General Bipin Rawat, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) in a recent interview to a magazine stated, “We’ve been able to get all the services on board on the issue of integration. It has dawned on everyone that to be combat- effective, unless we operate together, we won’t be able to apply our combat power the way we should.” He added that “synergising activities, whether it’s training, logistics or maintenance, and even foreign cooperation, are being looked at in an integrated manner.”

On creation of theatre commands, General Rawat stated, “By 2022, we will have structures in place and the rollout will start. I expect air defence to roll out faster. The maritime command will follow next, by 2021, and by 2022, we will at least start the rollout of land-based theatre commands. It will take time to stabilise, but we are confident the process will begin.” While other commands have yet to take shape, the announcement of raising the maritime command has come under debate.

As per reports, the Maritime Theatre Command (MTC), to be based at Karwar, would comprise of the current Western and Eastern naval fleets, maritime strike fighter jets and transport aircraft from both the air force and navy, amphibious infantry brigades and other assets under the Andaman and Nicobar Command. The HQ of the MTC would consist of members of all the three services from within their current structures. Organizations which would be merged or closed once the MTC is operational have yet to be announced.

Many strategic analysts have pointed to flaws in the formation of the command and its subsequent command and control mechanism. Nitin Pai, director of the Takshashila Institution states, “Ideally, the entire picture — all the commands, their roles and their relationship to the defence minister, CDS, Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) and three Services — should be announced so that the design can be understood and discussed by a wider body of analysts within and outside the government.”

Sandeep Unnithan writing for India Today, in an article on 1 December, quotes a former naval C-in-C who did not want to be named as saying that it was a regressive proposal and, “it will destroy the Navy as an independent service.” He also quotes a former army commander as saying that the proposal is simply too big to get off the ground. The Navy, in his opinion, might actually end up scuttling the case for the MTC. He further states, “the Navy is asking for the creation of an appointment that is more powerful than the Navy chief.” There are many who have claimed that this proposal is being pushed through by the CDS against service acceptances.

Those concerned on the position of the CDS versus service chiefs should read his statement in the interview where he negates any question of additional authority for himself or as deriding the status and power of service chiefs. On upgrading the rank of the CDS, General Rawat stated, “I think it is better to keep him (CDS) at this rank only (four star). Today, there is acceptability within the service, there is a CDS, he is equal to you, but he is first among equals. If you start putting him above others, it will disrupt the bonhomie we share. If you make the CDS so strong that he can dictate terms to the services, then problems will start emerging.”

On the aspect of the service chiefs becoming redundant with the emergence of theatre commands, he stated, “As of now, you cannot take away the responsibility of operations from service chiefs. How they will get integrated will be (taken care of) by a theatre commander. But operational guidelines will come from respective service chiefs depending on the theatre.” He added that it would be a minimum of 7 to 8 years before the office of the CDS will take over the operational responsibility while equipping, arming, training and logistics support will remain the responsibility of the services.

Those objecting or questioning the creation of a MTC need to consider a few basic factors. Firstly, the proposal for creating the MTC currently or other theatre commands subsequently would flow from the concerned service, based on discussions within themselves and the COSC. The MTC study was headed by the navy and would have been approved by the naval chief and the COSC. Secondly, the navy would have factored all aspects including command and control into the proposal. Finally, all service chiefs would have approved the proposal as it involves elements from their service being controlled and employed by another service.

The fact that those at the helm of their current service are capable, experienced and professionally competent must be accepted by those commenting from the side lines. They have risen to their current level after considerable trials and tribulations. Critics must accept this logic and not consider themselves superior to those at the helm.

In countries where theatre commands have been created there is a clear definition of responsibility. In the current Indian context, service chiefs performed a dual role – force providers and force employers. It was fear of losing this dual authority that made service chiefs fearful of accepting theatre commands. With creation of theatre commands this would change. Service chiefs would be force providers, while theatre commanders would be force employers. This is the global norm and would be adopted by India once the system stabilizes.

There is no doubt that the steps being undertaken are revolutionary. Further, change is never accepted willingly. In a democracy all decisions are open to question, criticism and debate, so is the issue of theatre commands. While debate is welcome, it should be based on the premise that those who are involved in its construct are aware of their responsibility to the nation and their service. They would only accept what best serves the national interest and not due to pressure from peers or superiors. Hence, suggestions should be positive and logical, rather than disputing the very premise on which changes are being considered.

The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army