Integrated Theatre Commands – Is it the Right Time for Proposed Restructuring?

Sub Title : The need thereof in our context and whether we are really geared to take the step commands right

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2021

Author : Lt Gen Arun Sahni, PVSM, UYSM, SM, VSM (Retd)

Page No. : 32

Category : Military Affairs

: August 5, 2021

In the military circles ‘Integrated Theatre Commands’ are the buzzword these days and the subject of a protracted debate. The article examines the need thereof in our context and whether we are really geared to take the step. The writer suggests that we ‘Make Haste – Slowly.’

New Year’s Day 2020, was historic in the annals of India’s Armed Forces, as it witnessed the appointment of independent India’s first ‘Chief of Defense Staff’ and establishment of a ‘Department of Military Affairs’. The creation of Joint Theatre Commands, as a step for promoting Jointness amongst the Armed Forces, was one of the mandates entrusted to the CDS. This subject has led to extensive discussion and debate, including heated exchanges on  the need and relevance of the proposed theatre commands for India, within the Armed Forces and in the open print, visual and social media. One of the major reasons for this protracted debate is that the proposal, has not evolved from within the Armed Forces, but has been seen as a diktat. A disruptive reorganization in any large Institution or organization, should logically emanate from within the organization, either being need based or to enhance operational efficiency.

The aim of this article is to revisit the issue of ‘theatreisation’, ‘de novo’, as the ongoing debate has raised some very basic issues with respect to the requirement, relevance and timing for this organizational restructuring. This does not in any manner forestall restructuring to set up Integrated organizations for addressing the new threat vectors, created by militarization of erstwhile ‘global commons’ or measures to enhance jointness and avoid duplicity, within the three services. Incase theatreisation is the logical direction for enhanced jointness, then will suggest a revised mandate and road map for this transition with minimum turmoil and maximum gain. Prudence suggests that current strife astride our external borders, is not the opportune time for bold restructuring of field formations. Joint Theatre Commands should be the logical culmination of the integration process, post harmonization of interservice differences.

So, let me start by questioning the premise – Is there an operational necessity and urgency for theatreisation, in the case of India, or is it a case of FOMA (Fear of Missing Out) or aping USA and China?

USA, as the lone superpower in the world, has assigned a global mandate to its Armed Forces, of ‘force projection’ and timely ‘Out of Area Operations’. It has therefore divided the globe into theatres, with its global presence anchored on its maritime strength cum resources.

In case of a military engagement in a desired target area, it apportions requisite combat resources under a nominated Force Commander to execute operations. Operations in Middle East, Iraq and till recently Afghanistan, under CENTCOM, bear testimony to this modus operandi. It has adequacy of combat resources to suballocate for its global military footprint. It has a 24/7, reliable and state of art ISR capability, to ensure timely deployment of combat power, at the desired target. It has also located its resources at various overseas bases or with friendly countries, for addressing its perceived sensitivities and execute a near real time ‘global strike capability’. It has the technological and manufacturing prowess to proactively address the deficiencies and ensure that its forces are ahead of the technological curve.

The changes in China, with respect to theatreisation, is not the same as USA. It has in reality designated its Regional Commands as Theatres. There has been no major reallocation of combat resources, between the regions/theatres. The Force multipliers under the PLASSF have been deployed as hitherto fore in different theatres, to ensure that the requisite cutting edge technological resources, are available to the deployed combat forces. The ‘joint force headquarters’, raised are more for synergy during planning and higher direction of war. In both the countries, the changes are based on nation specific operational considerations.

It is also apparent that in the case of both USA and China, there is adequacy of resources and the desired capabilities across spectrums are assigned separately for spatially displaced combat forces, that are not integral to the Armed Forces. It is a whole of nation approach and ‘Theatres’ are empowered with the complete spectrum of required expertise, be it intelligence, administration or diplomatic support. It is pertinent to highlight that theatreistaion in both these countries, followed the sequential action of building up of requisite infrastructure, necessary logistics and comprehensive military capability. China in addition created the spare capacity in its military wherewithal for its increasing global presence.

A reappraisal of the operational performance of the Indian Armed Forces in the current formulation to meet external threats, confirms that they have acquitted themselves with aplomb. Be it the 1971 Indo- Pak war, that resulted in dismemberment of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh or the Kargil Conflict of 1999, to the current faceoff with China in Ladakh. In 1971, the air power ensured decimation of the meagre air resources of Pakistan in erstwhile East Pakistan and thereafter supported the land offensive. The Indian Navy while addressing the sea challenge, reallocated and relocated adequate resources to block the sea egress routes of the withdrawing Pakistani forces from the eastern theatre, resulting in the largest surrender by any Army, post 2nd World war. Airborne operations were executed with the pooled air resources to supplement ground offensive, leading to early capitulation of Pakistan forces in East Pakistan. These complex operations were steered under the aegis of Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee. The success of Kargil conflict was again due to synergistic employment of combat resources of the Army and Air Force. The Ladakh confrontation is once again witnessing army – air force synergy, to mitigate the dynamically changing ground situation in Ladakh. The navy in the meantime has been facilitating India’s military diplomatic initiatives.

It would be fair to state that there have been instances of disagreement amongst the three service Chiefs, during the planning stage, but were resolved in time for successful outcomes. This cooperative and joint functioning has also been repeatedly witnessed in HADR missions, be it the climate catastrophe in Uttarakhand, or the recent overseas evacuation operations and Covid emergency support activities.

However, the lessons learnt from all major and limited military conflicts, has highlighted the operational deficit and negative impact on tactical operations, due to lack of operational control of the Army on the deployed CPMFs (BSF or the ITBP), astride active borders. In addition, Intelligence failure at the macro level has been another major shortcoming. Also, the ground forces continue to be denied the mandate for trans-border intelligence activities, be it human or electronic, a pre requisite for undertaking tactical actions to meet emerging challenges. If the aim of organizational changes is to enhance India’s comprehensive power on the external frontiers, then there is a need to include these key elements appropriately, in the proposed Joint Theatres. Though not directly linked but impacts operational efficiency, is the need for a formal and structured ‘higher defence organization’, an existing lacuna even now. Are these being redressed in the current mandate of theatreisation? As per available information, it is a No.

The other argument for this transformative reform, is that it will foster a very high order of jointness. Jointness in my view is more in spirit, with an emphasis on ‘functioning together’. Whereas Integration refers to formal combining of constituent elements into a single structure for ‘unified command’. But history of India’s conflicts reaffirms that the services have continuously displayed ‘jointness’.

Some of the other key factors that demand a relook of the timing and proposed roadmap for envisaged disruptive organizational changes, are the existing threat cum border realities, changing character of war and Service specific shortages of combat resources, culture, ethos and policies.

The changing character of war is a consequence of induction and development of new age technologically advanced weapons platforms with enhanced precision, longer ranges and unparalleled destructive capacities and the emergence of new frontiers of disruptive warfare. An outcome of the militarization of the global commons of cyber, space and EM spectrum. These have not only added complexities but changed the ‘character of war’. Both India’s adversaries have and are constantly upgrading their capabilities and exploiting these new domains, with China already enmeshing these advanced capabilities, in its war fighting doctrine. India has also instituted measures to address these new realities with tri service joint structures, as functioning and domination of these domains, transcends individual services.

Also, any future conventional conflict will be limited in time, as in a globalized world, the negative impact on economy due to disruption of intricately linked supply chains, will not be acceptable. Thus, short intense hybrid conflicts, limited in time and space, are the reality in the foreseeable future. They do not allow India the luxury of inexperienced operational and strategic leadership, for complex and intense operations, that require innovative utilization of service specifics combat power, for successful outcome of conflicts. The military maxim captures the spirit of military leadership succinctly – ‘war is both an art and a science’.

The Ladakh face off with China, has closed the debate with respect to the existence of ‘two front threats’, to India. It has also sealed the argument that the era of limited conflict is passe and India’s future capability development should only be tailored to meet the threats from ‘new age warfare’. We have to draw an informed balance during force modernization and capability development. It has to address the reality of India’s disputed borders, that span hazardous and dangerous terrain profiles, from the Siachen glacier to rugged mountains, deserts, jungles and plains with dense urban centers. Tactical acumen and deep understanding of the complexities of fighting in these disparate and specific terrains, is a must in short intense conflicts. More so as the deployment of forces on the ‘line of control’ with Pakistan, are ‘eyeball to eyeball ‘and the deteriorating relations with China, triggered by the Ladakh imbroglio, is leading to a near permanency of a denser deployment of troops, in climatically hazardous high altitudes areas on India’s northern borders. Concurrently, increasing Chinese footprints in South Asia and Indian Ocean, due to its growing naval power, demands a higher degree of vigilance and domination by the Indian Navy, of our areas of interest and influence. Geo political flux due to the Pandemic, including tectonic changes in Afghanistan, with the forthcoming total withdrawal of the US and Coalition forces, has created an unstable, dynamic and complex situation, in the Region. Respecting the sensitivity of the present time and the necessity to address fast changing emerging realities, it is imperative that experiential tactical and operational leadership, is there at the command level, in the respective Services and there is minimal turbulence in the organizational structures.

There is a need to appreciate that the latent strength of the three services are their respective organizational cultures. Also, they have a different functioning ethos and manning policies. Therefore, any restructuring for joint structures has to be sensitive to these intangibles and be realistic of the Service specific shortages of combat resources.

The Army and Navy are structured with decentralized distribution of combat resources at different hierarchical levels of Command, based on the task requisite capabilities are entrusted to different levels of command. Additional combat resources are released at inflexion points to either the subordinate commander or there is change in the level of command. In the case of Air Force, the speed of application of combat power and the vastness of the battlespace, results in centralized control of resources. These are tailored in different configurations for execution of desired tasks, with rapid capability to group and regroup. Air bases are also equipped with war waging and maintainability resources for specific types of aircrafts, but this does not inhibit emergency deployments. The Airforce due to its unique capabilities can concurrently shape the battlespace on different fronts with limited resources, based on operational priorities. These subtleties need to be encapsulated in any joint organization.

Concurrently, there is a need to harmonize the HR policies of the three services. Presently, the three are governed by separate terms of service, legal frameworks and also the reporting and promotional conventions are different. Officers serving in the Integrated Defence Staff, are from different services in the  hierarchical chain, in different verticals. The subordinate officer is reported upon by his senior in the chain of command, even if he is from a different service. The yardsticks of assessment of the three services are different and that impacts the individual, in service specific promotions. In the case of indiscipline, the concerned individual has to be reverted  under an officer from his parent service. The reporting norms and vacancies for promotion are again at variance, in the three services. These points of friction need to be addressed before we create turbulence in the field formations.

The recommended road map for the ‘integration’ within the Armed Forces, should be premised on a ‘vision document’ by the Government. Let me amplify the criticality of this document. In 1961 India sent a composite infantry brigade with infantry battalions, armoured regiment, artillery, engineers, machine gunners, medical troops and Canberra bombers of Indian Air Force. The clarity of UN Mandate to the Brigade Commander- Brig Raja- saw extensive employment of the complete range of combat elements including air power for executing successful operations. In contrast the lack of political clarity that was required through a vision document, saw the Air Force left out of battle during the 1962 Indo China war. In hindsight its effective use against an air power deficient Chinese army, would not have led to national humiliation.

Therefore, a detailed mandate along with the ‘vision document’ should empower these ‘joint theatre commands’ with the resources, including those outside the MoD, to redress the operational shortcomings experienced in past conflicts. The structural organizational changes need to be tailored for ‘short intense hybrid conflicts’, requiring near instantaneous decision making by the op-strat military leadership. These decisions should be contingent on real time ISR, acquired from multiple agencies and sensors and their input and representation should also be mandated. The luxury of long drawn-out discussions for placement of accretional elements under command/control of the force commander, is a story of the past. This should then lead to a pilot project – tailored and tested over time, before restructuring the sharp end of the three services – its field formations.

Towards harmonizing the policies and related human related issues concurrently, it is proposed that we should raise either or both, an ‘Integrated Logistics Command’ or an ‘Integrated Training Command’, under the pilot, to cut out duplicity of structures and instituting common HR related policies of manning, promotion and discipline, in the armed forces. This will also facilitate change of mindsets and existing culture, in the three services. Concurrently, in harmony with the laudatory initiatives of ‘Make in India- Defence’, ensure prioritized modernization and capability development. So let us ‘Make Haste – Slowly.’