In a recent story that appeared in Hindustan Times on June 21, the Indian Air Force (IAF) was called out for playing a “lone ranger” in the ongoing reorganisation of Indian forces into Theatre Commands. The clickbait title ‘Indian Army and Navy favour theatre commands, Air Force plays the lone ranger‘ leads the reader into a hyperbolic account of differences that have reportedly cropped up in the restructuring being led by the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) and Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen Bipin Rawat. IAF has been marked out, almost like a petulant child, while the other two services are portrayed in complete harmony with the proceedings. Many military observers, including serving personnel and veterans, have taken umbrage to the story. While the story lives out its short life cycle in public attention, it comes as a good reminder of our leaky and porous ‘perception management’ around such a sensitive issue.
The issue of Theatre Commands has been hanging fire since 2017 when the case first received ‘in-principle’ nod from PM Narendra Modi. Reorganizing an armed force as big and diverse as India’s can hardly be expected to happen at the crack of a whip. But that the article chose to single out IAF for stonewalling the process raises eyebrows. The writer draws parallels justifying Theatre Commands, in a cavalier manner, from two extremes — “tiny Maldives to mighty US”. To remind the audience, even ‘mighty US’ struggled for decades to achieve the gold standard of jointmanship the story appears to give it credit for.
A senior veteran this writer spoke to (name withheld on request) had the following points to make about IAF and the concept of Theatre Commands:
- The IAF has been repeatedly asking for ‘One Theatre’ as its assets are inadequate for more than one such construct.
- The Western Theatre Command of China encompasses a geographical area larger than the landmass of India.
- The IAF is presently down to 30 Squadrons and this number is likely to reduce further, given the slow pace of procurement. Air assets are critical for success in any operation.
- This is the first time a new construct such as Land Theatre Command has been proposed. No other country has conjured up such a unique concept. Obviously, a ‘turf battle’ is in progress and first blood has been drawn.
- Terming a theatre as Land-Centric or Sea-Centric essentially treats airpower as an adjunct rather than a joint partner in warfighting.
- The Army and the Navy Operational Tempo is relatively slow as compared to the reach and speed of response of the IAF which is roughly about 10-times faster.
- It is extremely difficult for a land force commander to grasp the intricacies of airpower. The proposed theatre command concept reduces our national war fighting potential to the lowest common denominator of the forces involved, rather than look for optimal amalgamation for application of strength. What is needed is synergy rather than the proposed reduction in tempo.
- What is proposed is a symbolic joining at the hips, as seen in Siamese Twins, resulting in sub-optimal and stilted warfighting. What the IAF proposed is a joining of minds (planning) to enhance warfighting. The present proposal being pushed with undue haste appears to be an attempt to add an additional layer of bureaucracy to the existing warfighting arrangements.
- The present construct envisages a single theatre dedicated to country specific threat, with the illusion that a single Theatre Commander would be responsible for operations. But this is far from true. Take the case of China: In addition to the so-called Eastern Land Theatre Commander, the Northern Land Theatre commander would naturally be involved, and so would the Maritime Theatre Commander, as would the Air Defence Commander. In the event of a war with Pakistan, in addition to the Western Land Theatre Commander, the Northern Land Theatre commander would obviously be involved; so would the Maritime Theatre Commander; as would the Air Defence Commander! So the moot question is: What is the major achievement of this reform of our military? What has really been achieved? And at what cost?
- If the purpose of the reform was to have a single commander responsible for warfighting, then we should have only ONE Theatre (emphasis as quoted).
Now, there may be opposing views from sister services; but none that cannot withstand intellectual debate and discourse. ‘Shoot and scoot’ articles that come up in media betray a shallow understanding of military history and Indian complexities. In the third of a series of articles penned by Rear Adm Sudarshan Srikhande, the author espouses the ‘Centrality of Indian Air Power via a Central Command‘ rather than an Air Defence Command. “Airpower is vital, but airpower ought to change at a pace that creates “discomfort” to ourselves and consequently to adversaries if it is to change the rules of the game. Airpower ought to be a central instrument“, Adm Srikhande argues, while putting to test what he calls ‘jaded’ and ‘cliched’ arguments like “India is one Theatre”. By drawing similarities (and differences) from history, Adm Srikhande revisits lessons policy-makers in India can ill-afford to ignore.
In another insightful piece (read here), former navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash fleshes out the ‘ideal objectives’ behind theatre commands, including two ‘thorny issues’ around the subject: ‘the chain of command of the Theatre Commanders and the relationship of the CDS (or his equivalent) with the service Chiefs’.
There is no whiff of malfeasance or blame game in either of these well-articulated opinion pieces. They come from thoroughbred professionals who have scaled the zenith of their profession without falling for conspiracy theories or headline management.
Unfortunately, with the advent of social media, we have a new problem. Public attention is terribly short and media is always hungry for scoops — gaps that misinformation often fill. Who will read a well-researched, peer-reviewed 3000-word essay when a 800-word clickbait is available? Playing up a single service and its alleged penchant for going ‘lone ranger’ glosses over legions of historians, academicians and triservice scholar-warriors who have lent their hearts and brains to the whole exercise. At best, the HT story is a well-timed distraction that marks the IAF out as scapegoat while buying time for the errant to cover their tracks.
Recent news reports in media have highlighted cracks that may have developed in reaching a tri-service consensus on the vexed subject of Theatre Commands. That should not be surprising given the speed and agency with which CDS Gen Rawat is taking the idea forward. One hopes the bureaucracy — often the elephant in the room — is also onboard. Several decisions will have financial implications mandarins in MoD will shoot down without unsolicited help from the services or a sensationalist media.
The higher decision-making apparatus in MoD is not an epitome of speed or alacrity either. “Hurry up and wait” is a common phenomenon. Processes and decisions move at the pace of files, often subject to sharp hairpin bends or cul de sacs at the flick of a pen. In a reorganisation never attempted before, one can hardly expect all stakeholders to toe the line in glee. Inter-service rivalry — until now a healthy competition — can turn rancid if harsh words are spoken, written, or worse — planted.
A tweet by army veteran, high court lawyer, author, and former President, AFT Bar Association, who has argued the cause of military reforms for years, Maj Navdeep Singh, captured the sentiment around such news reports at a time when India is standing at the cusp of one of its biggest-ever military restructuring:
Planting stories against a "sister" service in mainstream media is not in good taste. Convince them in stakeholder consultation, if not, get them overruled by the political executive, but why create a lopsided image in the public with a factually & conceptually shaky article?
— Navdeep Singh (@SinghNavdeep) June 22, 2021
“Planting stories against a “sister” service in mainstream media is not in good taste. Convince them in stakeholder consultation; if not, get them overruled by the political executive; but why create a lopsided image in the public with a factually & conceptually shaky article?” — Maj Navdeep Singh.
The current storm-in-a-teacup is perhaps a good point in time to review information-sharing mechanisms and working of the defence public relations (PR) at large. While higher-ups realise the criticality and potency of ‘information warfare’, the working of India’s official PR handles, info-sharing mechanisms, curating of content — the whole gamut of IW — appears to be steeped in antiquity, leaky & terribly centralised. Often, ‘breaking news’ finds itself into public space via anonymous Twitter handles before official sources. We all know who won the ‘perception battle’ after Balakot air strikes and ‘Operation Swift Retort’. We all are well aware who broke the Galwan story first. The story in HT would not have reached public forum without a leaking tap or an unreliable pair of lips. To construct a story around hearsay, add masala and burnish it with a clickbait title hardly takes any effort. Often, rebuttals from the lampooned department are either absent or come ‘too little, too late’. This needs correction.
Another fracas that played out around a Press Information Bureau (PIB) release on the IN-IAF-USN Passage Exercise in the Arabian Sea on June 22 provided added example of cracks in the system (both IAF and IN eventually handled the ‘glitch’ with grace; but the damage was done by then). Is the common man aware that bilateral / multilateral exercises are planned and approved months in advance through MoD / MEA after extensive consultations with all stakeholders? Do we realize the sole Indian carrier could perhaps be in refit? If not, whose duty is it to inform, educate and clear the air if necessary? Defence PR handles go on Corona-education overdrive or window-dress International Yoga Day activities while important updates never come up in time; or slip through the cracks when they do.
While we light the afterburners on fifth-generation fighters and ‘Indianise’ strategy and tactics, it is perhaps worthwhile to show the same level of ‘stealth’ in information security, be ‘present’ where it matters, and display ‘speed and agility’ in putting out timely information and rebuttals. Often, wit and humour can win the day or silence critics without expending a single bullet. Approaching social media presence with ‘old school’ mechanism of running for ‘approval on file’ at 3-star level for every single tweet or post is like taking a knife to a gunfight.
Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710: “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it”. We are in 2021 and still reeling under it.
An edited version of this story was first published by The Quint as an op-ed. You can access it here.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2021. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on my Twitter handle @realkaypius. Views are personal. Cover photo credits IAF Twitter.