|By Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)
Former Director General of Information Systems, Indian Army
Headlines like 'Govt moves on integrated theatre commands; amends rules to bring three forces under single leadership' appearing in the media on March 19, 2018, caused considerable excitement in the public domain. Posts on the social media were profuse in accolades and praise for the government. Some 257 comments were posted on this article itself within a space of first three hours, given the public awareness of the growing China-Pakistan threat, Chinese occupation of North Doklam, China's recent Tuting intrusion, Xi Jinping's call for "bloody battle" without naming who the enemy was, and Pakistan's heightened hostility and proxy war. The news quoting official sources said government has notified new "statutory rules and orders" to ensure an officer from any one service can now "exercise direct command" over personnel from the other two services, who are all governed by different acts and rules, in tri-service organizations, and that it has been implemented in the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC). The news report further went on to say, quoting a 'Top Source', "It might seem a minor structural reform but represents a huge cultural, fundamental shift in the Indian military system, where the three services often pull in different directions. If the country is to have a chief of defence staff (CDS) and theatre commands in the years ahead, this tweaking of the Army, Navy and IAF rules is the first step towards it." The news further said "NDA government had initially shown some drive for meaningful reforms in the country's higher defence establishment in the shape of creating a CDS post and theatre commands to ensure much-needed synergy in training, logistics, planning, procurements and operations among the 1.5-million strong armed forces". The manner in which the above news was portrayed gave impression that the 'tectonic shift' required in mindset of the MoD, as recommended by Dr Subhash Bhamre, MoS (Defence to Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a presentation last year end including on the floundering 'Make in India' initiative, had miraculously arrived given the news alluded to "Top Source", which obviously meant from MoD. But ironically, the news was be good for building public perceptions only since closer examination revealed it to be hoax - much ado about nothing.
All that has happened is small amendments for purpose of legal and disciplinary action within the ANC to overcome minor difference in provision of the three Services; a Tri-Service Act to facilitate legal provisions, which was languishing in MoD past six years. It has nothing to do with establishment of Integrated Theatre Commands (ITCs) of which both UPA and NDA have done precious little other than making periodic noises. The 'first step' being bandied in news is not even a 'baby step' but a 'pseudo step'. It would be interesting to know who the 'Top Source' is that briefed the author - latter an established defence analyst. The Kargil Review Committee and Group of Ministers (GoP) had recommended appointment of a CDS in 2001. The GoM report says, "The functioning of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) has, to date, revealed serious weaknesses in its ability to provide single point military advice to the government, and resolve substantive inter-Service doctrinal, planning, policy and operational issues adequately. This institution needs to be appropriately revamped to discharge its responsibilities efficiently and effectively, including the facilitation of jointness and synergy among the Defence Services." The Naresh Chandra Committee recommended Permanent Chairman of Chiefs of Staff Committee (PC COSC) in lieu CDS - a bureaucratic mischief. Incidentally in 2005, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee stated government had even decided who the CDS would be but there was "no political consensus", adding in same breath "but then there is no political consensus on so many things but they do come through". Ten years later in March 2015, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar stated publicly CDS was a must and hoped to propose a mechanism for the post within the next three months... in July 2105, news reports quoting MoD sources said proposal to create PC COSC was at "an advanced stage. In December 2015, Parrikar lamented, "It is sad many defence reforms in past have not been implemented. This is an area of priority for me", also indicating CDS could be a reality soon. Nothing was heard after that.
In February 2017, media reported government all set to "initiate independent India's greatest military reforms" with creation of ITCs based on geographical areas of operation or functionality and a single-point military advisor designated as CDS, Perhaps that ended with exit of Parrikar. Neither UPA, nor NDA have been really interested to rectify antiquated higher defence set up and usher military jointness. HQ Integrated Defence Staff, which was to be an integral part of MoD was kept apart so bureaucrats without accountability continue ruling the roost. Government plans establishing US-model ITCs but is loath to reorganizing MoD akin to US DoD; manned by military professionals. Plan for privatizing Ordnance Factories was shelved after employees threatened mass strike and some three lakh reportedly did so when few items were de-listed. On the contrary Army's Advance Base Workshops, with uniformed person not more than 15 per cent, are being privatized and going under MoD; lowering their efficiency to Ordnance Factory level, with latter excessively overpricing items sold to military, just one example being the combat military uniform - sold at over three times the price compared to civil sources and Army denied authority to use latter avenue because the booty is obviously shared by MoD. Comparing the military reforms in China with what is happening in India courtesy the government appointed Shekatkar Committee, it is difficult to decide whether to laugh or cry. The future is anybody's guess.