Soldiers hate two things; change and the way things are — Anon
The National Defence Academy (NDA) was established with the lofty ideal of inculcating a sense of camaraderie among the cadets. This was expected to create lasting bonds and promote jointmanship as the officers entered their individual service. The Academy did promote lifelong bonds among course mates. Course mates always hold a special place in each other’s hearts but the bonhomie remains only at the personal level. In inter-service matters, a clear divide emerges to protect the individual service turf. This exclusivity gets more pronounced as officers rise in service. This behaviour is not unique to the Indian armed forces, but exists across the world, notwithstanding joint organisations in various militaries. India need not get perturbed by the sound of a few discordant notes when controversial topics are discussed.
Recently, the subject of ‘jointness’ and ‘theatre commands’ attracted attention with the introduction of the Inter-services Organisations (Command, Control and Discipline) Bill in the Lok Sabha. The bill aims to empower the Commander-in-Chief and Officer-in-Command of the tri-service commands with disciplinary and administrative powers over all personnel under command, irrespective of the service they belong to.1 This was assumed by many as the harbinger of theatre commands. The introduction of the bill triggered several articles and social media posts by veterans on the urgent need to fast forward the setting up of theatre commands to bring in jointness among the three Services. As expected, the need for theatre commands was stressed upon by most veterans from the Indian Army and the Indian Navy.
The subject is controversial with people holding firm and extraordinarily strong views for or against the concept. Discussion, thus, tends to be more ‘talking at each other’ rather than something cerebral. The stakeholders, all experienced and wise professionals, come to the table with passionate beliefs, prejudices and individual Service interests. The outcome is, thus, not ideal, but at best, a satisficing one. This write-up aims at shining the light on the concept of theatre commands from a different angle to reveal some dark and grey areas which may not have received the desired attention. Some aspects may have been projected earlier but are included since these have not formed part of meaningful discussions. A caveat is, however, in order. The discussion that follows may appear biased to some or contradict well-publicised official positions on the subject. The aim is not to prove one point or the other, right or wrong. It is to draw attention to aspects that may not have formed part of the earlier discussions.
Understanding Theatre of War and Theatre Command
Before discussing the projected or oft discussed structure of theatre commands, it may be worthwhile to start from the basics: understanding theatre commands, the need and the attributes of an ideal structure. This backdrop would help situate the discussion appropriately.
Carl Von Clausewitz in his book “On War” defines ‘Kriegstheater’ meaning a theatre of war as “denotes property, such a portion of space over which war prevails and has boundaries protected, and thus possesses a kind of independence.”2 The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as the entire land, sea, and air area that is or may become involved directly in war operations.3 In short, a theatre of war may be assumed as a geographically delineated area (land, sea and airspace) which may be involved in war.
A theatre command is geographically the same as a theatre of war and resources of all the three Services are placed under the command of the theatre commander, a senior military officer. A theatre command is similar to the Combatant Commands of the US military. The need for a theatre command arose due to increased complexity of warfare, in terms of a mix of units of different armed forces and a variety of supporting tools. In earlier times, due to poor communications and limited access to information, coordination of land, air and sea operations along with the supporting tools across the entire land and sea frontage was difficult. Separate commands over segments of the frontage were set up for better monitoring and control. But this resulted in limitations in terms of coordination and inability to orchestrate war across the whole frontage. With improved communications and availability of information, it has become possible to coordinate and orchestrate operations across the entire frontage.
Coordination of the operations of land, sea and air forces in time and place against an adversary across the entire area of operations creates operational synergy. Integration of land, sea and air operations and coordinating these with supporting tools such as information, cyber, and EW becomes possible through centralised planning.
There is a misconception that land and sea operations can be considered independently. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Being terrestrial beings, operations – whether on land, in the air, at sea or in space have to ultimately lead to land, where victory or defeat is decided. Naval operations aim at ultimately facilitating achievement of the strategic goal, which generally relates to a terrestrial objective. Take the example of operations against Pakistan. Engagements would occur from the Himalayas in the North to the Gujarat coast and extend into the Arabian Sea with the Indian Navy being fully involved. There is a need to coordinate operations of the Indian Army, the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy across this vast expanse of land and sea to ensure efficacy and effectiveness of the war effort. Coordination of attacks on targets by the naval air and sea elements, along with those of the air force would be necessary. At times, naval aviation assets may be employed to support land operations. Similarly, on certain occasions, AEW cover would also need to be planned for the naval flotilla.
Centralised planning is needed for synergy by integrating operations of all the entities involved. Only such centralised planning and execution would ensure highly effective war effort. It is very difficult to plan and coordinate actions if more than one theatre confronts the adversary and individual theatres plan and operate independently. The need for a single theatre to plan land, air and sea operations against an adversary is, thus, imperative.
Theatre commands are similar to the Combatant Commands of the US military which cover vast land mass and oceans. Carrier based fighters operate alongside land-based fighters in all roles, ranging from counter-air to close air support.4 Based on the above, some important attributes of a theatre command may be identified as follows:–
- In the Indian context, the theatre structure has to be forward looking and cater to future needs besides current threats.
- Land, sea and air forces are the resources available to the theatre commander and need to be employed in an integrated manner.
- A theatre possesses independence in terms of planning and conduct of operations based on the nation’s military strategy.
- The theatre commander is involved to a limited extent in strategy formulation and is more concerned with the operational level of war.
- The theatre is delineated so that only one theatre would be involved in operations against a specific enemy, ensuring unity of effort.
- Theatre commands cannot be service specific such as land or maritime since that would militate against the very essence of integration. It is redundant to prefix theatre command with words such as ‘integrated’, ‘land based’ or ‘maritime’.
- The theatre may be divided into sub-theatres or component commands for detailed planning and execution.
- The primary task of a theatre command then boils down to integrated planning, monitoring the conduct of operations, adapting plans to the emerging situation, and the routine administrative and training tasks.
- The theatre commander is assisted by experienced land, sea and air force commanders.
- Theatre commands go beyond operational issues. The structure would require commonalities among the three Services the primary being an integrated communication system, logistical and maintenance integration. As a matter of fact, work on integration should start even as the structure is being finalised.
Information in the open media and discussions indicate that the proposed Theatre Command structure involves two or three land-based commands in the East, North and West, a maritime theatre and an Air Defence Command.5 In addition, specialised roles are enabled by functional commands such as Strategic Forces, Special Forces, Space and Cyber. Based on the projected geographic delineation, two or possibly three theatre commands would be involved in confronting current adversaries, China or Pakistan: Maritime, West and North in case of Pakistan and Maritime, East and North, in case of China. In such a case, integrated plans would need to be formulated or coordinated between the two or three theatre commands involved in the operations. Who and how would the integration or coordination take place? Would an external agency or the CDS ensure this? This need for joint planning between two/three theatre commands is similar to that obtaining today: coordinating plans between individual service commands. The difficulties in coordination and integration between commands are the main reason for the creation of theatre commands. If the proposed theatre structure also faces similar difficulties, the restructuring may be jeopardised. This issue does indicate the need to look beyond the current thinking and this aspect is discussed in detail subsequently.
In the proposed theatre structure, field forces would continue to operate as before during peacetime and according to operational instructions in wartime. The staff of the theatre commands at junior and middle levels would also operate as per their allocated roles. There would be role clarity at both the field and the junior/middle staff levels. However, there is limited clarity about the decision making at and above the level of theatre commanders. In the US, the theatre commanders report directly to the President through the Defence Secretary. Both these appointments have advisors and inputs from military staff members. In the Indian case, will the theatre commanders report directly to the Minister of Defence or MOS for Defence? Does the Minister of Defence have staff or advisors or inputs to decide on operational issues? Who would be the advisors? Will it be the NSA, who functions directly under the PMO or the Defence Secretary, who on paper is responsible for the defence of India? The common thinking is that the CDS would be involved in the operational decision-making, maybe with inputs from the COSC. The CDS, as the title suggests, has a staff or an advisory function. If he is involved in operational decision making, the role would be that of a Commander-in-Chief. The question that arises is whether the government would be willing to place the entire military force under a single commander. With the memory of a media report on a possible coup attempt some years back and an uneasy civil-military relationship, it is unlikely that the government will accept the entire military machinery under a single commander. Clarity on the chain of command at the highest level is, therefore, essential.
This above aspect assumes importance because forces from the three Services would be allotted to the four theatre commands and the Strategic Forces Command (SFC). These forces would train and operate as joint forces. There would always be contingencies requiring reallocation for forces between theatres during wars or warlike situations. If two or more theatres are involved in operations, as would be expected against Pakistan or China; reallocation of forces may not be a simple affair. Who would be the approving authority for such reallocation of forces? Will the decision vest with the Minister of Defence with advice from the CDS or COSC? The organisation structure must have clarity on these issues of vital importance. To expect that differences between theatres would not arise or be resolved among theatre commanders, is expecting too much from the system during crisis periods. Or is it possible to think of a structure that overcomes the problem?
Other challenges relate to aspects that facilitate integration such as a common grid for communication and data exchange, logistics integration of equipment standardised among the services and common maintenance practices. Work on these aspects can commence even as the structure is debated and finalised. Such initiatives would further jointness, as also lead to substantial savings.
It would also be relevant to bring out that there are some major apprehensions about the current thinking or proposed theatres commands. The apprehensions relate mainly to the Air Force’s belief that at the present moment the concept may prove unviable due to its limited air assets and the need for centralisation to exploit the potential of air power through flexible employment. The idea of an Air Defence Command is considered operationally unviable by the Air Force in view of limited numbers and the fact that defensive and offensive air operations cannot be delinked. Professional inputs based on experience and history cannot be disregarded. Air Force assets are too limited for allocation to the three land-based theatres, the maritime theatre and the SFC. It would be akin to sharing poverty and spreading resources so thin as to make air operations sub-optimal.
Another point centres around the control and allocation of the transport fleet and limited number of ‘force multipliers’ such as AWACS/AEW assets and in-flight refueling aircraft. These assets are always limited in number due to their specialised role and are allocated based on threat and mission requirements. The US has the USTRANSCOM which has three divisions under it, surface, oceanic and air. This functional command is generally commanded by a three-star USAF officer. The command has under it all the big transport aircraft/air re-fuellers as also authority to requisition civil airline fleet if required. The Indian military also needs a similar approach to centralise the transport fleet and specialised AWACS/Air Refueling fleet into one functional command. Subsequently, as and when operations outside India are visualised, oceanic and surface divisions may be added to the command. The moot question that arises is: who will have the final authority on allocation of these resources? Since these are centralised, logically it should be the CDS on the advice of the CAS. But then, the CDS gets involved in operational decision making.
An Alternative Approach
The proposed structure envisages three land-based theatre commands: East, North and West along with the maritime theatre and an Air Defence Command (ADC). Since the underlying thought process behind the proposed theatres is not known, it is difficult to discern the operational philosophy undergirding the structure. The visualisation of a future war on which the structure is based is also not obvious. As brought out earlier, the structure on the face of it does not facilitate the weaving together of the three threads; land, air and sea operations into a potent mix to overwhelm the adversary.
At first glance, the structure appears to be based on convenience. Two commands on the West have been combined, as also the two covering the North and North East. Since there is an ongoing stand-off in the Northern Command region, it is kept out of the ambit. The structure makes the land and maritime theatres independent. This is difficult to understand since the naval element can prove to be big countervailing force, in case the land forces face unforeseen pressure and should be integral to the main plan. The Indian Air Force has been force fitted by setting up an ADC, despites many valid arguments against this change. The structure does not seem to facilitate centralised planning against the two main threats – Pakistan and China.
In contrast, another option may be visualised on the basis of the need, meaning and attributes of theatre commands discussed earlier. It is an option that stares us in the face and obviates most issues of coordination. Two theatres may be thought of West and East – with a clear mandate for an integrated war effort against Pakistan and China respectively. Such a structure would avoid the need for coordination between theatres against an adversary. Just two theatres would also enable a more judicious distribution of air assets between the theatres, enabling concentration of force. Such a large theatre would require a four star commander, equal in rank to the CDS and individual service chiefs. It would also enable the theatre commanders to be supported by three-star individual force commanders for land, sea and air operations. Making these three-star appointments equivalent to the status of the Army Commanders as also the heads of functional commands would create adequate openings for the three services.
The large size of the theatres may enable sub-theatres or component commands to be created for improved control while ensuring an integrated effort. In the coming years, the theatre may be extended outward as a sub-theatre or a new theatre carved out as India’s interests extend beyond its near periphery.
As and when the Indian Navy acquires operating bases, expands its fleet (aircraft carriers), and reach, new theatres beyond the adjoining seas may be created with appropriate army and air components. Such extended theatres should only be set up in areas/regions where the Indian military is able to project itself with adequate force.
The restructuring of the Indian armed forces into theatre commands is a humungous exercise. Once the change is set in motion, it would be difficult to undo or alter the direction of change. It is thus imperative to adhere to the age-old dictum of ‘make haste slowly’. As a precursor to such a major change, it would be prudent to cultivate some essential commonalities among the three Services. The most important of these is an integrated communication/data exchange grid. Without seamless communication integration may prove half-hearted. This may need to be followed by plans for logistics integration and initiating standardisation of the maintenance of common equipment.
Any major restructuring exercise will always encounter resistance. Some of this resistance would be due to organisational inertia and turf preservation; this is to be expected. However, when the viability of the change is questioned on professional grounds, a rethink may be in order. Such doubts over the changes must the discussed, thought through and a consensus built. It is for this reason that misgivings, if any, on theatre command structure should be addressed.
The uncertainties revolve around the decision making at the highest level role of the CDS, the manner of joint planning or adjudication of differences between theatres and the centralisation of resources which are limited and needed by all the theatres.
A simpler structure would be to address the known and obvious threats: Pakistan and China upfront by setting up two theatres to confront each of them. Two theatres – West and East, would avoid piecemeal distribution of air assets or creation of an unviable ADC. It would also integrate naval assets to address the threats jointly. Subsequent expansion of interests may lead to extending the theatres or creating new theatres.
The most important point is to build consensus before embarking on such a major restructuring. It must not be built on convenience or ease of implementation. It must have a strong foundation of operational integration and synergy. Clarity on the underlying operational philosophy and decision making processes are essential for the success of this military transformation.
Pradip Sagar, Whytheatrisation of the armed forces could become a reality in the near future? https://www.indiatoday.in/india-today-insight/story/why-theatrisation-of-the-armed-forces-could-become-a-reality-in-the-near-future-2350151-2023-03-22
“Carl Von Clausewitz, On War”. Clausewitz.com.
Merriam Webster Dictionary, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/theater%20of%20war
Joint Publication 1-02, US Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, November 8, 2010 (as amended through May 15, 2011)
Snehesh Alex Philip, What are military theatre commands and why does India want to switch to them? The Print Online, 6 July, 2021, https://theprint.in/defence/what-are-military-theatre-commands-and-why-does-india-want-to-switch-to-them/690487/