Integrated Theatre commands in India – Explained, pointwise

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The creation of Theatre Commands (Theaterization) is being called the biggest military reform that India has seen till now. The plan is to have five unified or theatre commands, which will help in better planning and military response, and aim to have a unified approach to fighting any future war.

But, the entire process has been riddled with a visible lack of consensus amongst the three arms of the military forces. In light of the internal differences over the structure and scope of the theatre commands, a committee has been set up to resolve all issues.

The panel includes the Vice Chiefs of the three services, the Chief of Integrated Defence Staff to the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, and representatives Ministries such as Home Affairs, Finance, and Law.

What is a Theatre Command (TC)?

A theatre command is a military structure wherein all the assets of the army, air force and navy in a particular theatre of war are under the operational control of a three-star general. 

  • In a TC, the logistic resources required to support his operations will also be placed at the disposal of the theatre commander.
    • As of now, the Services have to speak to each other in times of need and urgency to request their assets to conduct a particular operation.
  • These ‘unified combat commands’ are organized either on a geographical basis (with a defined mission in a specific ‘area of responsibility’ somewhere on the globe) or on a functional basis.
  • Existing commands in India: 19 commands exist as of now [14 geographic commands, 3 functional and 2 joint commands: the Strategic Forces Command (SFC) and Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC)]
  • Global examples: More than 32 countries in the world, including the US, Russia, and China, already have some form of theatre or joint command in place. China’s Western Theatre Command covers India.
    • The US was the first country to come up with the theaterization concept. The US military’s joint command is the outcome of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Defence Reorganisation Act. It created the unified combatant commands which are headed by four-star generals or admirals. None of the US service chiefs exercise authority over the unified commands.

Note: ANC is the first and only tri-service theater command of the Indian Armed Forces, based at Port Blair, to cover India’s strategic interests in Southeast Asia and the Strait of Malacca. While SFC is responsible for India’s nuclear assets

Rationale behind theaterization
  • To have a unified approach to fighting future wars in a coordinated manner.
  • Another major factor, pushing for the need for Theatre Commands, has been the broad military reforms within the Chinese military. For e.g.: China’s Western Theater Command looks after the entire borders with India, unlike India where it has multiple Commands and structures to respond with different officers at the top.
Must Read: Origins of Theatre warfare
Planned Theatre Commands 

According to the current proposal, there will be five theatre commands, namely

  • Northern Land Theatre (Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh and Central sector)
  • Western Land Theatre (Pakistan-centric)
  • Eastern Land Theatre
  • Maritime Theatre Command (merging of the eastern and western naval commands, besides getting elements from the Army and the Air Force)
  • Air Defence Command
Related committees & reforms

The need for a unified approach to war fighting was brought out in the deliberations after the 1999 Kargil battle.

  • The Kargil Review Committee and the then Group of Ministers besides the Naresh Chandra Committee had called for structural changes in higher defense management.
  • It was the Shekatkar committee, headed by Lt Gen. (retd) D.B. Shekatkar, which had recommended the creation of the post of CDS and theatre commands. Until this committee, every other panel had only spoken about the need for unified planning.
  • The CDS appointment and the decision to create the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) within the Ministry of Defence can all be seen as steps in the direction of achieving jointness between the three branches of the armed forces.
Benefits of theaterization
  • Increased efficiency: It will lead to rationalization of war fighting resources, and efficiency of executions resulting in an integrated action to counter threats. 
  • Cost-effective in the long run: Theaterization will help in better planning and military response and also bring down costs. While the cost may go up in the immediate future since all theaters would have to be armed with sufficient systems, it will prove to be cost-effective in the long term as all acquisitions will be a unified one.
  • Rationalization of the command structure: The present command structure in the Indian military is pretty uneven. The Indian Army has seven commands, while a much smaller Indian Air Force has a similar number and the Indian Navy has three commands. This structure will be rationalized under the theatre command concept.
  • IAF’s concerns: While the Army and the Navy are on board on the issue of theaterization, the IAF while supporting the move says there can’t be multiple theatres. They argue that a single theatre is what is needed. IAF fears that it will lose control over its assets and operations.  
  • No need for theaterization: Experts have said that there has been no occasion during actual warfare when the three services have not operated with commendable cooperation. Hence, there is no need for an integrated theatre command.
    • Also, in recent times, no progressive country has created Theatre Commands to defend its home territory. The Western militaries call themselves expeditionary forces (our military is termed as defence forces). Hence, they created joint commands to project their power overseas, not for home-defence.
  • Different service cultures: The service culture and way of functioning of the three services is very different. The Indian Army has regimental affiliations and is bound by its legacy. The legacy issues may not be that much in the Indian Air Force or the Indian Navy. Finding the right mix will remain a challenge.
  • Massive funding: Creating infrastructure for the Theatre commands will also require huge amounts of funding.
  1. A supportive ecosystem: In order for Theatre Commands to be effective, there needs to be a supporting ecosystem. India still remains the 2nd largest arms importer in the world. Hence, indigenous technology and hardware by self-reliance should be a priority.
  2. Managing internal & external security: There needs to be an assessment of how the internal and external security will be managed under the theatre commands. It is because there are lakhs of paramilitary personnel and the Indian Coast Guard.
  3. Parliament’s role: The legislature needs to play a far more pro-active role. A Dedicated Standing Committee of Parliament should be created. It needs to be staffed with military advisers and other professionals to independently monitor the transition very minutely.
  4. Geography-based theatres: Keeping in mind the changing nature of threats, India can also aim for four geography-based theatres—Northern, Southern, Eastern, and Western—each equipped to use land, sea, air, space, and cyber power to handle all threats in their areas.
  5. No theatre should ‘belong’ to any service, and command appointments should be decided based on talent and experience in joint operations.
  6. Budgetary allocations and the distribution of funds need to be clearly worked out to enable the setting up of a seamless theatre command system
  7. Modular structure: In the theaterization debate, India must not forget to modularize its armed forces. The present big hierarchical formations need to be divided into many small networked brigades. Multiple studies have shown that these are superior to the division-based structure in terms of deployability, employability, and sustainability.
Way forward

India operates the 4th largest military in the World, and with each service acting independent of each other, the formation of theatre commands is indeed a need of the hour. But, the successful launch of the Theatre Commands should not be rushed. Issues and concerns of all the stakeholders must be resolved first.

Sources: Financial Express, Indian Express, The Print, Economic Times, Hindustan Times, Firstpost, Deccan Chronicle, The Hindu, Livemint


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