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Theaterisation: Keep the IAF Out


With General Anil Chauhan having taken over the mantle of the Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) jointness and higher defence reorganization has come to the fore.


Amongst others, initiatives undertaken by late General Bipin Rawat proposing theatre commands should be taken to the logical conclusion as accepted military wisdom states that this is the best option for integrating resources of the armed forces operational capability building to meet the challenge from what is commonly known as, “Two Front War (TFW).”


TFW refers to a simultaneous “war,” with China and Pakistan. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statement that this is not an “era of war,” in a bilateral with Russian President Vladimir Putin has been flagged prominently with reference to the war in Ukraine, India facing the TFW threat needs to be prepared if not actually engage in active military operations in case deterrence fails.


The standoff in Eastern Ladakh which has been ongoing for over 17 months now is presently active in at two friction points.


This denotes a high level of readiness essential for the Indian Army supported by the Indian Air Force in real time in terms of reconnaissance and surveillance, logistics and operational response – the latter in case of a crisis.


Going further the IAF would play a principal role in a future conflict with China. In the vast unhindered terrain of the Tibetan plateau, PLA will be extensively exposed to air and missile strikes. The IAF interdiction could leave the Chinese in the front-line gasping for support. But that is for discussion for another day.


Why Theater Commands?


To achieve integration a single operational commander having service heads – army, navy and air force operating directly under him is the optimal solution that is time tested in various armed forces of the World.


In military parlance an operational commander is responsible for a theatre – or area of operation which has a distinct geographic connotation for employment of operational resources and thus is provided required degree of independence to do so.


While each military has requirements which are unique and cannot be replicated, theatres as most relevant to the Indian Army ironically is that of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).


Unlike the United States where theatre commands are linked to US out of area contingencies across the globe such as Central Command for the Middle East, Central and South West Asia or the Indo Pacom, PLA theatres are carved based on configuration of borders with the Western Theatre Command (WTC) the most relevant for India covering the entire Northern border.


How Theaterisation Envisaged in India


Indian theatres thus have been accordingly envisaged and the prevalent understanding is that Western, Eastern and Maritime Command as integrated theaters are under consideration while Northern Command is to be an exclusive Army Command due to the peculiar internal and external challenges.


This would imply that resources of the services will be distributed to the four theatre commanders. The Army or the Navy is not expected to have any reservations for the same as

in any case the formations and units are located within the geographic areas and may only see a change in the hierarchy up the chain reporting to the theatre command at the apex level.


For the air force this may imply distribution of resources to the commands which is of concern to the IAF due to paucity of numbers as well as doctrinal issues which were flagged by the IAF Chief, Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhari during his pre–Air Force Day conference on September 04.


IAF Chief’s Reservations


“We are not opposing any process of integration and any process of theatre commands. We have certain reservations in respect to the structures,” the IAF Chief Air Chief Marsha V R Chaudhari said. “We are fully supporting the integration process, it is only the methodology and the kind of structures that need to be future-ready, is what we are insisting on,” he said. “Each service has a doctrine. The doctrinal aspects of the IAF should not be compromised in any way by the new structures.”


The Air Chief added: “We understand the imperativeness of joint planning and execution in future wars and are keen on integrating the efforts of the three services. We believe that the model of integration that we adopt must be future-ready, it must reduce levels of decision-making and capitalise on the strength of all three services. We need an organisational structure that is best suited for Indian conditions and our geopolitical imperatives.”


Possible IAF Rationale


The Indian Air Force has recently revised the doctrine and the public version of the same is awaited, thus comments on the issue will be limited for now.


Suffice to say, the IAF strategic component which has a conventional role will have to be retained centrally under the Air Chief or creation of a Strategic Aerospace Command as and when the resources for the same are acquired.


The rotary wing component of the IAF may pose limited concerns in terms of distribution as this is expected to be already allocated to the respective geographic zones particularly Northern and Eastern Commands of the Army as this need almost daily sustenance support


Combat Fighters



Coming to combat fighters’ numbers in terms of distribution – the IAF has presently approximately 30 squadrons against specified 42-25 squadrons for a TFW. There is an argument that with the potential of modern fighter’s requirement of number of squadrons can be reduced.


However, bottom line numbers cannot overcome the additional potential of modern fighters, thus 42 squadrons are considered a base figure for discussion.


Of the thirty squadrons taking availability of 80 percent, 24 squadrons can be said to be operationally available at any one time


With the Northern and Eastern theatres allocated a Rafale squadron each and the Tejas LCA Mk 1 squadron deployed in the South, the IAF would have 21 squadrons for TFW in a future war scenario


These resources are varied and include based on what is known through open source two squadrons for strategic national tasks, air defence, multi role and ground attack fighters.


Allocation of the 21 squadrons to the four theatre commands would be evidently impractical. Thus, until the IAF has adequate resources for allocation


What Next?



With IAF continuing to resist distribution of resources with theaterisation due to doctrinal and resource limitations, the options for the CDS are win over the Air Chief or to recommend to the government to overrule Air Force objections and rush through theaterisation.


Late General Rawat appeared to be inclined to such an approach if his comments of IAF being a support service are to be believed. Will CDS who has the advantage of the ongoing contested debate over theaterisation adopt a similar approach remains to be seen?


The option on the other hand is to create an Aerospace Command where resources which are critical and cannot be distributed to the commands can be centrally placed. These not only will include combat fighters, but the AWACS and AEW C, Aerial Refuellers and so on.


The IAF Chief Air Chief Marshal V R Chaudhari appeared to be hinting at the same stating, “The next step would be to use our doctrines and well-trained manpower to evolve employment philosophies and concepts of operations. This would require joint planning and joint execution of plans.”

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