The three-day Combined Commanders’ Conference is based on the theme Ready, Resurgent, Relevant.
A top military conference, which began in Bhopal on Thursday and will be addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 1, will bring into sharp focus India’s renewed push for Theaterisation for the best use of its military’s resources to fight future wars, the operational readiness of the armed forces in the backdrop of the lingering border row with China, and the progress in achieving self-reliance in the defence manufacturing sector, officials familiar with the matter said.

The three-day Combined Commanders’ Conference is based on the theme Ready, Resurgent, Relevant.

“During the conference, deliberations will be held over a varied spectrum of issues pertaining to national security, including jointness and Theaterisation in the armed forces,” the PMO said in a statement. “Preparation of the armed forces and progress in defence ecosystem towards attaining ‘Atmanirbharta’ (self-reliance) will also be reviewed.”

“Theaterisation, operational readiness of the armed forces and self-reliance are the most important issues for the armed forces at the moment. We can expect forward movement in all these areas as the PM is himself providing the directions to make the armed forces stronger,” said Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd), director general, Centre for Air Power Studies.

Those taking part in the conference include defence minister Rajnath Singh, the chief of defence staff, the three service chiefs, and top commanders of the armed forces. Personnel below officer rank (PBOR) will also take part in conference.

“Inclusive and informal interaction will also be held with soldiers, sailors and airmen from army, navy and air force who will contribute to the deliberations,” the PMO said. PBOR took part in the Combined Commanders’ Conference for the first time in 2021 when it was held at Kevadia in Gujarat and attended by the PM.

The conference comes at a time when the government is pushing a bill in Parliament to empower the commanders of tri-services organisations to take action against service personnel of any of the three services -- serving under existing or future joint commands or institutions -- to ensure discipline and effective discharge of duties.

The existing legal framework of the armed forces has its limitations when it comes to tri-services matters as officers of one particular service lack the authority to exercise disciplinary and administrative powers over personnel belonging to another service. For instance, a three-star general heading a joint command cannot take action against air force or navy personnel serving under him.

Military personnel are currently governed by the respective laws of the three services , the Army Act, 1950, the Air Force Act, 1950, and the Navy Act, 1957.

The Inter-Services Organisations (Command, Control and Discipline) Bill, 2023, also seeks to empower the government to notify the setting up of inter-services organisations, including joint services commands --a key goal of the ongoing Theaterisation drive -- comprising units and personnel drawn from the three services, and placed under a commander-in-chief.

Efforts to push Theaterisation have gathered steam again after General Anil Chauhan took over as CDS in September 2022; the momentum was hit after his predecessor, General Bipin Rawat, died in a helicopter crash in December 2021.

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. This, however, is being reworked on the back of the Indian Air Force’s reservations about the joint structures that were earlier under consideration. The armed forces have 17 single-service commands spread across the country. The army and air force have seven commands each, while the navy has three. Creating theatres would involve merging the existing commands.

The situation along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China is also expected to be discussed during the conference, the officials said.

Despite four rounds of disengagement from Galwan Valley, Pangong Tso, Gogra (PP-17A) and Hot Springs (PP-15), the Indian and Chinese armies still have more than 60,000 troops each and advanced weaponry deployed in the Ladakh theatre. The Indian and Chinese armies have held 17 rounds of talks so far, but problems at Depsang in Daulet Beg Oldi sector and Charding Nullah Junction (CNJ) in Demchok sector are still on the negotiating table. The two sides have been locked in a standoff for almost three years.

On March 14, India announced the setting up of a top-level panel to fast-track infrastructure projects in areas close to LAC. The projects being executed in forward areas involve several ministries including defence; road transport and highways; environment, forest and climate change; railways and communications, and power and new and renewable energy.

The secretaries of these ministries will be part of the new committee.

Self-reliance in defence will figure prominently on the conference’s agenda, the officials said on a day the defence ministry signed contracts worth ₹32,100 crore for buying indigenous military hardware to boost the capabilities of the armed forces.

India has earmarked 75% of this year’s defence capital procurement budget for buying weapons and systems from local manufacturers, a move aimed at unlocking new opportunities for achieving self-reliance targets and ramping up the country’s defence exports.

The share of the domestic sector in the defence budget was never higher. India set aside 68% of the military’s capital acquisition budget for making indigenous purchases in 2022-23, 64% in 2021-22, and 58% in 2020-21. Around ₹1 lakh crore has been set aside for domestic procurement this year, compared to ₹84,598 crore, ₹70,221 crore and ₹51,000 crore in the three previous years.

Apart from creating a separate budget for buying locally made military hardware, the government has taken a raft of steps to promote self-reliance in the defence manufacturing sector including increasing foreign direct investment (FDI) from 49% to 74%, and notifying hundreds of weapons and systems that cannot be imported.