A national security knot
On theatre commands, the way to win over the Indian Air Force may be to not call it a support force.
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India is currently witnessing an unprecedented controversy at the apex of its national security apparatus, with the public airing of differences over the issue of creating integrated tri-service military theatres. It has been an open secret that the Indian Air Force (IAF) has serious concerns over the current theaterisation model. On Friday, chief of defence staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, at a seminar, provided the contours of the new structure but added, when asked about these apprehensions, that the IAF was a “supporting arm to the armed forces” just like artillery support or engineers support for combatant arms in the Army. Air Force chief, Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria, was quick to react and categorically said the service did not have a “supportive role”, and airpower had a “huge role” to play.
While open discussions are welcome in all domains of public policy, a public confrontation between CDS, who is widely seen as speaking for the political establishment, and a service chief is deeply distressing and unfortunate. India needs to modernise its higher defence management structure, theatre commands are long overdue, and as CDS, it is General Rawat’s job to implement the mandate he has been given. In the true tradition of civilian control over the military, once the decision to create theatre commands has been taken at a political level, all services will have to fall in line. But this cannot mean pushing through a process without winning the confidence of all stakeholders or making statements perceived as insulting by one of the armed services.
It is ironic that while the objective of the exercise is to create jointness and synergy, what it has exposed are deep fractures. General Rawat’s statement reflected the Army’s sense of itself as the primary leader of the armed forces. This goes against the self-image of other forces, especially the IAF, which has been playing a critical role in operations and has built up capabilities and reach. IAF’s concerns on division of assets, structure, nomenclature of commands, leadership may or may not be valid, but the fact that the service, institutionally, is apprehensive about the current plans needs to be taken into account. Revise timelines and plans, be more consultative, and win over IAF before proceeding. General Rawat is a political appointee and a former Army chief, but he must not let those identities come in the way of his primary identity, as the leader of all, not one, of India’s armed services.