Moving forward with theatre commands The Excelsior 29 Jun 2023 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar


Moving forward with theatre commands The Excelsior 29 Jun 2023

          In recent days there have been inputs indicating that the armed forces are moving forward in their endeavour to finally create theatre commands. The steps being undertaken convey closing of few differences between the services or possibly bypassing objections from some quarters to push through reforms under political pressure.  

The first is cross posting of officers of Major’s and Lt Col’s rank between the services. The army would post 40 to its sister services while the navy 30 and the air force 32. These would be stationed largely in missile and UAV units. The intent is to create cross-functional teams as also comprehend individual service cultures as a prelude to theaterization. This stage has largely been completed.        

The second is developing a common Annual Confidential Report for senior officers (brigadiers and above) as also their cross postings. The official statement mentioned that the objective is to achieve commonality in ‘procedures and assessments resulting in better outcomes thereby contributing to jointness and integration.’ The numbers to be cross posted have yet to be announced. The process is ongoing.

          The third is acceptance of establishing three theatre commands, one each for the northern and western adversary as also a maritime command. It is possible that these would be implemented by next year. The air defence command which was suggested earlier has been discarded as the air force believes that ‘air defence and offensive air missions would not be carried out in isolation.’  

An added input is that the MOD is considering making theatre commanders into four-star generals, equating them to service chiefs. The intent appears to be to reduce influence of service chiefs in force employment, which will be the domain of theatre commanders. The CDS would remain the overall head. The actions taken thus far indicate a defensive approach to defending India. 

The government is also ensuring that ranks at the apex level are maintained within the services, despite creation of theatre commands, by considering additional joint commands, in addition to those recently created. These would be upgraded such that present holdings at the apex levels remain untouched.

          Current steps indicate a simultaneous push in all three spheres, bottom’s up, middle and top down. Ultimately, it would be essential for an officer to have served in a sister/joint service establishment prior to commanding a theatre.

          Final structures of theatre commands have not been released implying that levels of integration remain unclear. A major drawback is that the air force continues to block acceding air assets to theatre commands, claiming these will finally be allocated depending on the operational scenario.

This is based on the premise that once allocated, theatre commanders may not release them for other tasks, as also that current aircraft are multirole and their capabilities would be underutilized. Added are shortfalls in holding as the air force currently has 32 squadrons against a sanctioned strength of 42.

What the air force appears to be missing is that theatre commanders are select officers of the armed forces, operating in a chain of command, orders of which they cannot ignore. Distances between theatres are not such that movement of air assets would be an impediment. Further, theatre commanders would invariably adhere to suggestions of their air force advisors on employment of air power, exploiting allocated resources to the maximum. Finally, by doing so, is the air force claiming to be the service of last resort? 

The air force reluctance also implies that the emerging northern and western theatre commands would basically be enlarged army commands with air force advisory staff as at present. In reality, they would not be integrated theatre commands, though would be termed as such. The maritime command would have under it, apart from the existing western and eastern naval commands as also possibly the Andaman and Nicobar Command, some army elements, details of which are currently unknown. Air power would be missing.

In summary there would be four theatre commands, two under the army, one with the navy and a separate air power command, directly under the air chief. Whether these genuinely can be termed as theatre commands is a matter of conjecture. Will a theatre commander be able to make operational plans with lack of confirmed air power resources is questionable.

Another aspect which has been a matter of debate has been J and K, currently India’s Northern Command. The region faces two opponents, has limited axis for movement as also common administrative facilities for forces catering to both adversaries. There is no doubt that additional axes to Ladakh are under construction, however, most administrative echelons will continue to exploit the common axis.

When the Galwan crisis emerged, Rashtriya Rifle troops deployed in the hinterland of the Jammu Sector to counter Pak backed terrorism were redeployed in Ladakh to enhance troop strengths to challenge the Chinese. They continue to remain. This was possible because the region was under one commander who was aware of which set of troops were readily available for redeployment. By splitting the region into two different theatres, management of administrative facilities and rapid decision making on movement of troops may be impacted. 

There has been no change in stance between any of the services from the time General Bipin Rawat proposed theatre commands. The air force had always objected to the Air Defence Command and splitting its resources and has stuck to it. It had also criticized the creation of a separate J and K Command, which has been accepted. The army and the navy were willing for the creation of theatre commands as has been announced.   

The sudden momentum in pushing theatre commands despite them not being genuine theatre commands, as air power is missing, appears to be due to political push with 2024 elections drawing close. The government intends to complete its agenda of creating theatre commands prior to elections, drawing mileage for its decision and implementation, even if what has been created is half baked. Military planners are missing out that what is once created cannot be easily changed resulting in India possessing flawed structures. Finally, current theatre commands display a defensive mindset with no organization responsible for force projection to protect national interests.