India’s Theatre Command conundrum

June 25, 2021 11:43 AM

The issue of ‘CDS and Theatre Commands’ has animated military and security discussions over the last two decades ever since the Group of Ministers’ report in 2001 on the management of defence.

indian armyIt is reported that the PMO has tasked the CDS to complete the implementation of the ‘Theatre Commands’ by 2022. (Representational image: AP)

By Air Marshal M Matheswaran (Retd), 

In the last two weeks, there have been various media reports on the impending formation of theatre commands as a critical step towards enhancing the jointness and efficiency of the Indian military. One of the newspapers even hinted that the IAF was reluctant to support the integrated theatre command. This probably was a deliberate and engineered piece of news. When the CDS was appointed on 01 Jan 2020, enhancing jointness and creation of theatre commands have been his priority tasks. There is a sense of hurry in pushing through the ‘integrated theatre command’ reforms. However, MOD is right in bringing a sense of balance when it acknowledged last week that more deliberations are required, and the issue cannot be rushed.

The issue of ‘CDS and Theatre Commands’ has animated military and security discussions over the last two decades ever since the Group of Ministers’ report in 2001 on the management of defence. That the CDS was appointed finally is a great step towards realizing long-overdue reforms and restructuring. While there are many areas such as service-MOD integration, management of intelligence, optimization of manpower, joint training etc. that require the CDS’ attention, it is evident that he is in a hurry to push through the Theatre Commands. There is no ambiguity whatsoever that the nature of modern warfare necessitates jointness and hence, theatre command as the most efficient form to prosecute the war. While it is certain that a lot of work and deliberations must have been done at the level of the leadership of the three services, IDS, and the CDS, one still gets the impression that the concept is being rushed through while it still lacks clarity in terms of structure, operational control, and various aspects of forces to be held and training.

For nearly seventy years the three service chiefs have functioned as operational commanders as well as chiefs of staff. Changing to the theatre command system will radically alter their positions and roles. This will need to be done carefully by establishing and operationalizing many intermediate steps. The most important of them is establishing joint operational philosophy and Joint operational planning processes. Besides, there is the huge issue of rationalizing senior appointments, manpower optimization, and the policy of theatre commanders and component commanders, and the training of joint staffs.

It is reported that the PMO has tasked the CDS to complete the implementation of the ‘Theatre Commands’ by 2022. There is a fundamental flaw in this thought process. The creation of ‘Theatre Commands’ is a huge transformation of the Indian military that will have a major impact on operational, technological, structural, financial, human resources aspects. It will also change the command-and-control structures in a major way. Such a change cannot be rushed through with CDS mandated study alone. It needs to be done by a parliament mandated committee on the lines of the Goldwater-Nichols committee. Such a committee should define in full details the command structure, chain of reporting, resources development, manpower optimization etc. What will be the command reporting chain? It will be Theatre commanders to the Defence Minister through the CDS, which will be a major change for the MOD. That necessarily mandates the proper integration of the service headquarters with the MOD as the pre-requisite for theatre command reforms.

There is a more important operational aspect that needs to be considered. Right from independence, the army’s land-centric approach has dominated India’s strategic thought process. Influenced by our political emphasis on defence alone, our operational strategies have been constrained by defensive and reactive approach and an under exploitation of the advantages of aerospace and maritime power. India doesn’t need theatre commands if it has to continue on the same defensive trajectory. Modern wars are heavily dominated by aerospace capabilities that can punish, deter, coerce, and enforce peace. Theatre command is more about effective warfighting than the issue of optimization in terms of costs and manpower. Unfortunately, most commentaries focus on the latter. What is more important for the effectiveness of theatre command is the centrality of aerospace power that needs to be understood.

A theatre command is inherently suited to projecting power. A theatre command concept that is centred on defending against Pakistan and China alone is problematic. As a country, we aspire to be a great power and have a say in global governance. None of that will come without the necessary military power. Of course, we do not need to ape other countries’ formats blindly. But we must carefully study their systems to learn the right lessons. The US is a global hegemon that operates nearly 800 overseas bases. Its combatant commands project power to sustain its advantages. China’s recent theatre commands restructuring is instructive and differs from the US model. India needs to project power in its areas of strategic interests, which is pretty much most of Asia.

Given the challenges of rushing into restructuring operational commands, it would be safer and sensible to work on already existing and the proposed functional commands. The Strategic Forces Command and the Andaman Nicobar Command are already functioning unified commands. The proposed cyber command, Special Forces command, and aerospace command could be established and expanded. These five commands can be perfected, and the lessons learnt would be useful to leap off into the operational unified commands subsequently. It will also give time to rethink the current proposals for better viability. The concept of a single maritime theatre command for the entire maritime domain looks preposterous.

(The author is a former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. He is currently the President of The Peninsula Foundation. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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