Theatre commands must have an Indian flavour The Statesman 03 Aug 2021
A report last week stated that the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has been chairing meetings comprising of representatives of service HQs and other ministries to iron out differences in the creation of theatre commands. As per the report these differences have yet to be ironed out. Simultaneously, there are rumours that raising of theatre commands would be announced by the PM from the ramparts of the Red Fort on independence day. This implies that differences have to be resolved by then. It also confirms that the government is determined to establish theatre commands.
There is no doubt that creation of theatre commands must not be rushed as decisions taken today will have ramifications for the future. Simultaneously, they must not be inordinately delayed. Within the forces, major reservations stem from the air force, which has limited multi-role assets which it is unwilling to fritter to theatres based on the variety of tasks it is expected to fulfil. In addition is the fact that a smaller air force could be overshadowed by a larger army. Maritime will remain a naval domain Other ministries have their reservations on shedding of resources to theatres.
Globally, Indian armed forces are considered amongst the most formidable and experienced, however function in independent silos as they have resisted integration. This has limited their ability to project unified power across the region, despite being considered as net security providers in Asia and an invaluable member of any global coalition in the Indo-Pacific. Even in established joint commands such as the Andaman and Nicobar Command, individual services are reluctant to share their service assets.
The Indian armed forces have, when essential, displayed the ability to operate jointly. Kargil, post air force getting its act together, was a classic case of army-air force collaboration, which resulted in victory. The rapid build-up of forces to counter the Chinese aggression in Ladakh was due to army-air force cooperation. Exploitation of strategic airlift ensured weapons, equipment and manpower moved from all parts of India into Ladakh at a pace unprecedented in recent times. It was air force assets which ensured that forces remained combat ready throughout harsh winters when most surface means of communication were closed. The deployment of frontline fighters and recent acquisitions, including heavy lift and attack helicopters, in high altitude added to Chinese concerns and were a major deterrence.
There is no doubt that India needs theatre commands, not copying any global model, but flavoured to Indian conditions. The Indian scenario is vastly different. Indian armed forces would rarely operate beyond Indian shores unless requested for by the home nation. In such cases, the involvement would be for short durations, mainly to restore an adverse scenario. One of the theatre commands could possibly be assigned this role and be equipped accordingly. India never intends to occupy land belonging to other nations. The only other scenario where India may move forces overseas would be under the UN flag.
For India, security threats are mainly land based and hence emphasis would remain on theatre commands aimed at securing India’s land frontiers. China claims large parts of Ladakh, limited regions in Uttarakhand, Sikkim and complete Arunachal, while Pakistan claims J and K. The borders with both countries, in disputed areas, remains un-demarcated. It is to ensure security of these regions that emphasis has remained on large scale army deployment along the LoC and LAC. Hence, even currently suggested commands are based on this premise. Indian theatre commands are being designed for securing the homeland and not for global operations. This has been interpreted in some quarters as them being army dominated commands.
Another specific Indian flavour is J and K. It is unique and hence has been considered as an independent theatre. The region has adversaries seeking to grab Indian territory on either side and there is always a possibility that they could operate jointly, or Pak could attempt to add to internal security concerns to support Chinese offensive actions on the northern front. The region has limited arteries for induction of forces and stores as also common logistic and medical facilities to sustain forces operating in the region. Reserves within the theatre could be utilized on either front, while counter insurgency operations in Kashmir impact movement of forces and stores on both fronts. Airfields are common to both theatres as also are air assets. The northern theatre therefore cannot be split and hence is being considered as a single entity.
For the past two decades the forces have avoided discussing creation of theatre commands, while suggesting enhancing jointness employing the bottom’s up approach. The bottom’s up approach has been a farce and an eyewash. There has been no attempt to enhance joint operational cooperation and services have functioned in independent silos. With theatre commands established, the forces would be compelled to adopt joint training concepts under an integrated training command, creating an environment where joint operations can be effectively planned. Till this stage is reached, the dominating service would command respective theatres.
The other aspect which the CDS led committee is attempting to push through is amalgamating forces deployed along disputed borders under one commander. There are CAPFs of the Ministry of Home Affairs, mainly the BSF and ITBP, deployed alongside the army on both disputed borders. In addition, are multiple intelligence agencies operating under the NSA, responsible for garnering strategic and tactical intelligence. None of them function under control of the commander responsible for the border. With growing security challenges, it is essential that India must adopt a policy of one border, one force, one ministry. Intelligence cannot flow from border regions to Delhi and then trickle down. It has to be real time.
The number of theatre commands, control and future role of service chiefs are currently being debated. There is no doubt that India will remain one theatre of operations, with responsibility and resources distributed to ensure employment of maximum effective combat power. Securing land borders will be a prerequisite and this must be accepted as the basic tenant for theatre commands.