Addressing the Combined Commanders Conference in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had stated, “We have been slow to reform the structures of our armed forces… 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.” This has finally borne fruit with General Bipin Rawat appointed as the first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) on 31 Dec last year with a clear task. He has been given three years for implementing theatre commands.

While logically this is a rushed order as security-related, long-term decisions can never be taken without due consideration, it is guided by three factors. The first is that the government, as with earlier decisions including abrogation of article 370 and introduction of Citizenship Amendment Act, wants to project itself as one capable of fulfilling its poll promises. The second is that other political parties, mainly the Congress, have been against appointing a CDS or creating theatre commands.

Manmohan Singh claimed throughout his tenure that they were seeking political consensus, which mysteriously never emerged. Hence, unless these are established within the current government’s tenure, they are likely to be stalled in case of a change of government. Refinement can continue with time. Finally, General Rawat has been firm in all decisions he has taken, which have at times involved challenging the status quo and hurting sentiments, including facing wrath from veterans for his decision on disability pensions.

The national leadership possibly believes him to be the right individual to push through changes, which may even be against individual service interests. Since he would not be entitled to any extension as CDS based on existing orders, they are pushing through their agenda. To cater to threats from multiple dimensions, the government has already created the Cyber, Space and Special Forces commands, which are currently under raising. Though these remain under service chiefs, there is no doubt that they are important fields of warfare and need to be upgraded as also given special impetus.

Warfare of the future would be largely in these domains and their operations would continue during both war and peace time. Actual combat may be rare as could also be a fallout of these spheres of conflict. In his first media interaction, after taking over as the CDS, General Rawat proved the trust of the government by stating his goal was to change the three independent services into one, integrating capabilities, logistics and manpower. His overall intention was to cut expenditure, rationalise manpower and convert individual service capabilities into an integrated whole.

His first decision on theatre commands was to order a study on the creation of an Air Defence Command, which is currently progressing under the air force. This command could be rolled out as early as the end of the year. This would have all air defence resources of the three services, except those employed by offensive strike corps and possibly naval ship-based resources, under the Air Force. It would give one service the responsibility of ensuring air defence security of the nation. Directions for the commencement of a study for the creation of a Peninsula Command would be issued by end March. This command would ensure Coastal and Economic Exclusive Zone security and be the responsibility of the Navy. It would include all naval assets of Western and Eastern Naval Commands (the two main operational commands of the navy) as also resources of the army and air force deployed in southern India.

The study is likely to conclude by the end of the year and the command could roll out by end 2021. The existing Andaman and Nicobar Command, raised in September 2001, would remain as an independent command as it has a different role, mainly of surveillance at present and subsequently of projecting Indian military power towards chokepoints in SE Asia. The first two commands under study and subsequent raising imply that air and sea-borne threats have been considered and these would now be the responsibility of single theatre commanders, who for the current, would operate under respective service chiefs.

It is after handling these two major threats would the CDS turn his attention to land threats. In a recent press conference, he stated that India could have between three to five landbased theatre commands, and these could begin being established by 2022. Studies for creating land-based commands are likely to commence by the end of the year. Logistics command, which has not yet come up for consideration needs to be given equal importance. Presently, services use different sets of transport fleets for similar tasks and possess their own repair and maintenance depots, which could easily be amalgamated, saving funds and manpower.

They also possess a collection of administrative establishments like the Area and Sub Area HQs, whose utility needs consideration and amalgamation. This transition phase demands multiple other actions. Training syllabus need to be re-evaluated to enhance joint curriculums. Presently, other than the College of Combat which conducts a prolonged ‘Joint Capsule’ of all services, other institutes provide ‘lip service’ to joint operations. There is a need to also consider which institutes could be closed and training amalgamated. Individual service laws and regulations are vastly different, though all have emerged from the common laws and regulations of 1950, when India last had a Commander-in-Chief, the equivalent of a CDS.

These have undergone multiple amendments over time to suit individual service conditions, court orders and government directions. These need to be amalgamated. Alongside this is the need to cater for common promotion policies and near similar promotion timeframes as theatre commands would be manned by officers from the three services and vast differences in rank and service profiles may act as a demotivating factor. Hence, these factors need equal consideration. A start has been made but for success there is a lot yet to be done, largely behind the scenes. The question remains, how much is feasible within three years.

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