The Theatre Commands must be based on continental and maritime domains and related to the adversaries concerned

by Lt General Prakash Menon

Last week, I wrote about the military identity being targeted by civilian authorities in the context of civil-military relations. The argument made was that the impact of the military’s denuded identity could manifest itself in tainted military advice. That, in turn, could cost the nation dear. In fact, the phenomenon is layered atop another identity struggle that got deepened three years ago when the Narendra Modi government created the post of the Chief of Defence Staff and mandated him to restructure the Armed Forces by creating Theatre/Joint Commands. Thereafter, what has apparently transpired is the boosting of self-preservation efforts due to perceived threats to the individual Service identity that has been traditionally based on land, sea and air identity. Integration through restructuring is facing headwinds that are derived from such perceptions. The end result is that the Theatre Command is nowhere in sight.

An examination of perceptions of each Service could uncover the dynamics of forces at play that are posing obstacles to the integration, which is the key objective of the reform.


The fundamental identity of the Army is founded on the notion that it is indispensable for control of land. Such control is exercised by the soldier with a gun, albeit supported by a spectrum of facilities that could include intelligence, firepower, logistics etc. Defending India’s vast land boundaries is the Army’s primary role. Manpower is its primary resource base that is perennially being supplemented by technological advancements in the realm of protection, firepower, mobility, and communications. Technology is also creating opportunities to reduce manpower through advancements in automation and robotics. But considering the vast land borders and the nature of the two primary adversaries, it is not yet clear as to what degree can manpower be replaced by any technological agency.

To the Army, manpower is fundamentally irreplaceable and the outlook of its identity is that as far as land warfare is concerned, all other military elements like air power must therefore be utilised to support it in carrying out its primary role of defending land borders.

Air Force

The Air Force has for long cast its identity as a ‘strategic’ force that has the potential of flexibility, reach, speed and destructiveness. Its primary role is about weakening the adversaries’ strategic capacity that could include economic, political or military targets. Close support to the Army is viewed as a secondary task in the tactical category and one that is being increasingly replaced by land-based missiles, artillery, attack helicopters and drones.

They have for long stated that the under-appreciation of air power’s potential has resulted in chronic deficiencies in combat capability.

Its role in the maritime domain is also envisaged as being able to be the lead player in those areas where its aircraft can operate from airfields based on island territories or parts of peninsular India. This view often clashes with Naval contention that aircraft carrier-based aviation is indispensable, which must be therefore prioritorised for acquisition.


The Navy views India’s strategic potential as being historically undermined because of the country’s sea blindness. It believes that it has the capacity to develop its naval capability as long as it is provided the requisite fiscal resources. Its attempts to garner a greater share of the defence budget has not been successful so far and it hopes that the shift to Theatre Command System would bring relief due to the feasibility of the planning process becoming holistic and based on a broader strategic perspective. Overall, in terms of identity, it probably hopes that its long-suppressed identity will get its due.

The Way Forward

The shift to Theatre Commands cannot possibly be achieved without some makeover within each Service regarding their own identity that is primarily anchored in the three geographies of land, sea and air. The demand is of a shift in their self-concepts and is in essence about watering down the assumed ownership rights of the three environments. The inability to reach a consensus on the conceptualisation of the theatre system is probably the outcome that is rooted in each Service wanting to either preserve their individual identity or strengthen it. The Navy probably views it as an opportunity (more resources). The Air Force feels threatened (loss of control over air force assets). The Army sees both opportunities (more control) and threats (loss of manpower).

From the discussion so far, it would be obvious that there are three areas of contention. The first, is the geographical architecture of the Theatre Command. Second, the force planning process. And third, the operational control and application of various assets operated by different Services.

Geographical Architecture

The Theatre Commands must be based on continental and maritime domains and related to the adversaries concerned. Also, if conceptually, it is accepted that large theatres facilitate better flexible cooperation in large numbers, it is not difficult to conceive of two continental (Northern and Western) and two maritime theatres (East and West). An important point to keep in mind is that the theatres have to be given responsibility also for internal security that should encompass the entire land mass within their areas of control.

Ownership Versus Responsibility

The next step is to tackle the prevailing notion of ownership of geographic domains. Ownership rights carries the air of perpetual belonging. In practice, it means the Army, Navy and Air Force claim exclusive rights over these geographic domains. What is required instead is the switch to the notion of responsibility that allows for Long Term Joint Planning and decentralised operational execution.

Long-Term Joint Planning

The long-term joint planning process is key to deciding through consensus the allocation of budget and resources to the three Services. The role of the CDS in achieving consensus is crucial. Ideally, it should be informed by a National Security Strategy, which unfortunately has been missing from at least in the open domain. In its absence, it is a handicap but one that should not be a show stopper as political and military threats are obvious and creation of military assets to meet them could be visualised. If the joint planning process is adopted, it will help to alleviate to some extent the fears harbored by the Services regarding the allocation of resources to each.

Joint Operational Execution

Joint operational planning and execution must embrace the concept of ‘lead roles’. Instead of ownership, the emphasis has to be on lead roles of each Service depending on the context. The context determines who is to play which role. This will help to utilise optimally suited instruments for achieving the task and is indifferent to ownership based on geographic domains. Therefore, if required, drones controlled by aircraft carriers can be used to target ships as well as inland targets. Alternatively, land-based drones can be used to target ships or inland targets.

Land, Naval and Air Power is not owned by any theatre but is instead flexibly utilised through the centralised joint operational planning process at various levels that could be followed by decentralised execution.

It would be a pity to let internecine identity issues between the three Services retard the pace of the most significant structural reform. It requires the military leadership to change the perspective to military power rather than being tied down to an outlook inwardly rooted in land, sea and air power. A non-partisan perspective on the part of each Service to achieve deepened cooperation is the need of the hour.