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Tri-service integration or consolidation? (.hindu)

Recent comments from the armed forces raise disturbing questions

While India aspires to jointmanship among the three services, statements over the last few weeks point disturbingly to renewed inter-service rivalry to protect their turf. Last week, addressing the 14th Subroto Mukerjee seminar organised by the Centre for Air Power Studies and the Indian Air Force, Vice Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal S.B. Deo, said jointmanship was also about optimal utilisation of resources. “Ours is a growing country, our budget is limited. We cannot afford duplicating capabilities,” he said. “We cannot have an Air Force with the Army, an Air Force with the Navy and another Air Force.”

His comments are significant against the backdrop of the government sanctioning six AH-64 Apache helicopters for the Army, something the service has been seeking for a while. At the same time the Navy is expanding its fighter strength though the carriers to operate them would accommodate less.

Army’s supremacy?
In turn, speaking at a seminar by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies early last month, Army Chief General Bipin Rawat gave a peek into his idea of tri-service integration when he said that the “supremacy and primacy of the Army in a joint services environment” should be maintained. “The other services, the Navy and Air Force, will play a very major role in support of the Army which will be operating on the ground because no matter what happens, we may be dominating the seas or the air, but finally war will be to ensure territorial integrity of the nation,” he said. “And therefore the supremacy and primacy of the Army in a joint services environment becomes that much more relevant and important.”

The question is, will these developments unleash another round of inter-service turf war and further delay several important decisions on tri-service integration such as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), specialised commands for cyber, space and Special Forces? Also, are we moving towards tri-service integration or consolidation?

The comments also come shortly after the Union Cabinet had cleared 65 of 99 recommendations, all related to the Army, of the Lt General D.B. Shekatkar Committee for enhancing combat capability and rebalancing defence expenditure of the armed forces to increase the teeth-to-tail ratio (that is, ratio of combatants to soldiers in support roles). The remaining 34 recommendations pertaining to the tri-services, in addition to the Navy and Air Force, are to be taken up soon. Among them is a proposal on the appointment of a single point military adviser to the Prime Minister on strategic issues. Despite the NDA government according high priority to the issue and Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself sitting through presentations, progress has been minimal. After much deliberation, the consensus has veered towards a Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (CoSC), a four star officer equivalent to the three service chiefs, while ideally what the country needs is a full-fledged five star officer. The four star officer would serve no real purpose except adding to the already existing protocol nightmare and complicating the situation further.

Need for Chief of Defence Staff
The last time India fought a major battle was the Kargil conflict in 1999 in which the Navy played a silent role while the Army and Air Force collaborated to evict intruders from Indian soil. The lessons learnt then prompted the K. Subrahmanyam Committee to propose having a CDS for the first time. Those who advocate instituting a Permanent Chairman CoSC must understand that once that happens, then there would be four people opposing the CDS’s creation compared to three now. Incrementalism doesn’t always work; sometimes a giant leap is the need of the hour. But with the latest comments, it appears that the other services would oppose the proposal for a CDS tooth and nail.

India has traditionally been a land power and, yes, the primary threats are still on land, from the northern and western borders. But the threat matrix has changed since 1947 and the Indian Ocean region is fast metamorphosing into a major arena of friction, with increasing forays by the Chinese Navy and building up of regional navies with help from China. Also, while the threat of war stills exists in the subcontinent under the nuclear overhang, the room for large conventional manoeuvres is over. In a conflict situation, what would unfold are short and swift skirmishes which call for agility and swift action by the three services in unison.

With threat perceptions heightened in the neighbourhood and newer challenges rising in the region and beyond, it is unfortunate that the mighty ‘armed forces’, which are the drivers of the nationalistic discourse in the country, are engaged in squabbles. The recently released ‘Joint military doctrine of the Indian armed forces 2017’ made the right noise on “jointness” and “integration”, but much work is needed on the ground to achieve even a fraction of what has been enunciated.

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