India’s command structure of theatre commands

September 17, 2021 4:46 PM

The future responsibilities of the three Chiefs of the Indian Armed Forces broadly mirror the US military’s existing model of Geographic Combatant Commands (GCCs) / Combatant Commands (COCOMs)

Once the theatre commands are functional, the theatre commanders will report to the CDS on operational matters,

By Brig Kuldip Singh (retd)

On September 15, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat formally outlined the structure of India’s theatre commands(TCs) – the existing 17 single-Service commands will be integrated into four geographical commands, each with elements from all three Services; with the Western TC responsible for Pakistan, the Northern TC for China, a navy-heavy Maritime TC for the Indian Ocean region, and the existing tri-service Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC)projecting power into the eastern Indian Ocean and beyond; in addition would be an Air Defence/Space Command. Gen Rawat added that once the theatre commands are functional, the theatre commanders will report to the CDS on operational matters, and the three Chiefs will be responsible only for raising, training and sustaining their respective Services.

The future responsibilities of the three Chiefs of the Indian Armed Forces broadly mirror the US military’s existing model of Geographic Combatant Commands (GCCs) / Combatant Commands (COCOMs) which were established under the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defence Reorganization Act. Under this, (i) respective chiefs are responsible only for “organizing, training and equipping” personnel and do not have any operational control over their forces; (ii) the troops of each service are deployed in, and support the commander responsible for a specific function (Special Operations, Strategic, and Transportation) or of a COCOM; and (iii) the military chain of command runs from the US President through the Secretary of Defence directly to Combatant Commanders, bypassing the Service chiefs, although they have an advisory role to the President and the Secretary of Defence. However, what has not been given due attention is the structure that will exercise command over the TCs – in the US, the Joint Staff was reorganized after each war and every failure of the US military in a perpetual quest for sagacious higher military command structures for the GCCs/COCOMs – and that should hold lessons for us.

Evolution of US’s GCCs and Joint Staff

Till the middle of World War-I, war was a disaggregated affair – the navy fought at sea and the land forces fought on land even if transported to distant lands by ships. It is only with the advent of big battleships, destroyers, tanks, landing craft, aircraft, etc that war truly began entailing cross-domain contributions by each Service.

When the USA entered WW-II (Dec 1941; Pearl Harbour), the imperative for US-British coordination led to the establishment of the UK-USA Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) as the supreme military body for strategic direction of the war effort (at the Washington Conference/Arcadia meetings; Dec 1941-Jan-1942). But surprisingly, at that juncture, the US had no comparable organisation as the British Chiefs of Staff Committee (CSC), which consisting of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, First Sea Lord and the Chief of Air Staff, had been since 1923rendering strategic direction to the British military, and military advice to the Cabinet. There were also other differences – the UK’s Royal Air Force was an autonomous service at par with the British Army and Royal Navy; in the USA, the air force was part of, and subordinate to the Army and the Navy.

The establishment of the CCS and Arcadia meetings had a deep influence on the evolution of higher military command structures in the USA – it led to the establishment of a new organization, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Mirroring the British CCS, the US JCS had Joint Staff Planners, Joint Intelligence Committee, Joint Military Transportation Committee, Joint Meteorological Committee and Joint Communications Board as important components. Separately, the US also raised three other organisations – the Joint Psychological Warfare Committee, Joint New Weapons Committee, and the Office of Strategic Services (CIA’s pre-cursor). Importantly, the JCS reported directly to the US President (who was the C-in-C).

Yet the US’ JCS was found woefully inadequate during the combined 1943 Casablanca Conference – it stuck to traditional war practices and appeared reluctant to relinquish detailed control over planning processes in favour of broader supervision. The US then appointed a Committee on War Planning Agencies, who recommended a comprehensive reorganisation of the JCS, which led to a new Joint Logistics Committee with separate Logistics Branches for Army and Naval Operations under it.

By this time, the US had begun operating various TCs. While it achieved a degree of unified command in the European theatre under General Dwight Eisenhower, it was, in spite of the JCS, unable to achieve the same in the Pacific on account of intense friction between General Douglas MacArthur commanding US Army Forces (Pacific) and Admiral Chester Nimitz commanding the US Pacific Fleet. President Truman later noted, “We must never fight another war the way that we fought the last two …. if the Army and Navy had fought our enemies as hard as they fought each other, the war would have ended much earlier.”

Post-WW-II/beginning of Cold War saw criticism of the JCS system and widespread agreement on the need to reorganise it, with General George Marshall observing, “the lack of real unity has handicapped the successful conduct of the war …. (the JCS is) ….a cumbersome and inefficient method of directing the efforts of the Armed Forces.” Secretary of War Henry Stimson declared the JCS as an “imperfect instrument of top-level decision ….. incapable of enforcing a decision against the will of any one of its members.”It also led to the Chief of Naval Operations declaring the Pacific command arrangement as “unsatisfactory” and proposing a single command in the Pacific. The US Army and the Army Air Force however rejected his proposal, and instead recommended mission-based unified commands, as opposed to geographic areas. After a great deal of discussion, President Truman approved the “Outline Command Plan” in December 1946, which established seven commands. Some of these contained more than one service, while others, such as the Atlantic Fleet, were service-specific. Even though these commands were supposed to be unified, the Services continued in many cases to plan and act independently. The inadequacies finally led to the passage of the National Security Act of 1947. Passed despite opposition by the US Army and Navy, it established the office of the Secretary of Defence, set-up the Air Force as a separate service, created the CIA from the OSS, and established the Unified Combatant Command (UCC) system for a world-wide, continuous global military presence.

However, President Eisenhower (1953-1961) felt that expeditionary warfare far away from Continental US required a more unified and streamlined chain of command. The Defence Reorganization Act Of 1958 (i) expanded the JCS; (ii) established a clear chain of command from the President through the Secretary of Defence to the Combatant Commanders; and (iii) delegated to Combatant Commanders full operational control over forces assigned to them, although responsibility for the administration of these assigned forces remained with respective Services.

The post-Vietnam period saw the Blue Ribbon Defence Panel report that the JCS’ workload was excessive as each member had to perform three distinct functions, viz, supervise his military Service; participate in advisory and planning functions assigned to the JCS, as well as in the military operations in the chain of command. The panel recommended that the JCS’ responsibilities relating to military operations be rescinded, its numbers be reduced and the JCS be only the principal military advisers to the President and Secretary of Defence. Although the panel’s recommendations weren’t implemented, the JCS’s assigned personnel numbers were reduced. Between 1976 to 1978, the Secretary of Defence removed the JCS from the chain of command for the Defence Communications Agency, the Defence Intelligence Agency, the Defence Mapping Agency, and the Defence Nuclear Agency.

The failure of Operations Eagle-Claw (1980 failed rescue of hostages in Iran) led the Chairman JCS General David Jones to write(1982) about the main shortcomings of the JCS – inadequate cross-Service and joint experience in the US military “from the top down”, and an inherent conflict of interests (the Service chiefs also served as JCS members). He proposed three main changes, viz, (i) strengthening the role and mandate of the Chairman JCS; (ii) limiting the involvement of Service staff in the joint process; and (iii) broadening the education, experience, and professional rewards for service in JCS. This was followed by the botched Operation Urgent-Fury (1983 invasion of Grenada) – and the FY 1984 DOD Appropriations Bill Conference Report expressed concern over the Chairman JCS’s ability to fulfil its role in the domains of logistics and strategic plans. In 1986, the US Congress, fed-up with the inter-service turf battles and operational failures, passed the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defence Reorganization Act.

The collapse of the Soviet Union saw the cyclic trend circle back. To exploit the envisioned ‘peace dividend’ and to cut back on defence spending, the strength of the JCS was reduced by almost 25%. But Operation DESERT STORM (1991) led to the changes being rescinded. In 2002, in spite of the expanded missions for homeland defence and counter-terrorism, Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and Chairman JCS General Richard Myers approved a 15% cut in manpower, which led to the JCS transferring its nuclear operations functions to US-STRATCOM; security assistance and technology transfer functions to the Defence Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA); and information technology related functions to JFCOM, US-SPACECOM, etc. Then came Russia’s invasion of Georgia (August 2008) – and Admiral Michael Mullen opined that the JCS was not organized to assemble vital information quickly enough in order to provide the best possible military advice to the President and the Secretary of Defence – which led to the creation of the National Joint Operations & Intelligence Center.

Unified Command Plan

The US COCOMs, who execute US military policy and some of its foreign policy as part of the US’ grand strategy, are guided by the Unified Command Plan (UCP). The JCS prepares a classified UCP at least once every two years. The UCP is pegged on the US’s National Security Strategy, National Defence Strategy, the National Military Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review, and is cognized in the US’ National Defence Authorisation Act (i.e., the defence budget). Overall, the US Congress exercises oversight on the COCOMs as well as their budgets.

This brings us back to two questions. One, how relevant is the US’ TC model? Two, do we have equivalence in JCS, Unified Command Plan, oversight, etc?

India’s TCs

The Indian military brass has been proffering two main reasons for TCs:

One: to acquire a capability to conduct Integrated Joint Operations (IJO). These are different from Joint Operations (JO). While JO lays emphasis on “jointness” within the individual Service with vertical linkages (e.g., between armour, infantry and artillery within the army), IJO looks at ‘integrated jointness’ with other Services. In its simplest form, IJO envisions unifying different commanders and fighting forces of different Services down to the tactical level to create a seamless, networked information and war-waging system. IJO requires a change in service cultures, organizational structures to improve collaboration amongst land, air and sea forces, and integrated acquisition strategies so that the equipment acquired is inter-operable for joint capabilities.

Two: given the attenuated defence spending, to pare operating costs by merging the seventeen Service-specific commands (Army: 07; Navy: 03; Air Force: 07) into five TCs.

As evident, the US’ COCOMs are based on its strategic and operational experiences of WW-II and the run-up towards the break-up of the Soviet Union. Major military reforms have a gestation period of at least a decade, and the resultant model, if well-thought, should last another 25-35 years – this is because warfare, technology, the threats and the strategic environment evolve. Hence, in 2016, the US Congress undertook a 30-year review of the 1986 Act. Important testimonies harped on reforms to Military Personnel and Training, restructuring the existing Combatant Commands, OSD/Civilian Management, Strategy Formulation and Acquisitions. Earlier (2015), three experts, including two who had midwifed this 1986 Act testified before the US Senate Armed Services Committee that “no organizational blueprint lasts forever” , and although the Act had strengthened the joint regional combatant command structure, it has unintentionally fuelled personnel bloat within joint organizations and the US Pentagon is now straining under a lumbering, outmoded and top-heavy command structure, which is in dire need of an overhaul to compete with faster-moving adversaries and eliminate government waste from a labyrinthine acquisition system. More importantly, in early-2020, the US Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfe opined much the same as what the IAF recently implied – that the current GCC structure governing US military operations has to change to cater for the global, all-domain conflicts of the future. So: is India using a relevant role model for its TCs?

The next aspect relates to rhetoric versus reality. TCs were really about massive force levels conducting operations in true theatre-sized zones. But now, the proliferation of precision and autonomous weapons allows far more destruction to be wreaked in shorter time frames by much smaller forces– and this has also led to countries downsizing their armies. The nuclear threat too militates against employment of large bodies of troops. So: does the Indian military genuinely envisage undertaking large, expeditionary operations in near-WW-II sized ‘theatres’? If yes, then with what and against whom? As a developing country with no dearth of challenges, do we have economic clout for expeditionary power projection? The recent imbroglio on the LAC and our hurried ceasefire on the LoC to avoid protracted deployment in hostile terrain on two active fronts, and obviate a two-front threat, should provide a reality check.

Further: it’s simplistic to assume that reducing the number commands from 17 to five will reduce expenditure – as costs incurred towards equipping, maintaining and sustaining the formations under the TCs will continue. The only thing that may reduce is the cost of maintaining twelve command HQS.

Yet, let’s assume the relevance of TCs. So: have we thought out our Joint Staff and its relationship with the TCs? Or, is the HQ Integrated Defence Staff, raised in 2002 based on the Kargil Review Committee and associated GoM, and augmented with the CDS, good enough? Is there any study that cognises the US’s experience on the GCCs/COCOMs- Joint Staff, and why the latter went through numerous cyclic evolutions of ‘booms’ based on lessons learnt and ‘busts’ based on evisceration of threats – and why the COCOMs-JCS combine was found wanting on many occasions?

(The author is an Indian army Veteran. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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