Are the Armed Forces serious on Theatre Commands?

 By Maj Gen Harsha Kakar (Retd)
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Addressing the Combined Commanders Conference, Rajnath Singh stated, ‘We are working towards increasing jointness in the armed forces. The optimal utilisation of our resources and rationalisation of manpower holds the key to jointness and better coordination between the forces.’[i] He added, ‘Our enhanced defence capabilities will allow us to be better prepared for contingencies.’[ii] However, actions undertaken by the forces present a picture of moving away from jointness,rather than towards it.

Inputs state that the three services have unanimously agreed to purchase MQ-9B Predator UAVs manufactured by San Diego-based General Atomics of the US at a cost of USD 3 Billion. These will be procured at a scale of 10 per service.[iii] It has also been highlighted that there would be some changes in configuration to suit individual service requirements. This has been billed as the first joint procurement by the armed forces. This decision comes prior to the visit of US defence secretary, Llyod Austin to India. It is likely that the deal would be announced during his visit. All earlier drone purchases were unarmed and solely for surveillance.

There is no doubt that armed UAVs are a necessity as, despite talks and a ceasefire, tensions with both, China and Pakistan continue unabated. Technologically, the US Predator is the most superior UAVs currently in service. The Predator, which India seeks, can fly for 40 hours and carry a payload of about 1,700 kilograms and is HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance) implying it flies at an altitude of 25,000 ft and possesses a range of 400 nautical miles.[iv] The nature of payload can vary depending on the mission for which it is being launched.

This deal was discussed between the services in Nov last year but was rejected as one of them had red flagged the high cost as also annual maintenance charges of these UAVs. Each Predator UAV is expected to cost around Rs 900 crore and carries a 10 per cent annual maintenance charge.[v] It is evident that on account of their costing, multiple tasking and capabilities, these UAVs would be employed for strategic, or at the best, operational surveillance and targeting. There would a certain level of control over their employment.

The allocation of 10 Predator UAVs per service leaves a doubt on the seriousness of the forces in creating the much- hyped theatre commands. If two theatre commands, Maritime and Air Defence, are expected to roll out this year and the balance, including land-based theatre commands in the coming year or two, then such major procurements should have been made keeping their employment in a theatre of operations in consideration.

Within a theatre all resources are expected to be deployed and employed as per the philosophy and planning of the theatre commander. It will not be individual services which would determine their employment and tasking, but the theatre commander. Since their employment would be central to a theatre, holding these resources at individual service levels neither makes sense nor does it fit into the overall operational plan, as services would never operate in individual silos within a theatre as is the current norm.

If deployment, employment and maintenance of Predator UAVs is the responsibility of one service, then coordination and training is better, despite whichever theatre it is employed. It is possible that in the current environment of limited budgets no single service was willing to bell the cat on account of its high cost and maintenance charges. This scenario has been created by the illogical budget announcement by the finance minister, ignoring ground reality.

Individual services are currently restricted by their share of capital procurement as announced by the finance minister, in her annual budget.[vi] On one side every national leader from the Prime Minister downwards continues harping on integration of forces, jointness, creating theatre commands and shedding single service silos, on the other, the finance minister announces individual service budgets for both, capital and revenue.

With a CDS in place and a Department of Military Affairs (DMA) established and operational, is there still a need to continue the age-old practice of single service allocations? Such an approach blocks any leeway within the forces to cater for major procurements, common to the three services as with the current procurement. Hence, it appears that orders for 10 for each service implies that all are bearing an equal share of the cost, despite their requirement being greater or smaller than the determined 10.

There is no doubt that theatre commands are well on the way to being established. Prior to the complete induction of the Predator UAVs, all theatre commands would have been formed and in the process of being operationalized. In such a scenario, it would have been ideal to nominate one service to be responsible for the employment of drones, despite them being procured from another service fund. This would ensure that a permanent cadre of specialists would be available for ensuring their serviceability and maximum exploitation.

Simultaneously there is a requirement of planning a joint operations centre at theatre command level, where demands from various subordinate formation are received and processed based on the overall directions of the theatre commander. The inputs received from the employment of these strategic drones is assessed and then subsequently shared across the spectrum.

Defence procurements take time to materialize. With theatre commands rolling out in the near future, all current procurements must be done keeping this in consideration. The current procurement plans belie this view. Simultaneously, the government must accept that with a CDS and DMA in place there is a need to change age-old practices of announcing single service budget allocations and let the forces handle their funds by themselves, rather than pushing it down their throats.

Endnotes:

[i] https://zeenews.india.com/india/rajnath-singh-addresses-combined-commanders-conference-salutes-courage-of-soldiers-during-standoff-with-china-2346008.html

[ii] ibid

[iii] https://www.bloombergquint.com/business/india-to-buy-first-u-s-armed-drones-to-counter-china-pakistan

[iv] https://www.airforce-technology.com/projects/predator-uav/#:~:text=System%20components%20of%20Predator%20UAV&text=The%20Predator%20air%20vehicle%20is,speed%20is%20more%20than%2070kt.

[v] https://www.indiatoday.in/india-today-insight/story/why-the-indo-us-armed-drone-deal-didn-t-go-through-1737433-2020-11-03

[vi] https://www.firstpost.com/india/defence-budget-2021-increased-capital-expenditure-much-needed-step-in-context-of-rising-chinese-threat-9266471.html#:~:text=To%20be%20precise%2C%20the%20overall,hiked%20by%20around%201.4%20percent.&text=According%20to%20the%202021%2D22,in%20the%202020%2D21%20Budget.