A major factor pushing for the heightened need for Theatre Commands has been the broad military reforms within the Chinese military, and now India finds itself with the possibility of an active LAC, alongside an already active LOC.
The first level of jointness between the three services is seen at National Defence Academy, where cadets of Army, Navy and Airforce train together and get to know each other. The next level of jointness between the services is seen during Defence Services Staff College. Thereafter, limited interaction between officers of the three services is seen during the Higher Command Course and National Defence College. However, these interactions are limited and do not create any conducive atmosphere to operate in a true sense of joint synergy between the three services.
During the Kargil war, there was a visible lack of synergy between the Army and Airforce, which delayed the much-wanted employment of the Airforce for supporting the army operations. The first request for air support was made on 10 May 1999, whereas the Airforce came into action with effect from 26 May onwards after the then COAS had detailed discussions with then CAS. The difference in perception of the two services leads to the delay in the employment of the Airforce. Subsequently, the Kargil Review Committee and subsequent committees had broadly called for the creation of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and Joint Theatre Commands (TC) to increase jointness between the services.
In 2001, the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) was created to foster coordination across different branches of the Indian Armed Forces. In the same year, Andaman Nicobar Command came into existence as a tri-service integrated Theatre Command at Port Blair. In 2003, Strategic Forces Command was created to control the nuclear warheads of the three services. The post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) was created in 2019 and the first CDS was appointed on 01 Jan 2020.
Indian Armed Forces are the fourth largest military in the world and each service acts independently of each other. Presently, India has seventeen commands. Army and Airforce have seven each and the Navy has three commands located at different places to command and control their respective assets. The idea of creation of Theatre Commands (TCs) in the Indian Armed Forces’ was mooted to achieve ‘Jointness’ within the three services of Army, Navy and Airforce and utilisation of the existing resources in an optimum manner, which would lead to savings that can be used for force modernisation. Already 32 countries of the world are following this model of jointness including the USA and China. Therefore, the creation of theatre command in India is indeed the need of the hour.
It means that units of the Army, Navy and Airforce would be placed under a single Theatre Commander. The operational command will be under one officer from one of the three services. This would enable the integration of resources of the three services for maximising impact in any future war. The geographical expanse of theatres in India demands unified commands for strategic decisions and concentrated employment of resources.
To ensure synchronised operations, India may have five theatre commands by 2022. Air Defence Theatre Command and Maritime Theatre Command will be first to roll out in May 2021 and land-based Northern Theatre Command and Western Theatre Command would be rolled out by Dec 2022. In addition to the above, a Logistics Command is in the works to avoid duplication of efforts and resources. This will lead to jointness in operations, logistics, transport, training, support services, repairs and maintenance.
Currently the Army, Navy and Airforce defend the air space on separate communication frequencies without synergy. The Air Defence Theatre Command will be responsible for India’s aerial attack and defending the air space through multi-role fighters and anti-aircraft missiles under its control and provide synergy.
India’s Maritime Theatre Command will be based at Karwar and would comprise the existing western and eastern naval fleet, maritime strike fighter jets and transport aircraft from both the air force and navy, amphibious infantry brigades and other assets of Andaman and Nicobar Command. It would be responsible to protect the Indian Ocean and India’s island territories and keep the sea lanes free and open from outside pressure.
There may be two land-based theatre commands. The Northern Theatre Command will be will have an area of responsibility from Karakoram Pass in Ladakh to the last outpost Kibithu in Arunachal Pradesh, guarding 3,488 km of LAC with China, with HQ at Lucknow. Western Theatre Command would be Pakistan specific, with an area of responsibility from Indira Col on Saltoro Ridge in Siachen Glacier region to the tip of Gujrat, with likely HQ in Jaipur. In addition to the above, the CDS is likely to have Armed Forces Special Operation Division, Cyber Command and Defence Intelligence Agency under him with manpower drawn from all three services.
All theatre commands will be headed by Lt General or equivalent rank commanders who will be first among equals with heads of the present commands reporting to them. The task of COAS, CAS and CNS will not be operational but involve mobilising resources to the theatre commanders. There will be no liabilities towards the creation of additional posts or ranks as the organisation structure will be culled out from the existing command structures. The nitty-gritty of command and control are still being worked out.
The idea of Theatre Command has received a fair amount of criticism from various quarters. Some analysts feel that Theatre Commands are required for expeditionary forces like the USA and China and not suited for India which does not covet territory beyond its borders. Some say that it will cause an additional financial burden to the already meagre defence budget of India, without any fruitful returns. Some feel that we should not tinker with the time-tested organisation. Some critics feel that we need a robust defence industry to support the modernisation of defence forces before the creation of the Theatre Commands. At present India is the second-largest importer of arms. Well, it is important that the creation of Theatre Commands should be war-gamed and assessed critically for its efficacy by all three services.
There is always resistance to any proposed changes by some people who prefer the status quo. But we must be alive to the changing nature of warfare from linear land-based one to one that is spread over to fast-changing critical domains such as the introduction of drones, unmanned systems, cyber, space, psychological and adapt ourselves to meet those challenges. There is no doubt that the new system will take time to stabilise and there would be many hurdles that will have to be ironed out. Initially, the Theatre Commands would operate under the concerned service chiefs, but gradually the service chiefs will assume the role of force providers and theatre commanders will be force employers.
In all, the move toward Joint Theatre Commands is a much-needed move, and it appears that it will be the driving force going forward, especially under the CDS. At the same time, there still exist multiple hurdles ranging from operational to conceptual that need to be considered, for these reforms to fully bear fruit and transform the Indian Armed Forces into a well-oiled fighting force. It will not be easy and transition to Theatre Commands will indeed be a challenging process. The three services will have to look ahead and find the best model that suits the Indian Armed Forces.