Mapping the Theaterisation of Operational Commands

India's military needs a fundamental change of approach towards power projection, overseas strategic interests, overseas bases and operational theatres. 

Among the old and valuable books collected over a lifetime by this author is the 1935 Gazette of India (maps). One of the maps included is that of military commands of India, which, though not expressly stated, was meant to keep India under British control. 

The military divisions of India under the British in a map issued in 1909. Photo: Archaeological Survey of India, Public Domain

To transit from that now irrelevant map to a map of operational theatres primarily requires a fundamental change of approach towards power projection, overseas strategic interests, overseas bases and operational theatres. 

In the work given to India’s chief of defence staff (CDS), there is a huge foreign office component, which will presumably be provided by appropriate officers. It is common knowledge that in the case of US theatre commands – for instance in the US Pacific Command – there are two foreign office staffers of ambassadorial rank. 

Assuming that the CDS has been given carte blanche to draw lines beyond the boundaries of India, the first operational theatre that comes to mind is the Western Theatre Command (see map below). 

India’s Operational Theatres: A Proposal. Map: The Wire

This command will face west and follow the theatre boundaries shown, to include Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and then south along the Mediterranean coast to include the Suez Canal and then follow the western shore to the Red Sea, rejoining the Indian coast in North Kerala. This command will include the Indian strategic geographical interests of the straits of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and the Bab El Mandab. This theatre will require expeditionary air power, based on Masirah (Oman) and Djibouti, where there is sufficient vacant land between the US’s Camp Lemonier and the Chinese base to the north. Sea power is guaranteed as the oceans are indivisible. 

The operational headquarters of the Western theatre would be in Chandigarh under a four-star officer. The importance of the Western theatre will include the interests of 4 million Indians in the Gulf countries, the balance of power between the ‘Shia crescent’ in Iran, Iraq and beyond and the (Sunni) Arab alignment with Israel. This geographical area is of importance for future regional stability as the United States has already discovered with its enormous bases, and the stationing of the 5th fleet. As hydrocarbons get wasted out by the middle of this century, the uncertain power shifts will lead to vast instabilities dominated by Iran, the biggest power demographically. 

India’s Northern Theatre Command should, elegantly speaking, deal with the one great continental threat – China. The Chinese themselves have one general commanding their south-west command, which deals with the Indian and Nepal borders, and we should do the same. With more than half a million men under arms, it is clearly a four-star officer’s command, with at least two separate armies under him. The Air Force portion is also very large, which will require that the Indian Air Force think in terms of an intermediate command level between air bases and air command, in the form of the US Air Force which has a separate command for air forces eg., the 5th Air Force state in Yokota (Tokyo), Japan. 

There are many advantages to having one theatre command to deal with China as, at that level, it is clearly a politico-military matter. Similarly, the air assets would solely be allocated to Northern command without the air force commander having dual responsibility. There is also the issue of an inevitable army downsizing, since the PLA are considerably fewer in number to the Indian army. It is a moot question whether the reduction should be borne by the Northern command or by the Western, facing a degrading Pakistan. The Northern command would be commanded by a four-star officer alternating between the Indian Army and the IAF, based at Lucknow. 

The Eastern Theatre Command would include the ASEAN nations with a land link to Vietnam’s defences. In many ways, this will be the critical theatre of the 21st century, as the juxtaposition of China and India makes this area the fulcrum and the chosen area to exploit the Revolution in Military affairs as well as the advantage that the Quad confers in the form of intelligence of the Indo-Pacific. 

This area is woefully deficient in Indian air power and an air base is essential, to be included in the infrastructure proposed to be built in Great Nicobar. From the Indian standpoint, the area of decision or, the chosen battlespace, is the exit to the Malacca straits carrying 65% of China’s oil and the info-dominance that the Quad confers on traffic, both civilian and military transiting the straits. 

Both the Western and Eastern theatres require overseas air bases, and if there is any reluctance by the air force to go expeditionary, like the US Air Force, Indian air power will have to come from aircraft carriers. The RMA necessitates air as well as info dominance, and of all our theatres, this is critical in the Eastern one. This is because only the Eastern theatre is conducive to offensive oceanic counter-action against China, whereas geography is most unfavourable to India in the Northern theatre. All the more reason for designating this theatre as the fulcrum of a contest with China. This command would be headed by a four-star officer alternating between the three services. 

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy May 21, 2015. Credit: Reuters/US Navy

Chinese dredging vessels are purportedly seen in the waters around Mischief Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea in this still image from video taken by a P-8A Poseidon surveillance aircraft provided by the United States Navy May 21, 2015. Photo: Reuters/US Navy

The Southern Theatre Command is clearly a largely maritime command with a relatively high responsibility of maritime operation and power projection. As Mahan explained in his seminal work, the dominance of the vast ocean is dependent on bases. In the absence of bases, friendly relations with the island nations and the littoral of Africa would suffice, backed by an adequate power projection capability. The army component of this theatre command would be provided by two amphibious brigades based at Port Blair and Thiruvananthapuram, backed by a para brigade. The heart of the operational thrust of this command would be the third aircraft carrier, which clearly must be a large carrier with the ability to project power. Similarly, the Thanjavur air base would require to be augmented with combat aircraft. 

Any officer who has worked on theaterisation would acknowledge that difficult though the task is, the hardest nut to crack is the question of the residual static commands. These commands perform a huge administrative function, earlier combined with the task of territorial defence. The static areas, such as the Tamil Nadu, Andhra, Karnataka sub-areas, and the command of the Southern Naval Area, will continue to be relevant after theaterisation. The internal area commands would therefore need to be partly rationalised and partly redesignated as ‘areas’, such as Southern Naval Area, Eastern India Area and so on, reporting, as before to their respective service chiefs. The C-in-C Southern Command would, for instance, be redesignated as Commander, South India, removing all outward-looking operational tasks from his jurisdiction. 

This also explains why theatre commanders need necessarily to be of four-star rank. At present, there are something like 17 commands. Actual operational commands would now be reduced to four, and hence, the preservation of career prospects in all the three services would require the operational theatre commanders to be of four-star rank with the CDS being a five-star officer. 

The service chiefs would retain the greater part of their administrative, training and logistics role, running their duties through the commanders of static areas. For instance, the former army commander, southern command would be divested of his operational role while reporting to his chief for the efficient functioning of the Maharashtra sub-area, the Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Karnataka sub-area, the Madras Engineer Group training centre, the DSSC, Wellington, the College of Military Engineering at Pune and myriad other institutions. So, therefore, after instituting the theatre commands, the overall vacancies would be just marginally better off than at present, so as not to destabilise the career pattern in all the three services. 

Theaterisation will also involve a major PR exercise abroad to suppress any rumours of New Delhi being territorially overambitious –  a job that will have to be executed by the Ministry of External Affairs. Alternatively, theaterisation can be postponed to when India’s GDP crosses $5 trillion, so that the establishing of theatres coincides with increased economic heft. The armed forces must be firm on the command structure proposed, headed by a five-star officer, as is the practice in other countries. The responsibilities for each theatre make it imperative that they be headed by a four-star officer. The civilian bureaucracy may resist this, but that is where the political leadership will have to ensure theaterisation is not held hostage to administrative games.

Admiral Raja Menon was a career officer and a submarine specialist in the Indian Navy. He commanded seven ships and submarines before retiring in 1994 as assistant chief of naval staff (operations).