An Indian Account of Integrated Theatre Commands
Kargil War was a landmark event in the history of reforms and restructuring in the Indian Armed Forces. Even though India had won the war, the conflict exposed the need for integration within the Indian Armed Forces. The Kargil Review Committee in 2001 laid down three important recommendations- the establishment of a Chief of Defense Staff (CDS), establishing Unified Command Theatres, and integration of service headquarters. Twenty-one years since the war in 1999, the office of CDS has been established in January 2020. Heading the newly formed Department of Military Affairs, the CDS will not only play the role of one point advisor to the Minister of Defense but also play a major role in reforming and modernizing the Indian Armed Forces.
Chief of Army Staff General MM Naravane in a speech highlighted that after the establishment of CDS, the integrated theatre commands would be the next logical military reform.
An integrated command theatre implies a unified command of tri-services under one commander under whom the resources of all three services are pooled in. This commander would look after the utilization of resources for fulfilling the duties and responsibilities of his command. The changing nature of warfare demands cooperation and synergy among the forces. The ultimate objective of these unified commands is to achieve enhanced combat preparedness and interoperability between forces during peace, as well as to maximize the impact during the war by optimal allocation of resources and synergizing the tri-services.
Army chief General M.M. Naravane, Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat and Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria. Source: India Today
The Indian Armed Forces adopted the colonial structure of the organization and have reformed with changing times. However, the current reformation seems to be of utmost importance since independence. From 1947, the three services have functioned separately- there has been proven cooperation between the forces but no integration per se. While the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War highlighted successful cooperation among the forces, the 1999 Kargil War highlighted how certain inter-service friction could result in delayed results.
As of now, the United States of America, Russia, and China have unified theatre commands for their militaries. The United States of America has eleven unified commands, which can be divided into region-specific (geographical) and function-specific commands. The Region-specific commands are Northern, Southern, European, African, Central and Indo-Pacific Commands. The five functions specific commands are Cyber, Space, Special Operations, Strategic and Transportation Commands.
Structure of Theatre Commands in USA, Russia and China. Source: India Today
Russia is divided into four military districts (Western, Southern, Central, and Eastern), one Northern Fleet and has independent function-specific commands i.e. Aero Space Command, Strategic Nuclear Forces Command, and Independent Transport Command. Even China is divided into five military theatres i.e. Western, Southern, Central, Eastern, and Northern. Broadly, the Western Theatre Command of China borders India.
Theatre Commands in China. Source: Mercator Institute of Chinese Studies
Certainly, the Indian model is different from that of other countries. Unlike the USA or China, India does not aim for any global interests or global presence. Our military forces neither play the role of expeditionary force like the US does nor aim to become the ‘World Class Military’ by 2049 like PLA. However, homeland security and territorial integrity are the utmost priority of the Indian Armed Forces. Unlike the US, the whole landmass of the country won’t be under one theatre command but will be divided according to our adversaries in West (Pakistan) and East (China). Hence, the Indian model is such that it will not only cater to the current changing warfare but also ensure the Indian contours of National Security.
The modernization and reform of Indian Armed Forces is credited to three important committees:
1. Kargil Review Committee, 2002
2. Naresh Chandra Committee, 2011
3. Shekatkar Committee, 2015
Certainly, the Indian model of unified command structure would be different from the other countries. As of now, there are 17 military commands of tri-services, seven of the Army and the Air Force each and three of the Navy, leading to wastage and duplication of resources. Apart from these, there are two unified commands i.e. Andaman and Nicobar Command and the Special Forces Command for nuclear assets. Moreover, there are four tri-service institutions i.e. Defense Intelligence Agency (established in 2002), Defense Space Agency, Cyber Agency, and Armed Forces Special Operations Divisions, established in 2019.
The process of establishment of theatre commands in India can be observed in the following phases:
1. Establishment of Chief of Defense Staff heading Department of Military Affairs
2. Joint Logistics and training
3. Establishment of Integrated Theatre Commands
Certainly, the second phase seems to be the most crucial. The second phase involves not only joint training but also the establishment of Joint Logistics Command, Air Defense Command, and integration of medical services. Post this, the theatre commands can be set up. As of now, the proposed model involves the establishment of five commands, each of which would be headed by a three star officer.
1. Northern Command: stretching from the Karakoram Pass in Leh and Ladakh Union Territory up to Kibuthu in Arunachal Pradesh, this region-specific theatre would completely handle China, covering the 3488 kilometres Line of Actual Control. The headquarters would possibly be located in Lucknow.
2. Western Command: This specific theatre command would handle the western border of Pakistan. Stretching from Saltoro Ridge on Siachen up to tips of Gujarat, with possible headquarters in Jaipur.
3. Peninsular Command: This theatre command would involve merging the eastern and western commands of the Navy and covering the southern landmass of the country. Stretching from the Arabian Sea in West to Sundarbans in the Bay of Bengal, this command would look after defending the coast of India. Thiruvananthapuram could be the possible headquarter for this command.
4. Maritime Command: This command would look after the non-traditional challenges of the Indian Navy in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR), the Indian Islands in IOR and execute the task of surveillance as well. Executing its role as a net security provider in IOR, the Indian Navy conducts anti-piracy missions from the Gulf of Aden in Africa to the Arabian Sea. Hence, this command would be integral for the security and growth of all in the region (SAGAR). With major naval assets at Karwar base, major bases for this command in the Eastern naval front could be Port Blair and Vizag. Some reports suggest that the Andaman and Nicobar Command could be merged with this Maritime Command.
5. Air Defence Command: This particular function-specific command could be the first joint tri-service command to be established. This command would involve grouping and synchronizing the air defense assets of the Army, Navy, and Air Force and thus utilizing them jointly for collective air defense of Indian Air Space and anchor the air-striking and attack capability.
Apart from these, the Joint Logistics Command would also be formed prior to the establishment of Theatre Commands. This Logistics Command will play the role of ‘Common Contract Management’ and can be said to be the backbone of the model. A similar structure is found in US Unified Command as Transportation Command and in China as the PLA Joint Logistics Force. Moreover, 80% of this force in PLA is joint (integrated and serves as a cohesive body) and 20% is service-specific.
The three tri-service agencies, Space, Cyber, and AFSOD already draw personnel from three services. The Defense Space Agency has subsumed the Imagery Processing Centre and Defense Satellite and Control Center with it. Moreover, with the establishment of a Defense Space Research Agency and close coordination with DRDO, ISRO, and other important agencies, DSA could provide the foundation of a Joint Space Command in the future. Similarly, the Defense Cyber Agency currently works to counter the cyber threats but will be integral in the formation of a specific cyber command in near future, since it also draws personnel from the three services.
Seventeen existing Commands of the Indian Armed Forces. Source: India Today
Experts have highlighted the merits of this model to be viewed from an economic and strategic perspective. From an economic perspective, this model would reduce cost by cutting the duplication through optimum allocation and utilization of sources when out under one command. Moreover, the ability to procure military systems and equipment in bulk for the three services together would also ensure cost reduction and strengthened leverage to the defense industry in India. With the strategic deployment of troops under one command, a reduction in the deployment of troops would also reduce the amount of defense budget allocated for salaries, allowances, and pensions, thus cutting through a number of additional costs single-handedly.
From a strategic perspective, synchronization between forces and synergy of capabilities would prepare them for modern and hybrid warfare, resulting in enhanced combat efficacy. Moreover, these strategic commands would cater to modern and hybrid warfare, accommodating the cyber and space domains as well. Joint training and synchronization would result in enhanced command and communication within forces.
Air Defense Command is a classic instance of a combined strategic and economic perspective. Until now, forces which planned, trained, equipped, and utilized their air defense assets separately and on separate frequencies, could now synchronize these assets and use them collectively and cohesively for their responsibilities. Moreover, the integration of medical services within three forces would elevate the medical arm of the unified command and result in better utilization of medical resources.
Major counter-arguments towards this model involve the narrative that India unlike the US and China does not hold any global interests or presence. Moreover, the Indian Armed Forces need not protect huge landmass or lanes of communication like the US, they argue that the current model is sufficient to protect our territory and lanes of communication and is feasible in transportation.
Some experts argue that this model would affect the independent service identity of forces and inter-service friction would be possible considering who will troops report to. Moreover, since the role of Chief of Staff of three forces would be limited to only the deployment of resources to the commander, the utilization of resources would be left on the behest of the theatre commander only, thus resulting in disturbing the role of Chief of Staff. This role of mobilizing resources to the theatre commander and limiting the operational role of Chief of Staff is similar to the practice done in the US unified commands.
Moreover, a major challenge would be the domain of challenge of the theatre commander. Proponents of jointness in armed forces often highlight the thin line of the difference between jointness and integration. The proponents of the former highlight how the limited domain of knowledge and expertise of a theatre commander could affect the functioning of command.
Even though both merits and demerits highlight logical arguments, the truth is this was a much-needed reform in Indian Armed Forces. Thus this integration would lead to theaterisation which would further lead to modernization of forces. Until now, modernization was implemented from the equipment and weapons system per se but this restructuring into unified commands is the other side of modernization of forces. Even though there is a line of difference between Jointmanship among armed forces and Integration of Armed Forces, cooperation is a prerequisite of armed forces.
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