Among the most hotly debated aspects of the proposed Maritime Theatre Command is its head, a powerful ‘C-in-C plus’. Navies of India, the United States, Japan, and Australia participate in the second phase of the Malabar naval exercise, in the Arabian Sea, on Nov. 18

by Sandeep Unnithan

One of the most radical proposals in a recently completed Indian Navy report on a new, integrated Maritime Theatre Command is its commander-in-chief (C-in-C). Details of the proposed theatre command, first brought out by INDIA TODAY magazine, describe a three-star naval officer to be based in Karwar who will head all tri-services and coast guard assets which have a bearing on India’s maritime domain.

It is the post and the powers of the Maritime Theatre Commander that have piqued the interest of defence analysts across services. For starters, the C-in-C MTC will be more powerful than any of the other theatre commanders. There will be at least three theatre commanders headed by army generals—Western, Northern and Eastern. (The National Air Defence Command to be headed by the IAF is being seen as a functional command and not a theatre command like the others.)

There will however be only one Maritime Theatre Commander. He will effectively be something like a Maritime Chief of Defence Staff, an officer with no operational peers. Two of the Navy’s three C-in-C’s—Western and Eastern—will report to him for operational matters (the C-in-C South will continue to report to the CNS as it is a training command). The navy chief loses his operational role and focuses only on ‘raise, train and sustain’ functions. It will take the Navy between nine months to a year to fully set up the MTC after it gets a green signal from the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). The MTC is meant to address all of India’s maritime threats including those from China and Pakistan. But first it may have to assuage concerns from within the services themselves.

Former Northern Army Commander Lt Gen. DS Hooda (Retd) believes the proposal is simply too big to get off the ground. The Navy, he says, might actually end up scuttling the case for the MTC. “The Navy is asking for the creation of an appointment that is more powerful than the Navy chief,” he says. “He will have the army, air force and coast guard under him in addition to all naval assets.”

Former naval top brass are worried, but for different reasons. The C-in-C MTC will report not to the Navy Chief, but to the Chief of Defence Staff in his dual hatted role as Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee. This, they fear, could lead to all maritime assets being placed under someone from the Army.

Interestingly, the Air Force study to recommend a creation of a National Air Defence Command calls for a three-star IAF officer heading this command to report to the Chief of Air Staff and not to the CDS.

This perceived loss of operational control over naval assets is the reason why one former Indian Navy C-in-C who did not want to be named terms it a "regressive proposal". “It will destroy the Navy as an independent service,” he says. Coast Guard officials, meanwhile, worry that the Maritime Theatre Commander will subsume them—the study report recommends all operational coast guard assets to be placed under the MTC.

The navy’s report is to be shortly submitted to Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Bipin Rawat. It is likely to face further debate and discussion before it is finally approved and implemented, as Gen. Rawat says, by 2022.

Government officials familiar with the report say they have factored all of these anxieties. One of the concerns was whether the C-in-C MTC would need to be a full admiral, a four-star flag officer like the Navy chief. This is because his role and responsibilities are like a ‘C-in-C plus’ and he will have the three C-in-Cs reporting to him. But importantly, while the navy chief loses his operational role, he will continue to be the face of the navy. Hence, the rank distinction between him and the MTC. The Chief of Naval Staff is part of the Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) and will also therefore be responsible for all operations, they say.

Who will handle operations in the Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (HQ-IDS), the body reporting to the CDS? The study report recommends the creation of a Vice Chief of Defence Staff Operations. The Commander-in-Chief Andaman and Nicobar Command (CINCAN) billet, the report suggests, will be withdrawn to become the VCDS-Operations. The VCDS-Operations will put his mind to operational matters not only for the MTC but for all theatre commands. He will head the staff who will feed into the COSC and synchronise, allocate forces between the theatre commands.

The CDS and the theatre commands were part of the recommendations of the Group of Ministers which went into the Kargil Review Committee in 2001 and, more recently, the committee of experts headed by Lt Gen. D.B. Shekatkar which submitted its report to the MoD in 2016. Interestingly, the navy representative, a former C-in-C, did not sign the report reportedly because the Navy did not favour the creation of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and wanted only a permanent chairman chiefs of staff committee instead.