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Creating Theatre Commands is Easier Said Than Done

Image Credit: Asia Times
Creating Theatre Commands is Easier Said Than Done

India is preparing to bring military reforms with the main focus on creating four unified military theatre commands. A few days ago, a top military general was assigned to organise logistics for a military theatre command on the Western front. The Indian Air Force and Navy were also asked to initiate work on the structure and organisation of the Air Defence Command and the Maritime Theatre Command, respectively.

In 2020, the appointment of General Bipin Rawat as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) was the first practical step towards initiating such commands. The CDS was given the task to restructure the military within three years, but the Indian armed forces dithered from creating unified commands. A few weeks ago, General Rawat held a meeting with the Indian armed forces chiefs and vice-chiefs to address their concerns about the creation of the military theatre commands. The Indian Navy and Army have been on board all along, while the Indian Air Force has some reservations.

Establishing theatre commands means unifying the resources of all three services under a single command, whereby a single commander will give the orders in case of war. Each theatre command will be headed by a three-star officer who will directly report to the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) chairman. The COSC will be led by the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and will include the three service chiefs.

The military resources will be divided between each theatre command. For instance, in the case of air defence, the air assets of the army and the navy will also come under this command. Currently, the operational control is in the hands of the service chiefs. After the establishment of the theatre commands, operational control will eventually fall under the CDS. Moreover, the core responsibility of the service chiefs will be to train, sustain and raise their forces. India presently has only one unified command, i.e., the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC). It has resources and men from the army, air force, navy, and coast guards under a single command.

It is crucial for the creation of theatre commands that the three services are on the same page. But in India’s case, the air force and some cliques in the army are sceptical of this idea which is likely to become a challenge for unifying the armed forces.

Currently, there are 17 different commands, which include seven commands of the army, seven of the air force and three of the navy. However, India is now trying to create four theatre commands. The announced commands include one for the Eastern border with China, one for the Western border with Pakistan, Maritime Theatre Command, and Air Defence Command that will cover the entire country. The fifth is a Peninsular Command, which is already functional. However, the Northern Command of the Indian Army operates in the restive areas of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh and Central Sectors which will be kept out of the new theatre command ambit.

Besides, India is not the first country to create theatre commands. The United States (US) and China also have unified commands. Over 32 countries in the world have such commands. In China, military reforms started in 2015. Consequently, five theatre commands have been set up in China, i.e., Northern, Southern, Eastern, Western and Central that directly report to Central Military Commission (CMC). As for the US, it was the first country to materialise theatre commands. It has eleven unified commands.

According to CDS General Bipin Rawat, the structure of the commands will be in place by the end of 2022. After that, the rollout will start. While the current Chief of Army Staff (COAS) has insisted on the “broader timeline” for these reforms, it will take two to three years for theatre commands to become fully operational.

The main benefit of these commands is that the theatre command leader can control a diversified set of resources. For instance, air assets of the navy will be used even in deserts, while air force assets can be diverted to other borders. Similarly, the army and air force assets can be used anywhere and anytime, whenever needed.

It is crucial for the creation of theatre commands that the three services are on the same page. But in India’s case, the air force and some cliques in the army are sceptical of this idea which is likely to become a challenge for unifying the armed forces. The Indian Air Force is of the view that this unification of all forces will strain its resources. The Indian Army is divided into two groups on the issue of jointness. One camp is of the view that unified commands are the need of the time, while the other believes that keeping in view the border issues and internal insurgencies, this concept is not suitable for the country.

Furthermore, there is an imbalance between assets owned by the Indian tri-services. For operationalising such commands, India will need more equipment, requiring a greater budget as New Delhi primarily relies on importing defence equipment. Besides, as the Indian economy is recovering from the devastating effects of COVID-19, it is not an ideal time to spend additional resources in operationalising unified commands. India has a smaller geographical size and lines of communications than China and the US. Still, New Delhi is creating four, or as per some sources, five unified commands and managing them can be an uphill task. The concept of theatre commands is not new, but there will be challenges for India to fully operationalise these unified commands.

Ahmad Ali

Ahmad Ali is currently studying BS Strategic Studies at National Defense University, Islamabad. He tweets @AhmadAliHaral

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