The debate now focuses on the actual implementation of the proposal of Theatre Commands, and the differing interpretations of the same.
The creation of the post of Chief Defence Staff (CDS) in 2019 was billeted as a historic move. It brought into sharp focus the debate on introduction of Theatre Commands (TCs) to the Indian Armed Forces’ organisational structure. The core of the idea behind TCs, is the single word of achieving ‘Jointness.’ Jointness refers to the “the cooperation and integration of different branches of the military,” and given the fact that India operates the 4th largest military in the World, but with each service acting independent of each other, it is indeed a pertinent goal, and a critical need of the hour. This is not a new idea, with more than 32 countries in the world having a level of Joint Services set up, with key military powers like the United States and China, also operating on this model “as it is seen to be a better means of pooling resources and improving efficiency.”
In the Indian context, the idea of TCs is also not a new one. Particularly since the 1999 Kargil War, successive committees of the Government, from the Kargil Review Committee to the Group of Ministers to the Naresh Chandra Committee, have broadly called for structural changes in higher defence management, with the main suggestions ranging from the creation of Joint Theatre Commands (JTCs) to creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff. Based on these recommendations, the Indian military has introduced measures to increase jointness. These measures include the creation of the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) at a bureaucratic level, to the creation of two Joint Commands — the Andaman and Nicobar Command (A&NC) and the Strategic Forces Command(SFC). However, the fact still remains that even after successive committees that have called for crucial reforms, India still has at “present 17 service-specific commands with complex geographical overlaps.”
Given this picture, and despite the generally acknowledged need for greater optimisation and finetuned optimisation of military assets and manpower, the idea of TCs has seen its fair share of criticism. A key area of criticism has been, as pointed out by Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy (Retd.), that “forming Theatre Commands would demand large increase in expenditure with doubtful returns.” This line of criticism is broadly based on a cost benefit analysis of the TC idea, considering the multifaceted nature of the resource crunch that the Indian military faces. As has been conclusively shown, while India is indeed the 4th largest spender on Military, the percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) allocated to Defence has shrunk steadily with it currently standing at 1.8% of the GDP, the lowest since the 1962 Border War. Even more concerning is the fact, that “The share of defence pensions, pay and allowances has gone up from 49 per cent in 2011-12 to 61 per cent in 2020-21. The share of capital expenditure has declined from 36 per cent in 2012 to 25 per cent in 2020-21,” in effect an expense which “has come at the cost of the stores and modernisation budget, two key components of the DSE that are essential for acquiring and maintaining hard military capability.” Given this broad picture, as shown by evidence, military spending has successively been on a decline — and a large portion of the earmarked going into manpower costs — the experiment of introducing a whole new radical system of organisation, critics argue, would have no perceived benefits except eat into precious resources, and as such is not the need of the hour. The push to change a well working system and introduce a new radical system is not the need of the hour.
Conversely, recognising this same set of problems, including the fact that the allocation towards Pension isn’t going to change anytime soon, proponents of this system argue for the creation of TCs, which as the concept argues is based on ensuring better utilisation of scarce resources, by way of increasing levels of synergy and reducing redundancies.
Take for example China, which as noted above also has a Joint Theater Command System. In order to meet the challenge of increasing payroll and save the budget required for modernisation, President Xi called for “of a reduction of 300,000 troops in September 2015. The PLA in 1949 was eight million strong and has, since then, been reduced progressively as per the evolving doctrine and the need to modernise the military.” In his capacity as the former Chief of Army Staff, the current Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat also called for the creation of a leaner and meaner force, and current pension and recruitment proposals put out by the newly created Department of Military Affairs (DMA) also seem to point towards this trend. These proposals aimed towards reform range from cutting down “overall strength by about 1.5 lakh personnel” and ideas such as those of Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs), all with the aim of effectively maintaining a fighting edge while keeping in mind above mentioned budgetary constraints.
The focus on China is also a critical need of the hour, because the latest waves of reforms undertaken by China since 2015 have “translated to greater prominence for jointness and integration among the different arms of the PLA … These efforts at bringing about better integration have been on full display on the Sino-Indian border.” A situation which as evidenced by the ongoing border crisis, poses serious security implications for India. As has been noted by analysts, most worrying is the reorganisation of its forces which were previously under two separate commands, into one massive Western Command, “responsible for the full land borders with India.” In India, however, “eight operational commands of India would be involved, i.e. three Army Commands, three Air Force Commands, and in case of a naval dimension, the Navy’s Eastern Command. In addition, the sole Tri-Service Andaman and Nicobar Theatre Command would also come into play.”
All in all, given this set of cards, and especially with the creation of the post of CDS, it is fair to say that debate regarding the operational need for TCs has effectively been settled, and the reorganisation of the Armed Forces is but an inevitability. This is substantiated with the very mandate of the newly created DMA being “Facilitation of restructuring of military commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through establishment of joint/theatre commands,” and the role of the CDS being defined to “Bring about jointness in operation, logistics, transport, training, support services, communications, repairs and maintenance, etc of the three services.”
The debate now focuses on the actual implementation of the proposal of Theatre Commands, and the differing interpretations of the same. On the one hand, this project has been the brainchild of the current CDS, General Rawat, and in the timeline proposed by him, India “By 2022, we will have the structures in place and the rollout will start. I expect air defence to roll out faster. The maritime command will follow next, by 2021, and by 2022, we will at least start the rollout of land-based theatre commands.”
On the other hand, others like the COAS, while recognising the need for jointness, integration and optimisation of resources, have also called for a broader timeline of restructuring, with General Naravane on the topic of Integrated Defence Commands saying that the rollout will be “deliberate, thoughtful and well considered” and its fruition will take a “number of years.”
Across the spectrum, defence analysts, strategists, and researchers, have also been arguing on the specificities of the planned proposals. These range from debates on the number of Maritime Commands — either one or two — or as has already been argued here, to debates on the role of airpower and flexibility under joint commands, to debates on the hierarchy and chain of command, to various other challenges and hurdles that will need to be crossed in order to make this reorganisation possible.
At the same time, one cannot forget that these debates are also occurring at a time when the Indian military is facing several precarious challenges coupled with a complex and changing threat matrix. As has been noted above, a major factor pushing for the heightened need for Theatre Commands, has been the broad military reforms within the Chinese military, and now India finds itself with the possibility of an active LAC, alongside of an already active LOC. This has heightened in many ways the call for serious reforms in the Indian military.
This brings to the second line of criticism with regards to TCs, that is more operational than conceptual in nature. The line of criticism broadly being, that these reforms cannot operate in a vacuum, and in order to be effective need structural integration alongside a supporting ecosystem. It, therefore, calls for a much more persistent and heightened need of targeted intervention, with the idea of TCs. Critics in this area, on the point of a supporting ecosystem, have argued for the need to enable systems such as a robust and vibrant defence-industrial manufacturing complex, recognition of the changing nature of warfare from a linear land based one to one that is spread over to fast emerging critical domains such as those of cyber, space, and psychological. There is merit to this line of argumentation as well, with many noting that optimisation of resources also calls for greater introduction and reliance on technological forces, assets and capabilities. These include next generation weaponry and artificial intelligence, to other disruptive technologies. Analysts have pointed out how India doesn’t yet have a well-developed defence-industrial complex, which can support the aims of modernising the Indian military. For example, despite the CDS saying just recently that “Our focus will remain on indigenisation and efforts to progressively support Atmanirbhar Bharat is our mission.” India still remains the 2nd largest arms importer in the world, and faced with the ongoing border crisis with China, the Indian military is “importing varied material, especially assorted ammunition, missiles and ordnance worth over INR 10,000 crore, to meet long-term deficiencies in its military’s armoury.”
Beyond this, is also the criticism that with the idea of TCs, there also needs to be a realisation of the very changing nature of warfare itself from the introduction of drones and unmanned systems to emerging domains of cyber, electronic and space. To point again towards China, in these critical areas, for example, the PLA has already introduced “The establishment of the Strategic Support Force, which comprises three independent forces — cyber force, space force and electronic warfare.”
In all, the move toward JTCs is a much-needed move, and it appears that it will be the driving force going forward, especially under the CDS. At the same time, there still exist multiple hurdles ranging from operational to conceptual that need to be taken into account, in order for these reforms to fully bear fruit and transform the Indian military.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.