The Theaterisation of Command: Discussing the History, Rationale & Feasibility of Proposed Policy

The ongoing standoff with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has once again brought the focus on the need for ‘Theatre Commands’ in order to ensure seamless ‘Tri-service cohesion’ and ‘coordination’ in the event of hostilities. Experts weigh in the 'pros' and 'cons' of said proposal.

The Theaterisation of Command: Discussing the History, Rationale & Feasibility of Proposed Policy

Theatre Commands: A Quick Background

Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat had spelt out the roadmap for the restructuring of the Indian Armed Forces into five distinct ‘Theatre commands’ earlier this year. The ongoing standoff with China along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) has once again brought the focus on the need for ‘Theatre Commands’ in order to ensure seamless ‘Tri-service cohesion’ and ‘coordination’ in the event of hostilities.

The need for interoperability and jointmanship among the three services has long been recommended by the armed forces, and had been brought up by the Prime Minister at the Combined Commanders Conference in 2015. Subsequently in 2017, Admiral Sunil Lamba, (Then Chairman Chief of Staff Committee) gave a presentation on ‘Theatre Commands’ at another Combined Commanders Conference at the Indian Military Academy (IMA), Dehradun.

According to Gen. Rawat, the ‘Air Defence Command’ led by the Indian Air Force (IAF) is said to be operational by March 2021, while the proposed ‘Peninsular Command’ focusing on the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), by merging the existing Eastern and Western Naval Commands will likely be operational by 2022.

As aforementioned India is looking at the creation of five ‘Theatre Commands’ to replace the 19 Commands which are currently operational by the Tri-Services. (17 Commands are a culmination of all the structures of the Indian Army, Navy and IAF; Two commands are the integrated Tri-Service Commands, namely the Andaman & Nicobar Command and the Strategic Forces Command) The restructuring is aimed at optimal use of resources, and effective cohesion for the nation’s future warfighting requirements.

What Defence Experts in Favour of Theaterisation Have to Say...

Personnel from the Indian Army, Navy & Air Force form a human Tri-services crest at the Andaman & Nicobar Command; File Photo

Brig (Dr) Rajeev Bhutani (Retd), Author & Analyst

In military parlance, a ‘Theatre’ is a contiguous geographical area on which military operations are carried out. ‘Theatre’ is not a new term, it has long existed and had become dominant during the Second World War when Field Marshal Montgomery, in North Africa, had moved his supporting Air Force Headquarter from Alexandria to El Amin where his Eighth Army HQ was located.

Thereafter, as history remembers it...the iconic Normandy landings! That is a classic example where the integration between the various services of different countries were achieved. The same concept (Theatre) was followed in the Korean War, but thereafter the lesson was forgotten and the United States came up with the Goldwater Nikolas Act of 1986, and from 1986 onwards they constituted what we call ‘Theatre Command’, which they (Americans) called ‘Combatant Commands’.

They (USA) got nine such commands and these combatant commands are aligned according to their geographical areas or even globally as per their function. Various branches of their Armed Forces; US Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps report to a single combatant commander, who in turn gets the orders directly from the US President.

Theaterisation In the Indian Context

We (Indians) are not lacking in our thinking. In the late 1980’s our illustrious strategic thinkers like K Subramaniam and Lieutenant General SK Sinha, a soldier and statesman, had been talking about the need for Theatre Commands and the appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff position. What had happened was that there was no political will, and there was bureaucratic interference, resulting in a number of committees.

What we have now  gotten is because of our PM Narendra Modi, once he took over in 2014. You can say that in the 2015 Combined Commanders Conference, he displayed his concern for the lack of jointness amongst the Tri-Services. Thereafter on 24 January 2017, in the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, there was another Combined Commanders Conference where Admiral Sunil Lamba, who was the Chairman Chief of Staff Committee at the time, gave a presentation on ‘Theatre Commands’.

Beginning with the Lowest Common Denominator

The best course of action is to start with the lowest common denominator, that’s what our CDS Gen. Rawat has done. They (Armed Forces) are starting with the ‘Air Defence Command’ first. There is (already) semblance of joint working existing between the IAF and Army Air Defence (AAD). They work together in the field at various places. The IAF is primarily responsible for the entire air defence of the country, the AAD further contributes to it.

The IAF has got both offensive and defensive assets, whereas the AAD has got their own guns, missiles, and radars. They can easily be integrated with each other. It is now a question of establishing a commander over them, having good communications and carrying out the task.

In fact, I feel that we should have a command which has Indian characteristics. The US and China have each  got tremendous resources, they can allocate them (accordingly), but in our case the hall mark is not allocation but rather the utilisation of resources in a very flexible manner.

I will give an example of Artillery, it has got long range weapons, so how do they achieve allocation? The long range is given in support to some however at the same time the artillery can be deployed with a different unit in support by allocating them at priority…in that manner.

The Way Forward

There should not be any problem in getting an ‘Air Defence Command’, following which there should be a ‘Logistics Command’. If one goes by the literal definition, then ‘logistics is the science of movement.’

However here ‘logistics’ not only means the movement but it is also the maintenance and procurement of common equipment which will be used in all the three services. So, if that is achieved, then there will be a good integration among the Tri-services.

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VAdm Shekhar Sinha (Retd), ex Chairman IDS, ex DAC

A positive development has been that the CDS has the power to take these decisions and carry them forward, unlike the older times (before the appointment of CDS), when the decisions were often very late to come and used to take a while to implement. But here it is a forgone conclusion, it is a decision that there will be ‘Theatre Commands.’ There will be jointness, so one big hurdle has been crossed!

What the committees are going to do now is not find out whether we should do it or not, but rather how to do it. So, the decision on whether we shall implement ‘Theater Commands’ is way behind.

The theaterisation of command is necessary. Before the historic appointment of a CDS I was heading the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) Headquarters for quite some time, and the proposal had been submitted to the government.

Peninsular Command & Prospect of a J&K Command:

Now coming to the Peninsular Command, how to affect (read implement) it is (the basis on which) the study has been initiated. I am sure that the Naval HQ will come out with...not so say that it cannot be done but rather, how it is to be done!

Similarly there is talk about a Western and Eastern Command, there is a talk about an Air Defence Command. As far as Jammu & Kashmir is concerned, some part of it is being looked after by Northern Command while some part of it is being looked after Western Command, so there is a bit of duality which makes the process of decision making implementation a little bit time consuming, despite being in the era of Information Technology.

As far as the Peninsular Command is concerned, my sense is that it will probably be called an ‘Indian Ocean Command.’ Because when one says ‘Peninsula’ it sounds like a land construct, whereas when one calls it an ‘Indian Ocean Command’ then it (highlights) the maritime primacy.

It is a good development. However the assets...possibly some more assets will be required in all three cases, because if you have the Eastern and Western Commands of the Indian Army, the assets of the IAF may not be adequate to allocate permanent forces with each of the commanders. Therefore, there will have to be some double backing, there has to be some redeployment etc but I am certain that they (IAF) will work it out.

It (Peninsular Command) is a good development; unity of command is always better. The areas are going to be vast as far as the Navy is concerned and he (Gen Rawat) has also said that it will be headed by a naval officer and rightly so. However, it will also have a little bit of an IAF component as they now have a strike element etc...etc...etc. But the strike element still requires input from a maritime patrol aircraft.

So, all in all I think it is a positive development. I guess that asset buildup will take some time and therefore the implementation of these, my sense is that they will have to go a little bit slower than what we think now.

...More on the Possibility of a J&K Command

The issue of J&K as I had mentioned (is complex). Some parts of it is in Ladakh while another part is in the J&K area. In Ladakh we are facing the Chinese, from there we start, and it goes right up to Arunachal Pradesh and further down. So, that is a noticeably big command! Right now, the responsibility is between the Northern and Eastern Command, so that needs to have a ‘unity of command’.

If you see the ‘Western Theatre’ now, you know that the desert area is looked after the (Indian Army’s) ‘Southern Command’ and some parts of the hill and mountainous areas are looked after by the ‘Western Command’, so there is a duality. In all probability these two will become one, so that you have the decision making that much easier and if they are fighting with each other in support, in that case probably the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) or the CDS will take a call.

Tri-Service Cohesion: The New Art of War

Future wars will be short and intense, so what we must do is…all assets of the three services must be utilised to achieve one common objective and that objective is to get the better of the adversary!

From that point of view, even if these are land based commands, they will also have the naval component attached to it in the operations wing, so that we know we can bring unseen pressures on the adversary by various naval assets…because you know they have a much longer range and reach. Obviously, they cannot fight over land, but they can affect, they can support the land war in a remarkably effective manner.

I will take you back to the Kargil conflict, one of the reasons why President Gen. Musharraf had to back out (of the conflict). One of the reasons was because the Karachi post was absolutely isolated, a lot of their equipment and munitions were not allowed and therefore the pressure.

He was told by the Americans that “look I can only share that it will be devastating if you continue (the war) because the entire (Indian) Navy is deployed in the Arabian Sea, South of Makran Coast.” So, the pressure in the psychological sense is important apart from fighting a battle over the sea.

Impacting the land war is one of the most important duties of the other two services, as finally it is the Infantry who has to hold ground, we have to protect them (the Infantrymen) and  their lives which are in danger.

All three forces have to work as a cohesive fighting unit. The entire force has to be applied including ‘Hybrid Warfare’ and other new methods of warfighting, Cyberwarfare, Special Forces, Space Command. All these are presently in the making, but what will happen 5-10 years later? I am sure that this development will be immensely fruitful.

The Way Forward

I have two pointers, firstly for the ‘Joint Command’ or the concept of CDS to succeed, the three service chiefs will have to give up some of their turf and they must do it because it was our requirement, it was our suggestion to the government (to appoint a CDS for ease of decision making).

Secondly, when assets are less, then it is quite possible that in peacetime the allocation (of resources) may not be the same as it would be in wartime.

Therefore, the service chiefs will have to give up some turf as far as assets are concerned. It cannot be that the Western Theatre commander says that he requires a certain amount of air assets all the time under his thumb, it may not happen as he is not in a wartime scenario.

If a war breaks out, if it is a one front war, then in that case it is obvious that the IAF will be in a position where it can cover the entire theatre or move certain squadrons to that area very quickly. To surmise, the peacetime and wartime allocation will have to be different.

Another point on the ‘Peninsular Command’, we tend to forget that we have ‘chokepoints’ under surveillance at all times and we need to sustain that because maritime wars take time to build up before it impacts the land war, it takes quite some time. It is not something that crops up suddenly as compared to the Army and IAF.

In the navy it takes time, and our adversaries must come from somewhere and during that period they can be tracked. Therefore, the navy’s role will not only be limited to the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) but to all the ‘choke points’ to ensure that sea lanes of communication  are available for the usage of the entire world, that is the intention of most of the navy.

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Mayank Singh, Senior Journalist

The proposal was initiated after the 1999 Kargil war, when the Kargil Committee report was brought out, the group of minister’s reports was brought out. The (formulation) of the CDS was the one which was specifically spoken about, and there was a  purpose, let us understand the purpose.

Today even if we are going for a ‘Theatre Command’, there is a reason, and what is the reason? The policymakers, the strategic thinkers assessed that ‘future wars’ are going to be small, of only a few days, quick but very explosive, having a lot of assets being used in that short duration. So, in that case decision making will be the one aspect that will be immensely crucial. The army cannot be asking the IAF to provide support when the person sitting can take the decision.

Here (in this model) comes an entire region, which is under one officer who is entitled, empowered to marshal any asset, be it naval, air or land as per the requirement of the operation for a quick reaction.

The aim is to decide what is happening today and how it is being done (implemented)? The CDS Gen Bipin Rawat himself says that he has already initiated a study for the ‘Air Defence Command’ under the Vice Chief of Air Staff (VCAS). He says that the GSL letter will be issued by December and that he will be giving around three months for the study group to study that.

The point to be understood is that all these are to pick up the options so that we find a structure which is indigenous. Which might have a reference from a Chinese style of ‘Theatre Command’, a US style of ‘Theatre Command’ but it will be an indigenous kind of ‘Theatre Command’ which fits the requirement which fits the needs and requirements of the Indian Defence Services.

India is a very unique geographical feature, we have got around 7,600 km long maritime borders, huge mountainous borders (in Northern Command), here is a Western Theatre which will have marshes, deserts, mountains, requiring a unique format of our own ‘Theatre Command’.

The ball has been rolled, the studies will bring out the options and then from all the feedback we (policymakers) will choose a style of ‘Theatre Command’, a structure which will meet the future requirements based on the nation’s security requirements.

Marshaling All Assets…

To simplify it, let us say that there is a single man (Theatre Commander) who is competent enough to take a decision, so in the event of a war or threat to the nation he has all the assets laid in front of him which he can utilise to achieve a particular goal.

Wars are fought only when the political decision to fight it has been taken, the Defence Forces simply implement the decision. So, here you (the theatre commander) will have all the assets under you (him), how will you (he) implement them?

The Theatre Commander has a geography, an area of interest, accordingly the commander can marshal his assets and then divide them in such a way that the political objectives will be achieved.

Let’s say that there will be a ‘Logistics Command’ and it is located at the centre of the country, whatever the map is, if a centrally located ‘Logistics Command’ is there, then it is supplying to all the formations and for example there are five ‘Theatre Commands’; The Northern Theater Command, the Western Theatre Command, the Peninsular Command, the Air Defence Command, and then elements of Cyber, Space etc.…all will be coming…that will also be distributed.

The most important aspect is logistics…to bring it at the centre, so that it is supplying to everyone…you are fighting wars and then accordingly the regions as per your specific targets and goals or threat perceptions; according to which regions are divided going by the example of five ‘Theatre Commands’

Another option which was given, let’s say…the northern border contiguous to the LAC which is 3,488 km, if it is there and if it appears to be too long because, the western border is (in comparison) not too long, so there are also options…that keeping Nepal at the centre, it is divided East of Nepal and the West of Nepal and then accordingly commit assets.

The main objective is to achieve the upper hand over the adversary, whatever the need be. All the committees, study groups will give the options and then we will come to the options.

In Conclusion...

During peacetime, the armed forces keep exercising various formats of war, various options, scenarios are painted. Last year there was an exercise conducted by the IAF called ‘Exercise Gaganshakti’ in which entire assets were moved from one ‘Theatre’ to another ‘Theatre’, if we call it so…

Our forces have already started exercising their minds for the day the orders come….The ‘Peninsular Command’ is not just a Command which will man the oceans, it is a very futuristic Command which has got diplomatic roles as well. Things have already started moving, the studies will come out, the options will come out and will once again be studied. It is all going well, we have come in the right direction.

Sikh Regiment troops conduct a drill with the IAF in Jaisalmer of Rajasthan ahead of the joint military exercise 'Gagan Shakti'; File Photo

Col (Dr) DPK Pillai (Retd), SC, Research Fellow MP-IDSA

We cannot win by preparing to fight the previous war, we must think ahead of the loop and understand how warfare will be evolving in the coming generations. Theatre commands are an important necessity. ‘Theatre’, for an ease of understanding can be looked at like a movie theatre, what happens inside a movie theater remains confined within it. The show that goes on has its own paraphernalia, that is what a theatre is meant for.

It is a theatre where entire (military) operations take place. The activities in one theater does not affect the other areas that are there. For instance during the Second World War, you had the ‘European Theatre’ and then you had the ‘Pacific Theatre’ where a different enemy was being fought. You had the Japanese...the allied forces fought the Japanese (in the Pacific theatre). So, what happened in the ‘European Theatre’ did never really affect what happened in the ‘Pacific Command’.

The individual Theatre Commanders were independent to take decisions and actions that were important and could execute them. So, it was a completely integrated tri-service effort. It had its own logistics system, its own commanders, it had its own ability to execute operations. That is exactly what we plan to have in our five theatres.

Because we have 19 Commands between the Tri-services in our country and none of them share the same geographical location. For instance, the Indian Army’s Southern Command HQ is in Pune, whereas the Indian Navy’s Southern Command HQ is situated in Kochi and the IAF’s Southern Command HQ is housed in Trivandrum.

There was (is) really no enmeshing of the capabilities that were (are) there, so what you have with these five Commands that are coming up is that all three services will be on one grid. They will be on one map grid so to say, eliminating the need to operate on different levels. Once we have a Theatre Command, the assets, resources, and commanders will all be on the same page. That is the idea of having a Theatre Command.

India’s History with ‘Jointness’ and a Legacy of ‘Suspicion’

When the Second World War was fought and a large number of Indian troops fact in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, the 4 Guards 1st Rajput, the battalion that I have had the proud privilege of belonging to, had undertaken the surrender of the Japanese forces (in the Pacific Theatre). Eventually we worked on a very theatre system.

The armed forces could operate within India and island territories but also in Africa and other areas. That is the reason why, very early in the days of Independence we had come up with a Joint Services Wing (JSW), that was meant to create army, navy, air force officers who had operated together, trained together and knew exactly what was required. That was the idea behind the JSW which later metamorphosed into the National Defence Academy (NDA).

The fact is that this was very much a necessity. Jointness is something that leads to synergy of forces. Now what has happened is, while NDA has had a very lofty ideal, having tri-services, it was lost. This comes from the reforms that had taken place from the (then) Chief-of-Staff of Lord Mountbatten, who had done a study for us somewhere around ‘47-’48 and  suggested that we do away with the Commander-in-Chief (C-in-C) system. Following which India had an independent air force, navy, and army chief.

Otherwise we had a Chief of General Staff which was the Army Headquarters (AHQ) and had a C-in-C. Following which we had the Tri-service chief’s reporting to the C-in-C. That was removed.

Basically it stem...from very early on in our independence, we had a kind of suspicion (from the political and bureaucratic establishment) towards what was happening around because there were military coups happening all over the countryside. There was a coup taking place in Pakistan and there were coups taking place in other regions as well, so there was an inherent distrust the political system had for the military.

That is the reason you would see the garb of civilian control over the Tri-services. Coordination between the armed forces was also not encouraged, and that is the reason why 1962 happened, where if you recall the IAF was not even used.

The lessons of ‘62, the setting up of committees that came up later...General Thorat was on it (committee) and the suggestions that came up actually led to a good performance in ‘65 and the outcome of that performance was seen in ‘71 when the Tri-services jointly carried out operations in Bangladesh and the Western Sector as well.

The Indian Navy carried out its operations in Karachi. It epitomised jointness at the highest level. It was not until 1999 that another committee came up, under Arun Singh (Committee on Defence Expenditure) which was one of the four task forces that was set up. One of the task forces was on the management of defence and that was headed by Arun Singh. He had suggested the creation of a CDS and the associated structures that are there.

The armed forces had created the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), which had come up and it was meant to have cross staffing between the MoD, civilian and military personnel. Unfortunately, the synergy between the Defence Ministry and the CDS was not created. So, we had an IDS which was essentially another onion peel in the entire layer.

It really did not achieve the synergy that was required. What happened was that the three training organisations were joined together in a manner, but it was not achieved in the manner it should have been, for instance the Staff College, NDA and other institutions...and they were supposed to be trained together.

Shedding Tribal Loyalties to Enhance Inter-Service Cohesion

I think one of the key things like what had been envisaged in the NDA setting up as a JSW, as a fallout of the Second World War, the lesson is that people should actually cross staff and cross train with the armed forces so that you shed those tribal loyalties towards your parent service.

You see your operational responsibility and you can execute and think as the armed forces. That is where jointness would be required, where you stop seeing yourself as, well this is an army intensive thing, or you distribute your vacancies as per your numbers. I think what is required to get an entirely operationally oriented thing (structure) and that comes from cross staffing and early on cross posting of people having training together.

Risk of Replication

What happens if you don't have jointness, is that you end up replicating the same functions. For instance, we have the same training going on at multiple places. Like I said, there are training commands of the IAF in Bangalore, there is the Indian Army’s Army Training Command (ARTRAC) in Shimla and various other things. So, you replicate the same things that are happening, you have multiple assets, multiple resources and multiple staff deployed on that.

In the case of air defence, the IAF also has the same air defence and the army also has its own air defence. Now there is an overlapping of responsibility. It is like working on a map with multiple layers on it. Whereas today it is a digital era, where you have everything from the ‘sensor to shooter’ capable of being on one grid.

You really can do away with a lot of systems that have been (overlapped)...and that can only come when you have joint training...a jointness, that can only lead up. It dovetails into the entire theatre command concept that builds up to the apex level of the management of security in our country.

'USS Bunker Hill' hit by two Kamikaze's in the 'Pacific Theatre' during WWII; Archival Image

Maj Gen Anil Sengar (Retd) ex ADG MF & Author

The concept of integrated commands, where Tri-service assets were placed under one authority was practiced successfully during the Second Great War, with multi-national forces. This is the way forward. However, in the Indian context, the Tri-services seem to be more concerned with losing their pride and place and becoming a subordinate service. These are unfounded worries as the changing nature and character of warfare makes every service equally critical.

While synergizing the concept is a work in progress and could take two decades or more, this will make the best use of resources and make them responsive, both in combat dimensions and logistics. It is a long journey, and it will require the Tri-services to shed their service parochialism to get the best out of this initiative.

I am certain, this is the right way forward. Does it really make sense that while the Eastern Command HQ is in Calcutta, the Equivalent IAF HQ is in Shillong?

What Defence Experts Against Theaterisation Have to Say…

Gp Capt TP Srivastava (Retd), ex-Instr, DSSC, CDM, AFA, NDA

I believe that what is intended to be implemented as Theatre Commands is not good. These theatres are not independent enough to act like the European Theatre, Pacific Theatre etc. We do not have those kinds of assets.

The Army, Navy and IAF need to maintain their individuality as per the medium they operate in yet be integrated to such an extent that minimum resources are utilised for optimum effect.

What is evolving will lead to resources being idled in one theatre but are desperately needed in another. The biggest aberration is creation of the Air Defence Command. Probability of Blue on Blue will be high as seen in the past.

Bringing in 'change' for the sake of introducing undesirable 'changes' is the most irrational action one can initiate. Proponents of the change have merely used English lexicon without supporting their illogical logic. Not one of them have had the professional courage to answer these fundamental questions raised nearly a decade back by me:

  • Firstly, enumerate the specific incident/s under actual operational conditions wherein the existing command structure was found wanting for mounting an operation?
  • Secondly, enumerate explicitly the deficiencies in the existing set up.
  • Thirdly, how would creation of theatre command ensure that existing deficiencies would be eliminated?
  • Fourthly, is there a white paper enunciating the need for change from geographical commands to theatre commands?
  • Fifthly, would these proponents of ‘Strategic Reverse Engineering’, explicitly state the gains that would accrue because of their irrational proposal to replace the existing geographical commands with Theatre Commands?

Gp Capt TP Srivastava (Retd) Speaks in-depth on the Implausibility of Theatre Commands

Theaterisation of Command: The Ill-Advised Brainchild of Pseudo-Intellectual ‘Jaichands’
Mission Victory India (MVI) is an autonomous defence think tank established to foster progressive military leadership reforms and to identify and introduce tangible changes in military selection procedures, training, and recruitment policy.
Link to Article by Gp Capt Srivastava (Retd)

Maj Gen Rana Goswami (Retd), ex Arty

I have read and gone through the article by Gp Capt TP Srivastava on the subject and agree completely with his point of view.

There is no clear provable rationale for this shift from Geographical to Theatre based command system. My take is that the powers that be today have got hold of this from somewhere - not India and want to take a template that worked in a particular theatre of operations, somewhere in the world at a particular time, and apply it in the Indian context, pan India, irrespective of whether it is required to do so.

Do these powers that be know even the alphabet (a) about the other two Services, how they operate, how they're administered, their holding of assets, their large and varied inventory and logistic requirements, etc, etc? I think not and nor do they want to know.

However, the issue is that this shift needs to be stopped before it becomes a fact, as in my opinion, it is likely to dangerously complicate war fighting on this sub continent, rather than resolve any existing issues. Also, if there isn't any seriously earth shattering anomaly in the existing set up which is time tested, why on earth are we going in for a change anyway?

Brig Pradeep Sharma (Retd), ex NSG (SAG), DS AWC, Analyst

My position on these ongoing debates verges around the following: Is the concept of ‘Theater Commands’ something new? No, it was done by another neighbour of ours several years back!

Is it based on the strategy of a national vision with a timeline on where we want to be in terms of our standing in the international position, and the need for an Armed Forces to suitably support this vision? My response is…No!

Does it lead to enhanced strength in our Armed Forces? Only time will tell, it is too premature. Does it meet the political demands of cutting costs? Yes! Will selling land from our cantonments help modernise our forces? No! What after the land is sold? What will the government sell next? Does the concept of theater commands raise morale? It is questionable at best!

Does our physical infrastructure lend itself to this proposed change? Only in part, changes/construction will be required. Does this compensate in any manner to the loss of status or dent in the image? No! Does it increase upward mobility to open up promotions? Can India do with the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) alone on borders?

Can we face a two-front war with reduced manpower and budgets? Will the Armed Forces attract the best from our youth? Has exploiting the Armed Forces for votes set the right precedent? Mere hot air and semantics alone will not serve organisational interests!


Col Rajinder Singh Kushwaha (Retd), Author & Analyst

The idea of a ‘Theatre Command’ is good in principle but flawed in its execution. It is typical of the Indian Armed Forces that its leadership always reacts in a knee-jerk manner. Most often, it ends up copying others, even if it might not suit Indian environs.

What is worse is the fact that the execution of the idea was not forward looking but rather poaching upon Chinese and US systems. It must be remembered that copies are always second rate performers.

The idea of a ‘Theatre Command’ must seek an appropriate integration of all three wings of armed forces at the grass-root level. In other words, while a ‘compound’ is desired, the current proposal is only creating a ‘mixture’, with the unique identities of three wings.

The purpose of a ‘compound’ is to create a new product with new properties. Therefore ‘old and separate identities’ would disappear and a synthesised product would have its own advantage. The current proposal would not only lead to inter-wing friction but also cause command and control (C&C) problems.

What is worse is that different types of training and understanding of operational parameters would affect optimum performance. It would also affect the flexibility of inter-transferability of units between different kinds of terrains.

‘Terrain specialisation’ due to permanent deployment in a particular theatre cuts down the manoeuvrability and flexibility of armed forces. Loss of this flexibility would affect the outcome of a military conflict. To make a ‘compound’, three wings ought to be integrated at a basic level, the following points need to be taken care of: —

Uniform Rank Structure

The rank structure of three wings should be standardised. It would be better to create a uniform rank of officers and men of all the three services. A Captain in the army should also be a Captain in the IAF and the Navy. Similarly, a Colonel in the army should be called Colonel in the IAF too and not a Group Captain —  a Captain in the Navy should be called Colonel. Similarly, a ‘Naval Commander’ or an ‘Air Force Wing Commander’ be designated as ‘Lieutenant Colonel’. This is a must for proper integration.

Standardisation of Uniform

All elements of integrated theatre of whichever wing should have the same uniform. Theatre commands opposite China and Pakistan should have a combat dress as its uniform.

Additional Commands

Besides the, five proposed regional commands, India must have four additional Commands: -

  • Strategic and Space Operations Command: It should control all strategic forces which include special forces, Strategic weapons division including Nuclear Biological and Chemical (NBC) and Inter Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM). The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) should be part of it. The Andaman & Nicobar Islands elements can be placed under it.
  • Information and Cyber Warfare Command: This is particularly important for coordinated operations in a Hybrid war scenario. Manipulation of information and intelligence should be the primary task of this command. All intelligence agencies should be grouped under this.
  • North East Command: There was also a need for a North East Command opposite Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Insurgency. One never knows when Bangladesh and Myanmar might turn against India. Time changes and strategies of nations change.
  • Internal Security Command: It is time India must create an internal security command and dedicate proper resources under a unified command. It must become part of the overall framework of National Security. It cannot be treated in isolation anymore when China and Pakistan are actively involved in sponsoring it.

Effective Cohesion

Integration of the Indian Army and IAF elements for the regional commands opposite China, Pakistan and NE be done at the formation levels. Dedicated efforts must be allowed.

It entails from above that the Concept of Theatre Commands would only serve the purpose well if a holistic approach is adopted. It must not be done in any disconcerted manner. An overall view of National Security must be taken, and the concept must be applied based on our realistic needs.

There must not be an attempt to situate an appreciation, as is the case of Indian Army’s habit of selecting the weapons first and then laying down the Qualitative Requirements (QR). Our Theatre Commands transformation must be needed-specific and not because China has it.


Capt Kamal Singh (Retd) IN, SC

The Following points need consideration:

a) The Aim of the Government in creating Theater Commands:

  • Is it Financial to save the burgeoning costs in the Military/Defence Budget?
  • Is it aimed at creating better synergy and operating efficiency of the Armed Forces?
  • Will it free up resources for better use/redeployment/reserves?

b) Template to Base on: Do we have a ready Template for the Theaterisation of our existing Geographic Commands?

c) Is it SMART?: Did we audit the first Theater/Joint Command (A&N Command) on Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely performance (SMART) Metrics for delivery of its founding objectives? Has it improved the preparedness and response in this Geopolitically important Theater? Can this be a Template for our envisaged Theater commands?

d) SWOT Analysis & Assessing Risk from Change: Have we done a Strength Weakness Opportunity and Threat (SWOT) Analysis for our contemplated move to Theater Commands? Have we prepared a risk assessment manual documenting the proposed Management of Change (MOC) and appointed MOC process owners for the proposed Theater Commands?

e) Implementing Effective Integration: The proof of the efficiency of a fighting formation is at the cutting edge or the delivery end of business. So, for diverse units to firstly come together despite their differences in organisations, rank, C&C structure and then start working together needs organisational templates, standard operating procedures (SOP), C&C, communication networks that have been adapted for the specific aim/function of the Command.

Needless to state, they must be first tested out, debugged and then ready for adoption. Joint training, drilling and efficiency building will be key priorities for these commands to succeed in their missions. The key question is how this will be done, while we always maintain battle readiness, considering the prevailing security environment around us.

f) Inter-Services Turf Warfare and Challenges to Jointmanship: We need to understand how will the Senior Management, read Senior Officers of respective services (excess from  subsuming of 19 Commands into 5 Theater Commands will be accommodated) How will it affect respective services cadre managements and morale of personnel.

g) Establishing a Direct Line of Comms with Political Leadership: Theater Commanders by virtue of operational necessity/efficiency need to have a direct line of communication to the Defence Minister/PM. The basic Raison d'être for creation of the Theatre commands would be to synergise the warfighting/ conduct of operations to make it more effective and decisive in support of higher national aims.

The point here is that ‘Do we have the supporting Chain of Command/ Communication procedures embedded in our procedures. From the present organizational structure, this is not seen and clarity is lacking.

Tri-service flags on display; File Photo

The Last Word: Maj Gen VK Madhok (Retd), 1st Course JSW

A very critical and relevant debate  with all the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ of Theaterisation with amalgamation of all  our Tri Service/s Commands being  examined, analysed and debated upon to reach workable combinations of various reformed, integrated Theater Commands.

The comparisons drawn by some respondents for justifying their individual  analysis are based upon the vast and geographically spread out Theatre Commands specifically created for specific second World War vintage scenarios over  75 years ago.

The US systems based upon their specific needs for operational  purposes too are vastly spread out and for clearly spelt out requirements or compulsions. The Chinese model too is for their clearly articulated expansionist policies.

Our own models that were considered for analysis were ad hoc and temporary models of 1971 war and 1999 Kargil Conflict taken into account in support of arguments put forth by analysts/respondents to back their findings, conclusions and recommendations.

However, it is very pertinent and relevant to state that the counter views formatted by respondents  are well articulated, highlighted and justified with some strong points that demand objective  consideration and extreme care, restraint and caution before any further venturing into the implementation of this reform  proposal being apparently pushed down from top down, ie from the Government, CDS down through the Tri-services, the Commands, Formations upto to the Unit levels.

All this cumulatively  appear to be more of high level  exercises and forceful implementations on the lower echelons of Armed Forces, more to speedily justify the appointment of CDS and additional created organizations and structures, than the actual pressing  wartime like need/requirements of the country and Armed forces!

Hence, there is an imperative need to go about this entire exercise in a cautious, calibrated and deliberate manner by taking into confidence and consideration  all the concerned stakeholders rather than pushing down the concept or philosophy down the throat to justify the appointment of CDS and his entire paraphernalia rather than an actual/ projected  wartime/like imperative that threatens the security of our nation!

A  detailed, deliberate and objective debate on the subject is vital by  involving all the critical stakeholders before undertaking any such bold venture or  major reform that could undo and negatively impact the existing efficiency and effectiveness of our entire Armed forces!

(This debate was compiled by 'Mission Victory India' Co-Founder Aritra Banerjee. View expressed are the respondents own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of 'Mission Victory India' and its parent organisation 'Greyline Infomedia')

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