Speaking on theaterisation, the new army chief, General Manoj Pande, in his first interview, stated, “Insofar as the studies which the Army was required to undertake for land theatre commands, these are in the final stages of completion and will be submitted in due course. While there are areas of convergence and common understanding among the three services, there are some issues that still need to be addressed.” Similar progress would have been made in maritime and air defence theatre command analysis.
Studies are just the commencement of the process. Establishing them is still some distance away. Differences in perception, including management of force structures, will exist between services, mainly on account of how they perceive future wars and their roles and responsibilities. These will need to be ironed out by discussions and restructuring.
Only a CDS (Chief of Defence Staff), who has the eyes and ears of the national leadership, will be able to resolve them and change mindsets. Hence, the CDS must be an individual whom the government trusts. Despite regular announcements, there has been a lack of will on the part of the government in appointing a CDS after General Bipin Rawat died in an unfortunate helicopter crash, in December last year. Inputs mention the government reassessing the concept of CDS and the DMA (Department of Military Affairs). There are reports that the CDS and DMA would be separated. DMA could become the responsibility of the head of the IDS (Integrated Defence Staff), while the CDS would be a stand-alone appointment, overseeing the DMA.
Without a CDS, who will push theaterisation? Is the government backtracking on its plan for reforms or has it switched emphasis to pushing populist schemes, like the Tour of Duty, to befool the public on providing additional employment avenues.
The Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) would never discuss theaterisation as no contentious issues are ever taken up by it. Another few months, and all that Bipin Rawat had pushed would be undone. The government never took this long to even lay down the role and responsibilities of the CDS. HQ IDS, which had finally begun exercising authority under the CDS, is back into sleeping mode. Does the government consider the CDS to be a failed experiment?
Discussing China, General Pande mentioned, “The basic issue (with China) remains resolution of the border. What we see is that China’s intent has been to keep the boundary issue alive.” He added, “What we need as a country is a ‘whole of nation’ approach and in the military domain, this is to prevent and counter any attempt to alter the status quo at the LAC.” He implied that while the armed forces prevent China from attempting misadventures, all government departments must work in cohesion to pressurize China to return to the status quo.
On the LAC with China, there is a stalemate. The army states that it does not expect hostilities yet remains prepared for salami slicing and intrusions. It has reoriented its forces to create force structures to counter China. The MEA, which handles all aspects concerning China, including briefings on border issues, is concentrating on improving relations with neighbouring countries, as also the west. Securing the neighbourhood prevents expansion of Chinese influence, while engaging the west brings in like-minded partners into the Indo-Pacific, adding to Chinese concerns. China has remained wary of the Quad and hence continued military engagement with Quad nations must continue.
India-China talks currently involve army representatives on both sides, who are realistically only carriers of messages, with final decisions being taken in New Delhi by the China Study Group and in Beijing by the Central Military Commission.
Once decisions are taken, these are conveyed back through the same route. There is no logic why this channel has been adopted rather than using Ambassadors in both capitals, who have better links to their decision-makers and their leadership. If the intention is to project the dispute as territorial and limited in scope, while other aspects of bilateral relations can develop, then an incorrect message is being conveyed. India has insisted that relations cannot be normal till status quo is achieved. The Doklam crisis was not resolved through military talks but diplomatic engagement, though Bhutan remained a party to the dispute.
Ignoring the same for Ladakh gives China the advantage. A whole-of-government approach does not involve just the armed forces and the MEA. If China is to be pressured, then all ministries of the Indian government must work in unison.
The finance ministry permits normal trade with China, sending the message that though we have officially announced reduction in trade, in reality we are doing the opposite.
India’s bilateral trade with China grew by 44 per cent in 2021, with imports increasing by 46 per cent. Recently, the railways awarded a contract for supply of 39,000 train wheels to a Hong Kong-based Chinese company, linked to the PLA, claiming disruption of supplies due to the Ukraine crisis. Banning a few hundred apps and restricting visas for Chinese tourists appears to be just an eyewash and the Chinese know it. All wars are not nuclear, even if they involve nuclear powers. Nuclear nations would most likely be involved in limited military actions, apart from Grey Zone warfare, as was witnessed in Ladakh,
Doklam or even Kargil. To offset these threats there is a need to develop deterrence capabilities. The army possesses motivated troops capable of responding to any form of challenge. Despite being caught of the wrong foot in Galwan they retaliated with force and sent the message that India is not a pushover.
This was reinforced by the occupation of the Kailash Ridge. The new bridge being constructed by the Chinese across the Pangong Tso indicates they fear Indian offensive capabilities. The forces also need trained manpower and technology-intensive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. For this it is essential that budgets are adequate.
The domestic industry also needs to be financially supported to develop requisite technologies. Simultaneously, the government should not rush to push through manpower cuts and populist schemes which adversely impair defence preparedness.
(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army)