Military Reforms: Why Front-Specific Theatreisation Is Not the Only Way to Jointness

It is not clear how the front-specific theatre concept acquired traction and stole a march over the option of joint commands with a sub-front geographical spread, which are more beneficial.

The Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, has recently elaborated on the progress of military reforms with theatreisation now underway. The army’s South Western Command has received its marching orders to begin taking over the operational aspects from the other two commands on the Pakistan front, Southern and Western. Apparently, a similar instruction has been issued for the China front, though it is uncertain as to which command headquarters, Eastern Command at Kolkata or Central Command at Lucknow, may be similarly privileged.

With time, other aspects such as logistics are to be taken over by the command headquarters designated as the theatre command for the front. The Northern Command retains its identity and responsibility for the northern theatre. This creation of front-specific landward theatres complements the creation of a single maritime theatre encompassing both the peninsula littorals along the maritime front.

Since the reforms have been on for long, beginning with the announcement by the Prime Minister from the ramparts of the Red Fort on the appointment of a chief of defence staff (CDS) in 2019, there has been much deliberation both within and outside of the government on the end-state of the reforms and manner of getting there. As part of the debate, theaterisation too found mention. Definitionally, the area of responsibility of a field army or joint command is at theatre. So, ‘theatreisation’ was synonymously used for the creation of joint/integrated theatre commands.

What is concerning is that front-specific theatreisation has willy-nilly acquired precedence, almost as if it is the directive of the government that the military is to work towards theatreisation, interpreted thus as the end-state of the reforms. There being no governmental imprimatur on movement in this direction, there is little reason to privilege front-specific theatreisation as the only or preferred route to jointness. Notably, Northern Command that faces both adversaries is retained as such, thereby standing to negate the very concept that makes a front coextensive with the boundary with a putative adversary.

Also read: A Host of Complex Issues Threaten the Formation of the Military’s Integrated Theatre Commands

There is no compulsion that geographical commands need to be theatre commands in the manner currently envisaged: one command for respective front astride China, Pakistan and the maritime domain. A contending formula is that a front could well have multiple joint commands overseeing respective theatres of operations along a front. This retains the strengths of the current deployment with the amalgamation of the three services into a field army-level formation.

In December 2019 end, when the government appointed the CDS, it laid out the mandate of the Department of Military Affairs, of which the CDS was to be the secretary. On the promotion of jointness, the mandate reads: “Facilitation of restructuring of Military Commands for optimal utilisation of resources by bringing about jointness in operations, including through the establishment of joint / theatre commands.”

The insertion of a ‘forward slash’ (/) – meaning ‘or’ – implies a distinction between functional and geographical commands. All geographical joint commands are theatre commands since each has an area of responsibility called theatre. The forward slash is for distinguishing these from functional commands such as for logistics, cyber, special operations, air defence, strategic forces, etc.

Decision still awaited

It is not clear how the front-specific theatre concept acquired traction and stole a march over the second option, of joint commands with a sub-front geographical spread. Front-specific theatreisation is not explicit in the mandate of the DMA, but merely an interpretation. Whereas the interpretation of the incumbent Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, may be significant, since he is merely ‘first among equals’ when arrayed with his service chief counterparts, his view is not enough to carry the day in reconfiguring the military.

It needs ministerial imprimatur, either at the defence minister or the prime minister’s level, signifying governmental backing. Any ballast for the concept from the national security adviser (NSA) is not enough, though NSA Ajit Doval headed the implementation committee that set out the terms of reference of the CDS appointment.

There is no official document in the public domain nor is there a press release that indicates a ‘go ahead’ for front-specific theatreisation as against its rival concept. Therefore, to proceed with theatreisation as currently envisaged is premature, since procedurally, even if the concept of ‘one adversary-one theatre’ has the CDS, who has the mandate to oversee the reforms, persuaded and service chiefs on board, it still demands political sign-off.

A reform of the order such as this is not an internal-to-military matter nor can the CDS, who is not empowered over the service chiefs (as yet), have the authority to proceed down this route. Though the government this June formed a panel under the CDS to oversee theaterisation, the panel requires reverting to the government on the preferred way forward. It can at best arrive at a meeting of minds on matters that prompted it being set up in the first place, such as the controversy between the CDS and the air chief on the appropriate employment of airpower in modern conflict.

For the military to arrive at a consensus on front-specific theatres is not outside the possibilities. Does the military’s proceeding down the first option – front-specific theaters – mean there is no dissent in the brass on this score? Even if so, it still requires due diligence on the government’s part to vet the decision, since the said panel was not a decision making authority as much as a facilitative one meant to get stakeholders on board.

Defence minister Rajnath Singh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI.

The closest to the government position and ministerial thinking on this question in the open domain is the recent speech of the defence minister at the Defence Services Staff College, appropriately titled, ‘Defence reforms in a shifting National Security paradigm’. He said that there was progress on theatre commands, but there is no hint on the geographical spread these should have. The progress the defence minister alludes to must receive his explicit endorsement since critical decisions within the broad ambit of reforms are to be politically authenticated. That India is a parliamentary democracy requires the defence minister to be in the lead.

Union Cabinet on reforms

There are good reasons for the cabinet to take a dim view of the reforms proceeding down this road.

One impetus behind the integrated commands was the need to place joint force capabilities under a single commander-in-chief, while earlier there were 19 locations with command headquarters of the three services. Most of these would now be integrated as components of joint commands. However, to proceed to reducing the numbers of these headquarters down to the lowest possible figure obtainable in case of front-specific theatres need explication. The compulsions of budget are significant, but cannot be tyrannical.

Perhaps the air force’s fears of being spread thin and abused as an extension of the army’s firepower are sought to be taken on board by restricting the parceling out of the limited air assets to the least possible number of controlling headquarters for the appropriate use of airpower, essentially centralised control and decentralised execution. This is possible to replicate even in the case of joint sub-front commands, and therefore the option remains pertinent. Consequently, it is uncertain how (dispensing with a political sign off) and why (the underlying logic) the armed forces have embarked on the theatreisation option they have.

Why front-specific joint commands may not be the best option 

It yet needs answering how the highest military headquarters – eventually centered on the headquarters Integrated Defence Staff (HQ IDS) headed by an operationally empowered CDS – would avoid duplication of effort of the front-specific command. Even in a localised border war as the Kargil War, the field army was virtually missing in action with the army chief making some eight trips to the war front in the two months of the conflict. This indicates the levels of control necessary in a conflict between nuclear powers. The potential for escalation precludes a field army headquarters from prosecuting a war on its own volition across a front with an adversary. It will necessarily require the HQ IDS to breathe down the joint field army’s neck, lest escalation result. In other words, a front-specific joint command is infructuous.

Also read: Do We Need a New Department of Military Affairs and Integrated Theatre Commands?

A long-standing critique of theatreisation has been that aping the United States’s combatant commands is simply not on in the Indian context. Even though the Chinese have a single theatre facing India centred on Tibet, India does not have the same luxury, configured as it is on this front along exterior lines of communication. This makes for different sub-regional complexes astride the front – North East, Central Sector and Ladakh – with differentiated demands on joint capabilities. The frontage and limitations of corresponding asset availability such as of space surveillance necessarily imply centralisation. Also, conflict with a foe is not a single theatre’s outlook as much as a national, conducted at HQ IDS level. A front-specific joint command will end up at a crunch as an additional, dispensable layer.

Finally, the two-front threat is of a lesser order of likelihood. Being configured for a two-front threat, as the front-specific theatre concept helps with, is at the expense of being prepared for the more significant and likely threat – across a single front – which is best met by sub-front multiple (as necessary) theatres overseen by respective joint commands.

Subordinate elements – joint formations in the integrated battle group avatar – can well be controlled by multiple joint commands across a front, answering for the sake of intimate control to an operationally empowered CDS and his HQ IDS, with service headquarters taken out of the loop. This arrangement has the advantage of minimising air force reservations, subject in this arrangement to centralised allocation.

Questions like this are not yet answered in full. The ownership of the decision must be at the political level. The updates on progress towards joint commands indicate that progress is without a parent with either the CDS overstepping his remit under the belief that – being politically appointed and politically savvy – he has the backing of his political masters or the political masters are ducking their ministerial responsibility. Neither possibility is edifying. A pause is necessary at this juncture to have the strategic community also pitch in and allow the service chiefs to air reservations if any.

Ali Ahmed is visiting professor and fellow at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia. He blogs on national security issues at www.ali-writings.blogspot.in and tweets @aliahd66