Friday, 17 September 2021

Whither Northern Command? Getting theaterisation right

With war’s metamorphosing to hybrid war, information war is now a central fixture in both war and peace. This is not self-evident from the website of the Northern Command (NC). The NC webpages on the army website depict the NC stuck combating terrorism alone, though much water has flown down the Indus and Jhelum. There is no mention of the heroes of Galwan, leave alone last year’s Chinese invasion that capped their intrusions since 2013. In effect, NC is in a time warp, best illustrated by the it’s webpage saying that it is deployed in the ‘state of Jammu and Kashmir’ that was consigned to history over two years ago. This observation is not casual nitpicking, but to highlight that the NC is rather busy with operations. This article makes the case that on account of this, it needs a helping hand.

The NC has been left out of the latest structural re-jigging of the army, advertised as the most consequential reform since Independence. Media reports have it that the theaterisation process has been kicked-off after much deliberation. General Rawat, who wears three hats (Chief of Defence Staff, Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee and Secretary of the Department of Military Affairs), is working to a timeline of his retirement by when he wishes to deliver on his mandate. Happenstance is that the timeline coincides with the run up to the next national elections, allowing the ruling party at the Center to appropriate yet another military achievement as its own handiwork.  

Notably, the mandate itself does not necessarily call for theaterisation, as popularly interpreted and seemingly subscribed to in the military. The press release on the forming of the department of military affairs states: “Facilitation of restructuring of Military Commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through establishment of joint/theatre commands.” If theaterisation was the directive, the forward slash (/) that depicts ‘or’ would have been replaced by a hyphen. When joint commands are sufficient, the aim of injecting jointness into warfighting does not compel theaterisation. In any case, the interpretation that theaterisation has been mandated appears to have carried the day and caviling about it now is moot.

The makeover underway

A recent update has it that the theaterisation concept has the maritime theater complemented by three landward theaters: western, eastern and the northern. NC therefore covers the territorial spread of the two adjacent theaters – western and eastern – into Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh respectively. The consideration here is whether the NC should be retained more or less intact in this manner or should be split with the Pakistan and China facing stretches of its geography taken over by the respective neighbouring commands.

As of now, since theaterisation is a work-in-progress, which of the two options above is envisaged for the NC over the long term is not known. Along the two fronts, the operational functions of the current day commands are to be first taken over by a designated command headquarters (one for each of the western and eastern fronts) that is to form the bedrock of the theater command, followed, over time, by other functions as logistics. But the NC has been kept out of this makeover, with only its boundaries with the neighbouring theaters liable to being adjusted slightly.

For now, this retention of NC as a theater of its own may owe to it being an operationally active command. Counter-insurgency operations are set to heighten after the Taliban victory in Afghanistan and the Ladakh intrusion by the Chinese has not reverted to status quo ante yet. The military has perhaps kept NC as a third theater temporarily. Doing so prevents structural instability at a time when the operational challenge is nigh.

However, the second option has the northern theater persisting into the future.  The NC is where the much vaunted two-front threat is likely to be incident most critically. Geographical contiguity at the northern extremities allows India’s two adversaries – Pakistan and China - to act in sync. An integrated response under one theater command adds weight to this option and might have led to the northern theater being retained as such in the theaterisation concept.

Splitting the northern theater?

From its website, it is evident that the NC is rather preoccupied with counter insurgency, officially put as “counter terrorism”. This is perhaps what led to its being caught flat-footed by the Chinese intrusion. And once the Chinese intruded, Ladakh has become its preoccupation. More pertinently, it has shifted a proportion of the specialist counter-insurgency force, the Rashtriya Rifles (RR), to Ladakh. This has been done when many apprehend a spike in the Kashmiri insurgency. Pakistan, having returned the Taliban to Kabul, may turn its attention back to its jugular vein: Kashmir. This may lead to the speedy reversion of the RR from Ladakh once the phony war breaks into a renewed bout of proxy war as early as next spring. From back and forth actions as this - reminiscent of the motion of the neck of a spectator sitting astride the net at a tennis match - it is evident that the NC has a rather a lot on its plate, that when shared is better digested.

If the northern theater is split, the theater command handling the Pakistan front – coming up at Jaipur - can have a holistic view of the Kashmir situation, enabling it to modulate conventional deterrence as necessary and, when warranted, conduct integrated conventional operations across the whole front. It would have the two mechanised strike corps and elements of the new mountain strike corps (the third mechanized strike crops duly realigned for a role in mountains) at its disposal. If the Pakistan front is instead reformed - as the current plan has it - by frontage split between two theaters – western and northern – then the very concept predicated on a front and theater being co-extensive stands negated. 

This is especially relevant since India has been at pains over the past two decades to doctrinally link the two levels of war – subconventional and conventional – in order to deter Pakistan’s proxy war at the latter level. India is reorganising its strike forces into integrated battle groups to make its conventional military advantage credible. A single, operational-level, theater headquarters thinking up the simultaneous assaults of IBGs across the western front is better than one each handling these across the international border and across the line of control respectively. This will keep the higher headquarters at Delhi - to be eventually based on the headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) and answering to an operationally empowered CDS - free to maintain a strategic view of the conflict and keep a wary eye on the other neighbour under the two-front rubric. 

A similar argument is valid for the other front too. Having Ladakh under one theater and the remainder of the line of actual control with China stretching to Arunachal Pradesh under another, would yet again embroil the strategic level headquarters IDS in calibrating the response to future Chinese adventurism across two theaters, rather than maintaining an eagle eye on both fronts. At the operational level, any future intrusions would require to be met with speedy tit-for-tat grab actions, best mounted by one headquarters fully abreast with the strengths and vulnerabilities and the developing situation across the entire China front. Hiving off Ladakh from the eastern theater militates against the logic of theaterisation. At the strategic level, the likelihood of a hyena-like action by Pakistan is taken as more likely in a situation of a limited conflict on the other front. It would not do for the strategic level headquarters to be distracted by integrating the response of the two separate theaters on the China front, when the second front is also activated.

Keeping the northern theater whole?

The two-front situation is considered most pertinent at the northern extremity, where India has the vulnerability of Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO)-Depsang plains on one side and the Siachen-Kargil area, where India is on a surer footing, on the other. Admittedly, managing this area requires an innovative approach. In the case of the northern theater being split into two adversary-specific fronts respectively, Siachen would fall to the western theater. Were the two adversaries to join hands in a collusive effort here, the two theaters can respond by opening up other sectors along respective fronts. For instance, in case of a grab of DBO by China, the northern theater can counter with pressure points elsewhere and outside Ladakh, even as the western theater can ‘go for’ Hunza-Gilgit-Baltistan, targeting the Chinese Achilles heel along the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or elsewhere.

A persuasive argument for retaining NC has it that in such a circumstance, a single theater based on NC would provide for a better response, rather than have the Indian response divided between two theaters. With NC handling the situation, the possibility of keeping the conflict geographically limited is higher. However, the northern theater may not be able to counter the weight the two collusive adversaries might bring to their preplanned nefarious grab. Therefore, it may be prudent to recognize this vulnerability and deter it by an implicit of conflict expansion ab initio. A split of the northern theater along the Karakoram Range will broadcast that both fronts could open up along their entire respective length, making for robust deterrence of the scenario. 

Rethink the northern theater

The NC was carved out of the Western Command after the 1971 War. The idea was that the northern theater due to its extensive geographical spread merited its own theater, though the Western Command had proved itself efficacious against both Pakistan and China in preceding conflicts. However, earlier, relations with the two neighbours were never adversarial at the same time, as is the case in recent times. Consequently, the northern theater is beset. This predicament can be eased by splitting it.

The logic of accountability with Udhampur as it faces of the upcoming threat of insurgency is not persuasive, since NC is also simultaneously squaring off against China in Ladakh. Therefore, having Jaipur take on the responsibility of overseeing the two corps at Badami Bagh and Nagrota makes sense. There is no guarantee that proxy war resumption by Pakistan will not escalate. A single theater for taking on Pakistan in such a circumstance is better, thereby also proving a better deterrent too.  On the eastern side, the talks have had only partial success and the new normal is likely to stay. Therefore, the Ladakh stretch must devolve to the eastern theater, to be anchored either at Lucknow or Kolkata. Lucknow may perhaps be better placed to exercise an over-watch than the somewhat receded, location wise, Kolkata.  

With a single theater per front, the Delhi based headquarters IDS will be able to discharge its strategic role efficaciously and keep an eye on escalatory possibilities including the nuclear level, thereby fulfilling the promise of theaterisation. Delaying the switch over of NC area of responsibility to the other two commands may not prove the right decision since adversarial relations are set to persist with both China and Pakistan and a switch over, even if delayed, will have to contend with uncertainty even later. Consequently, India must get its theaterisation act together, even as it ensures that while it is doing so, it is able to tide over any challenge in the interim.