Indian Model of Theatre Commands: The Road Ahead!
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In the history of restructuring of the Indian Armed Forces, the year 2020 started with hopes and anxiety with the long-awaited appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and the creation of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) within the Ministry of Defence (MoD) with a redistribution of duties, to further sharpen coordination and improve jointness and synergy among the three Services. The charter defined for the CDS settles the long-standing need for one point military advice and prioritisation of defence procurements within competing requirements of the Services, to meet current and future national security needs. The minor anomalies in the Charter and turf pulling will soon settle down after the initial teething problems, as the changes drive support and traction from the highest decision making office.

One of the major expectations of such reforms, besides modernisation, continues to be the restructuring of the Indian Armed Forces to bring down the overall defence expenditure. One of the most logical things to do is to justify the creation of fewer Theatre Commands from conversion of the existing 17 Service-specific Commands, seven each of Army and the Indian Air Force (IAF) and three of the Indian Navy, which are not co-located, into Integrated Theatre Commands, with a hope that it will bring down the cost and improve jointness and synergy. The urgency seemed to be such that in the first meeting after taking over, the newly appointed CDS spoke about creation of an Air Defence (AD) Command1 with a timeline for its proposal, besides some other reforms. This was quickly followed up by announcement of proposals for Peninsular Command2 and some regional commands along with timelines. It is fair to assume that major restructuring like theatre commands will be preceded by major studies and deliberations at the MoD for its long term impacts.

Indian Model of Theatre Command

As per media reports, the proposals of future Theatre Commands like Peninsular Command, Air Defence Command and two to five Theatre Commands3 along the borders, suggest that India is rightly looking at an Indianised model of Theatre Command structures. Some oblique references made by a few authors to United States (US) and Chinese model of theatre commands that do not suit India. Every nation needs to have a sound ‘National Security Strategy’ to achieve its national aims. The kind of command structure will be dictated by the national aim, roles assigned to the military, its geography/terrain, threat envisaged, technological advancements and resources of the nation including economic resources.

The US has global strategic interest and needs an expeditionary military force capable of global deployment. It has no direct military threat to its mainland. Its five regional Unified Commands4 are expected to operate independently, away from the mainland and other Commands, on expeditionary role in designated areas of the globe, require integrated combat power of the three services, which justifies the need of unified commands. China’s intention of becoming a superpower with world class military by 2049, expeditionary design to increase its global footprints and protect its SLOC and trade interests globally, can easily be inferred from its National Military Strategy5 documents released in 2015. It is because of these expeditionary roles and the distances involved, that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has adopted the model of Integrated Theatre Commands, because switching of combat resources from one theatre to another may be difficult in their case. China has been able to generate adequate military hardware required for theatre Commands.

India’s Compulsions

India’s national interest is ‘peaceful inclusive growth’ and there are no expeditionary designs so far, nor does it have adequate military resources for the same. It needs a grand strategy to improve comprehensive national power, to be able protect its strategic interests, sovereignty and maintain peaceful periphery. Indian geography/terrain, border commitments, conventional and sub conventional challenges, counter insurgency/terrorism involvements, threat perception and military resources has led to formulation and location of Service Commands as they currently exist. While the current proposals being mooted follow Indianised pattern, as the restructuring progresses, some teething problems will appear, which will have to be realised and ironed out in next few years.

With an unsettled border with China and Pakistan and the need to physically hold the Line of Control (LoC), Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) as well as Line of Actual Control (LAC), a manpower-intensive deployment is necessary and it will require adequate number of Commands along the border as a compulsion. The need for an existing separate Command for the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh is inescapable and should not be tampered with. Another Command to cover areas South of Jammu, both sides of Shakargarh bulge (a vulnerability of Pakistan) and plains of Punjab is also a must. Various study groups in the MoD could be tasked to work out the need of other Commands without compromising operational efficiency.

Analysis of Proposals Related to Theatre Commands

The proposal of Air Defence Command by combining the air defence assets of the Indian Army, the IAF and the Indian Navy6 is practical and easily implementable, because the overall responsibility of protecting the air space of India is already with the IAF and raising such a Command will essentially involve integrating the Command, Control and Communication set up of all air defence assets of the services. The proposed timeline for rolling it out by mid-2021 seems to be little ambitious. The upgradation of existing Defence Information Assurance and Research Agency to form the new Defence Cyber Agency (DCA) is a welcome step, but it needs to be upgraded to an “Information Warfare Command”, especially after gaining the experience of comprehensive information warfare launched by Indian adversaries, post abrogation of Article 370. The creation of the Defence Space Agency (DSA) is also a good beginning to meet future warfare challenges and creation of the Armed Forces Special Operations Division (AFSOD) under Integrated Defence staff is a force multiplier for integrated battle.

Analysing two of the laid down functions of CDS7, namely ‘To bring about jointness in operations, logistics, transport, training, support services, communications, repairs and maintenance, of the three Services’ and ‘To ensure optimal utilisation of infrastructure and rationalise it through jointness among the Services’, the idea of separate “Training and Doctrinal Command” is a welcome step to foster jointness in planning, training and doctrinal issues. The level, scale and magnitude of joint training in the Indian Military, need to be enhanced. Except for Defence Services Staff College and a small capsule at Army War College, there is very little joint training being conducted in the Services. There is a need to expand and utilise Tri-Service organisations such as CENJOS, USI of India and proposed Indian Defence University (IDU) to organise more Joint Training Courses for the three Services to promote integration and jointness.

A case for ‘Joint Logistics Command’, proposed few decades earlier and the need for joint logistics system to avoid duplicity and economise resources, needs serious consideration. Major military powers across the world have steadily integrated their military logistics and infrastructure development for enhancing efficiency and rationalising defence spending. China has adopted it successfully, where almost 80 percent of PLA logistics is joint and only 20 percent is Service-specific8, which has proved to be quite cost effective. The Indian Military has majority of logistics as Service-specific component and a very limited component on joint logistics model like Medical services, MES, DGQA, DRDO and few more organisations, being controlled directly by the MoD. This is not a cost-effective model. The joint logistics model can be implemented at theatre level as well, as in case of China, to avoid duplicity of supply chains.

Operational Effectiveness and Span of Control

In an overdrive to minimise the cost of maintaining the Indian Armed Forces, the restructuring should not compromise on operational effectiveness and span of control. It needs to be recalled that post Operation PARAKRAM, it was realised that the span of control of erstwhile Northern Command had become unmanageable; hence India had to raise a new Corps and create South Western Command to right size the span of control. The proposal of Peninsular Command9 to have Indian coastline spreading from the Sir Creek near the Arabian Sea to the Sundarbans in the Bay of Bengal under one theatre, by merging the Indian Navy’s Western and Eastern commands has its pros and cons. The proposal involves placing necessary air assets and Indian Army’s support system under an Indian Navy commander to bring the unity of command in managing the security of the Indian Ocean Region in a reasonably independent manner.

The advantage of unity of command will have to be weighed against the manageability of increased span of control, in light of the fact that Indian definition of Indo-Pacific and area of maritime interest has grown much more to include the Eastern coasts of Africa to Northern Pacific, at least up to Japan. In case of littorals, a major responsibility of Andaman and Nicobar and other islands in the Bay of Bengal has been taken away by correctly raising the Integrated Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), which is essential in view of recent development of China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. It needs to be noted that amongst Army Commands, except for Southern Command, not many operations with the Indian Navy are visualised, unless some formation is picked up for Out of Area Contingency Tasks, amphibious operations and MOOTW including disaster relief.

Command and Control

There seems to be an inherent dichotomy as to who the tri-service theatre Commands must report to during operations and who will manage their operations. With tri-service structure, reporting to any single Service Chief will have its own set of problems. If they report to the CDS, it will not be possible for the CDS to manage them in operations, because of the very wide span of control and his headquarters not being organised for it. The functions of the CDS also include administering these organisations and not operational control. During the creation of the CDS, it was publicised that the role of Service Chiefs will not be disturbed, but it will get affected with the creation of theatre commands, as they will not have operational control over their resources, because the Theatre Commander will have the priority right over resources allotted to him which is an operational requirement, as Command Headquarters are the operational headquarters in all defence forces.

The glaring problem is visualised in allocation of air resources for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the IAF has grossly inadequate air resources with 31 Squadrons against the sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons and would be needing more in case of a two-front war. India does not have the luxury of adequate IAF resources to be allocated to Joint/Theatre Commands ab initio; hence switching IAF resources from one theatre to another is an operational compulsion. Secondly, the IAF has the flexibility to mobilise the required number of aircraft at the point of application, which is more relevant than the co-location of air assets with fighting formations.

Looking Beyond Services for National Security

There being no structured National Security Strategy in the public domain, there are many contradictions in decision making for the security of the country. As per the MoD website10, the responsibility for national defence rests with the Cabinet, discharged through the MoD, providing policy framework and wherewithal to the Armed Forces for the defence of the country. The contradiction starts from the fact that except for the LoC and AGPL with Pakistan, the entire land borders of the country are being manned by Para Military Forces, operating directly under the Home Ministry and not under the MoD/Armed Forces. The Home Ministry, directly responsible for internal security, is increasingly involved in the security of the borders and conversely, the military is getting increasingly involved in internal security.

It is often seen that whenever it comes to economising defence expenditure, the brunt of shortages is suffered by modernisation and heavy outlay of pay and allowances of the three Services is considered as a major load. Having seen many reorganisations in last four decades, we are yet to see any serious effort of cutting down the numbers of approximately four lakh defence civilians spending almost 23 percent of the defence expenditure, as they retire at 60 years of age. We need to reduce this tail to optimise defence expenditure, besides right-sizing some old models/structures. No military in the world can afford to have organisations like the MES or some Ordnance Factories performing tasks/producing clothes, which can easily be outsourced.


Reading the context of restructuring, the idea of Integrated Theatre Commands seems to be driven more by economic considerations and less by operational inadequacies. India should adopt only those changes which do not bring down the operational effectiveness of the existing system, in light of our peculiar geography/terrain, threat perception, peculiar challenges, resources and technological threshold. With no major change in geography, border commitments, counterinsurgency/terrorism involvements, threat and military resources we should incorporate only essential changes in the existing structures to improve jointness and integration. The paper recommends minimum turbulence/changes in existing Service Commands for the time being.

One major factor which is changing rapidly is technology; hence the paper supports the proposal of establishing an Information Warfare Command by upgrading the newly announced Defence Cyber Agency and supports the proposal of DSA and AFSOD under IDS.The expectation of theatre commands to be ready by 2022, seems to be ambitious. We should be deliberate in executing these changes, because the current system has not failed so far, and India does not have the economic luxury of trying out new system for the sake of cost cutting and reverting to its old system, if it is found operationally inadequate.


  1. Gurung Shourya K (2020), CDS Bipin Rawat focuses on preparing roadmap for creation of an air defence command, The Economic Times, January 02, 2020.
  2. Gurung (2020), India may have 5 theatre commands along borders with Pakistan, China: CDS, The Economic Times, February 18, 2020.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Gokhale Nitin (2016), Theatre Command and CDS: The debate continues,NewsWarrior, April 24, 2016.
  5. The Information Office of the State Council, China (2015), Full text: China’s Military Strategy, (Xinhua), May26, 2015, CHINADAILY.COM.CN
  6. Gurung, Op Cit, The Economic Times, January 02, 2020.
  7. Press Information Bureau, Government of India, Ministry of Defence, Functions of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), February 03, 2020.
  8. Asthana S B (2017), Does Indian Military Requires Apex Level Restructuring and Integrated Theatre Commands like US and PLA, Synergy, Centre for Joint Warfare Studies, March 2017 Issue.
  9. Gurung, Op Cit, The Economic Times, January 02, 2020.
  10. Ministry of Defence website, About the Ministry, Accessed on March 23, 2020.–ministry
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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

Maj Gen SB Asthana

is a Strategic and Security Analyst, a Veteran Infantry General with 40 years experience in National & International Fields and UN. A globally acknowledged strategic & military writer/analyst authored over 350 publications. Interviewed by various National and International news channels/newspapers/organisations. Currently Chief Instructor, USI of India, the oldest Indian Think-tank in India. On Governing/Security Council CEE, IOED, IPC, ITVMNN and other UN Organisations. On Advisory Board of SWEDINT, member EPON. Expert Group Challenges Forum, Former Additional Director General Infantry. Awarded twice by President of India, United Nations, former Prime Minister Maldova and Governor of Haryana.

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One thought on “Indian Model of Theatre Commands: The Road Ahead!

  1. Theatre Commands are required to cut the reaction time, increase the efficiency, and efficacy of the forces. Frankly speaking, the proposed structure doesn’t sound good to me. An efficient command should have all the elements of the forces. If we combine just the naval assets under one command and air assets under another, it would not solve the basic issues.
    Another issue is the vulnerability of forces in the initial days of new Theatre Commands. China also had that moment of weakness which was not exploited by opposing forces. In its desperation to test the efficacy of the new structure as well as fulfill the domestic compulsions, China took misadventures in Ladakh and SCS.

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