The Reformist


Fireside Chat with Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon : Theatre Commands

The Reformist


Dec 05 2020

Image source: 

Takshashila Institution

Image source: 

Takshashila Institution

“It is not about wanting to attack China. It is about wanting to influence their strategic behavior to adhere to the rules of international law.” - Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon

Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon, PVSM, AVSM, VSM (Retd) formerly Military Advisor in the NSCS spoke at length in a fireside chat with The Reformist on the importance of theaterization for boosting military effectiveness and the need for India to utilize its peninsular equity for strategic gains.

The announcement regarding the creation of an integrated Air Defence Command appears structurally incongruent with the concept of a theatre. How does prioritization of functional integration over geographical integration affect operational efficiency?

If you have a command which only looks after defending India’s airspace then I’m afraid that you’re trying to divide what is fundamentally an indivisible part because defence cannot be actually segregated from the offence. They are two sides of the same coin. Creating an air defence command which will sit atop all theatres would be problematic because the theatre concept is that you have at the top, at joint service headquarter level, a policymaking body which will make policy and give operational directions. Currently, each service has its own operational headquarters. Under a theatre system, the operational headquarters of the three services would amalgamate into one joint headquarter, which will have the three service chiefs, Theatre Commanders and the CDS. The CDS would wear the hat of the Chairman Chief of Staff and be head of the Chiefs of Staff Committee.

So if you’re making an air defence command, I’m not quite clear how that would sit. The relationship between the air defence command and the theatres is unclear. Theaterization requires jointness right from planning to execution. So if it has to be joint, then air power resources cannot possibly have an existence of their own over the theatre commanders because the theatre commanders finally will have to decide what the operational application of force is going to be in their theatres.

The headquarters on top allocate the resources depending upon the political and military objectives . Air power and air resources are very flexible, you can move them long distances from one place to another. So it would be controlled centrally, I agree. However, if the air defence command is going to look after the air defence assets, then who is going to look after the offensive assets? Is that going to have a separate air force set up? I don’t think you should differentiate between the two. So I’m not really able to understand the role of the air defence command which would complicate what ought to be an integrated structure which must be at the top involving all air defence resources, both defensive and offensive.

A defensive structure is easy to create, but I don’t know how this fits into the overall structure of the theatre system. I’m not able to fathom that, and I think they would be problematic. Also, the Air Force is quite against the idea and a lot of Air Force officers have been writing against the air defence command. So I’m afraid that unless I have more details on the logic behind it, I think prima facie it is not a good idea.

Sir, you have advocated a swift response without posturing in the event of a threat emanating primarily from Pakistan. However, for a threat emanating from a Sino-Pak Nexus, the paper calls for a strategic defensive that can tactically be an offensive defence in the continental space. What does tactical offensive defence mean, and what is the aim of having a strategic defensive posture in this situation?

One of the worst threats India could face is a collusive military threat from Pakistan and China. If that comes to be, what I’m suggesting when I say strategic defensive in the continental space is that we defend in the continental space. When I say defend, you’re on a strategic defence whereas tactically you can be on the offensive. So what I mean by that is that you will not launch major offensives into China or into Pakistan like you normally do if you were fighting individually with each country. Therefore, your offensive arm, what I’m suggesting should be in the maritime space because that is where geography and naval power can be used offensively, as you have an advantage there. You don’t have the same advantage in the western or the northern theatre because it is a matter of resources.

I’ve always been advocating that this idea of capturing large amounts of territory in Pakistan, capture of PoK (for instance), are all pipe dreams which at the moment we should not even think about because of a simple reason you don’t go into a “jihadized” state. Because you might capture territory, but he can make your life miserable after that, and it would involve us in a long-term counterinsurgency. Even while being separate (entities), they are doing it to us and they are pretty good at this. It is not just about capturing PoK, but it is about retaining PoK after capture. They will have a local populace, they will have easy access from their side and they would take all that into consideration. Even with China, the idea that you can go across the Himalayas and launch an offensive in Tibet is again military fiction because the terrain favours the Chinese. The Tibetan plateau allows for internal lines of communication where they can move their forces easily and concentrate them at a point of decision. Terrain doesn’t allow us to do that, and for us or for China supplying an army across the Himalayas is not something which can be easily done because it can be interfered with.

So these ideas are all military fictions that are meant to threaten and frighten each other. Military imagination actually tries to make these enormous threats look as if they are going to do all this, all in the name of deterrence. But in reality, it will be very difficult to carry this out. So there’s this vast gap between what military imagination poses as a threat and what you can do, especially if nuclear weapons would be involved. Don’t forget that three of us are nuclear powers and once the war breaks out and if it’s a war of some magnitude, then automatically nuclear weapons will come on alert.

Once nuclear weapons are on alert, then it’s anybody’s guess what can happen because misperception, misjudgement, miscommunication or just sheer accident could cause what Clausewitz called the “friction of war”. One guy can trigger a major disaster for both sides. So, you need to keep all this in consideration and that’s why beyond the political rhetoric of all these major fights, you’ll find that political leaders on both sides, be it China, India or Pakistan talk big but in the actual fight, they try to keep it small.

That’s how it is, that’s how it has been, and that is what I’ve written a book about in the Indo-Pak context. It’s called “The Strategy Trap: India and Pakistan under the Nuclear Shadow”. Force application under the nuclear umbrella is something which has been untested and it is better than nobody tests it. Politicians even in other countries, have always talked big but when it comes to it, they’ve always shown caution. Lessons of the Cold War, especially the Cuban Missile Crisis and some crisis afterwards, have all shown that nobody can possibly win a nuclear war, so that’s a given. Despite that, you have got to frighten the other guy. You still threaten him with a lot of military forces which you can throw. That’s what China is probably trying to do with us in Ladakh. Threaten us, coerce us with the purpose of probably affecting our strategic behaviour, not in Ladakh, but how we get along with the other big guys in the backdrop of the global power struggle between the US and China.

Why has the maritime theatre been chosen to be a domain for a strategic offensive posture? What platforms would you advise the Maritime theatre to prioritize in this regard?

The first thing is what geography bestows on India. We have a peninsular space jutting into the Indian Ocean. It’s like a sword into the Indian Ocean. Across the Indian Ocean goes international traffic carrying energy and a lot of trade which therefore gives us the advantage geographically. Theoretically, that advantage is the potential to intervene or interfere with what we call the sea lanes of communication. The question which you are really asking is, how do we do it? I mean after all you can’t just have a war between China and India, and disrupt international maritime traffic, and that has always been a problem. So, the idea that India can actually close the choke points is purely theory, in the sense that you can’t close the choke points because there are many other nations who have trade interests in the region. If you just see the traffic through those choke points, it would be difficult for us to do that.

But even then, we don’t have to go the whole hog about closing choke points. We have the capability because of our proximity to the Indian Ocean to let’s say take control of maybe a couple of Chinese ships and take them to harbour. That itself will be a message which will have China giving escorts to their ship & actually trying to protect them. China’s greatest dilemma is not only about the choke points like Malacca but also about how it protects the trade. So India really needs to figure how to use this power of geography. It’s a matter of let’s say operational imagination. You know we can interfere even at the lower level; we don’t need to do the big thing, we can do the small thing. We can catch hold of some of those survey ships of the Chinese, their fishing boats, and actually they can do the same to Indian ships on the other side.

So don’t think that none of these things don’t have any consequences. Everything has a consequences. But that India can interfere with this is the psychological effect, it is the threat in being. China will have to keep that in mind when it does something big in the North. This applies even with Pakistan. Pakistan after all cannot firmly believe that it can confine itself to just doing something across Jammu and Kashmir. The option is always open to us to take it to the seas. I mean, we have done this before in 1971, we can do it again, we have the capabilities against Pakistan to do that. So the question really is that while we can’t get into operational details of how this is to be done, there is enough scope from the lower level which is from the unguarded vessel being interfered with, to trade being interfered with. If you just pose a threat, the insurance rates itself will make things quite difficult for the Chinese ship. It may also affect international traffic. So while this is untested waters, the fact that we can do it is itself some psychological factor that Chinese will take into account.

Eventually this is all about being able to not control, but at least establish some influence in the areas you want. If you want to do that, then obviously you have to have a combination of surface and subsurface assets, which is submarine and surface fleets. As far as the Navy is concerned, its ability to operate away from the shores depends upon air-cover which you’re able to provide it. Either from the shores itself, or through an aircraft carrier which can accompany it because that will make a lot of difference. Thus, China itself is planning for six aircraft carriers. We are planning for the third one, but I noticed that unfortunately that it is already being killed by the CDS. Even before we have a national security strategy, we’re killing an aircraft carrier. You are going down to a level and saying that the aircraft carrier is useless because it is so big and can be targeted. The Chinese and the Americans must be fools to have aircraft carriers. The USA has ten and the Chinese are planning for six. We can use the aircraft carrier in many situations from peace to conflict. But this is a matter also of how much we can afford. So at the moment I would agree that there may not be resources, but that doesn’t mean you shelve it. You delay it; you prioritize something else which you have to spend on. But don’t say that you don’t require it.

Unfortunately, the statements from the military hierarchy, especially the army hierarchy and the CDS have been negative. I do not agree with that. Because if India wants to be a power of any consequence, it cannot project power across the continent, across Pakistan, central Asia, across Himalayas because of our relationship with the Chinese. It has to be across the oceans. If India has to grow like China, we will also have interests, which we will need to put forward, and that interest will primarily be about trade. That we need resources to grow, we need to send resources to sell itself makes trade to be the most important thing if we’re going to be a power of any consequence. You protect that trade. The question is, India does not have the capability at the moment to project power across the Malacca straits into the South China Sea. But that doesn’t mean we don’t think we should have it. When resources are available, that’s the time when we do it. Till then, we make other arrangements; we cooperate with nations with whom we have common interests, and there are many nations vying for India’s attention on that front. Therefore, the Indo-Pacific and the quad are all born from this imagination that if we cooperate we can take on because whatever it is, Chinese growth is impressive. The sheer space of their growth is impressive.

Therefore, it is not about wanting to attack China. It is about wanting to influence their strategic behaviour to adhere to the rules of international law. Because China is now becoming more and more assertive and unconcerned about what others think. It seems to have a strategic ego which doesn’t seem to care for the norms of international relations. If it makes revisionist claims based on historical possessions, it has to be opposed. If nobody opposes, then soon India will have to listen to the boss because it will become the boss. So it concerns all of us. It concerns many other nations in that area. There is a lot of room for cooperation, and the maritime space provides the maximum room for cooperation. No one will come and fight your war in the Himalayas against China or against Pakistan. Yes, you may have intelligence sharing and so on. But the fighting you must do and Indian Armed Forces can quite do that. We’ve been experiencing those mountains for quite some time. We’ve been in the Siachen Glacier. I’ve been to the Siachen Glacier myself as a Major.

So I think one thing about Chinese exerting power that we have to understand is that they have got this notion of comprehensive national power which counts material stuff. But let me tell you, military force is not only the material stuff. It is to do with many other things which are intangible. It has to do with doctrine, with training, with just a fighting spirit of all of your armed forces itself. That cannot be counted. The Chinese have no experience in high altitude. They’ll probably get it over a couple of years when they stay there.

The Chinese have in psychological terms have managed to convey to the rest of the world that they have already arrived as a global military power. They must have, but I have to really look at it and compare them to the Americans. Americans are still far ahead in the maritime domain. China will take at least more than a decade to catch up if it can. By the time they catch up they’ll probably also become old, because they have a demographic problem which is going to be their “bete noire” in times to come. So let us not lose hope and let us not be carried away by what is the main power that China wants to exercise of aiming to put into our minds psychological ascendancy, which means that they’ll get you to do what they want to do and that is what power is all about. The ability to influence. China is in the mind games, we have to play a mind game with them.

What are the apprehensions of the IAF leadership vis-à-vis theaterization and why?

At the fundamental level, let me tell you that although the CDS system was recommended by the Kargil Review Committee, a group of former Air Chiefs went to Prime Minister Vajpayee and told him that this idea of Chief Defence of Staff is really not a good one for India’s military structure. It was one of the influential points which finally delayed and you know, restricted. There were other people also who objected, especially the bureaucracy, who thought that the CDS would be too powerful. There were also the politicians who were of the view that we can’t have a powerful armed forces guy on top as the CDS because then they’ll stage a coup. These were all imaginaries which were used to prevent the appointment of a CDS, and the same thing is happening now with the theaterisation.

The IAF leadership has been the conscious objectors to theaterisation from the very beginning and their logic has always been that the air force is actually flexible, it can be used anywhere; it must be centrally controlled. That I think nobody really disagrees with. They have a problem, and I think that this is my view, that theatrisation will reduce existing avenues in the senior air force hierarchy. There would be much less Air Marshals or Air AOC in C’s that they currently have in the new system, and the Air Force would be a loser on that account. I think that this is a level of argument which has no place in what is the primary purpose which is increasing military effectiveness. Air Force assets are all over the country. They are in different places and we can move them from one place to another, but they all have permanent locations. However, as long as there are certain technical support services, they can operate from anywhere without being forced to operate in a particular region. So in the theatre system all these air resources will reside in administrative terms under those theatres where they are. Nobody is going to move anything around. The operational control and the allocation for missions will be done and given to the theatres as required. When it has to, it will be used centrally from the joint operational headquarters in Delhi. Only thing is the air force will not do purely it and it will also have an army and a navy as a joint thing, as an integrated structure. So I think it is purely resistance to change.

But frankly, that is not a matter of any consequence when we talk about improving effectiveness of the armed forces. Individuals don’t matter, institutions do. In fact, I have written that there is no reduction in Air Marshals because there will be enough space in the theatre system for absorption of all existing ranks that they already hold whether it is three star or two star. That is not the problem. But that doesn’t seem to alleviate the feeling that they have right now of an independent existence. You see, air power historically has not fulfilled the promise with which it came into being. When air power first came into being, it was thought of as the golden key to warfare. But historically we know, air power is one military instrument along with others, which needs to be used. It cannot have an existence of its own, because finally, all warfare is about control on the ground. You might do anything in the air, you might do anything in the maritime space but people live on earth. So it’s about the control of that ground space that’s why I always say as an infantry man that finally you need an infantry man to stand there with a gun to control. That is control.

So the air force I’m afraid will continue to fight. But you know this argument is over. Politicians have decided. So the air force can keep talking about what they want to do, but that argument is finished. The Air Force will now try to drag it slowly to what you call moving slowly and carefully. Such resistance to change may endure..

What would a realistic timeline for achieving theaterization?

Probably in 5-10 years. Although the promise is 3 years, I’m making it 5-10 years because this is India.

How should the transition take place and what steps we should take in the interim to guard against vulnerability?

The current structures will have to morph into these structures gradually. This is because geopolitical turbulence is also going on while we are making these changes. So we have to have our feet on the ground all the time, because we can actually be pulled into a conflict. So that’s a great challenge. So it has to move in a manner which is planned and it has to have a timeline so we are not destabilised during the process. That’s why I have written in my paper that to make this transition we will require expertise from outside the armed forces because it does not reside in the armed forces, they don’t have it. The armed forces will be part of the transition but you need expertise from outside and I in fact compare it to the shift made in the corporate to the strategic business units, which is the closest resemblance to this transition to the theatre system. It will not be easy. It’s going to be very complex, and that’s why I say 5-10 years.

This interview was conducted on 25th of November 2020.