Theatre Commands – A Conceptual Approach
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Issue Courtesy: CLAWS | Date : 24 Jan , 2021

What should Theatre Commands essentially be?

There is little information on the on-going deliberations regarding theaterisation emanating from the Department of Military Affairs (DMA). In the public domain, discourse is restricted to the allocation of areas of responsibility to the proposed Theatre Commands – that’s all. This too is important, but what really needs to be focussed upon to start with, is the entities of the proposed Theatre Commands, their roles & responsibilities, and most importantly, the linkages. The linkages should be such that on one hand, they lend to all Services working as part of a single entity to achieve a common goal but at the same time, give every Service the adequate latitude in matters specific to that Service. At present, the three Services are like three bodies coming together and co-operating to achieve a goal. What is now required that the three now sort of transform into one body but don’t end up as conjoined twins (triplets in this case).

Approach to Theaterisation

Theatre Commands aim to bring synergy among all branches of the Indian Armed Forces to achieve military objectives. However, in the Indian context, this needs to be seen in light of the relative paucity of resources unlike Western (and even Chinese) Defence Forces. Therefore, the western model of Joint Services structures will not work in the Indian context. The planners at DMA will have to grapple with many issues concurrently. One is the distribution of scarce resources across Theatre Commands. In the Indian case, mathematical distributions will not help and some amount of ‘multitasking’, especially with regards to air and maritime assets are inevitable. The other is staffing & training of human resources to create & fit into structures thus bringing about co-ordination & interoperability among the various constituents. So where do we begin? The first thought that comes to mind is to stitch together existing formations (of all three services) under a Joint Force Headquarter at a said level. However, given the incongruence in force structures across the Services, this will not work. Another way is to decide upon Service-specific ‘Combat Bricks, with a ‘Brick’ representing some desired minimum service-specific combat power commanded by an officer of the same rank across all three Services. These ‘Combat Bricks’ as required can be added together and brought under a Joint Force Headquarters as part of a Theatre Command. Which of the two methods suggested above to adopt or is there a third/ fourth/ fifth method, is a separate matter of discussion in itself.  However, even this needs to be done later in the day.  While constructing a building, it is the load-bearing structure that is constructed first, bricks come later, and fittings much later.  Such an approach is also required when drawing up plans for the establishment of Theatre Commands. This will ensure an optimum shape and most important stability.

First Things First

Before actually discussing X or Y Theatre Command, it is important to frame a document codifying every aspect of the Joint Indian Armed Forces; call it the ‘Joint Forces Doctrine’, a document already existing but which now needs to be reworked and made something akin to the ‘Constitution of the Armed Forces’.  This ‘Constitution’ needs to unambiguously describe the architecture of theatre/ functional commands, Joint Forces entities, their organisation with allocated responsibilities at each level/ vertical, rules for the conduct of activities, the relationship between various constituents et al. A good place to start would be the study of the Indian Constitution. The Indian Constitution is an exhaustive document comprising of various Parts and Schedules. Each Part elaborates upon a given aspect/facet concerning the affairs of the Union of India. The Indian Constitution begins with describing what is India, then goes on to describe who is an Indian Citizen, and thereafter goes on to lay down and describe in clear terms the Union, the States, and Union Territories. The structure of the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary has been clearly given out. One Part of the Constitution exclusively dwells upon the relationship between the Union & the States/ Union Territories. Other Parts of the Constitution deal with issues to include Finances, Service under the Union/ State, Elections, Special Provisions, Emergency Provisions, Official Language et al. While the various parts of the Constitution deal with the ‘constants’, it is the Schedules that deal with the ‘variables’. The Schedules help give perspective to the Parts. The most important Schedules are the First Schedule describing what makes up the Union of India and the Seventh Schedule which divides all work into the Union, State and Concurrent Lists. Collectively, there is an inherent ‘scalability’ in the Indian Constitution. For example, in the First Schedule the list of States is very different from what it was in 1950, but even today new states can easily be added (or deleted) without the requirement for major changes. Similarly, Article 77 of the Constitution is the basis on which Allocation of Business Rules has been framed which again would be changing from time to time. Theaterisation of the Indian Armed Forces needs a similar treatment. It is important to codify the structure, functions, and linkages which go into the working of the Armed Forces (both Joint Services and Service-specific) which will form the ‘Parts’ of the ‘Constitution’. Thereafter, issues like areas of responsibility et al will form various ‘Schedules’. Flowing out of this will be something akin to the ‘Allocation of Business Rules’ thus laying down inter and intra Services charters of duty. This will obviate any possibility of ‘overstepping the mandate’ and ‘exceeding the brief’. The author visualises such a document to be an Executive act; however, if this gets Legislative sanction, it will be all the better – our own version of USA’s Nichols-Goldwater Act.

The Way Ahead

Having proposed a new ‘Joint Forces Doctrine’, it will be pertinent to note how the Indian Constitution was framed. The final document is a result of years of deliberation within the Constituent Assembly. In these deliberations, varying points of view were voiced in long debates, at times even discordant. Even after this sustained application of mind, the resulting Constitution has been amended more than a hundred times in the past seven decades – but only to be relevant in changed times; the basic structure of the Constitution and by extension, the Union of India remains the same.  In India, debate on what should be a structure of the Joint Indian Armed Forces has been on for long, more so over the past two decades since the idea of having a CDS was officially proposed. This debate, however, has been disjointed and most of the time have been confined to a Service-specific point of view. Now comes the time that all stakeholders come together and debate over what the new Indian Armed Forces should be. Everyone’s (organisations and also individuals) views need to be actively sought; deliberated upon and factored in the final outcome. Any decision gains all-round acceptability only when there has been widespread participation in the decision-making process.

To End

The setting up of the DMA and the impending re-organisation of the Indian Armed Forces is an epochal moment in the history of the Nation. It needs to be ensured that the transition to theaterisation is smooth and should contribute to the ultimate aim of joint & ‘co-purposed’ Armed Forces. It is, therefore, essential that the entire process is carried out in a very deliberate and structured manner. The news space is already abuzz with mention of the likes of ‘Air Defence Command’ & ‘Maritime Theatre Command’. However, discussion only on possible Theatre Commands and their force structures/ areas of responsibility et al without deciding upon the basic structure of a Theatre Command will be tantamount to ‘putting the cart before the horse’ which needs to be avoided at all costs.


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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.

About the Author

Col Samir Srivastava

is a serving army officer.

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