Why the Centre wants to implement the theatre command structure and what it will mean for the fighting readiness of the Indian armed forces?

We have all grown up knowing that there are three basic components that make up a country’s armed forces: the army, navy and air force, each with its unique fighting profile and headed by a separate boss. When discussing military might, we ask how strong a country is in each of these departments. But while they may be separate in their sphere of operations and how they are composed, the demands of modern warfare have seen many countries, including the US and China, effect tight integration of these three branches in line with a system of ‘theatre command’. India, too, has taken steps to reorganise its army, navy and air force under seamless command centres to meet the challenges of the future.

What Is Theatre Command?

It is not a new idea. The appointment of Gen. Bipin Rawat as the Chief of Defence Staff in January 2020 and, before that, the setting up of the Integrated Defence Staff in 2001 can all be seen as steps in the direction of achieving greater synergy and fusion between the three branches of the armed forces. The CDS appointment was also accompanied by the creation of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) within the Ministry of Defence with the view to promote ‘jointness’ among the three branches of the armed forces. The idea behind these moves is to create capacities for the armed forces to adapt to the requirements of hybrid warfare and ensure increased coordination to boost the overall fighting capabilities of the Indian armed forces.

At present, the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force each has multiple commands that are vertically split in terms of their command structure. The Army and Air Force have seven commands each while the Navy has three commands. But these commands do not coincide geographically and are scattered across the country. While the details of how exactly the theatre command system will shape up are not immediately clear, reports say that the the proposal currently is for four theatre commands: air defence, maritime, integrated eastern and integrated western theatre commands.

How Will Theatre Command System Help?

The theatre command system is intended to bring better synergy between the three branches of the armed forces. Instead of separate commands for the army, navy, air force, a unified command will be set up to be led by a single commander. Which means that that the military assets that are now split under separate centres of command will be fused into one single command under one operational head who will be responsible for directing and controlling their activities in a given situation.

But apart from operational synergies, experts point out that a theatre command system will also contribute to more streamlined costs and a leaner fighting force. A big chunk of the annual defence budget goes into paying salaries and pensions while outlays do not always grow in line with the actual needs of the armed forces.

Supporters say that the theatre command system will help remove redundancies and bring greater focus in the allocation of resources.

Does India Have Any Such Command?

There are, in fact, two such joint services commands in India at present: the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) and the Strategic Forces Command (SFC). The ANC is based on the theatre command principle and is at present considered to be the only one of its kind in India that combines the Army, Navy and Air Force since the SFC controls the nuclear assets of the country and is not related to any specific theatre of war.

The ANC was set up in 2001 to cover India’s strategic interests in Southeast Asia and the Strait of Malacca. It is based in Port Blair and is headed through rotation by officers of the three services.

What Are The Other Countries That Have A Theatre Command System?

More than 32 countries in the world already have some form of theatre or joint command in place for better integration among the branches of the military. Notable among such countries are the US and China. According to a report, the US was the first to come up with a theatre command system and “presently possesses six geographical and four functional commands". Russia is said to have commenced with the restructuring of its armed forces in 2008 and “has now created four theatre commands".

China’s theatre command system is said to be based on the US model and has “five peacetime geographical commands". It is the Chinese Western Theatre Command that covers India.

What Are The Challenges Towards The Creation of Theatre Commands In India?

According to experts, the key hurdle in integrating the three services under the theatre command system is that of the structure itself, that is who reports to whom and how does the chain of command flow. These involve issues of operational command and control over assets. Further, budgetary allocations and the distribution of funds have also been pointed out as factors that need to be clearly worked out to enable the setting up of a seamless theatre command system.

Another issue may be the existing mismatch between the assets of the Army, Navy and Air Force. According to reports, with fewer perceived resources, the Indian Air Force has concerns about its assets getting spread out thinly over the different theatre commands while it has also been suggested that more clarity is sought on questions of operational control. A piece published by the Observer Research Foundation says that the air force “has only 31 operational squadrons against a modest sanctioned strength of 42 (and that) would make it difficult for IAF to permanently station assets in a particular command with territorial boundaries".