Indian Army and Navy favour theatre commands, Air Force plays the lone ranger

Published on Jun 21, 2021 09:00 AM IST

While the Indian Army and Navy are in favour of military theatre commands, the Indian Air Force has issues over division of its air assets, nomenclature of commands, leadership of theatre commands and dilution of powers of chiefs.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi talking to Gen Bipin Rawat before he took over as Chief of Defence Staff with the mandate of raising theatre commands.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi talking to Gen Bipin Rawat before he took over as Chief of Defence Staff with the mandate of raising theatre commands.
By, Hindustan Times, New Delhi

Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat has called a meeting on Wednesday of the tri-services and other stake holders to understand their concerns over theatre commands and iron out differences before working towards the raising of maritime and air defence commands this year. The ministry of defence had accorded acceptance in principle to theatre commands in 2017 with Prime Minister Narendra Modi handing over the mandate of reorganization to Gen Rawat.

Earlier this month, after a presentation, defence minister Rajnath Singh had asked Gen Rawat to call a meeting of stake holders and discuss all the issues threadbare before taking the theatre command concept to Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) for final approval. Majority nations, including tiny Maldives to mighty US, function on theatre command concept with the idea of seamless integration among the land, sea and air forces for better coordination and response. While China has reorganized its seven military districts into five theatre commands, Pakistan has sought support of Beijing to help its forces also be reorganized under the same military concept.

Although there have been media reports indicating that the entire process may be delayed, the ministry of defence, Indian Army and the Indian Navy are totally in favour of activation of the theatre commands with the Indian Air Force ploughing a lonely furrow on even issues like naming of the commands. Since the end of 1999 Kargil war, the Indian Air Force has its own version of jointmanship and integration with the sole purpose of keeping its air assets undivided and protecting its own turf. The fact is that even today, official files pertaining to army are labelled as Integrated Headquarters, Army (Ministry of Defence). The Navy filed are labelled Integrated Headquarters, Navy, but the Air Force files are still labelled as air headquarters only. This speaks volumes about Air Force vision of integration of the three services.

A senior military commander explained the context and said: "Those in doubt are confused and outdated. Has corporatisation of ordnance factory boards come with 100 per cent consensus or is it based on efficient and better management of resources. Leadership in military is meant to take decisions in best interests of security ensuring optimum and efficient management of resources. Whatever is the best way for us to achieve the objective is the way forward.”

Under the present theatre command concept, there will be three land-based commands - North comprising only of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh, East comprising land area from Himachal to Arunachal Pradesh and West comprising of land area from Punjab to down south. Apart from this there will be an air defence command and a maritime theatre command with the Andamans and Nicobar Command under its jurisdiction. The maritime and air defence command will be raised by serving commander in chiefs after announcement this year and start functioning next year under the newly appointed theatre commanders. The theatre commanders will be selected from the serving commander in chiefs of the three services with air defence command going under an air marshal and maritime theatre command under a vice admiral without creation of any new posts.

With Pakistan on its west and China on its eastern flank, the northern command will remain a single unit under an army general as the theatre is expected to remain active on the Line of Control and the Line of Actual Control for time to come.

Apart from getting its air assets divided and issues like rotation among services for theatre commanders, the IAF’s concern is the perceived dilution of powers of the air chief as the theatre commanders will be in-charge of operations and directly report to the Chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee with three chiefs as members. This concept is similar to the US concept where the chief of staff is responsible only for procurement and training while the theatre commanders report to the defence secretary.

The present command structure in the Indian military is lop-sided with Indian Army having seven commands, a much smaller Indian Air Force having similar number and Indian Navy having three commands. This structure will be rationalized under the theatre command concept with the Indian Navy expected to get one more commander in chief position.

With the Chinese PLA already functioning as one integrated unit under the Western Theatre Command along the 3488 km Line of Actual Control (LAC), the Indian military needs to get its act together and move fast on theatre commands for a cogent and strong response to the adversary in future. India has no other options.

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    Author of Indian Mujahideen: The Enemy Within (2011, Hachette) and Himalayan Face-off: Chinese Assertion and Indian Riposte (2014, Hachette). Awarded K Subrahmanyam Prize for Strategic Studies in 2015 by Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) and the 2011 Ben Gurion Prize by Israel.

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