On July 11, in a meeting of the commanders of the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force, the defence secretary let out a long held secret – that it was planning to tweak the existing military hierarchy to bring in new capabilities.

A briefly worded official statement promised a slew of measures that seemed to address the wars of the future. It said that the “defence secretary apprised the audience that the Defence Cyber and Space Agencies and Special Operations Division will soon become a reality”.

These measures seek to bring the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force under one roof, for better operational capabilities for the forces.

The integration of space and cyber warfare as separate divisions and a joint special operations unit is an idea that is at least 40 years too late. It is also one that should have been pushed through at the highest levels of the government, but has only found partial acceptance, even as India is seeing ties with Pakistan as well as China deteriorate.

Long-time coming

According to senior military sources, the decision to set these new structures up came from the National Security Advisor’s office, who had begun work on this soon after the attack on the Army base in Kashmir’s Uri, on September 18. The attack, in which 19 soldiers were killed, is believed to have been carried out by militants who crossed over to India from Pakistan.

While plans were afoot to respond to the Uri attacks, the government was also acutely aware that the Indian military was not prepared to fight modern-age battles and needed urgent reform. It had also been argued that terror attacks like the one in Uri could not be deterred by conventional means and India needed a sub-conventional capability.

The three vice chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force were asked to study these issues and prepare recommendations for the government. While reform of the higher defence management in India, including better coordination between the various divisions of the Armed Forces, has been recommended several times – from the Kargil Review Committee (1999) to the Naresh Chandra Task Force in 2012 – progress has been either tardy or non-existent. The result: an outdated military that has failed to integrate itself as a joint fighting force to fight modern battles.

According to sources, National Security Adivisor Ajit Doval took these lacunae up with the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi and the then Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar. As the military headquarters pored over plans, past reports were dug up as reference points. The group came up with the recommendation to finally set up a joint special operations division along with dedicated space and cyber agencies.

For over a decade the need for such joint commands had been repeatedly raised by various quarters. However, inter-services rivalry ensured that these proposals never took off. As a senior military officer pointed out, “…integration of the Ministry of Defence was a key proposal of the Kargil Review Committee. However, resistance from the government, the bureaucracy and surprisingly, the military, never allowed these reforms to take place.”

A senior naval officer, who was part of the plans to set up these new divisions, said, “We are making a small beginning and hoping that this succeeds. There’s a lot of resistance that we still need to overcome”.

The military continues to oppose joint or theatre commands – unified commands of the Army, Navy and Air Force that allow integration and better synergy between the three services. “Let us look at our Eastern borders,” the senior naval officer pointed out. “The Army’s command sits in Kolkata, West Bengal, the Air Force in Shillong, Meghalaya and the Navy in Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. How are we supposed to fight as a joint force?” Similar disorganisation exists on the Northern and Western fronts as well.

The tradition-bound Indian military can draw its lessons on the need for an integrated command from the US military, which learnt its lessons from a singular episode in its recent history. In 1980, when 52 US citizens were held hostage in Iran, President Jimmy Carter sanctioned an ambitious rescue plan. Code-named Operation Eagle Claw , the complex plan involved many forces coming together to land secretly 200 miles south of Tehran and rescue the hostages. The operation was a spectacular failure and led to a major reorganisation of the US military. The US Congress passed the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganisation Act in 1986 and the Nunn-Cohen Amendment to the National Defense Authorisation Act 1987, that set up the Joint Special Operations Command, comprising special forces of the US Army, Navy and Air Force.

Moving slowly

However, the government seems to have taken one step ahead and then two steps back.

Earlier this month, just days after the defence secretary announced the new structures at the Unified Commanders Conference, it was revealed that the Ministry of Defence had rejected the Army’s bid to take part in this year’s prestigious Cambrian Patrol exercise, held in the UK.

The international exercise, considered one of the toughest in the world, provides exposure to armies of many countries who participate to test each other’s skills and build joint capabilities. The official reason cited for cancelling India’s participation was reported to be the lack of adequate learning experience and the need to create a similar exercise in India. Defence ministry officials were also at pains to explain that the exercise, which had won the Indian Army many gold medals in the past and had also been praised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was not suitable for India.

Some argued that the military exercise was largely carried out with weapons used by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation countries, which did not suit Indian conditions. What they failed to explain was that not only is the Indian Army already using NATO-specific weapons, it also had ambitious plans to buy more, instead of the traditional Russian equipment it was used to.

The other reason offered was that the Indian Army had already done so well that it did not need to participate again. But this reasoning did not address the fact that every year, new groups drawn from the Army are sent to compete in this prestigious international competition run by the British military. Instead, the Defence Ministry said that the Indian Army could participate in the competition only once every two years.

At a time while the military is seeking to reorganise itself for the wars of the future, such diktats from the Defence Ministry are seen as a major step back . “Years ago, India suddenly decided to take part in a Special Forces competition in Botswana,” a senior Army officer said. “India set a team from 10 Para (Special Forces) because we were looking for exposure to deploying in different parts of the globe, while learning from our counterparts from other countries.” The Indian team got top scores at the competition and came back with valuable lessons.

This is just indicative how the Defence Ministry and the military work at cross purposes, nullifying plans to reorganise itself into a modern fighting force. With tensions high on the border with both Pakistan and China, the Indian military desperately needs a makeover. Unfortunately, despite the rhetoric, that does not seem to be a priority yet.