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Status Review: Theaterisation of Indian Armed Forces

In name, the Indian armed forces headquarters are integrated and are called HQ Integrated Defence Staff [Army, Navy and Air Force respectively].

Apart from the HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), however, it is well known that the integration as the proverb goes in the vernacular is "in name only".

During an operational crisis, synergy is achieved in the Indian Armed Forces, such as the year-long standoff in Ladakh from April 2020 onwards by what can be called incident-based integration of the services.

A top-down process involving the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and Chiefs of the three services synergise joint planning and operations through the respective operations directorate. A similar approach is adopted at the Command level with lead service in Eastern Ladakh, the Army coordinating with others regarding resources and employment.

The Northern Command of the Indian Army based in Udhampur and the Western Air Command of the Indian Air Force based in Delhi continue to be intimately involved in these operations.

Both the Army and the Air Commands are looking after the fronts with China and Pakistan, thus forming the core of the so-called "Two Front Option," in the physical sense.

Other commands such as the Eastern of the Army or the South Western of the Air Force are either front-facing China and Pakistan, respectively. Representatives of the Air Force are present at the respective Army Command and Corps for close coordination.

Suffice to say, such an arrangement is not ideal, and there is a necessity for integration of the Army and Air Force commands in an operational scenario which can come about through integrated functioning during peace time.

The plan for theaterisation of the Indian Armed Forces or creating integrated theatres thus emanates from this requirement.

Theaterisation based on geographic and domain centricity is a well-accepted principle of organisation of modern armed forces and is effectively implemented by the United States over the decades.

On the other hand, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) undertook theaterisation in 2013, and sufficient open-source evidence is not available for comment on the success or otherwise of the process.

Activating the process

While the requirement for integration of commands of the armed forces was accepted two decades ago along with the post of the Chief of Defence Staff, implementation has remained stagnant. But for the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) and the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), the process has remained in the discussion stage.

The impetus was gained with the announcement of the same by Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day, August 15 2019.

The first CDS, who is also Secretary of the Department of Military Affairs, General Bipin Rawat, took office on January 01 last year. He is mandated with "facilitation of restructuring of military commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations including through establishment of joint/theatre commands".

With the specific task assigned to the CDS, the process of theaterisation is now underway.

The Plan

Adopting a top-down approach, an Air Defence Command plan was first floated in February 2020 and later the Maritime Theatre Command (MTC).

Discussions and internal concept notes on the Air Defence Command and the Maritime Theatre commands have been ongoing for the past two years after General Bipin Rawat took over as the CDS. With a mandate of completion during his tenure, which will end in December 2022 (Three years), the CDS and the DMA are accelerating the process, having already reached the halfway mark in terms of time lines.

As revealed through multiple media sources, the plan proposed by the DMA and HQ IDS suggests reorganisation of 17 commands of the three services that operate separately and are also located at different stations into five.

These integrated commands are as per the Print, “Northern Land Theatre (Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh and Central sector) Western Land Theatre (Pakistan centric), Eastern Land Theatre, Maritime Theatre Command, and Air Defence Command”.

In addition, Logistics and Training commands will be added in due course.

The Andaman and Nicobar Command, the existing formation will be subsumed in the Maritime Theatre Command, while the Strategic Forces Command is likely to continue to retain identity.

Ambitious timelines have been spoken about, including the Air Defence Command becoming operational on Air Force Day on October 08 last year. There is also a buzz now of the same happening on August 15, Independence Day. Still, some reality checks have since set in, and it is most unlikely that this will occur given the differences that have emerged on the discussion of the concept note to the Cabinet Committee on Security.

There is also a sense in the top military hierarchy of the need for a deliberate process rather than going in for organisational changes in a rush, particularly as the armed forces are operationally committed to meet the China challenge in Eastern Ladakh.

Importantly General M.M. Naravane, the Army Chief, had called for deliberation in the process. Speaking in October 2020, Naravane said, "needed to be deliberate, thoughtful and well-considered, and its fruition will take a number of years."

The lumbering Ministry of Defence bureaucracy, staffed mainly by the general cadre of the Civil Service, is likely to be even more cautious even though a sprinkling of additional and joint secretaries from the armed forces have now been posted there.

The Touch Points

What are the present factors that are likely to delay the process of creation of theatre commands. These would summarised as (1) Doctrine (2) Asset Ownership and Distribution of Resources (3) Span of Maritime Theatre Command (4) Command and Control (5) Multiple Ministries and Agencies.


Operational doctrine will drive organisations. Evolution of a doctrine for conduct of operations should denote the need for theaterisation. The 2017 Joint Doctrine of the Indian Armed Forces does not clearly specify how operations will be conducted through integration of organisations and falls between two stools of Jointness and Integration. Integration entails organisational integration and cohesion of the services for operational functioning under a single commander. Command will be unified.

Jointness entails operational cohesion and integration, but organisationally units will remain under the service-specific commanders and contribute to the overall objective through the joint plan or directive.

Integrated operations will require theaterisation, Joint operations can be conducted without the same.

Thus amplification of this facet and an urgent review of the Joint Doctrine 2017 would be necessary preceding the implementation of theaterisation.

Asset Ownership and Distribution of Resources

As is always the case in a reorganisation, one of the principal hurdles is asset ownership and distribution. For example, the Indian Air Force [IAF] fields some 30 combat fighter squadrons and multiple transport and helicopter squadrons. These resources are centrally controlled by the Air Headquarters and then decentralised for execution at present.

The proposed theaterisation entails dividing these assets to each theatre which the Air Force feels may not be the best way to utilise these exceptionally scarce combat squadrons.

The Air Force is thus proposing that the present system continues what is termed the "India," command.

There is also a challenge of ownership as releasing assets to theatres commanded by Army, and Navy officers may be difficult for the Air Force to absorb.

The Army, too, has resource issues exposed during the Ladakh standoff when additional formations had to be moved from Central and Eastern Command to the North, though these are not as acute as that of the Air Force.

The lack of adequacy has been cited as an overall challenge. "The equipment/assets of each Service is not large enough to be distributed up and locked in theatres. Forget the IAF, which anyway has a lower number of aircraft and surveillance equipment, even the Army had to push in additional reserves and additional equipment into the Northern Command during the ongoing standoff with China," a source has been quoted by the Print.

In this context, the Air Defence Command, which was the first to be created, has been stuck in limbo.

Span of Maritime Theatre Command

The Maritime Theatre Command subsumes the Western and the Eastern Naval Command and the Andaman and Nicobar Command. The Indian Navy has supported a unified MTC; however, this organisation is likely to be unwieldy. Unlike the Army, the Navy is not geographically oriented, yet there are three distinct zones of operations – the Western and Eastern seaboard and the Andaman and Nicobar waters.

The challenges in each of these are distinct and may require to be addressed uniquely. However, at the same time unity of the maritime theatre also has advantages.

Command and Control

Command and Control is a significant factor for integration. Accordingly, the present proposal envisages theatre commanders reporting to the CDS. The Service Chiefs, in turn, will prepare the field force for provision to the theatre commanders.

Unlike in the United States, in India, the theatre commanders to report directly to the political leadership that is the Defence Minister may require an empowered Ministry of Defence with change in the Rules of Businsess of Government of India which denotes that the Defence Secretary is responsible for the Defence of India.

Instead, they may either go through the CDS or the Service chiefs unless the Rules of Business are changed.

On the other hand, the PLA in China has the Central Military Commission chaired by Xi Jinping, to which the theatre commanders report. Devoid of such a standing commission, the option is to report to the CDS in India.

At the same time, suitable structures around the CDS will have to be created to facilitate command and control of the complex operational issues that will crop up inactive zones of the Indian security environment.

Involvement of multiple ministries and agencies

The theaterisation plan also includes integrated the Coast Guard, Border Security Force and the ITBP; the latter two come under the Ministry of Home Affairs. Meanwhile, budgeting considerations will also have to be taken into account. Thus, while on the whole, theaterisation is likely to lead to a reduction in operating costs, an initial outlay on restructuring will have to be made for which financial approval is essential.

What Next?

A committee to include vice chiefs of Army, Navy and IAF, chief of integrated defence staff and representatives from the defence, and the other ministries and departments for further deliberations on the differences outlined above has been constituted.

Given the complex issues, reorganisation when the armed forces are actively involved in operations on the Northern border with China, a delay in arriving at a consensus can be anticipated.

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