The Indian Army and the Indian Air Force have seven commands each, while the Indian Navy has three.(AFP file photo)
The Indian Army and the Indian Air Force have seven commands each, while the Indian Navy has three.(AFP file photo)

In theaterisation transition plan, emergency return to status quo

Theaterisation refers to merging specific commands of the army, navy and air force, and placing them under a theatre commander. Such theatre commands are to be led by an officer from any of the three services, depending on the roles assigned to them.
By Rahul Singh, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON JUL 01, 2021 01:38 AM IST

The Indian military’s theaterisation model, a long-awaited reform to optimally utilise the resources of the armed forces, will have the inbuilt flexibility to fall back on current command and control structures to eliminate the possibility of the country getting caught off guard by its adversaries during the crucial transition phase, people familiar with the developments said on Wednesday.

Stabilisation of theatre commands could take up to five years, and it is critical to ensure that there is a mechanism to swiftly return to the pre-theaterisation status quo if a crisis unfolds when the restructuring is underway, a top official cited above said on condition of anonymity.

Theaterisation refers to merging specific commands of the army, navy and air force, and placing them under a theatre commander. Such theatre commands are to be led by an officer from any of the three services, depending on the roles assigned to them.

“The first five years will be very crucial. Military structures cannot be allowed to become unstable during the transition to theaterisation. If a war or conflict breaks out during that phase, the services should be able to go back to the current arrangement to carry out the operational and strategic roles assigned to them. This is an important element of the planning process,” a second official said.

The armed forces currently have 17 single-service commands spread across the country. The Indian Army and the Indian Air Force have seven commands each, while the Indian Navy has three. Creating theatres would involve merging the existing commands. The Port Blair-based Andaman & Nicobar Command, and the Strategic Forces Command, are the only two tri-service commands.

Emergency scenarios

Fallback plans are crucial to offset transition risks. Top officials explained how the armed forces plan to operate during the transition phase to deal with emergency scenarios.

“Take the case of the proposed Western Theatre Command. It will require the integration of the existing army and IAF commands in the western sector. The operations branches of these commands will collapse and come under the new theatre. But if there is an emergency, the operations branches will return to their previous headquarters and the single-service commands would operate as they do now,” a third official explained.

The Western Theatre Command is expected to come up at Jaipur, where the army’s South Western Command is currently headquartered.

A similar model will be replicated across all theatres. The third official said the existing single-service commands will collapse fully only after the stabilisation of theatre commands. “Then the theatre commander will take full operational responsibility. The model ensures we are ready at all times. The idea is to move forward with minimum disruption,” he said.

Transition management is very important, and it has to be ensured that the armed forces are “present-relevant and future-ready,” given the security challenges India faces, said former director general of military operations Lieutenant General Vinod Bhatia (retd).

“Operational preparedness at all times has to be as effective during the transition. Steps are being taken to ensure that,” Bhatia added.

Pushing through

The current theaterisation model under consideration seeks to set up five new integrated commands for synergy in operations. The first phase involves the rolling out of the Air Defence Command and the Maritime Theatre Command.

Theaterisation has the full backing of the government, and it expects chief of defence staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat to bring about jointness among the three services by January 2023.

The defence ministry and the armed forces are refining the military’s theaterisation plans through internal consultations and detailed discussions with other ministries involved before seeking the approval of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) to implement the military reform.

The government has formed an eight-member panel under Rawat to fine-tune the plans and bring all stakeholders on board, especially the IAF, for speedy roll-out of new joint structures.

The setting up of the committee to iron out details of the theaterisation plan turned the spotlight on the IAF’s traditional resistance to the setting up of integrated theatre commands. The panel was set up last month after some differences on the theaterisation model emerged during a key meeting of top government officials who reviewed a draft cabinet note on the proposed joint structures.

The issues under the panel’s consideration include the executing authority for theatre commands, the geographies they will control, command and control structures, budgeting, appointment of senior three-star officers who will take over as theatre commanders and placing some paramilitary forces under the commands.

The operational control of all the theatre commands will eventually come under CDS, with the service chiefs being responsible for raising, training and sustaining their forces, as previously reported by HT.

Theaterisation is how the forces of most countries, including the US and China, are organised. It has obvious advantages: better command and control, faster decision making and superior cross-service synergy.

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