India is perhaps the only country with a large military that is yet to adopt joint endeavours in the true sense, despite talking about it all the time. Despite everyone who matters endorsing the concept, the talk has not been translated into action. The main reasons for this state of inaction need to be highlighted before we proceed further. The important ones are:

  • There is ‘comfort’ in the status quo, despite knowing that we are committing hara-kiri if we do not theaterise our military commands quickly.
  • Policy makers do not understand the difference between ‘coordination of operations’ and ‘being joint’.
  • The Indian Bureaucracy, which has the ears of the elected leaders, will lose its paramount position in the government, which it is loath to do, especially, as it has worked hard in becoming the premier officialdom of the country.
  • The three service chiefs, as well as the CDS, appointed by the government after agonising over the appointment for decades, do not want any reduction of their fiefdoms.
  • The Indian Air Force ideologues have learnt the wrong lessons on how air forces should operate, despite having little clout when compared to those from whom such wrong lessons have been learnt.
  • Citing the massive victory against Pakistan in 1971, as a benchmark, the Air Force feels the Indian Military will again respond in a similar manner, forgetting that it were the personalities of that time, both military and political, as also other positive factors available on account of the prevailing situation, which made it possible; such factors are unlikely to be available in future.
  • It is a truism that waging war is becoming more and more complex and if one does not train and prepare together, one is liable to fail.
  • Being ‘command oriented’ services, the idea of taking orders from a Theatre Commander of a different service, is a psychological barrier.

The nature of war is constantly changing. Changes are both in weaponry and in the planning and conduct of war. As new weapons are fielded, their counters follow, at times fairly early and sometimes later.

Militaries that identify the strength and potency of newly inducted weapons and/or munitions have an edge over their adversaries. The methodologies for fighting also change, depending on constants like geography and terrain, leadership, innovative planning, taking calculated risks and changing the methodologies of waging wars.

Without delving into details, some aspects need to be highlighted as they have had a profound effect on the conduct of wars and the influence they wielded on the outcome of battles and wars. During World War I, both sides ignored the advent of different types of machine guns, resulting in millions of lives lost.

In World War II, the concept of combined operations within the army came to the fore and later the concept of ‘joint operations.

Airpower advocates, from early personalities such as William Mitchell and Giulio Douhet, to present day Air Force leadership, still forecast that newer and better airpower technology will almost certainly result in quick, decisive wars, but they tend to ignore the realities. Airpower advocates seem to profess that the right airpower technology could almost bloodlessly force enemies to capitulate.

While it is not disputed that airpower has changed the character of war, airpower does not and probably will not win wars by themselves.

Operation Desert Storm launched thousands of sorties to eject Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991. Few Americans and relatively few Iraqis died in this short conflict. Yet, Iraq capitulated only after the four-day ground invasion.

Operation Allied Force took over ninety days to eject Serbian forces from Kosovo. Many believe that the threat of a ground invasion finally convinced Serbia to retrograde when airpower alone could not.

While airpower certainly played into policymaker decisions, it did not convince North Vietnam, North Korea, or the Axis powers in World War II (WWII) to surrender.

Theories by a few ideologues who propagated that it was the Air Force that will be the lead force and it will win wars in future, without the land forces, have remained just theories! However, their theories were debunked when they were permitted to try them, as in the bombing of Dresden in Germany during WWII, which was reduced to rubble but had no effect on the Allies advance or shortening of the War.

The narrative of what emerged from World War II was the need for conducting joint operations to win wars and battles, incurring the minimum casualties.

There are many examples in recent history of the efficacy of joint endeavours. Most major militaries have been following it but India has only talked about it so far. Major reasons for this state of affairs are:

  • Lack of understanding by the political leadership of ‘matters military’ and no desire to learn.
  • Bureaucracy, which is lording over the military in our country, is loath to accept a system where the CDS and/or the joint Theatre Commanders are part of the policy or strategy-making loop.
  • The Service Chiefs, though periodically endorsing the dire need to be joint, do not want it as they envisage that they will lose their fiefdoms substantially.
  • The Air Force still feels that they would get engulfed by the army, which is substantially bigger. The Air Force also has grandiose aims, as discussed earlier.

It is unfortunate that none of the above has understood that joint endeavours are the biggest force-multipliers, which win wars and at the same time add confidence and strength to our warriors of all three services.

Now that we have a CDS in place and a joint integrated staff, it is time to move and start setting up Theatre Commands. Unfortunately, when the government had appointed late Gen Bipin Rawat as the first CDS, insufficient thought was given to both the structures and the concepts needed alongside for the operations of the Theatre Commands.

The bureaucrats responsible, without due application of minds haphazardly announced a few lopsided duties and also formed the so-called Department of Military Affairs (DMA), in their bid to ensure the perpetuation of the premier place of the bureaucracy with an unworkable structure.

It is laughable but true that the Defence Secretary, a bureaucrat, is responsible for the conduct of war and not the Defence Minister!

The need for Theatre Commands has been mooted at various fora since 1965, when the then Chief of Army Staff, General J.N. Choudhary suggested it after the end of the 1965 War with Pakistan. Thereafter, it was raised many times, but two examples will suffice.

Nearly 19 years back in 2004, then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told the Combined Commanders Conference, “Reforms within the Armed Forces also involve recognition of the fact that our Navy, Air Force and Army can no longer function in compartments with exclusive chains of command and single operational plans.”

Later, General S. Padmanabhan, Chief of Army Staff (October 2000 to December 2002) had said, “There is no escaping the military logic of creating suitably constituted Integrated Theatre Commands and Functional Commands for the Armed Forces as a whole.”

Ironically, only those recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee and the follow up Group of Ministers reports have been implemented which enables the bureaucracy to retain its supremacy in functioning of India’s defence apparatus. In 2006, the then Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Arun Prakash lamented, “What worries me is the collective sense of indifference with which we have, since independence, regarded the study of war, strategy and national security.”

Sixteen years later, we still don’t have a national security strategy despite the NSA having been tasked to define one in 2019.

The aim of setting up Theatre Commands is not to reduce the number of senior officers in the armed forces, or to save money or create dual command and control, as one learns from the media. The aim is to optimise the ability of the armed forces to enhance the deterrence value of our forces and to send a message to our adversaries that we will give them such a fight that will ensure our victory in future wars.

Structures are as important as highly trained soldiers; modern weaponry; good leadership; and the support of the entire nation. Hence, the need for Theatre Commands structures that are not unwieldy but sufficiently thought out and are amenable to viable command and control.

The bits and pieces that have appeared in the media talk about one army heavy Theatre Command for the Northern Borders in its entirety and one naval command for the entire 7000 km coastline! This is patently wrong and violates the principle of unwieldy command and control.

Before suggesting a plan to form Theatre Commands, their areas of operations, their structures, and their tasks in outline, let us fall back on military home truths that have been developed over centuries. A peep into history should clear the cobwebs, if any.

When the army was initially sent to J&K in 1947, to stop and push back the raiders and their Pakistani military handlers, Western Command was hastily set up, as it was visualised that we now need to guard a long border with newly created Pakistan and for command and control of the forces fighting in J&K.

The 1965 War with Pakistan was fought by Western Command that was responsible for the entire international border with Pakistan, less the desert sector, as well as all operations in J&K. Wisely, at the end of the war, the entire J&K was detached from Western Command and a new command, named Northern Command was formed.

Learning lessons from the 1971 War with Pakistan, once again, reorganisation of Command boundaries was carried out, to better manage our borders. Similarly, the Southwestern Command was formed, as changes in the geography of areas demanded it. Hence, we do not have to ape other countries and do what they have done.

In this context, our bureaucracy was quick to state that since China had formed only one Command for the entire land border with India, we should also do so. Our worthy file-pushers and those who are in the National Security Council (NSC) failed to realise the vast difference between the terrain in Tibet – a flat plateau with a vast network of roads, where lateral movement was easy and our side of the border, which demands adequate in-situ forces as moving reserves would be time consuming, as the geography of the area does not favour lateral movement. In addition, our communications infrastructure also suffers from similar problems.

We, therefore, need more than one Theatre Command for conducting successful operations along the northern borders. Another important factor is that parts of our northern borders have more than one country opposite it, which changes the dynamics of warfighting considerably.

We need to field a minimum of three and maybe four Theatre Commands for covering the border/LoC/ AGPL from Jammu to the border with Myanmar inclusive. All Theatre Commanders must be four-star officers on account of the highly important Theatres assigned to them.

Their Component Commanders would be three-star officers like the present corps commanders or AOC’s-in-C. Two out of these four Theatre Command lend themselves to be headed by Air Force four-star officers and two by Army four-star officers.

For the remaining land border with Pakistan, one Theatre Command should suffice. One more Army-oriented Theatre Command is needed, viz Logistics Theatre Command, with an all-India coverage in the hinterland. All present Areas and Sub-areas, as well as static units would be controlled by it.

Coming to the Navy, whoever suggested one Naval Theatre Command must be a bureaucrat! Logic demands two Naval Theatre Commands, as the operational requirements in the Arabian Sea going up to the Eastern Seaboard of Africa and the Bay of Bengal up to the Malacca Straits and beyond are different.

The Eastern Naval Theatre Command would inevitably be China oriented, with one of its components as the existing A&N Joint Command. The Western Naval Theatre Command would be both Pakistan and China centric, keeping in view the naval bases China has acquired in this part of the world. Both Naval Theatre Commands must be headed by four-star Flag officers and component commander by three-star officers.

Hopefully, we may have an amphibious component with one or both Naval Theatre Commands, besides potent air components.

Since the inception of the Integrated staff, the A&N Command and the Strategic Command, we have wasted over two decades in making no effort to establish Joint Training institutions. If we had done so, we would have had a jump start in forming Theatre Commands.

Hence, it is absolutely essential that we at least start now, so that the joint culture gets a fillip immediately. Let us start the ball rolling at least now, while the nitty gritty of Theatre Command structures is being finalised.

If the above recommendations are accepted, in full or partially, what would then be the role of the present Chiefs. Inevitably, their roles pertaining to command of troops and formations will be substantially reduced; in fact, eliminated.

However, their roles in other important areas will get enhanced. These include Manpower, Training, Logistics and Provisioning of all types, including war-like equipment and stores. They would continue to be members of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, under the CDS and would perform the role of Mentors for their respective service.

They would be responsible for recruiting of all ranks and training; all aid to civil authority; command of all Area Headquarters; ceremonials; honours and awards; procurements of all types; advisors to the Defence Minister and other similar functions.

The Indian Armed Forces are on the cusp of formulating an important plan for introducing Theatre Commands as the premier structure in our higher defence organisation. While doing so, we need to keep in mind a few home truths.

First, the structures as well as the concepts and doctrine must be based only on military considerations. Let there be no scope for introducing any extraneous elements of political or bureaucratic factors being sneaked in, for any reason whatsoever.

Second, there is no scope at this stage to say nay and scuttle or delay the implementation of this very important project. We have wasted a lot of precious time in trying to get everyone on board and tried to carry everyone; it would be foolish to try to reinvent everything again.

Once the plan is finally firm, it is suggested that an implementation committee be formed, preferably under the leadership of the Defence Minister or the CDS to ensure the smooth transformation from a Single Service Commands to Theatre Commands.

Lt General Vijay Oberoi is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff and the Former Founder Director of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), and now its Director General Emeritus. Views expressed are the writer’s own.