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Political Implications of US Style Unified Command of Indian Defence Forces

Mala Jay

With the nation’s attention distracted and preoccupied with the high voltage political drama over the No Confidence Motion That Never Was, the Prime Minister has quietly taken a decision that is bound to have far-reaching geo-strategic and geo-political implications for India.

A decision has been taken to integrate the Army, Navy and Air Force and bring it under a unified command system. 

As Opposition parties and the mainstream media remain engrossed and enthralled with developments in Parliament and engage in heated and partisan arguments about who is scoring more political points, the government has - virtually without wider political consultations - taken the first critical step towards ending the existing system of having separate chiefs for each of the three defence services.  

The Command Rules for the Indian Army, Indian navy and Indian Air force are to be amended.  Indications are that new rules and orders will be notified.  This would pave the way for an officer from one single Service to exercise direct command over all personnel belonging to all the three Services.

Reports say the far-reaching changes are initially being made in the specific context of the Andaman and Nicobar Command, a strategic and sensitive location considered by experts to be critical to security in the Indian Ocean region as well as the Arabian Sea and Bay of Bengal. 

Experts say this reform amounts to a major restructuring of the Indian Armed Forces, in terms of operational command systems.  The ostensibly justification is to bring about more effective coordination among the fighting wings of the Indian military. 

At present, the three defence services – Indian Army, IAF and Indian Navy – are under the operational command of three different three-star officers.  This new step by the Government of India seeks to amend the command rules for all the three establishments.

The model for the new unified command system is the United States concept of 'Theatre Command' under which the resources of all the three forces will be placed at the command of one senior military commander.

Defence analysts confirm that the move would be on the same pattern of how military commands operate not only in the United States but also in China, which made the change relatively recently. 

Analysts are of the opinion that although it might appear to be a structural change for better coordination, in reality it will drastically alter the chain of command and have a profound impact on the functioning of the defence forces. 

Significantly, under the new US-style single Armed Forces chief, there will be a direct single-point military advice pipeline to the government.  In the American system, the President is the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.  In India, the powers will de facto come into the hands of the Prime Minister.

In the context of the political upheavals and uncertainties the country is currently in the grip of, and in view of serious issues being raised by various parties about the handling of national security and foreign under the present dispensation, it would have perhaps been wiser to embark on such a game-changing new reform after the next general elections, which are only a year away.

The backdrop to the changes, which have been on the drawing board ever since the Kargil Review Committee under K Subramanyam and the GoM on national security in 2001, is the assessment that there is scope for streamlining the Chiefs of Staff Committee to make it more effective.   Recommendations were also under consideration to introduce new positions of Chief of Defence Staff and Vice Chief of Defence Staff to strengthen the defence forces.

One view is that it might have more prudent of the present government to have taken such a major step after wider consultations with senior Opposition leaders and even perhaps after discussions on the floor of the House.  This is all the more pertinent since the new orders are expected to create a direct channel from the Chief of Defence Staff to the Prime Minister – with the Defence Minister’s role limited to an extent.

Frontier
Mar 28, 2017


Mala Jay malalaw@gmail.com

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