Gen Anil Chauhan, the new CDS, has taken the Army, the Navy and the Indian Air Force on board to put together a new draft concept of the theatre command structure to bring about jointness of operation. It has been sent to the cabinet for approval

After years of deliberations, the Indian military has taken a step towards the integration of its three services, or Theaterisation. Theatre commands, aimed to bring jointness or integration amongst the Army, the Indian Air Force and the Navy, could be a reality soon, as differences amongst the services are believed to be resolved.

Gen Anil Chauhan, who took over as Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) in October last year has managed to bring all three services on board and a draft concept of the new Theatre command structure is ready. Now, the revised version of the proposed concept of theatre commands is being sent to the cabinet for its approval. It is expected that some announcement on the matter might be made during the upcoming Combined Commanders Conference (CCC), scheduled for March 30 to April 1 in Bhopal, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi will interact with the top military leadership of the country.

On March 15, the Ministry of Defence introduced the Inter-services Organisations (Command, Control and Discipline) Bill in the Lok Sabha to empower the commander-in-chief and officer-in-command of tri-service commands with disciplinary and administrative powers. Till now, personnel from the army, IAF and navy are governed by their respective laws.

In January 2020, the Modi government appointed Gen Bipin Rawat as the country’s first CDS, and he was given the mammoth task of integrating the forces and improving coordination between them. Gen Rawat believed that every service has to understand the need for complementing each other and the fact that they cannot operate in single silos. With this conviction in mind, he initiated the task to create theatre commands, seen as one of India’s biggest military reforms. Keeping in mind India’s overstretched military resources that has to be at the ready to handle the collusive threats from China and Pakistan, theatrisation was projected as the best option to synergise these limited resources and adapt to new-generation warfare.

To streamline coordination between the Army, the Navy and the IAF, Gen Rawat formulated a plan to have four commands by the end of 2022--the northern, western, air defence and maritime commands. According to Gen Rawat’s plan, a theatre command would have specialised units from the three services and will operate under a common commander. Such commands will work under an officer from any of the three services, depending on the function assigned to that command. Logistics to training and even support service will all be woven into a unit to bring jointness in operations.

The Indian military currently functions under 17 single-service commands. It has eight commands to manage the China front as against a single theatre command of the Chinese military responsible for borders with India.

However, IAF has been vehemently opposing Gen Rawat’s Theaterisation plan. The IAF believes that the creation of an air defence theatre command “may prove counterproductive”. IAF Chief Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhary echoed his predecessor RKS Bhadauria’s opinion by saying that air power has the unique capability of undertaking independent strategic operations. He justified his comments by saying that “air defence and offensive air missions are interdependent and if executed in isolation, these would not only be disjointed but also ineffective in design or execution of the joint strategy”. Chaudhary believes independent air defence systems in the field will have very little relevance in tomorrow’s wars unless they are part of a larger integrated air defence system.

The disagreement led to delays in setting up theatre commands. After the accidental death of Gen Rawat in December 2021, the proposal went into cold storage and the post of CDS fell vacant for the next eight months. Finally, in October 2022, the government chose Gen Anil Chauhan as the country’s next CDS.

After multiple sessions of brainstorming, Gen Chauhan decided to re-draft the entire structure of theatre commands. A fresh look was given to the new structure, keeping the differences of opinion in mind.