Over-Ambition and Half-Baked Ideas Plague the Military’s Plan for Integrated Theatre Commands

There are at least four operational flaws with the ITC overhaul. But they do not seem to bother the military leadership.

The central project of India’s military reforms – Integrated Theatre Commands (ITCs) for jointness in combat – has once again fallen through the cleavage of over-ambition and half-baked ideas. This is a substantial setback for the office of the Chief of Defense Staff (CDS), whose primary job was to create ITCs after directing the three service chiefs to find consensus among themselves. This is not because India needs the ITCs, but because to retain the retiring, but ideologically aligned army chief General Bipin Rawat in uniform, the government on December 30, 2019 created the office of the CDS, under the ruse of military reforms. Within days, Rawat announced that implementation of the ITCs after acceptance by the three services (army, air force, navy) will commence in December 2022, at the end of his three-year term.  

Even after four years, the military reforms remain on the drawing board, there are clearly problems with them that Rawat, and after his untimely death, his successor, General Anil Chauhan were trying to thrust upon the Indian military. The biggest is that they are outdated, being 22 years old. Following the 1999 Kargil conflict with Pakistan, the Group of Ministers (GoM) had, in February 2001, recommended the creation of the CDS post to usher in jointness amongst the services. 

Since then, China, instead of Pakistan, has emerged as India’s primary military threat with capabilities to fight in six physical and virtual war domains of land, air, sea, outer space, cyberspace, and electromagnetic spectrum space, and capacities (indigenous defence industrial complex) to support these domains with war surge without outside support. 

Now, military reforms are done for two reasons: One, to improve war concepts (how to fight) to optimise war domains’ usage to exercise control over war aims, speed, tempo, intensity, and outcome. And two, to use military power beyond guarding one’s territorial sovereignty to influence global events (called out-of-area operations). By 2013, China had met both conditions for military reforms. By 2010, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had developed its six war domains, and in 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced his ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which required the PLA to protect Chinese infrastructure, assets, and people in nations onboard the BRI. 

Given this, China announced its expansive 2015 military reforms to be completed in five years and under which it created Western Theatre Command (WTC) for joint combat with the Indian military on the disputed border. Interestingly, a reforms committee formed under China’s Central Military Commission (the highest military policy-making body headed by Xi Jinping) in 2012 took three years to work on reforms at the grandest and most granular levels before declaring them to the world. 

Sadly, the Indian military missed the PLA’s upward trajectory since it kept its sights low doing counter-terror operations in Jammu and Kashmir since 1991 and, on contemplating building deterrence (military power) against the Pakistan military. Hence, the US Pentagon’s third offset strategy to negate the PLA’s conventional war advantage through the infusion of artificial intelligence and autonomy declared in 2014 went unnoticed by the Indian military leadership. 

So, when Rawat started work on ITCs, he, without constituting a reforms committee, made his own assumptions on the wars that India should prepare for with Pakistan and China. He shared periodic and piecemeal revelations of his vision for a year and a half with select media, and finally unveiled his military reform plan in a television interview on July 2, 2021. According to him, since future wars would be at short notice and of short duration, it was necessary that all war domains (army, air force, and navy) should have jointness (where domains fight together and as one whole) and integration for synergy (where each domain has cross-domain capability, making the total more effective than the whole). Moreover, in ITCs, since a theatre commander should have assets permanently under his command, he would be able to assemble a ‘joint force’ quickly to achieve a given mission.  

Rawat’s plan had four big operational flaws. One, since the PLA can fight in six war domains against three of the Indian military, it will combat at strategic (cyber, space, information war) or whole-of-nation level, and operational or campaign level totally bypassing the tactical level or battles where attrition happens. Recall, the 1991 Operation Desert Storm where the US military conducted a 43-day intense air campaign against the Iraqi army, followed by 100 hours of mopping up operations on the ground. However, war with Pakistan will be different since both Indian and Pakistan militaries fight attrition wars at tactical levels. 

Two, whether a war between India and China will be short or long would be determined by the stronger side. So, China will decide this depending upon the war objectives it wishes to accomplish. Three, unlike China, India does not have a vibrant defence industrial complex to support even an intense short war against the PLA. And four, it is not possible for India to fight three different wars with China, Pakistan, and counter-terror operations in Kashmir simultaneously. 

Strangely, the above operational flaws do not seem to bother the military leadership. Their concerns are three-fold. First, how to accommodate senior officers of the present seventeen separate military commands of the three services into three or four ITCs. Hence, talks are going on to create more integrated commands for logistics, missiles and so on. Second, the Indian Air Force (rightly so) is unwilling to permanently part with its limited combat aircraft to the ITCs. And three, services chiefs who are both topmost staff officers (force providers) and operational commanders (force employers) of their respective services are not agreeable to giving up their force employers role to ITC commanders. 

The need is to abandon ITCs and focus on building the science of war (technologies) and the art of war (war concepts) concurrently. And hope that there is no war with China or Pakistan since both are joined at the hip.

Pravin Sawhney is the author of The Last War: How AI Will Shape India’s Final Showdown With China.