Tread warily on Maritime Theatre Command

Tread warily on Maritime Theatre Command
IMPERATIVE: It is high time India asserted itself as a maritime power. PTI

The historical backdrop to India’s penchant for theaterisation goes back to the 1999 Kargil war and the two committees that followed — headed by K Subramanian and Naresh Chandra — which made a slew of recommendations to the government regarding higher defence management.

The creation of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) was prime among those recommendations and the incumbent can be seen at work now, the latest salvo being the Integrated Maritime Theatre study by the Vice Chief of the Naval Staff (VCNS) that is due for submission shortly.

This study supposedly recommends the creation of the Maritime Theatre Command (MTC), earlier referred to as the Peninsular Theatre Command. Be that as it may, the ongoing border stand-off with China threatens to reinforce India’s land-oriented war focus.

There is no gainsaying the fact that like the Kargil Review Committee (KRC) diktats, India’s defence planning for the coming years needs to factor in our country’s strategic location and world view, given how we are seen as a virtual fulcrum power between the Mediterranean and South China seas, enhancing the critical need to keep the Sea Lines of Communication open during peace and war.

The creation of an Integrated Maritime Command could be seen in this light, also giving much-needed fillip to India’s expected emergence as a viable maritime entity. In order to be able to effect the desired power projection matrix in the region as also to maintain good relations with other seafaring nations such as Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia, a strong maritime organization is inescapable.

There’s also a need to coordinate our strategic posture meaningfully with other littoral states such as Sri Lanka, Maldives, Madagascar, Iran and Oman. It is thus high time India asserted itself as a maritime power.

Presently, we have seven commands each in the Army and the Air Force and three regional commands in the Navy. Besides, we have the integrated CDS, Strategic Forces Command and Andaman & Nicobar Integrated Command already functional. It is understood that the agenda for the CDS is to reorganise the existing single service commands into five integrated commands for enhanced operational and functional efficiency.

The Indian Armed Forces Joint Doctrine Manual came out in 2017; it talks about theaterisation of the military, including the creation of the then Peninsular Theatre Command and now the MTC, an Air Defence Command under the IAF’s aegis and three Army Theatre Commands — west, north and east — to deal with the threat from Pakistan and China.

The MTC, whose implementation is expected as early as 2022 once the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) gives its approval, would address the overall maritime threat. Organizationally, no additional liabilities of posts or ranks are expected, the structure itself being culled from the existing command structures of the Army, Navy and Air Force.

The Navy, of course, would see the churning first, with the proposed merger of its Western and Eastern Commands. As per the VCNS study’s recommendation, the Chief of the Naval Staff (CNS) would apparently lose his importance to a Maritime Theatre Commander to whom the Western and Eastern Naval C-in-Cs would report. The CNS’s role is expected to be reduced to ‘raising, training and sustaining’ the Navy.

The reported naval proposals have understandably created a flutter among the traditionalists in all the three services. The ‘extremists’ feel that the move for theaterisation is akin to ‘fixing what ain’t broke’. After all, the Indian armed forces have done well in all wars so far with the existing system, they aver.

Integrated war-fighting could well be made a reality through mandatory tri-service postings and service courses, they further argue. But the KRC’s and Naresh Chandra Committee’s viewpoint about the need for ‘integrating and restructuring the security ecosystem’ has validity too.

India has a need to retain its influence in its defined strategic space, which includes the ability for overseas deployment of the military for political intervention or evacuation of its citizens. Some of this capability was demonstrated recently in the evacuations necessitated from Sri Lanka, Maldives and the Middle East during the Covid-19 crisis.

However, care should be exercised to ensure that we do not attempt to overhaul a working system unnecessarily, bringing in change for the sake of change. Integrated commands for special forces, space and logistics may be more urgent in terms of achieving effective integrated war-fighting in the subcontinental context.

Theaterisation could perhaps wait a few years, and be done in a phased manner. Merely articulating a joint doctrine does not mean we are ready to put aside years of inter-service rivalry and single service operating peculiarities.

The IAF was the first to express reservations on the proposed theaterisation, for fear of its valuable air power assets being parcelled out to different new entities, at times also headed by a non-specialist C-in-C. Now, it does take a while for any nation to make such drastic changes in its war-fighting philosophy and so also we should take our time evolving into an Integrated Defence Force such as that of Israel or Japan.

Integration of the Ministry of Defence and the service headquarters, integration of defence manufacturing, integration of tri-service logistics, communications and procurements are other low-hanging fruit the government could target initially.

Given the volatile security situation in our neighbourhood, we do not have the luxury of ambling through an organizational change such as theaterisation, compromising war-fighting efficacy ad interim.

Therefore, much more of war-gaming, think tank inputs and hands-on experience through international exercises would be called for before the Indian military treads the path of newfangled concepts such as Theatre Commands.