For over a year the ambitious Theaterisation of the Armed Forces was in slow motion. The arrival of new CDS, General Anil Chauhan, has given a fillip to this master plan, the most comprehensive one since Independence

The country’s most ambitious defence project, lying in limbo since December 2021, is now being kickstarted.

The plan for Theaterisation of armed forces, or creation of integrated theatre commands, which was spearheaded by the country’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, came to a creaking halt after his death in a helicopter crash, days before the 2022 New Year.

Now, with a few changes, the plan is being fine-tuned for implementation.

Integrated theatre commands are war-fighting entities, containing army, navy and air force components, that would fight jointly to focus and synergise the combat power of all three services, a much-needed security adrenalin that pundits have demanded for a long time.

The plan picked up the pace again after the current CDS, General Anil Chauhan, took over in September last year. A top official said that the plan is expected to be finalised shortly, which would be discussed, examined, and accordingly fine-tuned further in consultation with the CDS. He stressed that the existing plan is still fluid and may undergo additional changes with more internal deliberations, and inputs from the government.

The need to swiftly implement this plan in light of tensions with China and Pakistan was aided in no small measure by the former Army chief, General Manoj Mukund Naravane, who told a Memorial Lecture in the last week of December 2022 that framing a national security strategy was a prerequisite for taking Theaterisation forward to optimally utilise the military’s resources for future wars and operations. Without such a well-defined strategy, pursuing the long-awaited reform would be akin to 'putting the cart before the horse’, he said – a rare testy line from a former head of the military, which, unlike in many other countries, has opted to stay in the barracks.

A national security strategy essentially outlines the path that a country should take to realise its national objectives and interests. The lack of such a strategy has been a subject of discussion within the strategic community for years.

 Theaterisation it proposes to implement wide-ranging reforms, mainly boosting the country’s ability to tackle a two-front threat from China and Pakistan, at intra-defence tussles to control turf and the dynamics of how it is going to be implemented on the ground.

What Is The Traditional Command Structure In The Indian Defence Forces?

The Armed Forces currently have 17 single-service commands spread across the country. The Army and Air Force have seven commands each, while the Navy has three. The Army is divided into six operational commands (field armies) and one training command, each under the command of a Lieutenant General, who has an equal status to the Vice-Chief of Army Staff (VCOAS), working under the control of Army HQ in New Delhi. Of the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) seven commands, five are operational commands and two are functional commands. The Indian Navy currently operates three commands — Western Naval Command located at Mumbai, Southern Naval Command located at Kochi and Eastern Naval Command located at Visakhapatnam.

What Was The Structure Proposed By Former CDS, General Rawat?

The Theaterisation model being pursued under General Rawat sought to set up four integrated commands – two land-centric theatres, an air defence command and a maritime theatre command. The first joint theatre command would be responsible for the border against Pakistan in what the military refers to as the “western theatre”; while a second command — the northern theatre command — would be responsible for the border with China. A third, Navy-dominated theatre, called the “maritime command” will be responsible for the security of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR); and an island command, already functional and called the Andaman & Nicobar Command (ANC), would project power into the eastern Indian Ocean.

What Is The Multiplicity of Commands, And How Has It Prompted The Theaterisation Plan?

Traditionally multiple commands have determined India’s war strategy. For instance, today, four different Army commands look after Pakistan: Northern, West­ern, South-Western and South­ern commands. The Air Force has three commands looking after that frontier while the Navy has two. The frontier with China is managed by a similar multiplicity of commands. The Central Air Command, located in Allahabad, has a role in managing both the western and northern theatres, while the Eastern Air Command at Shillong is responsible for the northern theatre. The Army’s Central and Eastern Commands look after the northern border while the Army’s Northern Command is split between the western and the northern borders. In total, there are 17 commands responsible for guarding against India’s traditional two-front borders.

What Are The Changes Being Proposed By New CDS Gen Anil Chauhan?

The Armed Forces are drawing up the final contours of Theaterisation plans which seek to integrate the Army, Navy, and Indian Air Force and their resources into specific theatre commands. While late Gen Rawat’s initial plan was to create four theatre commands, the services decided to take a fresh look at the proposed reform after Gen Chauhan asked them to do so. One of the top proposals being considered is to create joint theatre commands based on India’s adversaries in the neighbourhood to begin with, as against the four defined theatre commands planned earlier. This involves initially carving out an integrated theatre command to take care of the northern and eastern borders with China, another for the western borders with Pakistan and a third maritime command to tackle threats in the maritime domain, from the 17 service-specific military commands operating under the three services at present. Visakhapatnam, Jaipur, and Lucknow are among the possible locations being discussed for their headquarters. Also under discussion is the creation of a joint training command. Three joint logistics nodes had already been operationalised until 2021. India has two joint services commands at present – the Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC) and the Strategic Forces Command (SFC). Threats emanating from China, Pakistan and via the sea routes are being factored into the plans for theatre commands.

What Were The Indian Air Force’s Objections To Gen Rawat’s Proposals?

The IAF had raised objections to the previous Theaterisation plans, stating that it would divide their fighting assets. Last year, IAF chief Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari had said that the IAF is not opposed to the Theaterisation process if the doctrinal aspect of the force is not compromised by the creation of the new structures. He had also said that while the theatre commands should be future-ready to deal with the emerging forms of warfare in the space and cyber domains, they should not increase the decision-making chains from the existing levels.

How Is The New Consensus Being Arrived At By The Three Services?

Over the last two years, multiple studies were carried out by top officers of the three services to examine the Theaterisation process, which lost pace after Gen Rawat’s death. The services, however, continued their deliberations on the proposed reform with a few table-top exercises held to examine the employment of theatres in different operational scenarios. The plan picked up the pace again after the current CDS, Gen Anil Chauhan, took over in September last year. According to officials, the services were asked to individually study and check the feasibility of adopting a new and separate approach to the Indian military’s Theaterisation plans. In the last three months, multiple meetings have taken place within the three services – and between the three service chiefs and Gen Chauhan on the Theaterisation plans.

How Will Defence Theaterisation Work On The Ground?

Defence officials say that with a national security strategy in place, it will also need a higher defence organisation (HDO), an interface between the government and the military leadership. HDO has to reflect the `whole-of-government, the-whole-of-nation’ approach because it is nations that fight wars. The HDO will not be only of the defence ministry, it has to have the representatives of all ministries. Once decisions are arrived at, the Armed Forces are free to do their job, and all the other coordination must be carried out by this organisation.