HomeIndian Air ForceBack to square one on theatre commands

Back to square one on theatre commands

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Theaterisation and integration must be undertaken in a systematic and strategically safe manner

by Manoj Joshi (Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

When the post of Chief of Defence Staff was created in December 2019, a timeline of three years had been given for sorting out the key issues of integration and jointness.

The matter of theatre commands for the Indian armed forces had “gone back to the drawing board” and was being restudied by the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) of the Ministry of Defence. The issues which seem to be bedevilling the process of announcing the commands remain the same — the geographical and operational limits of the commands and the rank and authority of the theatre commanders.

The biggest danger in rushing through Theaterisation, or doing it haphazardly, is that it can seriously imbalance India’s defence equilibrium.

In April, it was revealed that the process of creating theatre commands, which would entail war-fighting assets and forces under a single commander in a specific geographic location, had been delayed. The new Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), Gen Anil Chauhan, had been asked by the government to seek greater consensus within the Army, Navy and Air Force for creating the integrated geographical commands. Currently, the Army, Navy and Air Force have 17 geographical and functional commands. The Army has six geographical commands, the Air Force five and the Navy three. The other three are functional commands. There is also a tri-service Defence Cyber Agency and a Space Agency, which in future could become functional commands.

But by August, it was believed that General Chauhan had a formula in hand which would reduce them to just three geographical theatre commands and some functional commands. But now things are back to square one. There seem to be abiding differences on just how many geographical theatre commands there should be. General Chauhan’s plan would have featured a western, eastern and a peninsular/maritime command. Some stakeholders felt that more were needed to accommodate various service interests. Then there is the issue of the rank of the theatre commanders; some have opined that they should be four-star officers, considering the enormous responsibilities they will wield. With theatre commands, the existing Army, Air Force and Navy chiefs, who have a four-star rank, would be only in charge of provisioning and training the forces and have no operational role. But this has run up against entrenched interests who want the current chiefs to retain some kind of operational roles and keep theatre commanders on a three-star rank. But such a system would have neither a head nor a tail and would defeat the goals of Theaterisation.

When the post of CDS was created in December 2019, a timeline of three years had been given for sorting out the key issues of integration and jointness. Gen Bipin Rawat, the first CDS, was given unprecedented support by the government since he was also made the Secretary of the newly formed DMA that assumed charge of all matters relating to the three services within the Ministry of Defence. He became first among equals by being made the permanent chairman of the chiefs of staff committee.

It was the mandate of the DMA to facilitate “the restructuring of the military commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through the establishment of joint/theatre commands.”

This was meant to be a multi-stage process: in the first stage, jointness of existing commands would be initiated by merging static establishments, hospitals, workshops and so on. Then, operations in the new cyber and space agencies and in the realm of special forces would be integrated. And the third stage would see the creation of theatre commands.

Little or nothing seems to have been achieved. There have been some desultory moves to cross-post officers in different services and a law has been passed to promote integration. But in the main, the process remains stalled.

At one level, this was the outcome of placing too heavy a burden on then CDS General Rawat, whose public pronouncements on various issues were not too helpful. The political class, led by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, too, did not provide the political guidance needed, though they were cautious enough not to give General Rawat or General Chauhan a blank cheque. Unlike India, both the Chinese and American processes have been guided by their political class.

The bigger problem is the top-down approach towards the issue, whereas common sense would call for experimenting to find the best solution at the micro level and then replicating it up and across the military system.

There already exist certain test beds whose experience is being ignored in the current process. Primary among these is India’s first tri-service geographical command, the Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC), which was created in 2001 following the reforms initiated on the basis of the Group of Ministers’ report. In the past quarter century or so, the ANC has already accumulated rich experience as well as created micro-structures which now need to be scaled up.

That was the very purpose of the command — to provide a test bed upon which concepts and ideas relating to Theaterisation could be worked upon and then applied to other parts of the Indian military system. Instead, the ANC has, sadly, been given short shrift not just by the individual services but also by the political leadership.

The biggest danger in rushing through Theaterisation, or doing it haphazardly, is that it can seriously imbalance India’s defence equilibrium. Considering the high-level threats we confront, we cannot allow any disruption to occur if Theaterisation and integration are pushed down the reluctant throats of the incumbents. The process must be thoughtfully architected and carefully engineered. It must be undertaken in a systematic and strategically safe manner to achieve synergy.

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