Written by Jayeesha Taneja, a second-year journalism student.
A ‘theatre command system’ is on that brings coordination between the three armed forces – that is the army, navy, and the air force. The idea is to have one unified command that is spearheaded by a single commander in times of war.
Let’s break it down here…
What is “theater of war”?
The dictionary meaning of the term ‘theater of war’ means the entire land, sea, and air areas that or may become involved directly in war operations. The larger purpose of these types of unified commands, in most countries, is to have better planning and military response towards a unified approach to war and combat.
The origins of ‘theater commands’
Theater commands find their roots in the First World War, where the need of having all the forces together in one place was felt. The efficiency of collective effort and a better structure and scope to function within was an idea that was conceptualized into the existence of theater commands which emerged physically during the Second World War.
Models and variations in theater commands
The first country to incorporate theater commands in its military reforms was the United States during the Second World War with the establishment of unified commands, approved by President Harry S. Truman.
China has recently brought in reforms and set up five theater commands. Among the five unified commands, the Chinese Western Theater Command was formed to carry out operations with regard to India, apart from ensuring and maintaining internal security and stability in Tibet and Xinjiang.
Theater commands in India explained
After the Kargil War of 1999, The Kargil Review Committee concluded that there was a need for higher defense management, which would reduce the number of casualties in war.
This recommendation further evolved into the planning of introducing unified commands.
During Prime Minister Modi’s Independence Day speech at the Red Fort on 15th August 2019, a new post- Chief of Defense Services was declared along with proposing the biggest military reforms in the Indian Armed Forces i.e creation of theater commands.
Here’s how it works in India.
India currently functions with 19 commands in total, where 17 are service-oriented- 7 under the Indian Army, 7 under the Indian Air Force, and 3 under the Indian Navy along with a tri-service command in Andaman and Nicobar Island and Strategic Forces Command.
The proposed reform here is to convert these 17 commands into four to five unified or theater commands. The rationale that defends this proposal is better planning, military response, and cost-efficiency in the longer run. These commands will also aid in having a unified approach to fighting future wars.
The advantages of the creation of theater commands have a strong boot in the ground when it is seen in contrast to its potential threats.
India’s first neighbor- China already possesses a geographical advantage by having control over the interior lines of communication and has one unified command along the entire border that India shares with the country.
In a case where there is an offense launched by any of these neighbors, India’s military strategy would rather destroy the enemy’s military combat rather than intrude and occupy their territory. For the efficient functioning and success of such operations, the military feels a need to have maximum combat employment at the point of decision-making during any crisis.
As per the information in the public domain, there are two proposed models according to which the unified commands are to be organized in our country – geographical land-based models and threat-based models.
The former would have under its purview- Western Theater Command a bi-service command, starting from Siachen to Rann of Kutch, which will also carry out counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir.
The second command will be the Northern Theater command, again a bi-service command (Army and Air Force) which will extend from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh which will carry out counter-insurgency operations in the North East.
This model promotes better planning and synchrony of operations. The later, threat model includes the Integrated Central Command which will cover Indo-Tibet Border which runs from Himachal and Uttrakhand to Sikkim also covers Chicken’s Neck. The advantage of this command will be the singular commander who controls all strike and pivot Corps and other options for launching offense.
A Maritime Theater Command will be formed after unifying the eastern and western naval commands along with taking some assets from the other two Arms.
Shortcomings of theater commands in India
India’s Armed Services put their individual roles and goals before functioning jointly and valuing integration in operations. Neither of the Arms of the Indian Armed forces shares either commonality of equipment or economies of scale, lacking the ability to operate together among themselves.
Usually, all inter-service decisions are taken and coordinated by the Services Headquarters. The creation of theater commands, even though supports decentralization of power, it also brings conflicts in the existence of power differences where each service may have different prerequisites and choices of control in order to deliver decisions.
The Indian Air Force is not very enthusiastic about the creation of theater commands in India.
This is very well reasoned out by Retd. Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam. He mentions the problem in the impact, relevance, and respect of the Indian Air Force when it is required to carry out a mission with 6-8 fighter aircraft in enemy territory. Leading a mission like this requires the officer to have more than 2,000 hours of flying and 13-16 years of experience in the cockpit.
There are some very specific and unique characteristics of the missions carried out within the Air Force which can only be understood and strategically weighed by Air Forces and those who are equipped to by the Arm to manage them. The other point raised was that the current air military resources of the Indian Air Force are considered inadequate to be split among these theater commands. The numbers to be enough in the Indian Air force need to be doubled for the existing fighter aircraft, transport aircraft, helicopters, and other air defense assets.
The road ahead
Specialists feel for India to assume full proficiency with such a reform, along with enough training and specialization to function with such kind of an organizational change, it would take at least a decade. The chain of command has to be streamlined in order to avoid future conflicts because of clashes in the power hierarchy. In totality, synergy across the three services and clear leadership commitment is mandatory if the country is to see the concept of theater commands become a reality.