HomeSpecialsExpert EditorialsEXPLAINED: What are Integrated Commands, and why does India need them?

EXPLAINED: What are Integrated Commands, and why does India need them?

The appointment of Gen. Bipin Rawat as the new Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) garnered a lot of attention among military analysts both globally and in India. Upon appointment, he was assigned the humongous task of carrying out reforms in the Indian Military, which has not only drawn debates but also run into intra-organisational political roadblocks.

“Reform” is a term that either attracts people or repels orthodox mindsets. There’s nothing in between. History has shown us that one who wholeheartedly accepts reforms, sustains, and the one who doesn’t fall. Learning from our history- when the Europeans came with a better organisational setup and weaponry, they were able to defeat much ‘bigger’ Indian forces. The Battle of St. Thome and the subsequent British victories at Buxar remain our primary lessons.

The Europeans achieved wonders when their better-organised military aligned with a supportive diplomacy, which made them conquer the whole Indian subcontinent. Another key example is the brilliant usage of naval and ground forces by Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj in joint operations to capture forts and raid Mughal metropolitans such as Surat. And I’m sure if Shivaji had an Air Force, he’d have used that marvel to harness the opportunity to strengthen the Swaraj.

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What Shivaji Maharaj did those days, is exactly what the Indian military planners want to achieve with today’s Tri-services, termed as ‘Integrated Theatre Commands’ (ITCs). Greeting the enemy with the combined might of all three forces, together, annihilating its morale and giving a tacit defeat. Sounds pretty simple, right?

In very simple terms, I’ll put it this way: currently, the Indian Military’s tri-services are largely independent and have their own spectrum of operations, and do not have “that” level of cooperation as seen with other modern militaries. For example, an Indian Army unit fighting with a hostile group requires air support. For this, they would relay a message to their superior, who would then communicate with his superior, and then the request would be sent to Air Force officials who would then direct their fighters in the area to bomb the given coordinates. And if the bomb didn’t hit the desired location, there’s no way for the soldiers on ground to communicate directly with their air force brethren in real-time; and the cycle would repeat again. All due to lack of decentralisation and a rigid scalar chain. 

Now, let’s imagine another situation. Both the Army unit fighting on the ground and the air force fighters are placed under one commander (under an Integrated Theatre Command), who is watching both their activities real-time via a drone flying above. He can directly command the air force fighters in the vicinity to provide support to the troops, and patch communications directly from the Army unit to the airborne fighter (realising Network-Centric Warfare). The ground troops would then be able to communicate with the pilot, directing him/her on what location the bombs have to be dropped on, and if they need to make another ‘run’.

Naturally, the second situation demonstrates better operational effectiveness, reducing time for air support and saving lives on-ground. While there is effective communication at the top level among three forces, it still lacks a joint command, needed to synchronise the assets available with the military.

We’ll take one more example to understand why we need more ‘jointness’ in operations.

Both the Army and the Air Force have their own air defence units. Under the current scenario, let’s assume an officer of the Indian Air Force (in-charge of a SAM system) observes a hostile aircraft coming its way. While trying to have a lock on the aircraft, he needs to communicate to other air defence units in the vicinity to be on high alert, and to fire on the aircraft using the weapons at their disposal. He can do it easily with other Indian Air Force units in the area, but for informing the Indian Army’s Air Defence units, he’d have to go through the same cycle of command as mentioned above, because there is no common network where both these forces can operate from (even when having the same operational roles). 

This is also flagged by the vast variety of air defence systems used by our forces, like the newer SPYDER systems used by IAF which cannot be integrated (networked) directly with the older Russian SAM systems operated by Indian Army. Now, if the reforms are implemented and a joint Air Defence command is set up having all Army, Air Force, and Navy air defence units under its disposal, the information passed by that air force officer can be relayed to Army’s air defence units too, quickly and effectively. This applies to other weapon systems as well, and can be streamlined with having indigenisation and self-sufficiency in arms and ammunition. You see, all these processes go hand-in-hand.

These are not my assumptions. The need for jointness was proposed by the Kargil Review Committee and Shekatkar report, and were being ignored by the previous governments to a large extent. Don’t come up with political counters now; the setting up of DMA (Department of Military Affairs), the post of CDS and Vice-CDS (Chief of Defence Staff), AFSOD (Armed Forces Special Operations Division), and pushing indigenisation of defence manufacturing have been done after the Modi Government came into power. As the government has kept its side of the bargain, its time for the Armed Forces to further implement it.

Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Bipin Rawat

However, the concept of Integrated Theatre Commands isn’t entirely new for India. The country already has some established and functioning Theatre Commands, the first being at Andaman & Nicobar Islands since 2001 – a very strategically important location overlooking the Straits of Malacca and straight at the frontline for countering any hostile movement into the Indian Ocean. It is a remarkable example of joint functioning of the nation’s Armed Forces.

The Chain of Command in ANC, by Anirvan Shukla/wikimedia commons

All other major militaries in the world have undergone this reform process to make them compatible with the needs of 21st Century warfare. The United States too, was driven by inter-services rivalry until the Government intervened and implemented a legislation, called “Goldwater-Nichols Act” in 1986 that led to the creation of the most joint military in the world. The Russian military too, has integrated theaterized commands called “Military Districts”, and even China too moved with their own military reforms in the PLA much recently in 2015. 

The two fundamental challenges in implementing the reforms are inter-services rivalry and having a wide “variety” of equipment. The aforementioned examples of the United States, Russia, and China, have well-established military-industrial complexes and use their own arsenal, while we struggle with the quality of gear made by Govt-owned OFB and still import a large section of our equipment. 

The military planners are well-versed with this issue and it was the reason a negative-imports list was released last year, along with renewed support to DRDO and Defence PSUs. IITs too, have stepped in, working in tandem with research organisations and various startups are popping up around the country. But compared to industrial giants like Russia’s Kalashnikov Concern, China’s Norinco and America’s Lockheed Martin, India is still half a century behind these countries in terms of self-reliance; plagued with bureaucratic hurdles and corruption.

But does that mean reforms should be outrightly rejected? Not at all.

There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ reform. If the nobles in France had their heads chopped during French Revolution, that doesn’t necessarily mean the same happened in the United States or Russia. Despite the technical challenges, structural reform is still very much possible, and the operational effectiveness of each service only increases manifold in such an environment. The Armed Forces Special Operations Division (AFSOD) is already operational and all the three forces are fine-tuning their organisational setup with tri-services exercises like TROPEX. Similar Integrated Commands like Defence Cyber Agency (DCA) and Defence Space Agency (DSA) have been set up and made operational under Integrated Defence Staff (IDS).

The President, Shri RN Kovind at the Joint Services Operational Demonstration by the Integral combat platforms and forces of Andaman and Nicobar Command, at Radhanagar beach, Swaraj Dweep, Andaman and Nicobar on February 28, 2021.

The Indian military’s issue is not with numbers. United States, and Russia, both have far fewer numbers in manpower than India (GlobalFirePower index), yet rank at the top with their technological advancements. I have no doubt that theaterization of Indian Military will bring troops from all services closer, who would get better versed with each other’s operating procedures. The incorporation of newer technology would be easier with joint commands, enabling network-centric warfare and the education of troops in accordance with new and digitized systems.

Indian Army’s own “IBG”s

And it’s not about if, it’s about WHEN, due to the two-front threat posed by China and Pakistan. The forces are already moving towards this cause, and we shall see the development of Integrated Battle Groups (self-incorporated combat units, spearheading military operations) by the Indian Army. These IBGs are the first step in the Army’s reorganisation plan, each having its own complement of Infantry, Engineers, Cavalry, Signals, Air Defence, Logistics, and other personnel, making it the Army’s own small integrated combat unit. These would be placed under Integrated Theatre Commands (ITCs).

The Army Chief, Gen. Naravane has been quoted by TOI, as saying “The process of ‘IBG-isation’ is well underway and in-house deliberations are being carried out to evolve force structures proficient in fighting and winning future wars.”

We’re looking at perhaps the biggest reform in the Indian Military since Independence. Being an inherent part of protecting India’s interests and everything that Indians hold sacred, the Indian Army, Navy, and the Air Force are getting ready to take on 21st-century challenges, and it will happen soon.

TFV NewsDesk
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