On promotion to the rank of Captain in the Indian Navy, I was selected  to undergo the Army Higher Command Course at Mhow in Madhya Pradesh (the three services Higher Command courses have a token representation from the other two services). Just before I left Mumbai to go to the College of Combat (now Army War College), friends gathered around me, with drinks in their hands, re-enacting ‘The Last Supper’. The conversation veered around to the Army men and their peculiar habits. It was unknown territory. “Basically they are very nice people” said one in the manner of a good Samaritan consoling a cancer patient, “and you have nothing to worry”. A civilian friend wanted to confirm (“just to settle a bet”) if the Army men did “everything” with their boots on.It didn’t take me much time to report back that I had met some of the nicest people who were as normal and professional (if not more) as we in the Navy pretended to be. However, I also mused about how we had feelings towards officers from the other services ranging from harmless jokes and teasing to complete distrust.

A Navy officer refers to an army man as Pongo (mountain mule) and the army man is convinced the navy man is not just at sea in ships and submarines but also at knowledge and professionalism.

Everyone in the Indian armed forces now believes that the future battles are never going to be single service ones but joint. Everyone believes, in public that jointmanship is the order of the day. However, privately an army man would like the word itself changed to jointmantank; same with the fliers, they would rather that it be called jointmanplane. Both would question the wisdom of calling it jointmanship; which is reminiscent of the feminists insisting on calling a lady heading an organisation as chairwoman.

The cradle of joint training for officers in the armed forces is the National Defence Academy. Gentlemen Cadets undergo joint training there for two years (four semesters or terms) and there is further one year training of their respective subjects in the last one year (two semesters). One would think that joint training, whence they have to undergo physical and mental hardships together, would galvanise them into life lasting bonds. Yes, it does; however, surprisingly it is only at a personal level. Course mates are held in a special place in one’s heart but only as long as it is for partying, golfing, visiting each other’s places, and writing reminiscences in coffee-table books. However, there must be something about service specific training or indoctrination that even course mates draw a line and literally stop the advances of the other service into territories held as the exclusive preserve of their own services.

Lets look at the situation at the top level and at the ground level. At the top level there is considerable distrust; one feels threatened that the service to which one belongs and owes everything would lose its very identity if allowed to be “devoured” by the other. The champion in this belief is undoubtedly the top hierarchy of the Indian Air Force, both retired and serving. It is convinced that the other two services “encroachment” into what is the forte’ of the Air Force should not be allowed to go too far. Why should it be considered by the Army and the Navy that the raison d’ etre’ of the IAF is to provide support, they reason. An air force pilot normally fights alone. This psyche drives the conditioning of the mind of the senior or top hierarchy of the IAF that the future battles can be fought by it alone. Bravado? Well, in a way, a fighter pilot has to have this bravado since he is expected to go the harms way quicker than the counterparts from the other two services. However, he shouldn’t consider himself perpetually in a state of conflict, especially with his counterparts from the other two services.

The IAF fought tooth and nail trying to convince the MoD (Ministry of Defence) that as long as the IAF has the long range fighters and air-to-air refuellers, the Navy does not require “the expensive option of aircraft carrier(s).” Simple calculations of endurance of Combat Air Patrol (CAP) for the Air Defence of ships at sea, at even moderate ranges from the coast, bringing home the point that the IAF will never have the capability to provide the kind of support the carrier provides, did not convince the IAF top bosses. Precedents that there are no leading navies in the world wherein air defence at sea is provided by their air forces did not wash with them. Finally, joint exercises were and are held; and yet, the IAF is convinced that a carrier at sea is a wastage; a luxury that the nation shouldn’t afford when it has the IAF to support the Navy.

In sharp contrast, the Army has been crying from house-tops that they do require the Combat Air Support (CAS) particularly in a Cold Start scenario; but, since the Cold Start doctrine is primarily the Army’s brainchild, the IAF is convinced that in the first 3 to 5 days of the war, its assets would be so intensely engaged in Counter Air Operations (CAO) that it would be well nigh impossible to spare anything for the Army. Cold Start remains cold and no start.

I heard a talk by a senior IAF officer regarding ‘Dealing with Emerging Threat Scenarios’. The talk was to last for one hour. After going through the usual scenarios involving countries from the US to the Mediterranean, the officer embarked on our GDP growth and the need to secure Energy sources. He added that the threats to our SLOCS (Sea Lanes of Communications) are increasing everyday and that maritime terrorism is something that we need to have an answer against. Up to here he took about 45 minutes of his allotted time. In the next 15 minutes he concluded, as if he had naturally led us to it, that the answer, therefore, was the Indian Air Force who should be entrusted with the exclusive responsibility of ensuring security of SLOCS.

Ministers and bureaucrats have been the direct beneficiaries of the turf wars in the higher echelons of the armed forces. The friction between the services is made use of by them to perpetuate their power over the military. At the present juncture the relationship between the services and the MoD is at its worst. This has resulted in the three service chiefs even complaining to the PM.

I have only given the examples of the obduracy of the IAF, but, the other two services have also been equally myopic in their approach towards jointmanship. Take the case of the Chief of the Defence Staff. Post Kargil War and the obvious failure of intelligence that led to it, the Government of India constituted a Kargil Review Committee and later on 17 Apr 2000, a GOM (Group of Ministers). Amongst the various recommendations for restructuring national security apparatus, and synergy between civil and military hierarchies, was the recommendation to have a Chief of Defence Staff of the three services. CDS was supposed to be the “single point military advice to the GoI and to manage the nuclear arsenal”. The Army’s specious argument against the CDS was that as long as the “senior service”, that is, the Indian Army had one of its own officers as the CDS, it was fine; but, should an officer from the Navy or the Air Force become the CDS, how would he coordinate the response of such large Army when he won’t know anything about the terrain and the functioning of the Army.

Air Chief Marshal PV Naik, when he took over as Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee deflected the CDS issue by pointing out that there were several models of CDS operating in different countries and said, “We don’t know which model suits us the best. Once we decide that, I am sure the CDS will come in.” Ah, does he want us to believe that a decade after the GOM report we still haven’t studied the “several models of CDS”?

Another issue on which the decision making was stalled was the powers given to the CDS. At present the services chiefs are both chiefs of staff of their respective services as well as operational commanders of the services. They don’t mind losing staff functions to the CDS. But don’t want to commit “sure harakiri” by passing operational command of their services to a rank outsider.

So, in the absence of the CDS we have a COSC (Chief of Staff Committee) and the senior most of the services chief as its chairman. Synergy between the three services is maintained here by discussing matters of little consequence.

Pending the institution of the CDS and in order to pave way for it, a decision was taken in 2001 to set up Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) headed by Chief of Integrated Staff to Chairman COSC (CISC), in rotation between the three services. Even though the services initially regarded IDS as parking slots for their mid and senior level officers, the IDS finally ended up doing a fair deal of good work in producing, for example, Joint Doctrine, Force Level Doctrine and Prioritisation, carrying out Net Assessments, and conceptualising policy and plans for joint training and procurements. However, the approach of the three services is tasking IDS in only those things that would not directly interfere with the individual service’s policy and plans.

Lets briefly look at the concept of Joint Theatre Commands. In Port Blair, in Sep 2001, post recommendations of GOM, a joint command called Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) came up and replaced the Fortress Commander Andaman and Nicobar islands (FORTAN), a purely Navy Commander. The plan to have a FENC (Far Eastern Naval Command), mooted in 1995, was therefore shelved. It was understood that the ANC would be a precursor to having other joint theatre commands. However, except in seminars and panel discussions, the idea of other joint commands is not even conceptualised, let alone implemented. The Navy is therefore feeling short-changed and seriously considering recommending to GoI to do away with joint ANC and reverting to the earlier system of FORTAN or newer one of FENC.

At the field level, young officers genuinely enjoy cross service experiences both in training and in exercises. Navy Direction Officers (those who direct aircraft), for example, on deputation to the IAF to learn about Direction duties from their IAF counterparts speak high of the value and level of training as well as the “professionalism” of their Air Force counterparts. Similarly, when the Navy conducts the Amphibious training and exercises the young Army officers are only too keen to find answers to joint problems. And yet, as soon as these officers become senior enough to take decisions for their respective services, they become obsessive about preserving exclusivity of their service.

Privately, middle level officers talk about achieving jointmanship and the installation of CDS only if the government were to “impose” these on the services.

Until then ‘Divided We Stand and United We Fall‘ has been honed as a fine art.

© 2011 – 2013, Sunbyanyname. All rights reserved.

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  1. Sir, as usual, you have brought out a thought provoking article on jointmanship of the three Services. hope the powers-that-be give a serious thought to this vital aspect for the future of the nation.