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ColumnsDo we need Theatre Commands?

Do we need Theatre Commands?

Published: 11th Jul 2021 12:05 am | Updated: 14th Jul 2021 5:22 pm

By Major General SB Asthana

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The long-awaited restructuring of the Indian Armed Forces has finally got off the block. The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) has been appointed and a new Department of Military Affairs (DMA) within the Ministry of Defence stands created. While the CDS settles the need for one point military advice and prioritisation of defence procurements, taking into account competing requirements of Services so as to meet the current and future national security needs, the DMA is expected to redistribute duties to sharpen coordination and improve synergy between the Services.

A major expectation from these reforms, besides modernisation, is to bring down the defence expenditure. These also seem to be the justifications for creation of fewer Theatre Commands – converting the existing 17 Service-specific Commands (seven each of Army and IAF, and three of Navy) into Integrated Theatre Commands. These Theatre Commands are expected to improve synergy and cohesiveness while also bringing down costs.

Is The Timing Right?

Today, India is facing a ‘Two Front Threat’. It is already in a standoff with the largest military in the world and the other adversary is also devising new ways to disturb peace through drones/terror attacks. Irrespective of merits and demerits of Theaterisation, strategically, it is not the right time to go through such a major apex level restructuring, when the largest military force is knocking at Line of Actual Control (LAC).

Such major restructuring takes at least a few years and will bring in teething problems, leading to turbulence in the time-tested command structure during the intervening period, a risk which the country must avoid. In an overdrive to minimise defence costs or meet certain personality-oriented deadlines, the restructuring should not compromise the operational effectiveness of the Indian Military.

What Needs to be Restructured

Regarding the implementation of the Indian model of Theatre Commands, while Air Defence Command, Defence Space Agency, Armed Forces Special Operations Division and integration in logistics is good, upgradation of Defence Cyber Agency to ‘Information Warfare Command’ is recommended. The critical shortage of air and other assets is a concern too serious to be overlooked.

With tri-service structure, reporting to a single Service Chief has its own problems. Reporting to CDS may make it difficult to manage operations. Instead, the first priority should be to do capability development over the restructuring of apex level restructuring.

While the current proposals follow an Indianised pattern, as the restructuring progresses, some teething problems will appear which will have to be ironed out. With unsettled borders with China and Pakistan and the need to physically hold the Line of Control (LoC), Actual Ground Position Line (AGPL) as well as the Line of Actual Control (LAC), a manpower-intensive deployment is necessary. This will necessarily require an adequate number of Commands along the border.

The need for the existing separate Command for Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh is inescapable and should not be tampered with. Another Command to cover areas South of Jammu, both sides of Shakargarh bulge (a vulnerability of Pakistan) and plains of Punjab is also a must.

Maritime Command

The proposal of Maritime Command to cover the Indian coastline spreading from the Sir Creek near the Arabian Sea to the Sundarbans in the Bay of Bengal under one theatre, by merging the Navy’s western and eastern commands has pros and cons. The proposal involves placing necessary air assets and Army’s support system under a Navy commander to bring the unity of command in managing the security of the Indian Ocean Region in a reasonably independent manner.

The Maritime Command, accruing advantage of unity of command, will have to be weighed against manageability of the increased span of control, in light of the fact that Indian definition of Indo-Pacific and area of maritime interest has grown much more to include eastern coasts of Africa to northern Pacific, at least up to Japan.

In the case of littorals, a major responsibility of Andaman and Nicobar and islands in the Bay of Bengal has been taken away by correctly raising the Integrated Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC), which is essential in view of the recent development of the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor. It needs to be noted that amongst Army Commands, except for Southern Command, not many operations with Navy are visualised, unless some formation is picked up for Out of Area Contingency Tasks, amphibious operations and MOOTW (military operations other than war), including disaster relief.

Air Power Debate

The Indian Air Force is an offensive component of Indian Military. For a comprehensive air battle, with inadequate air resources, switching assets between operational commands of same service is much more effective than trying to do so between Integrated Theatre Commands with dedicated resources, through CDS/ CoSC Committee System.

It also needs to be noted that with the current speed of fighter aircraft and high intensity of lethal air defence systems, globally, the close air support role is being performed better by Attack Helicopters and a variety of artillery assets due to safety concerns. New generation aircraft are mostly multi-role, increasingly deployed for long and short range interdiction, counter surface force operations, creating favourable air situation, degradation, offensive air missions and strategic national missions.

Indianised Model

The US and China have laid down expeditionary roles for their military away from the mainland; hence their Theatre Commands like Indo-Pacific Command can’t be supported from air assets from mainland, which justifies separate allocation of air assets. Both these countries have done so after reaching self-reliance in defence production.

The US has global strategic interests and needs an expeditionary military force capable of global deployment. It has no direct military threat to its mainland. Its five regional Unified Commands are expected to operate independently, away from the mainland and other Commands, on expeditionary role in designated areas of the globe, requiring integrated combat power of the three services, which justifies the need of unified commands.

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA)’s intention of becoming a superpower with world-class military by 2049, expeditionary design to increase its global footprints, and protect its sea lines of communication (SLOC) and trade interests globally can easily be inferred from National Military Strategy documents released in 2015. It is because of these expeditionary roles and the distances involved that the PLA has adopted the model of Integrated Theatre Commands, because switching of combat resources from one theatre to another may be difficult in their case. China has been able to generate adequate military hardware required for Theatre Commands.

In the case of India, the expeditionary role doesn’t hold good for a considerable period. India must first bring up its asset availability up to a point to be distributed as first priority, with indigenous technology and hardware by self-reliance, which is a work in progress. It needs to be noted that China, the US, Russia restructured Theatre Commands after achieving self-reliance through well-structured National Security Strategy.

Chinks in Armour

Analysing two of the laid down functions of the CDS, namely ‘to bring about jointness in operation, logistics, transport, training, support services, communications, repairs and maintenance, etc of the three Services’ and ‘to ensure optimal utilisation of infrastructure and rationalise it through jointness among the Services’, the idea of separate “Training and Doctrinal Command” is welcome to foster jointness in planning, training and doctrinal issues. The level, scale and magnitude of joint training in the Indian Military needs to be enhanced.

Except for Defence Services Staff College and a small capsule at Army War College, there is very little joint training being conducted in Services. We need to expand and utilise tri-Service organisations like the Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS), United Service Institution of India (USI) and the proposed Indian Defence University to organise more joint training courses for all Services to promote integration and jointness.

A case for ‘Joint Logistics Command’, proposed a few decades ago and the need for a joint logistics system, to avoid duplicity and economise resources, merit serious consideration. Major military powers have steadily integrated their military logistics and infrastructure development for enhancing efficiency and rationalising defence spending. China has adopted it successfully, where almost 80% of PLA logistics is joint and only 20% is Service-specific, which has proved to be quite cost-effective.

The Indian Military has majority of logistics as Service-specific component, and a very limited component on joint logistics model like medical services, Military Engineer Services (MES), Directorate General of Quality Assurance, Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and other organisations, being controlled directly by the MoD. This is not a cost-effective model. The joint logistics model can be implemented at the theatre level as well, as in the case of China, to avoid duplicity of supply chains.

Post Operation Parakram, it was realised that the span of control of erstwhile Northern Command had become unmanageable; hence India had to raise a new corps and create South Western Command to right-size the span of control.

Reading the context of restructuring, the idea of Integrated Theatre Commands seems to be driven more by economic considerations and less by operational inadequacies. India should adopt only those changes which do not bring down the operational effectiveness of the existing system, in light of our peculiar geography/terrain, threat perception, peculiar challenges, resources and technological threshold. With no major change in geography, border commitments, counterinsurgency/terrorism involvements, threat and military resources, we should incorporate only essential changes in the existing structures to improve jointness and integration.

The expectation of Theatre Commands to be ready by 2022 is ambitious. We should be careful in executing these changes because the current system has not failed so far, and India does not have the economic luxury of trying out a new system for the sake of cost-cutting and reverting, if it is found operationally inadequate.

Theatre Commands?

– IANS, USI of India

(The author is a strategic and security analyst and a veteran Infantry General. He is the Chief Instructor, United Service Institution of India. Views are personal based on open source information. https://asthanawrites.org/)


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