Military & Aerospace

The Concept of Theatre Command in the Indian Context
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Issue Vol. 36.3, Jul-Sep 2021 | Date : 10 Oct , 2021

On July 02, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat stated, “Do not forget that Air Force continues to remain a supporting arm to the armed forces, just as artillery or the engineers support the combatant arms in the Army,” thus attempting to relegate Indian Air Force (IAF), the world’s fourth largest, to a service – not even an arm, subservient to the Indian Army, glossing over decades of military erudition, trashing lessons learnt from crucibles of military history and pooh-poohing practical wisdom of nations that have employed air power over countless campaigns. He was speaking at an event organised by an international counter terrorism think-tank. Neither the forum nor the timing was apt for a first-time public iteration of what he has privately believed for long. Indeed, the outburst served to highlight the fact that, despite the tearing hurry on the part of the CDS to get theatre commands erected at least on paper, during this tenure, the time has not yet come for it to be done and that there is a need to tread cautiously. While reactions from serving military personnel including the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) to his statement have been subdued, many veterans have been critical. In a remarkable and wholesome display of sagacity, Army veterans have refrained from breaking out in applause over the statement by the CDS.

This article examines the Indian context for suitability of military theatrisation, addresses the challenges inherent to establishing theatre commands and makes some prescriptive remarks on concomitant issues.

Experience of Other Nations

Precedents of military theatre commands exist, the first and the most notable being in the United States (US) which currently has six geographical and four functional commands. Each has force levels appropriate to its role along with integral Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) under the theatre commander. However, the process leading up to the formation of theatre commands was not smooth and was stretched over a decade. Finally, it was thrust down the military’s throat through the Goldwater-Nichols Act 1986, whose legislation itself took four long years to be consummated. Russia worked on theatre commands since 2008, and currently has four theatre commands. Closer home, in 2016, China changed over from Military Regions to five peacetime geographical theatre commands with command over ground, air, naval and missile forces. The process was initiated at the end of the last century and took almost two decades to reach a final shape – with direction from the Central Military Commission.

There are other nations also that have experimented with some form of the other of theatre commands. The three cited above underscore the point that the establishment of theatre commands was motivated by the need to project military power beyond national geographical extent.

Another issue common to all the nations that set up theatre commands is that in none of them was this possible with an amicable unanimity between the civil and military establishments on the one hand and amongst the military services themselves on the other. The final decision had to be taken in a distasteful manner by the political dispensation and through legislation of appropriate acts. The military commanders were forced to either implement the theatre commands or quit service in a dignified manner.

Specificity of the Indian Context

At the end of 2019, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), chaired by the Prime Minister, approved the establishment of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and a Department of Military Affairs (DMA) which he heads. The CDS does not exercise any military command as of now; but is the Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (PCCSC) as also the Principal Military Adviser (PMA) to the Raksha Mantri (RM) on tri-service matters while the individual service chiefs continue to advise the RM on single service issues. The above dispensation is aimed at achieving enriched relations between the services and the CDS on the one hand and better civil-military understanding on the other. One of the first announcements made by the CDS was about the establishment of theatre commands. This appeared to take the services by surprise and indeed, gave the impression that as far as the CDS was concerned, creation of the post of CDS was predicated to the establishment of theatre commands.

It is now evident that there was none or very little inter-service consultation on theatre commands before the CDS proclaimed his intentions, which even included rough time frames for the Integrated Air Defence Command (IADC) and the Maritime Theatre Command (MTC). Several projected dates for setting up of the IADC and MTC have already gone past and his initial announcement about having all theatre commands in place within three years appears to be unachievable. Current reports indicate that three land theatre commands are proposed: the first – an Eastern Theatre Command covering the entire China border less that in Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, the second – a Western Theatre Command to deal with threat from Pakistan and the third – the North Theatre Command which will have the same land boundaries as the current Army Northern Command. The target date for the operationalisation of the proposed theatre commands is Independence Day 2023.

India has vast land and sea borders to defend in addition to the enormous expanse of oceanic waters that require attention from a national security point of view. China’s motivation for theatre commands was aggression into India (et al) if required. Even the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) has a new approach under the theatre command scenario. Reportedly, General Ding Laihang, the current PLAAF chief is on record as having stated that, “In the past, our strategies and guidelines focused on territorial air defence. Now we have been shifting our attention to honing our ability in terms of strategic projection and long-range strike.” China has only one Western Theatre Command while India is planning to have three land theatre commands of which two are meant to deal with China. Moreover, one of these, the Northern Command, has a dual focus – China and Pakistan. It is hard to situate the Indian concept of theatre command under this obfuscation. Indeed, the term theatre itself tends to be under an identity crisis! On the other hand, having a single maritime theatre command for a huge area of responsibility is not in line with the three land commands dispensation. The scattering of IAF’s combat potential amongst all these five commands plus the Andaman Nicobar Command (ANC), is discussed later. India is unlikely to attempt power projection into another country – neighbouring or otherwise. The term Peninsular Command, with its defensive connotation, was a pointer in this direction. The above facts show that some more thought is needed on the structure of theatre commands, their roles and indeed, the raison d’être for creating them.

The nature of war is changing constantly. Linear battlefields are a thing of the past while multi-dimensional, all domain, short and limited kinetic operations are beginning to emerge as the consequences of technological advances and lessons learnt from recent skirmishes. India’s nuclear dimension further defines its posturing vis-a-vis its neighbours, with China and Pakistan being flagrantly inimical. Pakistan’s fomentation of militancy and terrorism on Indian soil, adds another facet to consider. Prima facie, there would appear to be a need for integrating the Indian defence forces into a synchronised, seamless machinery to wage war. The question is: can the theatre models evolved by the US, China and Russia et al be transposed on to the Indian context which is characterised by a demonstrated preoccupation with defending its own territories and a declared lack of any aggressive, hegemonistic ambitions. Or is there a need to aspire to have expeditionary capabilities by way of self-contained theatre commands capable of away-from-home offensive capability? India’s current preoccupation is with developing a strong, self reliant economy (witness the clamorous din about ‘Make In India’ and ‘Atmanirbharta’) and there is no indication of an aspiration to don the garb of a policing global military power. Indeed, the orientation of the three proposed land theatres is unquestionably defensive. If all our operations are expected to happen on Indian territory, is the theatre command conformation needed? Will it provide an advantage over the current organisation?

It would appear that the CDS and the government have already made up their minds about setting up theatre commands while other stakeholders have holdbacks. On June 10 this year, at a meeting of top government officials where a presentation was made to the Defence Minister to review a draft cabinet note on theatre commands, serious and fundamental differences surfaced about the integration and structure of the theatre commands. So as to align the disparate thought processes of the military, defence ministry, home ministry and other ministries associated with theatre commands, the government has set up an eight-member expert committee. At the time of writing, that committee is yet to announce its recommendations. As the committee is headed by the CDS, whose view about the IAF being a support service is public knowledge now with the CAS having been forced to rebut it publicly, a formal vote of dissent to his recommendations from the IAF is a distinct possibility. Leaving aside that conflict for the time being, there are other challenges to the implementation of theatre commands.

Challenges to Theatre Command

From the foregoing, it is evident that the approach to establishment of theatre commands is driven by the impetus to have them erected rather than to first prepare a foundation for their creation. As an inescapable pre-requisite, we should have in place a national security strategy as the bedrock from which flows a vision document that defines the minimum requirements to be met by the theatre commands. There really is no acceptable alibi for the absence of a verbalised national security strategy when India has had a National Security Advisor (NSA) in place since 1998. The current incumbent, Ajit Doval, is in that chair since 2014, has held a Cabinet Minister rank since 2019, and was tasked to produce the national security strategy in 2018, as the Chairman of the Defence Planning Committee. In the absence of that strategy, some governmental directive should have been given to the CDS and the military to define the terms of reference under which the CDS could work and whose authority he could use to work towards consensus. Given its vital importance, there also ought to be in place parliamentary oversight through either the Standing Committee on Defence or another Committee tasked solely to steer the theatre command exercise. Thus, the first and foremost challenge is the lack of informed political direction on an issue of vital national security importance. The ongoing hiccups in the process are the indicators of this problem.

The second challenge is that since India’s independence, the three services have evolved their own beliefs, character, culture and philosophy. India had the foresight to foster a commonality of thought and inter-service camaraderie amongst the three and had set up the Joint Services Wing (JSW) for initial officer training in 1949, the year in which, the foundation stone was laid for National Defence Academy (NDA). Progressively more and more tri-service organisations were established to cater for the rising levels of seniority. The National Defence College (NDC) caters to Brigadier and equivalent ranks of the three services. Despite these establishments, the doctrinal, strategic and operational tenets of each service have their own dynamics. They have proved in past wars that they can work together effectively – not as a homogenous entity, but more like Siamese triplets – adjoined at the business end, but having heads of their own!

The terms ‘integrated’ and ‘jointmanship’ have been used and misused abundantly since the theatre command debate clambered to the centre stage. While integration alludes to structure and implies formal conjoining of constituent elements into a compound structure, ‘jointmanship’ is more a matter of achieving a confluence of the spirits to operate synergistically. It could be argued that integration, like an formal inter-service structure being contemplated for theatre commands, is not guaranteed to bring about ‘jointmanship’ as evidenced by the ANC where true jointmanship is yet elusive or the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), despite whose having existed since 2001, there is no meeting of the services’ minds over theatre commands. Conversely, could jointmanship be achieved without integration? While that may be possible and indeed has been demonstrated in the past, there exists a persuasive argument that the emerging all domain, high speed, C4ISR-dependent nature of war ordains integration not only for efficacious, unified planning, but also for well-defined responsibilities and accountability. The challenge to theatre command for India is that, despite joint training and IDS, there does not exist the minimum measure of ‘jointness’ necessary for their integration into theatre commands.

The IDS produced a Joint Doctrine of the Armed Forces in 2006, which was a classified document. This was subsequently revised in 2017, and de-classified. The revision involved substantial interaction between the joint service organisations of the three service headquarters and think-tanks. Ideally, it should be the fountainhead for force structuring and integration as it purports to “coalesce, synthesise and harmonise the tenets, beliefs and principles of the different Services into one common, officially enunciated and accepted guidelines for carrying out Joint Operations.” In actual practice, the laudable effort that has gone into preparing it has not produced a document that defines how a theatre command may be fabricated, possibly because of the classified nature of that content. This is probably because there was no consensus amongst the services on this ticklish issue. There is thus an absence of a holy scripture on integrated theatres that commands respect and acquiescence of all the three services. As doctrine is a constantly evolving beast, much like the Covid-19 virus, perhaps there is a need for the three services to engage each other in a trialogue over theatre commands.

While on doctrine, the IAF has had an Air Power Doctrine in place since 1995, which was revised in 2007. Both these versions were classified but, in 2012, an unclassified ‘Basic Doctrine of the Indian Air Force’ was released. The preface itself speaks of three aerial campaigns namely Counter Air, Counter Surface Force Operations and Strategic Campaign and goes on to assert that, “Airpower remains the lynchpin of any joint application of combat power in modern warfare. Space is no longer a frontier.” There is, thus, a fundamental mismatch between the way the IAF sees itself and the tactical support role in which the CDS, who is tasked with raising theatre commands, envisions for the IAF. For the IAF to accept that viewpoint, it would have to make a drastic change to its stated mission, “To acquire strategic reach and capabilities across the spectrum of conflict that serve the ends of military diplomacy, nation building and enable force projection within India’s strategic area do influence.” This conflict could well be the biggest challenge to the creation of theatre commands.

The IAF’s reservations may eventually be bull-dozed over, but they certainly merit a patient hearing. A two-front war scenario, an annual reminder of which is Exercise Shaheen, conducted jointly by the PLAAF and PAF since 2011, is considered a very low probability. Anybody who followed the conduct of Exercise Gagan Shakti 2018 would have noticed that, while the objective of that exercise was to rehearse a two-front war, its proceedings actually demonstrated that India can fight only on one front at a time. The exercise was conducted in two phases on two different fronts serially one after the other. Implicit to this observation is the fact that the IAF’s total combat aircraft assets are woefully inadequate for serving two fronts simultaneously. A direct inference there from is that it does not have the wherewithal to have its assets split into three land theatre commands, one Air Defence Command, one Maritime Command and the ANC and still perform strategic tasks.

The IAF has aircraft that can perform more than one of the roles mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Splitting them into ‘under command’ dispersal amongst six theatres would negate the basic and well respected air power attributes of flexibility and concentration. Shorn of the sensationalisation created by media, the IAF’s stand is simple – it is not against theatre commands, it just wants the methodology to respect the facts of small numbers and basic principles of air power. This stand continues to pose a challenge to the formation of theatre commands as it militates with the ‘support’ role the CDS openly favours for the IAF.

There are administrative and legal aspects too that have been pushed backstage but require urgent consideration. The need to have an Armed Forces Act to replace the three single Service Acts is an inescapable necessity when placing personnel from one service under command of another service commander is envisaged. If that does not happen in time, there could be unavoidable and thorny litigation.

Some analysts have argued that, as only theatre command HQs are being created, there is negligible additional expenditure involved. However, when factors such new communication equipment, new logistics infrastructure are considered, there would be substantial expenditure involved. According to former CAS Air Chief Marshal S Krishnaswamy, “Forming Theatre Commands would demand large increase in expenditure with doubtful returns.” Just before China changed over to theatre commands in 2016, it reduced its total military strength by 300,000 in 2015 to cut costs. The CDS in India has been coming up with notions about cost-cutting which include manpower cuts, new pension and recruitment proposals et al to save money. A search of existing literature on this subject suggests that no formal analysis has been carried out to determine the cost of setting up theatre commands. Given precarious Indian defence budget over whose inadequacy there is considerable ongoing lament from the defence services, it would be disastrous to be caught half-way through a theatrisation exercise.

Concluding Remarks

Speaking at a book launch recently, NN Vohra, who has served as Defence Secretary, Home Secretary and Principal Secretary to PM, summarised the theatre command conundrum succinctly, “I would still say that we need a publicly known national security policy from which will emerge a national security strategy, from which will emerge a military doctrine and from which will emerge the connectivity of our three forces, the integration of our three forces.” Possibly, forming theatre command HQs and populating them with scarce resources, is a bit premature and, if the steps outlined above are not in place, it would tantamount to fabricating the roof when the supporting pillars are shaky and the foundation non-existent.

The government has already appointed a CDS and given him the mandate of, “…facilitation of restructuring of military commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about ‘jointness’ in operations, including through the establishment of joint/theatre commands.” When one views the CDS and the DMA as another serial defence reform initiative by the government, and when one considers the fact that so far Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not backed off from any of his decisions in the face of adversity, it is best to conclude that the CDS and the theatre command mandate given to him, are irreversible decisions. Therefore, it appears to be too late to rake up the issue of whether theatre commands will actually achieve better ‘jointmanship’ and improve military operational capability of the nation.

However, if the creation of theatre commands is fait accompli, the stumbling blocks in its way are also fait accompli. In the long run, theatre commands would achieve the admirable objectives of integration and ‘jointmanship’ that the Indian military lacks, provided the process is unhurried and well-contemplated in terms of structure, operational control and asset allocation. The basic ingredients are in the crucible, but the right catalysts and the right environment need to be created. Prudence would dictate that the optimum speed at which the process ought to be consummated be devised and the current haste abandoned. The reality is that single service perceptions about ‘jointmanship’ and integration are not going to change by creating theatre commands. Conversely, the realisation, that ‘jointmanship’ and integration deserve higher priority than single service tenets, is an inescapable pre-requisite for theatre commands to function effectively.

Slowing down the process of creating theatre commands would also be advisable from the point of view that we have China’s unhealthy posturing in Ladakh and getting caught in kinetic action when we are halfway between current status and theatre commands may not be good from operational point of view. Another spin-off from a slowdown would be adequate time needed for joint logistics, joint communication and joint training infrastructure to come up appropriately. Yet another reason for shedding haste is the need to professionally assess the cost of setting up theatre commands lest the process be caught in a cleft stick due to drying up of fund-flow from the meagre defence budget. To sum up, creation of theatre commands is a concept whose time has not yet come. Some more time and thought are needed to consummate the concept into an impeccable integrated war fighting and war winning machinery whose jointmanship India can be proud of and which, when brought into actual combat in national interest, would discharge its mandate satisfactorily.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

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Gp Capt AK Sachdev

Director - Operations, EIH Ltd.

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