Getting India's theatre commands ‘right’ - Hindustan Times
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Getting India's theatre commands ‘right’

Sep 01, 2023 06:43 PM IST

Discussing the potential structure and implications of theatre commands for the Indian armed forces

Quite a buildup preceded the likely announcement of the first theatre command on 15 August 2023, exactly four years after the announcement of the appointment of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) was made by the Prime Minister on 15 August 2019. However, the much-awaited announcement did not materialise on the expected date. Some news outlets have mentioned that a draft plan was to be submitted to the defence minister on 31 August 2023. Based on information in the open domain, this article attempts to visualise a theatre-command structure for the Indian armed forces, in an attempt to clarify certain issues relating to basing and hierarchy.

The concept of a theatre command is based on combining the strengths of the three services, i.e., the Army, Navy and Air Force in a particular manner (Photo @DefenceMinIndia)
The concept of a theatre command is based on combining the strengths of the three services, i.e., the Army, Navy and Air Force in a particular manner (Photo @DefenceMinIndia)

With regard to the naming of theatre commands, against naming the theatre commands as Western, Northern and Maritime theatre commands, these may be numbered 1, 2 and 3 respectively. Once numbering in this fashion is done, there will be several implied changes.

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Firstly, the concept of a theatre command is based on combining the strengths of the three services, i.e., the Army, Navy and Air Force (IAF) in a particular manner that may make it amenable to either fighting a specific adversary or in a certain terrain or both. Multiple reasons may dictate the size and composition of a theatre command, however, in our case, the key consideration is that China, our primary adversary, has already adopted this concept. This concept is likely to result in better warfighting capability due to better synergy amongst the forces.

It is due to the above consideration that the Western theatre command is being conceived for Pakistan, the Northern theatre command for China and the Maritime theatre command is envisaged to look at the strategic interests of the country in the wider Indo-Pacific region.

Secondly, as against a directional prefix, the numerical prefix is a better option as it will provide flexibility for the manoeuvring of resources and forces based on geopolitical situations as against being seen to be against Pakistan and China ab initio. Force restructuring may remain as required for Western and the Northern Front threats.

Location of theatre commands:

The number one theatre command is likely to come up at Jaipur in place of South Western Command, the number two theatre command is set to be at Lucknow in place of Central command and the number three theatre command at Karwar. If this is the case, the implications are many.

Regarding the number one theatre command at Jaipur, leaving aside some part of Jammu and Kashmir which was under northern command, the rest of the Western Front was being looked after by Western Command and Southern Command of the Indian Army before South Western Command was raised in Jaipur. Its area of responsibility (AOR) was carved out from the AOR of Western and Southern Commands.

With the number one theatre command coming up at Jaipur, AOR of the Western Front can be redistributed between Western and Southern commands as existed prior to the raising of the South Western Command. This will release the infrastructure and manpower of headquarters (HQ) of the South Western command for raising the number one theatre command.

The thought process regarding the number two theatre command at Lucknow needs a review as during the warfront of the 1962 war era, most battles were fought either in eastern Ladakh or in Arunachal Pradesh. The threat today from China, on the other hand, is omnipresent. In any case, threats from China at the time were synonymous with the physical boundaries between India and China.

Today, the situation has changed drastically, and major threats have manifested against India including the increasing proximity of Nepal with China (both countries have decided to start military exercises with each other; the Agniveer model of recruitment from Nepal has still not been resolved so far), significant progress in border issue resolution between China and Bhutan and finally, growing inroads of China into Myanmar.

In this manner, the Chinese threat has presented itself through these countries. The Chinese border, therefore, should be considered to include these countries as well, since these could be used by China either to launch main or supplementary operations. China could also utilise certain locations within these countries for its military supply chains in case possession of territories is in question.

In view of the new profile of these countries and the sustained belligerence of China, the location of the number two theatre command needs a fresh look. It is to be noted that the HQ of the Eastern Command was located at Lucknow during the 1962 war and the outcome is well known. The current day means of communications have undergone major changes but there are certain inherent characteristics which can be leveraged better if controlling headquarters are suitably located for the prosecution of the war.

There is no need to ape China on the structure of theatre command mathematically as China and India have different considerations for warfighting. If China maintains the sanctity of LAC as existing prior to April 2020, it can be sure of no offensive action from the Indian side for times to come. But the same cannot be said about China and it will always maintain this ‘calculated ambiguity’ regarding conflict initiation for times to come.

It will be better if two theatre commands are created on the Northern border - one which deals with India’s neighbours and the other which deals with the direct borders between the two countries. One could be at Lucknow while the second could be at Guwahati or any other suitable location as Arunachal Pradesh remains most sensitive after Eastern Ladakh.

Irrespective of the fact whether one or two theatre commands are created opposite the Northern Front, the one at Lucknow must subsume the entire HQ of Central Command in terms of infrastructure and manpower. The AOR of the current Central Command could be placed directly under this theatre command, the precedence of which already exists in the country.

As for the number three theatre command at Karwar, this location is the most suitable for a maritime theatre command since it is based at one of the biggest naval bases in India. Given the nature of operations visualised in the Indian Ocean region (IOR), this location in conjunction with our island territories is a suitable location for the maritime command.

It is expected that the number one theatre command as the first command and ‘Proof of Concept’ will be raised first. Based on the lessons learnt, the other theatre commands will subsequently be rolled out. Given the asymmetry between India and Pakistan favouring India, the number one theatre command coming first is ‘in order’ and has far more advantages as Pakistan today does not pose any credible threat to India.

Command and control of theatre commands:

Open source inputs suggest that the number one theatre command will be headed by an IAF officer, number two by an Army officer and number three by a Naval officer. It is also being indicated that command of number one and number two theatre commands may rotate between the IAF and Army. Implications are as under;

The command and control of theatre commands should be based on the nature of the operations envisaged. The current arrangement appears to be a compromise formula wherein each service is being given the command of one theatre command.

Even if this compromised formula is implemented, the number one theatre command could remain with IAF as operations are more suitable towards air-predominant operations. As against this, the geographic terrain on Northern borders is more suited for land-predominant operations. The number two theatre command should therefore always be headed by the Army. Number three theatre command is aptly marked for a naval officer.

As we go ahead in time when substantial interservice integration has taken place, all these commands could be headed by any service purely based on professional merit as against a confessional system.

The concept of theatre commands presupposes that there will be no Army, Navy and IAF commands as existing now. The current arrangement indicates a continuation of the current command HQ as well. The continuance of current command HQs for the next two to three years is relevant, given the Chinese encroachment of the LAC in eastern Ladakh. Some of the command HQs of Army, Navy and IAF which are not operationally critical should be done away with at the initial stage itself. A timeline of raising the theatre commands should be clearly laid down along with doing away with all other command HQs of all three services.

Advance planning should be made to utilise the infrastructure and human resources of these HQs as it can save huge expenditures. Units and subordinate HQs planned to be located in such vacated places should not be funded for infrastructure development at their current place, though maintenance support should continue.

Regarding the rank of the theatre commands, they should come directly under CDS for the successful conduct of operations. It will be more appropriate if theatre commanders are made ‘four-star' officers while CDS are upgraded to ‘five-star' officers.

It will be more appropriate to analyse various aspects once formal details of theatre commands are available. The creation of these theatre commands is a great capability booster but a liability if we don't get it ‘right’. As against getting these early, getting 'right' is more important.

Major General Ashok Kumar, VSM (Retd) is a Kargil war veteran and defence analyst. He is visiting fellow of CLAWS and specialises in neighbouring countries with a special focus on China

The views expressed are personal

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