Following the death anniversary of India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat who lost his life along with his wife and 11 other service members in a helicopter crash late 2021, General Anil Chauhan, was appointed after a long gap of nine months. However, his priorities and plan of action are yet to be spelt out according to those in the know.
The status of ‘Theaterisation of Commands’, which was strongly advocated by the late CDS, Gen Rawat, remains unclear. Theatre Commands were a widely debated topic during Gen Rawat’s tenure as CDS with polarising views on the feasibility of ‘Theaterisation’ in the Indian context by members of the Indian Armed Forces, ex-service members and independent defence and strategic affairs analysts.
Speaking about the conception of the idea of Theatre Commands by Gen Rawat, Lt Gen Anil Ahuja Retd) former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff (Policy Planning and Force development) and Senior Colonel Commandant of Regiment of Artillery told Financial Express Online, “At the initial stages of his appointment, he started mentioning setting up two to five theatre commands, Air Defence Command and Maritime command. While he was in chair (June 2021), a high-level committee was set up for consultations related to setting up Integrated theatre commands and rolling out of these commands was widely speculated in August 2021, which didn’t happen.”
In October 2021, reports emerged that the tri-service chiefs stated that the Theaterisation process would be “deliberate, thoughtful and well-considered,” however, the conversation around the subject quickly lost steam, at least in the public domain. When asked about whether the topic of Theater Commands fizzled out following the death of India’s first CDS, Lt Gen. Ahuja responded saying, “It is true that this topic has nearly got muted since Gen. Rawat’s demise.” before going on to say, “Intermittently, references are made to individual service reservations and resistance. However, the idea seems to have lost its steam within the military and politically. Why? Was setting up Theatre or Integrated Functional Commands (Eg. Air Defence Command) specifically mandated by the government?”
A senior serving officer who did not wish to be named told Financial Express Online that the developments could be better contextualised if the following documents were read in conjunction. The officer highlighted the PIB release of Dec 24 2019 promulgating cabinet approval for the creation of the post of CDS, followed by the Gazette notification of 30 Dec 2019, promulgating 353rd amendment to Allocation of Rules of business and sub-distributing responsibilities between DoD and DMA and the MoD, DoD letter of Jan 9, 2020, allocating a 29 pages charter of work to DMA as essential reading to get a clearer picture. The officer said, “Reading these three documents would highlight the broad scope of responsibilities.”
The 24 Dec notification and 30 Dec gazette assign responsibility to CDS, as secretary DMA, to: 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.
The PIB release of Dec 24, 2019 assigns (one of the) responsibilities to the CDS, in his capacity as Permanent Chairman COSC: Bring about reforms in the functioning of the three services aimed at augmenting comeback capability of arm forces by reducing wasteful expenditure. It also expects that this reform in higher defence management would enable the Armed Forces to implement coordinated defence doctrines and procedures and go a long way in fostering joint Manship among the three services.
“Before we impose unstated priorities on the CDS and start putting psychological pressure on him, let us be clear of the expectations. Restructuring of the armed forces, though a politico-military decision, ultimately has to be implemented by the military/defence and security professionals. The proposed reform of theatre/functional commands was pushed by Gen Rawat, a good military soldier committed to the execution/implementation of the task at hand,” said the senior officer quoted above.
Lt Gen Ahuja agreed with these views and opined, “A major national-level military reform requires very deliberate background staff work. For the creation of theatre commands, the rationale of China, the United States and some other countries having it is not good enough. Nor is the rudimentary logic of reducing the number of commands from 17 to 5 (or so). The rationale must be to improve combat edge, enhance the multi-domain operational capability, optimise scarce resources and create an authority to enforce integrated operational planning and execution.”
Explaining the possible way forward to carry it out, the former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff said : “For this, the first mandatory step should have been formulating a base document spelling out the vision for Integrated Military Commands. What do we desire to achieve through this transformation? What are the factors that we need to consider and address in bringing about integration? What are the challenges likely to be faced? Options for overcoming these? The best course of action and the road map for implementation. All this should have been related to the budget and timeline. Gen Rawat was fortunate, for he had the tacit political support for it.”
“With such a logically formulated document in place, the proposal would have gotten a wider acceptance by all Services and defence planners. Additionally, it would have acquired a “momentum of its own”, which would have survived beyond an individual’s passionate personality”. Unfortunately, this has not happened. With the benefit of hindsight, let us do this now, and perhaps the current CDS may have a lesson in this,” Lt Gen. Ahuja added.
The former DGMO went on to explain, “The next aspect why the momentum seems to have petered out is because there is a lack of clarity on some fundamental issues-the overall command and control structure of theatre commands, HQ IDS, is neither mandated nor organised to be a tri-service operational HQ. The decision on the degree of autonomy to be accorded to theatre commanders over the service chiefs, methodology of giving politico-military guidance to geographically separated theatre commanders, non-availability of tri-service integrated communications and command and control networks, and non-availability of an adequate number of commanders and staff with tri-service exposure are pressing challenges.
“Personnel still need to be trained, the inventories of some critical platforms need to be optimised between services, and operational and logistic procedures need to be honed. Putting these building blocks in place, creating models of future Integrated HQs, and war gaming will convince us of theatre commands’ needs and benefits. It will also give us a realistic answer if the time for theatre commands has come for us in India, and do our current resources and budget support such a major transformation?”
“Let us credit Gen Rawat for having germinated the idea of this reform and having brought it to centre stage for deep professional analysis. However, our true homage to him and our other service colleagues who perished with him would be to divorce emotions from critical professional analysis and do it with logic more than through passion. Let us at least now do it in a manner that the idea survives beyond an individual,” said Lt Gen. Ahuja.