Bridging the gaps: The genesis and future of Indian military theatre commands
The Economic Times, December 24, 2023

By Pradeep S Mehta, Purushendra Singh and Ojasvinee Sharma,

In August 2023, the Indian Parliament passed a landmark bill advocating the establishment of theatre commands for the Indian Armed Forces, taking a leap forward after a long journey of contested discussions. Various Indian defence experts assert that the theaterisation of the armed forces is a critical step towards strengthening its defence structure. While the bill’s passage signifies a crucial initial step, India will be covering a considerable distance in the near future to fully operationalise theaterisation. This will help us to strengthen our defence architecture.

The real discourse on this matter traces its roots back to the aftermath of the Kargil War in 1999. Then the Government and the Armed Forces acknowledged the need for theaterisation or the integration of the three service organisations of armed forces (Army, Air Force and Navy) to effectively utilise their resources in a convergent manner during operations.

The Kargil Review Committee, convened post-war, identified significant loopholes in the defence architecture, inter alia the lack of integration among the different service organisations.

The findings of this committees’ report led to the recommendation for theaterisation, shaping and restructuring the foundation of India’s present defence structure, including the establishment of Chief of Defence Staffs’ post (CDS). Furthermore, this report highlighted that the contemporary defence system does not give the desired representation in higher decision-making to military personnel.

Since then and despite periodic discussions, concrete steps towards theaterisation remained elusive until 2020 when then CDS General Bipin Rawat proposed a possible structure for the theatre commands of the Armed Forces. He outlined five possible theatre commands based on geographical and functional criteria i.e.: Eastern, Western, Peninsular, Maritime and Air Defence Commands. He also proposed two functional commands, namely the Joint Training Command and Operational Logistics Command.

Growing Need for Theaterisation
Presently, the Indian Armed Forces have 17 Individual service commands. Of these, the Indian Army has seven commands, the Indian Air Force has seven and three belong to the Indian Navy. However, their integration will be significant to combating enemies. For instance, in case of any full-fledged war with China, a minimum of seven commands of Indian armed forces will be engaged in it and if the integration of roles, responsibilities and command are not taken swiftly then we may witness a repeat of 1962 war or even worse.

On the other hand, China’s PLA (People’s Liberation Army), a unified organisation of China's land, sea, and air forces has a dedicated integrated western theatre command to counter any offence from the Indian side. This provides them with an upper hand in an integrated and cohesive approach to any conflict. Towards this end, India’s proposed eastern theatre command will provide much required strategic thrust to India in future conflicts.

Apart from this, there is a need for integration of the provisions of the three service laws. At present, command, control and discipline of armed personnel working in Inter-Service Organisations like the Andaman and Nicobar Command and Defence Space Command are governed by the provisions of the Air Force Act, 1950, the Army Act, 1950 and the Navy Act, 1957 (Service Acts) respectively. Because of this arrangement, and in the case of such proceedings, they need to report to their parent organisation resulting in multiple proceedings which is time consuming and heavy on pockets.

Building upon these proposals and recognising the need for theaterisation, the Government of India tabled, “The Inter-Service Organisation (Command, Control and Discipline) Bill” in the Parliament in August of 2023.

The current integration plan envisages three commands, two land-based commands focusing on borders with Pakistan and China respectively and the third overseeing maritime operations in the Indian Ocean Region.

Salient Features of the bill
All the provisions of the bill will be applied “to all persons who are subject to the Air Force Act, 1950, the Army Act, 1950 and the Navy Act, 1957, and to persons of such other forces as the Central Government may specify, by notification, under section 4, who are serving in or attached to an Inter-Service Organisation.”

This bill after becoming an act will provide all the administrative and discipline commands to the Commander in Chief or Officer in Command of the Inter-Service Organisations. However, the Central Government will direct which authority will be given to which officer. The powers can be exercised by any officer who will be specially appointed by the central government. The supervision of these Inter-Service Organisations will be the sole responsibility of the government and it will have the power to circulate directions to these organisations in matters concerning national security or any other matter concerning the public interest.

Maintaining discipline and the discharge of the personnel serving or attached to the Inter-Service Organisations will be an important duty of the Commander in Chief or Officer in Command. This would mean that the Commander in Chief or Officer in Command will have complete command and control over the Inter-Service Organisation.

And, the primary duty of the Commanding Officer will be performing all tasks assigned by the Commander in Chief or the Officer in Command. Additionally, they will also be empowered to bring out any disciplinary or administrative action on serving personnel appointed/attached to these organisations.

Challenges, consensus and way ahead
The proposed bill has been discussed far and wide but there are various concerns which needs to be taken into consideration before all come to the same consensus. The contradicting and conflicting views/thoughts of the three organisations is one such concern. Each service works on the ethos and ideas of their parent organisation which poses a major challenge for the government to create an integrated ethical conduct for these services.

There is also a challenge of resource allocation in all three services. This needs mutual consent in particular for allocating and distributing resources at strategic locations. To deal with this challenge, the government needs to increase the pace of defence indigenisation subsequently resulting into a wider defence industrial base having a snowball effect in terms of transactional gains.

Lastly, India's proposed theaterisation/joint command system structure aligns with those of the U.S. and China but exhibits notable differences. Here, India should leverage its partnership with the US and try to address common challenges, seek support in particular how the U.S. manages its Indo-Pacific Command or “PACOM”.

If the challenges are addressed timely, will give India much needed positive strategic thrust in a two-front war situation and will fortify the current defence architecture. The larger gain would be while navigating through these complexities, India will not merely be constructing military commands but forging a path toward integrated strength and strategic prowess on the global stage.

The authors work for CUTS International, a global public policy research and advocacy group.

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