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Indian Military’s Poor ‘PR’ Skills & Theatre Command ‘Controversy’

Indian armed forces must review information-sharing mechanisms and the working of defence (PR) at large.

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
The issue of theatre commands has been hanging fire since 2017 when the case first received an ‘in-principle’ nod from <a href="http://">PM Narendra Modi. </a>
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In a recent story that appeared in Hindustan Times on 21 June, the Indian Air Force was called out for playing a “lone ranger” against the proposed reorganisation of Indian forces into theatre commands.

The clickbait title ‘Indian Army and Navy favour theatre commands, Air Force plays the lone ranger‘ leads the reader into a hyperbolic account of differences that have cropped up in the restructuring being led by the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) and Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat. IAF has been marked out, almost like a petulant child, while the other two services are portrayed in complete harmony with the proceedings. Many military observers, including serving personnel and veterans, have taken umbrage to the story.

While the story lives out its short life cycle in cyberspace, it comes as a good reminder of the leaky and porous ‘perception management’ around such a sensitive issue.

The issue of theatre commands has been hanging fire since 2017 when the case first received an ‘in-principle’ nod from PM Narendra Modi. Reorganizing an armed force as big and diverse as India’s can hardly be expected to happen at the crack of a whip. But that the article chose to single out IAF for slowing down the process raises eyebrows. The writer draws parallels justifying theatre commands, in a cavalier manner, from two extremes — “tiny Maldives to mighty US”. To recall, even the ‘mighty US’ struggled for decades to achieve the gold standard of jointmanship the story appears to give it credit for.

‘Proposed Concept Reduces National War-fighting Potential’

A senior veteran this writer spoke to (name withheld on request) had the following points to make about theatre commands:

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  • The proposed theatre command concept reduces our national war-fighting potential to the lowest common denominator of the forces involved, rather than look for optimal amalgamation for application of strength. What is needed is synergy rather than the proposed reduction in tempo.
  • What is being proposed is a symbolic joining at the hips, as seen in Siamese Twins, resulting in sub-optimal and stilted warfighting. What the IAF proposed is a joining of minds (planning) to enhance warfighting. The present proposal being pushed with undue haste appears to be an attempt to add an additional layer of bureaucracy to the existing war-fighting arrangements.
  • The present construct envisages a single theatre dedicated to country-specific threats, with the illusion that a single Theatre Commander would be responsible for operations. But this is far from true. Take the case of China: In addition to the so-called Eastern Land Theatre Commander, the Northern Land Theatre Commander would naturally be involved, and so would the Maritime Theatre Commander, as would the Air Defence Commander.
  • In the event of a war with Pakistan, in addition to the Western Land Theatre Commander, the Northern Land Theatre Commander would obviously be involved, and so would the Maritime Theatre commander, as would the Air Defence Commander! So, the moot question is: What is the major achievement of reform of our military? What has really been achieved? And at what cost?
  • If the purpose of the reform was to have a single Commander responsible for warfighting, then we should have only ONE theatre.
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Harm Done to Military by ‘Shoot & Scoot’ Articles in Media

‘Shoot and scoot’ articles that often appear in media betray a shallow understanding of military history and Indian complexities.

Now, there may be opposing views from sister services, but none that cannot withstand intellectual debate and discourse. In the third of a series of articles penned by Rear Adm Sudarshan Srikhande, he revisits lessons policy-makers in India can ill-afford to repeat by drawing similarities and differences from history,

In another insightful piece, former navy chief Admiral Arun Prakash fleshes out the ‘ideal objectives’ behind theatre commands, including two ‘thorny issues’ around the subject: ‘the chain of command of the Theatre Commanders and the relationship of the CDS (or his equivalent) with the service Chiefs’.

There is no whiff of malfeasance or blame game in either of these well-articulated opinion pieces. They come from thoroughbred professionals who have scaled the zenith of their profession without falling for conspiracy theories.

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Unfortunately, public attention is terribly short and media is always hungry — gaps that misinformation often fills. Who will read a well-researched, peer-reviewed 3000-word essay when an 800-word clickbait is available?

Playing up a single service and its alleged penchant for going ‘lone ranger’ glosses over legions of historians, academicians, and triservice scholar-warriors who have lent their hearts and brains to the whole exercise.

At best, it is a well-timed distraction that marks the IAF out as a scapegoat while buying time for the errant to cover their tracks.

Planted Stories in Media & Inter-Service Rivalry in Military

Recent news reports in media have highlighted cracks that may have developed in reaching a tri-service consensus on the vexed subject of theatre commands. That should not be surprising given the speed and agency with which CDS Gen Rawat is taking the idea forward.

One hopes the bureaucracy — often the elephant in the room — is also onboard. Several decisions will have financial implications, mandarins in MoD will shoot down without any help from the services or a sensationalist media. The higher decision-making apparatus in MoD is not an epitome of speed or alacrity either.

“Hurry up and wait” is a common phenomenon. Processes and decisions move at the pace of files, often subject to sharp hairpin bends or cul de sacs at the flick of a pen. In a reorganisation never attempted before, one can hardly expect all stakeholders to toe the line in glee. Inter-service rivalry — often a healthy competition — can turn rancid if harsh words are spoken, written, or worse — planted.

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Time to Review Indian Military’s PR ‘Policy’

A tweet by Army veteran, high court lawyer, author and former President of the AFT Bar Association, who has argued the cause of military reforms for years, Maj Navdeep Singh, captured the sentiment around such news reports at a time when India is standing at the cusp of one of its biggest-ever military restructuring:

“Planting stories against a “sister” service in mainstream media is not in good taste. Convince them in stakeholder consultation, if not, get them overruled by the political executive, but why create a lopsided image in the public with a factually & conceptually shaky article?”, he tweeted.

The current storm in a teacup is perhaps a good point in time to review information-sharing mechanisms and the working of defence public relations (PR) at large. While higher-ups realise the criticality and potency of ‘information warfare’ (IW), the working of official PR handles, info-sharing mechanisms, curating of content — the whole gamut of full-spectrum IW — appears to be steeped in antiquity, leaky & terribly centralised. Often, ‘breaking news’ finds itself in public space via anonymous Twitter handles before official sources.

We all know who won the ‘perception battle’ after the Balakot air-strikes and ‘Operation Swift Retort’. We all are well aware of who broke the Galwan story first.

The story in HT would not have reached the public without a leaking tap or an unreliable pair of lips. To construct a story around hearsay, pour masala, and burnish it with a clickbait title doesn’t take much effort. Often, rebuttals from the lampooned service are either absent or ‘too little, too late’. This is sad.

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Indian Armed Forces Must Share Timely Information and Rebuttals

Another fracas that played out around a Press Information Bureau (PIB) release on the IN-IAF-USN Passage Exercise in the Arabian Sea on 22 June provided another example of cracks in the system (both IAF and IN eventually handled the ‘glitch’ with grace, but the damage was done by then).

PIB Press Release 22 June, 2021
PIB Press Release 22 June, 2021
(Photo: KP Sanjeev Kumar)

Is the common man aware that bilateral/multilateral exercises are planned and approved months in advance after extensive consultations with all stakeholders? Do we know the sole Indian carrier is in refit? If not, whose duty is it to inform, educate and clear the air if necessary?

Defence PR handles go on Corona-education overdrive or window-dress International Yoga Day activities while important updates never come up in time, or slip through the cracks when they do.

While we light the afterburners on fifth-generation fighters and ‘Indianise’ strategy and tactics, it is perhaps worthwhile to show the same level of ‘stealth’ in information security, be ‘present’ where it matters, and display ‘speed and agility’ in putting out timely information and rebuttals.

Often, wit and humour can win the day or silence critics without expending a single bullet. Approaching this crucial activity with the old-school mechanism of running for ‘approval on file’ at a 3-star level for every single social media post is like taking a knife to a gunfight.

Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710: “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it”. We are in 2021 and still reeling under it.

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(Capt KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former navy test pilot and blogs atwww.kaypius.com. He can be reached at @realkaypius. He has flown over 24 types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft and holds a dual ATP rating on the Bell 412 and AW139 helicopters. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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