• 20 April, 2024
Geopolitics & National Security

Indian Military Reforms: Delays, Dispassion and Dissociation

Cdr Sandeep Dhawan (Retd) Sun, 15 Jan 2023   |  Reading Time: 5 minutes

India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi will attend the Combined Commanders’ Conference in Karwar in March 2023. Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Gen Anil Chauhan will also be present. It is expected that the Indian military leadership will take decisive steps towards creating the much-awaited military theatre commands during this meeting. Three services are likely to present their views on the proposal, in writing, in presence of the Prime Minister.

The three service chiefs have a consensus over the creation of theatre commands. Is it the protection of one’s turf that is inordinately delaying such significant reforms, or are the issues much more complex that an outsider doesn’t understand?

Whatever may be the reason, any further delay would give an undue advantage to India’s sworn enemy China. As I brought out in my article “Integrated Theatre Commands: India Needs to Think Big,” reforms are not the end of the problems; rather, they are like lights that illuminate things which simply had no form for us before the lights fell on them. We turn on the lights here, there, and everywhere, and the limits of thought recede before it. Therefore, major integration issues will crop up once India starts implementing for the reforms.

Every Reform Has Teething Troubles

Russia went in for joint strategic commands in 2014, and China implemented theatre command concepts in 2016. If one tries to pinpoint what all is lacking in the Russia-Ukraine war, the jointmanship stands tall among all the drawbacks Russian forces have displayed. The conditions of Chinese forces won’t be much different if they indulge in any war.

This explains China’s desperation to test its forces against the Indian, American, and Japanese forces on a day-to-day basis before jumping into a full-fledged war. Unfortunately, India has not even gone down that path to ascertain what issues it would face while running the joint commands.

While India has been dilly-dallying for decades, China is busy learning from the U.S. military concepts. Their latest concept of Multi-Domain Precision Warfare (MDPW) to align their forces from cyber to space is one such push. We may call them copycats or whatever, but they are desperate to counter the Pentagon’s Joint All-Domain Command and Control (JADC2) initiative.

As per the U.S. Department of Defence annual “China Military Power Report,” the core aim of MDPW is to interlink command and control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) to coordinate firepower and expose foreign weaknesses quickly.

Once the MDPW concept is implemented, it will help the Chinese forces to identify key vulnerabilities in the Indian operational system. Based on those, in a war, the Chinese forces could launch precision strikes against Indian vulnerabilities through kinetic or non-kinetic means. PLA has named the collapse of the enemy’s operational system, networks, and infrastructure using MDPW as the next way of war.

The command information systems would be capable of providing forces and commanders with enhanced situational awareness. This would help them in decision-making and provide support for more effective joint missions and tasks. Chinese President for life, Xi Jinping, would love to hear that his forces are getting ready to win informatized local wars.

MDPW is heavily dependent on artificial intelligence, big data analytics, and advanced computing. The American chip ban policy is hurting the MDPW concept, but not for long. Once China enhances its chip-making capabilities through R&D or stealing, the MDPW concept will come back to haunt India again.

Therefore, just like the Indian Navy has a limited window of an edge in the Indian Ocean, the chip ban provides India with a unique but limited window to kick-start the reforms and prepare the forces to fight a modern war in the coming years.

The Growing China Threat

A recent news item that China plans to increase its current 400 nuclear warheads to 1,500 by 2035 caught everyone’s attention. What most people missed or ignored as trivial, is that China is in a rush to acquire emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous systems, semiconductors, quantum technologies, and advanced materials that would have severe military implications for countries like India.

As per a recent report by Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, China has displaced the US as the world’s top high-tech manufacturer. The report further states that China has become a serious competitor in foundational technologies such as artificial intelligence, 5G, semiconductors, quantum technology, biotechnology, and green energy. The report stressed that it has already overtaken the U.S. in some areas.

Look Within for Solutions

India would understand the requirements of a modern force better once the joint theatre command reforms are kicked in. Then, it would be easy for Indian military leadership to include the above-mentioned foundational technologies with a clear vision.

Following are some of the challenges modern joint Indian armed forces would face:

  • Need for a unified information technology system standard
  • Integrating artificial intelligence capabilities in ISR; autonomous vehicles; information warfare; electronic warfare; simulation; training; predictive maintenance; and target recognition
  • Space-based communication and analysis of earth observation datasets
  • AI-guided technical reconnaissance, surveillance, and prediction of cyber-attack
  • Overestimation of present AI capabilities & over-dependence
  • Over-dependence on technology could lead to the centralization of decision-making that Chinese forces already suffer from
  • Lack of a National Defence University that teaches joint concepts; even though the idea of the Indian Defence University (IDU) was conceived in 1967, the foundation stone was laid in 2013, and a draft bill was put online in August 2016, but it still awaits cabinet approval
  • Lack of understanding of the nitty-gritty of modern warfare among troops and senior commanders alike

Schrodinger’s Cat Trap

Indian armed forces must avoid Schrodinger’s dead cat — live cat trap. That means, while there is no denying the importance of technology, over-dependence on unproven concepts and technology could cost a force heavily. This is the exact case with the PLA. Some obscure PLA officer coined the concept called ‘intelligentization,’ and the whole Chinese leadership from top to bottom is gung-ho about it. Most Chinese military leaders have little or no understanding of the concept. Seniors are embarrassed to show their ignorance, and juniors are terrified to question the wisdom of seniors.

Half-hearted efforts like the five years old Joint Doctrine, Indian Armed Forces are other areas of concern. The 2017 document didn’t give in-depth insight into the Indian jointmanship. A lot has happened in the last five years, and it is time to update the joint doctrine with a sharper focus and better vision. The United States and China have done the same. Requirements of such documents further highlight the importance of the creation of the Indian Defence University.

Delays Would Stymie Indian Growth Story

From the preceding, it is evident that the future wars would be good mix of technology and conventional warfare concepts. Technology should be the slave of human and not vice versa. Economic growth and technology would be the guiding forces of modern warfare, and it looks like China is headed in that direction, though not as nimbly as it would like to.

China has 30,000 global businesses and over 100 million Chinese travel worldwide every year. China is preparing to protect them with the expansion of its hard military power. Between 2014-2018 China launched more warships than what is the combine strength of the British, Indian, German, Taiwanese and Spanish navies put together. There is an underlying message in that kind of preparation.

India is among the fastest-growing major economies in the world. Even if India is not planning to fight wars in far-flung areas, it would need to protect its ever-expanding businesses and the diaspora in a world that is getting more chaotic with every year going by.

That means, while presently Indian peacekeepers patrol the disputed regions of the world for the United Nations, in years to come, same forces would be involved in power projection and dispute resolution worldwide for the country’s sake. And that day is not too far. The Indian forces need to realize this and buckle up.

A veteran of the Indian Navy, Cdr Dhawan served in the Navy from 1988 to 2009. He was a Maritime Reconnaissance Pilot and a Flying Instructor. He is a geopolitical analyst and writes for various online websites and organizations.


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Kalidan Singh

Feb 01, 2023
We Indians must own this; our problem is cultural. Transactional, corrupt, inwardly focused, envy-ridden, greedy, and predatory. The fact that there is an entire army of corrupt, greedy bureaucrats who will do anything to prevent our braves from getting what they need - is a cultural artifact. I recall 1984, when a small bunch of braves captured the Aksai Chin. They were wearing tennis shoes. I am in favor of sending every defense bureaucrat to the glacier, to the frontier, and live in tents with kerosene heaters supplied by WWII era helicopters that cannot fly above 15000 feet for say a period of six months. Our braves deserve better than who we are today. We must deal with it. Modi has ensured that defense procurement is relatively without corruption (see Jagjeevan Ram for contrast). But much needs to change in our culture. And what is getting in the way is the gratuitous hubris and boasting, and refusal to see reality. Our braves deserve better than who we currently are.


Jan 25, 2023
Unlike Chinese Def forces, Indian forces take too long in making decisions. “Even if India is not planning to fight wars in far-flung areas, it would need to protect its ever-expanding businesses and the diaspora in a world that is getting more chaotic with every year going by”— well said. This article touches upon the need of the hour, a well written article.


Jan 25, 2023
Will China once again collapse on its own or will it require a push from outside forces?


Jan 25, 2023
Top mlitary brass protects their “rice bowls” all around the world. National Security all too often is not the primary focus of 4-star level Combatant Command HQs.

Cdr Deepak Singh Retd

Jan 19, 2023
1. Theatre command in india sounds a distance future. 2. As usual the three forces fight with each other. 3. Nuclear Power will just destroy the world. What will you do then ? Superior to whom ? Keep writing dear. It is interesting to read your articles. Keep Smiling.

Atul Dewan

Jan 19, 2023
An updated joint doctrine is the need of the hour, kudos to you for trying to get the focus of the people on key issues that plague the much delayed theatre commands


Jan 18, 2023
Like a patriotic Indian, you have raised the right issue at the right time, no doubt the government should show seriousness on this issue, the Red Empire is spreading rapidly.

Wendell Bruges

Jan 16, 2023
Very informative and educational for a layman like me.


Jan 16, 2023
We r unnecessarily (if I may use the term) screwing ourself and shooting in the foot, by improper findings and personality based decisions. Whereas, other central services are having a bull run in the govt. Reforms are reqd all across the spectrum of services. Optimisation has to be concurrent in all govt orgs and entities, not only defence forces. If others don't move along with TIMES, then optimising and modernizing the defence forces will not work. Red tapism and archaic thought processes will stifle the def forces again and again. A whole of nation apch is reqd. Why can't agniveers sys be introduced in CAPF also. They can also help in nation building by training youths... Why not abolish IPS, and have only state police cadre. Similarly IAS also needs to be re-structured on the basis of 35 % permt cadre and 65 % feeder cadre...

Sukhjit Singh

Jan 16, 2023
Theatre command is already delayed. Gen Rawat had set the ball rolling but yet to gain momentum. Can't fight future wars with wwII setup

Aninda Mukherjee

Jan 16, 2023
Excellent articulation of a critical issue that the Indian Armed Forces is seized with.

Deovrat Pagay

Jan 16, 2023
Fortune will favor those who can manage the EM spectrum effectively. AI, robotics, nanotechnology will be the gamechangers. India needs to work on these with speed and determination to adapt and dominate the new game.

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