructure India’s single-service theatre commands, merging 17 army, navy and air force commands into five-six tri-service commands. Creating a CDS/PCCOS to oversee long-range force structuring and to deliver single-point military advice to political leaders would unquestionably make the military leaner and more effective. But creating tri-service theatre commands is crucial for enhancing battlefield performance.

Opposition to tri-service structures comes not just from bureaucrats and politicians as the generals like to lament, but equally from within the military. Neither the army, navy or air force chiefs want a military boss (CDS) or even another equal (PCCOS). And they certainly do not want to relinquish control over their theatre commands, with these cutting edge units placed under some commander who reports elsewhere. But what really strangles tri-service babies at birth are ill-founded, political-bureaucratic apprehensions about concentrating military power in one hand. The ANC and the IDS were spared this fate only because they were adjudged too weak to threaten either the three services or the political-bureaucratic class.

If the whispered (and to the military, deeply offensive) need to “coup proof” the command structure is standing in the way of this reform, it can be addressed structurally by creating tri-service theatre commanders, who report directly to the political leadership, like in the US. The three service chiefs, with their combat units distributed between the theatre commanders, would be freed from command responsibility and mandated to focus on their respective services’ manpower, equipping and training. These are currently given short shrift, with the chiefs weighed down by the time consuming daily responsibilities of operational command. The non-operational commands --- such as the three services’ “training commands” and the air force’s “maintenance command” could remain under the service chiefs. Operational commands like the Special Forces command, cyber command and the strategic forces command (the nuclear arsenal) could be hived off like the theatre commands.

Outside this command structure, the political leadership could select a five-star CDS, from any service, preferably on merit and trust rather than mere seniority, who would function as a “second opinion” military advisor. In many ways, this would mirror the US system, which has functioned admirably through inter-continental global challenges.

While distributing power between more commanders, this could be made palatable to the military by upgrading ranks --- which would also somewhat flatten the military’s unacceptably steep promotion pyramid. Each theatre commander, now handling independent, tri-service operational responsibilities, could be upgraded to four-star rank. The army, navy and air force chiefs would continue to be four-star generals, thus having a dozen four-star generals --- including the commanders of five geographical theatres, the ANC, and the Special Forces, strategic forces and cyber commands. The five-star CDS would be a respected figurehead.

This would allow Prime Minister Narendra Modi to credibly lay claim to genuine military reform. While making multiple promises in its April 2014 election manifesto and in numerous public statements since, the National Democratic Alliance government has delivered only on populist promises: like One Rank, One Pension, albeit in a diluted form; and sanctioning a national war memorial in New Delhi. On the promised structural reforms -- like implementing tri-service command, involving the military in defence ministry decision-making; establishing a National Marine Authority to oversee coastal security; boosting defence R&D; improving border management, and setting up a Veterans Commission to look after retired soldiers – there has been little delivery.

Addressing the military’s top commanders on December 15, Mr Modi declared: “We have been slow to reform the structures of our armed forces. We should shorten the tooth-to-tail ratio. And we should promote “jointness” across every level of our armed forces. We wear different colours, but we serve the same cause and bear the same flag. Jointness at the top is a need that is long overdue. We also need reforms in senior defence management. It is sad that many defence reform measures proposed in the past have not been implemented. This is an area of priority for me.

Mr Modi is right, promises of reform have never been implemented, particularly the move towards tri-service command structures. He should now implement this priority.


Anonymous said...

If I am not mistaken, the ANC is no longer a Tri-Service Command. It has reverted back to being a naval command.

Anonymous said...

How can people who cannot manage their own homes are so gung ho about expeditionary benefits of treaties?

Ravi said...


100 men? 3 Jaguars? A few tanks? A couple of landing ships?

I thought we had 3 amfib bdes: 108, the one in 54 Div and a new one.

Shouldn't we be staging a brigade exercise or at least a battalion group one?

George Ninan said...

# this question was asked earlier, but was 'moderated' and not posted in 'comments' to your blog:

during war, does the chief of army staff have operational authority [and responsibility] over the military operations being carried out by the general officer commanding in chief [army commander] of the northern army [command]. is the COAS part of the chain of command of the cabinet.

if this is indeed the case, then is the chief of army staff the de-facto commander in chief, C-in-C, as had been general [later field marshall] cariappa the formally titled C-in-C.

and if the COAS does give operational orders, directions to the army commanders [goc-in-c] then does the COAS receive directions from the cabinet committee [civilian oversight and overall command of the military], and is the COAS an advisor, and part of the cabinet committee, sitting in during the committee's deliberations.

if the COAS does indeed have operational authority over the GOC-in-C [army commanders] then does the COAS initiate, record his appraisal of the GOC-in-C northern command's annual confidential report [APR]. or is it the case that there is no ACR, APR for army commanders. is the COAS actually the chief of army forces, and will the much lobbied for CDS be the chief of defence forces.

in USA the theatre commanders are under the direct operational control of the president [POTUS} and the secretary for defence. the chairman of joint chiefs of staff is only an advisor, and not part of the chain of command, nor are the chief of army, navy, marine, air-force staff part of the chain of command.

Raahul Kumar said...

Tri Service command makes excellent sense, it is disappointing vested interests have prevented a common sense reform. Modi has promised, he just needs a fire to remind him to deliver on what he has said he will do.

But besides that, digitizing and mechanizing the Armed Forces is necessary. Why is a IT superpower like Bharat still using traditional old paper pushing mechanisms, when we have world beating IT companies that make existing processes efficient and effective?

Kunaal Gaikwad said...

Digressing from the chief import of the article, a thought on the 'Tri-services' view of increased Chinese military activities in the South China Sea and aggressive posturing by the PLAN in India's immediate neighbourhood, the ANC assumes great strategic significance. And with typical short sightedness, the Indian military establishment has positioned only a brigade level garrison, some OPVs and FACs, and a few non-lethal fixed wing and rotary aircraft when the need of the hour is to have a full fledged military base with offensive and defensive sea, air, land and underwater assets in the A&N islands. Most of the world's trade passes through this region and the Chinese have realised that whoever controls this part of the seas will have a stranglehold on the world economy. Sadly, powers that be in India have been slow to realise this point.

Ranjit said...

Perhaps best to keep the theatre commanders at three stars. Too many 4 Stars in the military all reporting to a politician will see inevitable politics and embarrassing VK Singh type characters willing to sell their honour and their forces reputation down the line to become Field Marshal . In the US, Congress has to ratify 4 Star appointments and of course, the nature of politics and the coverage of Armed Forces matters in the media there is of an entirely different quality.

These theatre commander could be the senior-most 3 Stars in their respective services. Equivalent to today's Army Commander / FOC-in-C / AOC-in-C. Along with their own forces' Vice Chief's they would be in line for promotion to the role of their respective service chief (4 Star). The Service chiefs, assisted by Vice Chiefs will not have direct command, but will b professional head of their forces, force providers and in charge of training, maintenance and all units not at any time assigned to a particular theatre. Most importantly, they could be principal advisor to the CDS (5 Star) on matters of their service.

A CDS would have direct command over the theatre commanders, and be assisted by another Vice CDS also 4 Star). This VCDS can be always Army, and to ensure that, over time, the Army will have more CDS than the Navy and IAF, as befits its humoungous size. The VCDS is to be in charge of smaller joint units (Joint Special Ops assigned centrally), planning, Joint training institutions etc.

The 5 Star CDS, always chosen from amongst the 3 service chiefs or VCDS will be Principal military advisor, and incharge of long term force planning and projection. He will also advise the PM/RM on inter service wrangle and be the military's voice in the MOD on money and allocation matters. His most important role will be allocation of forces between commands, and transferring units from one command to another according to the evolving situation and national and political need (which are hopefully the same at all times, but who am I kidding).

Anonymous said...

very nice article Ajai, couldn't agree more with you. Its bizarre and perhaps we are the only country that an army as big as 1.1 million is headed by 1 single 4 star officer. its high time that we split into commands with all unified commanders reporting directly to the RM rather than to each other. but this requires lot of political involvement rather than will. reason being for some very strange reasons our politicians have never been fully involved in military matters unlike usa or russia or china. for too long they relied on bureaucrats for everything leaving our military to the fringes. also our chiefs have been disappointing in never coming and talking in public again compared to say usa commanders. we rarely here our chiefs except for the customary annual day pressers which nobody takes note of anyways. for us to have strong military with decisive advantage over our neighbours unified commands are the only way out with all 3 forces putting their heads together. I hope government takes note of such proposals and acts on them....

Anonymous said...

NSR says ---

The reason for all bizarre things happening in India with the military procurement and budgeting, warfighting (Kargil,, DBO, Chumar, etc), intelligence gathering, sharing, dissemination, etc is because India does not have a CDS like many democratic and western countries...

India must immediately appoint one and task him to work on all the issues on a daily basis...

CDS must sit together with 3 service chiefs about budgets and come up with a fair divisions based on security situations, affordability, technology, etc
Otherwise, things like Mirage 2000 upgrade and Rafale will keep happening forever...

If it does not happen during this government, India will be in serious troubles with China and Pakistan...

CDS will be day to day focal point to PM and RM...and 3 service chiefs inclusions based on issues being briefed...