Integrated Theatre Commands-Does the concept suit India

Sub Title : Are they required in our context?

Issues Details : Vol 13 Issue 4 Sep/Oct 2019

Author : Air Marshal Ramesh Rai, VM

Page No. : 30

Category : Military Affairs

: September 26, 2019

Editor’s  Comments

The announcement by the Prime Minister about the appointment of a CDS on 15 Aug 2019, has expectedly given rise to suggestions about the need for Integrated Theatre Commands. Change in any status quo  or even suggestions thereto  are bound to prompt opposing views. We at Defstrat encourage such differing opinions so that meaningful debates are generated.

Our view is  that Theatres of War, as generally understood, may not be applicable in our context but it is also not necessary to apply the template of other nations while creating our structures. Future wars will require very high levels of jointness, inter-operability and integration and this would be the primary basis for creating Integrated Theatre Commands. Both planning and execution of operations would be greatly facilitated by such structures. India’s physical layout and the threat paradigm warrant that our Integrated Theatre Commands are geographically oriented. Such organisations should be custom built and not cast in stone so that the Highest Defence Management retains the freedom to switch forces on need basis


The Prime Minister’s announcement on the creation of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is a significant move in the re-structuring of our armed forces. The CDS would be the single-point adviser on issues of joint strategy and planning, weapons procurement, manpower allocation and joint operations. Many commentators have surmised this action, as a prelude to carving theatres of war with an integrated command. It seems rather unusual that WWII with 98 million Sq. Kms of geographical war space had two theatres of war and the Indian sub-continent which measures merely 3.3 million Sq. Kms should divide itself into three as being articulated. Such variance obliges a revisit of the basic definition of a theatre to understand its operational connotations and assess whether such restructuring would suit India.

Carl Von Clausewitz’s definition of Theatre

“A portion of space over which war prevails and has its boundaries protected and possesses a kind of independence. The protection may consist in an important natural obstacle, presented by the country or even it being separated by a considerable distance from the rest of the space embraced in war.

Such a portion is not a piece of the whole, but a small whole complete and consequently in such a condition that changes which take place to other points in the seat of war have only an indirect or no direct influence at all.”

Key Characteristics

The key characteristics that emerge from the Carl Von Clausewitz definition are: Independence of a theatre, its demarcation through natural boundaries, large distance from the rest of the space embraced in war, so as not to bear direct influence on the other and to serve as a complete whole. The theatres of the two WW II conformed to this definition. The European and Pacific theatres were over 1000 miles removed, their operations independent and the coastlines of various continents served as natural boundaries. In the Indian context, theatres would be within our homeland, adjacent and with no natural demarcation. Implicit in being adjacent is the aspect of operational influence on each other entailing them to be under one commander, who could weigh influences and accord priority. Theatres with integral resources are required when wars are being fought away from homeland since resources cannot be quickly relocated.  Such is not the case with India. Ours is a small sized country, with smaller lines of communication making relocation of forces feasible. Carving theatres would be unnecessarily making pieces of our composite whole, in contradiction with the fundamental ingredient of the definition.

Division of Forces

India must see itself as one theatre much like the entire US landmass which is three times larger and organized under one single theatre called USNORTHCOM. Other US Theatre Commands cover portions of the entire globe and are miles away from their homeland. Each is separated from the other. For Russia and China which are six and three times our size, the key enablers are their size and the need for out of homeland contingencies. Russia is organized into Four Regional Commands but with an Independent Air and Space Command, Strategic Nuclear Forces Command and an Independent Transport Command. Clearly, the Air defence of the country hasn’t been divided. In China’s case, the Theatre Commands were established very specifically to bypass the military bureaucracy & establish direct political control over the military. The Chinese theatre commands are still evolving and while some benefits may accrue so would new vulnerabilities. But in our case, neither is the size compelling, nor the need for far out contingencies or the stretch of our regional and global interests. Above all we cannot afford to divide our air and space forces for there just aren’t enough numbers.

IAF’s current force levels are at 30 Fighter Squadrons, 3 AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control System), 6 FRA (In-flight Refuellers), 10 C-17s, Radars and Missiles. On being divided, each theatre would at best get 10/12 Fighter Squadrons, 2 Refuellers and 1 AWACS. Such a division would render the air force weak in every theatre. Fielding 10 Squadrons against Pakistan’s 22 in the Western theatre and 10 against China’s 30 would be a sure recipe for disaster. Even if we were to build up to the authorised 42 Squadrons, our numbers would remain woefully short. In the face of such asymmetry, the air force will not be able to provide the requisite air defence and support to the ground forces. Dividing the Air Force dilutes its combat potential, which can only be retained by holding it together for central orchestration of the air campaign and multiplexing the use of aerial assets across the entire battle space/theatres irrespective of how many fronts we may be fighting on. Given the lesser numbers, the country can ill afford to tie down the assets to a single theatre’s operational plan when they can be available for employment in other theatres and utilized in their full capacity and capability. It is this concept of use of air power that needs to be understood by those propagating the idea of integrated theatre commands.

During Op Desert Storm, the Air Force and the Navy had arguments concerning centralized air control. After Desert Storm, Army Corps commanders criticized the Air Force for targeting only 300 (15 percent) of the 2,000 Army-nominated targets. An Air Force officer justified this situation based on: (1) a two- to three-day lag in Army intelligence from CENTAF and (2) a redundancy in the target lists. He also said that half of the Marine Corps’ sorties (150 to 200 a day) were dedicated to MARCENT (Marine Corps Command Center) and therefore not available to the Joint Forces Air Command Center (JFACC), which narrowed the effectiveness of JFACC management of the air effort. Centralized air command was superior to allowing theatre commanders to operate relatively independently, he concluded. Despite abundance of air power, need for central orchestration of aerial forces of USAF and Marine Corps was still felt. In our case it would be a necessity.

Types of Wars

India’s concerns are more related to homeland defence. Preparation for a conventional conflict and alongside dealing with low level sub-conventional operations, border skirmishes and anti-terror operations is the main demand. Given the range and scale of such operations and the fact that conventional wars would be for border disputes, short and limited, with little territorial annexations, the Theatre Command concept appears a gross overkill. Most certainly, future wars would have to be fought in an integrated manner and synergy in the application of individual capabilities of the Army, Navy and Air Force is thus the key issue. But does that warrant creation of new structures in the form of Integrated Theatre Commands with a hope that by compulsory merging of the armed forces, integration and jointness would accrue. Problems between Gen Wesley K Clarke, Commander Allied Force and Lt. Gen Micheal C Short, Joint Air Force Component Commander affected campaign planning in the Kosovo operations even while under an Integrated Command Structure. Refusal of orders from Gen Clarke by Gen Micheal Jackson, Commander Rapid Reaction Force, had to be resolved after the Kosovo conflict. In Op Anaconda, senior Army Commanders were widely criticized by their naval and air counterparts for not coordinating with them effectively even while under one Command. During the IPKF operations in 1987, the Army Commander of the IPKF Unified Command elected to make a helicopter drop at Jafna University, overruling the air force element’s advice of it being far too risky. Consequently, all helicopters were damaged, and several lives lost. These examples pointedly confirm that jointness is not implicit in an integrated command structure.

Joint Planning – Key Enabler for Synergy

Combat performance in a future war will depend on how well the three services are integrated. Joint Planning serves as the start point for integrated war plans, and synergistic application of military power and is necessitated irrespective of the military structure that a nation adopts. Integration does not imply merging of the armed forces, but demands activities for integrated operations to be done jointly, evolved by understanding concepts of integrated war fighting, resolving doctrinal issues, clarity on roles and missions, working closely in a co-operative mode with knowledge of the core competencies of the other service and with an overriding perception of what is best for the nation and not necessarily for the individual service.

The US military system had completely broken down during the period 1958 to 1983, as they suffered several operational setbacks i.e. the Vietnam War, the seizure of the USS Pueblo, the seizure of the Mayaguez, the failed Iranian rescue mission, the Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, and the Grenada incursion. The failures had several common denominators: poor military advice to political leaders, lack of unity of command and inability to operate jointly and the parliament was compelled to pass the Goldwater – Nichols act. Such has not been our story nor do we have the resources to be divided into Theatre Commands. Our system has worked in the face of the many challenges of various wars. In 1948, we blunted Pakistan’s first attempt to occupy Kashmir owing to early, close and effective co-operation between our army and air force. Jointness was amply and unarguably demonstrated during the 1971 conflict. The planning process was joint from the word go and each service was considered an equal and important partner. India conducted one of the most successful campaigns in history with the liberation of Bangladesh and surrender of 86,000 Pakistan army soldiers, a feat unprecedented after WW II. Likewise, during the Kargil conflict, (though not a full-fledged war) once the Government took the bold step to employ the Air Force, the Indian Army and Air force in a combined and a remarkably swift operation threw back the intruders. There were media reports that Army demanded Attack and Armed Helicopters without disclosing the full ground picture to the air force and commentators criticized the IAF for delayed start of air action. This was termed as non-cooperation, but these commentators were not aware of the need for political clearance for the use of air power, since it meant escalation. While some degree of lack of transparency and co-ordination in the initial phase of the operation could be conceded but that would happen in the fog of war. Once resolved at the COSC, integrated combat power application was visible at Dras, Kargil and Batalik Sectors. These examples imply that holistic and integrated approach to war planning is very much ingrained and fundamental to the present system provided it is made and allowed to function as designed. There is no real need to re-structure.

The Belligerents

Our belligerents lie conjoined on our western and northern borders and could threaten us individually or in collusion / support of each other. This situation is typical to India. The nation would need a single integrated strategy to ward off a combined threat for which singularity of command would be essential both at the political and military level even though we would be waging a war on two fronts against two nations. Such a structure where the country is seen and treated as one theatre would be best suited. Forces could be moved at short notice between geographical spaces with one central agency assuming command and control. This way forces would respond faster to meet war objectives unimpeded by theatre issues. To adapt and respond faster than either adversary would be the key to winning a collusive two fronts or a single front war.


Conceptually speaking, the inherent idea of a theatre relates to vast land and sea areas with stretched lines of communication, requiring integral forces, spaced out from adjoining theatres so as not to be influenced. Ours is a small sized country, with smaller lines of communication, making relocation of forces feasible. Theatres would be adjoining bearing operational influence on each other thus robbing them of operational independence. In this perspective, the idea of carving theatres is fundamentally flawed. Our size, indivisibility of the air force, limited conventional and sub-conventional wars and disposition of our enemies compels us to be structured and viewed as one theatre, a complete whole employing one strategy against enemies in collusion or support.

Joint planning is fundamental to evolving an integrated war plan and this cuts across all Militaries around the world, irrespective of their structure. In our present system, the onus of joint planning is on the three Service Chiefs and now also the CDS. The system has worked well as demonstrated in the full-scale Indo-Pak war of 1971 and the limited Kargil imbroglio. Should we re-structure a system that has always worked for us only because of the imagination and visualization of its propagators that lends them to believe that it would not work again. Or is it some crystal ball gaze into the future that can foresee our defeat in future wars. It needs to be appreciated, that integration and jointness are not implicit in creating Integrated Theatre Commands and in our case, it may not even fetch operational dividends. Implicit in creating Theatre commands is the division of our woefully short Air force assets which the nation cannot afford for a weakened air defence will allow the enemy to take control of the air and interfere with our surface operations much to our peril. The less a nation can afford, the more carefully it must utilize what it has. This statement is what sets the tone in our unique case. Hence, dividing the Air Force into Theatre Commands is not an operationally sound idea and does not suit our nation.