August 16, 2021The Intersectiongeopoliticsinformation age

Beyond theatre commands and towards networked battle units

The meaning of networked warfare has changed from equipping armed forces with data networks to reorganizing the forces themselves into networked units. Instead of forever playing catch-up, India has a unique opportunity to leapfrog into building not only integrated, but networked forces.

Mint This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

India’s defence establishment must not squander the rare opportunity to leapfrog our armed forces into the future

Without doubt, the Narendra Modi government’s 2019 decision to appoint a chief of defence staff (CDS) and assign to him the task of restructuring India’s armed forces into integrated theatre commands is the most significant defence reform in decades.

Following the recent controversy over its implementation, it would be unfortunate if the New Delhi establishment squanders such a bold political mandate due to short-sightedness, inter-service prejudices and foggy thinking. It is certainly a cause for worry when a number of respected general officers, across the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force, advise against making haste” in implementing the plan that the CDS General Bipin Rawat has proposed. Now, there is nothing hasty” about implementing theaterization in 2021, over two decades after it was recommended by the Kargil Committee. Yet, the admirals, air marshals and generals are right to warn against irrevocably committing the armed forces to a sub-optimal restructuring.

See my objections to the proposal to a sole maritime command

Going by media reports, it appears that the proposed theaterization plan attempts multiple objectives driven by the current operational mindset: one shaped by circumstances of counter-insurgency, a proxy war along the borders and
the Himalayan challenge posed by China.  The purpose of reform, however, has to be with an eye on the distant future. Given that actors, threats and the environment will change in uncertain ways, the structure must be simple, flexible and adaptable.

I have been arguing for this structure for a long time.

That is why the ideal solution for India is to have four geography-based theatres—Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western—each equipped to use land, sea, air, space and cyber power to handle all threats in their areas. In addition, I am an advocate of the unpopular minority view that India must raise a small but effective expeditionary command for overseas military operations. No theatre should belong’ to any service, and command appointments should be decided based on talent and experience in joint operations, not the colour of a uniform.

The chain of command should run from the Cabinet Committee on Security, through the defence minister, directly to the theatre commander, with the CDS and defence secretary in the loop but outside the chain. Like in the United States, this entire structure should be covered by parliamentary statute, not merely by executive decisions.

Many of the current misgivings in the three services will dissolve if the proposed structures reveal clarity of purpose. Once it is clear to the rank and file why India’s armed forces must be reorganized and they see the changes as uncomfortable but fair, resistance will give way to support. As Lieutenant General D.S. Hooda has pointed out, a joint war-fighting doctrine must be in place first. Mantrapurvah sarvarambha (policy must precede action) according to Kautilya.

As much as theaterization is a major reform, it is merely a catch-up. The idea that all forms of power must come together to achieve any specific military objective is over 30 years old. Theatre commands optimize structure for jointness, a requirement that emerged in the late-Industrial Age. The world has moved on since then, and the Information Age requires us to optimize for shorter response times, or what analysts call the OODA loop’. While theaterization may improve response times as a side-benefit, that objective needs very different thinking and very different changes.

What we missed in our preoccupation with counter-insurgency on one hand and the theaterization debate on the other is the need to restructure the sharpest end of our military power: the actual war-fighting unit. The US army, for instance, began to modularize’ its forces in 2003, moving from big hierarchical formations to many small networked brigades. Brigade combat teams (of 4,500 troops) have replaced divisions (10,000-15,000 troops) as the basic deployable unit, and independent studies have shown that a modular force structure is superior to the division-based structure in terms of deployability, employability, and sustainability.”

Modernization in other countries involves reducing the size of battle units, equipping them better, networking them intensely, and vastly improving their mobility. In 2021, we should be travelling in the direction of integrated, modular battle units.

The meaning of networked warfare has changed from equipping armed forces with data networks to reorganizing the forces themselves into networked units. Instead of forever playing catch-up, India has a unique opportunity to leapfrog into building not only integrated, but networked forces. The watchwords for this transformation are empowerment, lower echelons, smaller units, specialist roles, interoperability and reconfigurability. This does not necessarily need bigger budgets, nor is it about cutting-edge technology and equipment. It is about mindsets and adopting new ways of thinking.

To be sure, such a transformation cannot—and perhaps should not—happen overnight. But it need not take decades to begin and even more decades to complete. So, even as the top brass address overdue matters belonging to the past, they should not ignore the call of the future.

There are many more The Intersection columns here

Tailpiece: India’s armed forces are lethal instruments for exclusive use against external threats and adversaries. This is a good time to shift the Indian Army out of domestic counter-insurgency, and separate the Coast Guard from the Indian Navy.



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