The Time for India to Have Joint Theatre Commands Has Not Come

India does not have a vibrant defence-industrial complex to accelerate productions to meet the war-effort and will be forced to fight with whatever it has.

The clamour for creation of two joint theatre commands – western theatre command for Pakistan and eastern theatre command for China – for better war-fighting has grown loud with senior serving military officers and importantly, defence analysts having jumped into the fray.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is seen as the villain (of peace), with the army and the navy in favour of the new structural reform for optimal war results. The IAF believes that given its limited assets and enormous flexibility inherent in aircraft, the military is for defence of the nation and not for out-of-area operations and that expensive assets should remain centralised and not distributed to theatre commands. Cognisant of this internal bickering, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman has taken a clever position by saying that while she liked the idea of joint theatre commands, she prefers a ‘bottom-up’ rather than a ‘top-down’ approach.

The basic argument of the army and navy is that the Indian military (three services) today has a total of 19 different commands which are neither co-located nor co-purposed. Since speed (in decision-making, allocation of resources and flexible operations) would be the essence in modern war, it is important that there should be only two commanders, one for each joint command theatre, instead of the present 19, which, given their prejudices, domain knowledge and so on, would end up as collective drag on speedy operations. An example given is of the Chinese military which has created theatre commands. Thus, against Chinese single Western theatre commander for India, the Indian military has three army commanders (Northern, Western and Eastern) and one each air force (Eastern Air Command) and navy (Eastern Naval Command) command facing it.

To put this debate into perspective, the following three imperatives should be considered.

One, modern warfare, which is driven by technology, has transformed in two ways. Instead of linear battlefields (either air-land, or air-sea), there are now six battlefields whose optimisation would determine the war outcome. These are land, air, sea, space, cyber and electronic. Given these disparate battlefields, the Chinese focus has shifted to non-contact war with limited or no loss of lives to own troops. China would use its stand-off, precision weapons including cruise missile, laser bombs, armed unmanned aerial vehicles and so on for destruction, rather than fight soldier-to-soldier with the Indian army. Given this situation, in India, the air force and not the army would lead the land war. This is not acceptable to the army chief, General Bipin Rawat who recently said that the army should lead the land war. Thus, either the modern war is not understood by the army or there is a dogged attempt to resist drastic downsizing of its bloated numbers.

Moreover, the desired outcome of military power by major powers (with nuclear weapons) is no longer deterrence or actual war-fighting, if deterrence fails. It is successful military coercion (compellence without fighting). However, if the compelling force is not credible, it will heavily cost the reputation of the coercing state. An example of unsuccessful military coercion is the 2001-2002 Operation Parakram initiated by India against Pakistan, where India withdrew its mobilised army without any gains after a ten-month long face-off. On the other hand, the 2017 Doklam crisis between India and China which eventually led to Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeking peace with President Xi Jinping through the Wuhan understanding is an example of successful military coercion. India took the beating because its army mistook the land battlefield for war (total of different battlefields).

Given this, will the Indian Army accept the dynamics of modern warfare and allow the IAF to be the lead in all land joint theatres is a critical unanswered question; if so, there is a perfect case of even downsizing the army (its teeth or combat elements). The IAF rightly fears that a joint theatre commander from the army would fail to see beyond the land-battlefield into the wide horizon that the air power does. This could result in under-utilisation of air power. Talk of an army-led joint theatre commander having air force domain experts to advise him does not cut ice: in the hierarchical military, the boss takes the final call.

Two, in the present system, the three service chiefs sitting in Delhi are the highest operational commanders (who are directly involved in war-fighting). Next, the commanders of the 19 different commands (referred to as commander-in-chief) are the highest operational commanders in their areas of responsibility. In all previous conventional wars fought by India, a perennial problem has been the interference of service chiefs in the domains of concerned commanders-in-chief in how to run the war; this has led to confusion and undermining of authority. Now, by adding another layer in the form of joint theatre commander, there would be three operational commanders. Wouldn’t that lead to further operational chaos?

Joint theatre commanders would make sense if the posts of commanders of 19 different commands were abolished and the three service chiefs, like the Chinese military, were made responsible for administration, logistics and recruitment of their respective service. Or, if they were elevated to the higher strategic level by including them in the formal policymaking loop. This would require a Constitutional move for amending the rules of government business. Would the government and the services welcome these changes?

Three, the two-front war scenario initiated by the army in 2007 and followed by the other services has altered. In the past decade, the interoperability (ability to fight together) of the Pakistan and Chinese military has grown manifold. Then, there are thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians working on the China Pakistan Economic Corridor; at present for its construction and thence for its commerce and upkeep. In this situation, if the IAF, during war, killed Chinese in Pakistan (which would be unavoidable), retaliation from China is assured. Thus, while India would undertake hostilities on its western border, it would inevitably get sucked into a two-front war (non-contact with China and a partial contact war with Pakistan) scenario. Given this, the IAF aircraft and other support assets would need the Air Force Headquarters, rather than the two joint theatre commanders, for fighting the war.

This is not all. India, unlike China, does not have a vibrant defence-industrial complex to accelerate productions to meet the war-effort. India will be forced to fight with whatever it has, and truth be told, it does not have much. Given this, the time for India to have joint theatre commands has not come.

Pravin Sawhney is the editor of FORCE newsmagazine.