Why India's Theatre Commanders Will Have to Be Four-Star Officers

India needs a defence policy matching its growing economic and diplomatic status.

No, this tract is not an underhanded attempt by the armed forces, or their supporters, to fish for higher rank and privilege in murky circumstances. Actually, it is as simple as not being able to define the shape and size of the apex stone of a pyramid until the base has been built. To build the base there is much brush to be cleared, on which General Naravane, a recently retired army chief, has expounded in the columns of the Indian Express.

The services, with the exception of the Navy, for 75 years have been predominantly defence-oriented, defending territory and airspace. The Navy has, to the extent permitted, looked abroad. But now with the decision to create operational theatres, it is clearly intended to use military power abroad, to project national power. How far and where should power projection take place?

That would have been indicated in a National Security Strategy, or at least, a governmental idea of India’s world. To date, no such document has been written or even attempted to have been written by the National Security Council. This is why, in the case of the Navy, which normally operates overseas, a bold and forward-thinking chief, Admiral Arun Prakash, took the initiative in 2004 to write an Indian Maritime Strategy, without political guidance.

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

Historically, the only theatre constituted in Indian history is the South East Asia Command under Admiral Mountbatten, under whom the 14th Army commanded by Lieutenant General Slim, recaptured Burma (Myanmar) in the World War II.

Today, we have the task before the Chief of Defence Staff and the integrated staff of defining theatres without political guidance. The task can certainly be achieved by the military staff, for after all, that is where there is the best collection of trained and scholarly military strategists.

Theaterisation in India

The idea of theatres is essentially an American one, as is the concept of a multi-disciplinary National Security Council, which provides intellectual guidance to the construction and operationalising of theatres.

In the American concept, as a world power, the whole world is divided into US commands, with India coming under the Pacific Command in Honolulu while Pakistan is under the Central Command. These commands define US global interests.

So, where are the interests that define Indian operational theatres?

A map of possible theatres was produced by this author and published in The Wire with a copy sent to the CDS and the integrated staff. However, there is a difference between an academic interpretation of Indian operational theatres and a governmental version officially sanctified.

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

It is possible nevertheless to speculate what are India’s inalienable interests in creating an operational theatre out of the present Western and South Western Commands. Obviously, Pakistan is hardly a theatre, being a country in turmoil and decline. Afghanistan calls out to be included, followed by strong arguments for the Middle East.

The recent Israeli-Sunni rapprochement and the nuclear ambitions of Iran, leaning heavily on Moscow and Beijing with an inevitable polarisation create serious concern in Delhi. In this area are four million Indian workers remitting anything between 20 and 30 billion dollars annually. So if one went as far as the Middle East, Israel calls out to be included in the theatre, and hence, the strategic waterway of the Suez Canal. It goes without saying that India’s trade and oil demands protection of the Straits of Hormuz and the Bab-el-Mandap.

The latter particularly because of Beijing’s extremely aggressive outpost at Djibouti. If one takes note of all these compulsions, one automatically arrives at a new and geographically expanded western operational theatre. Would it frighten the Mandarins of South Block? It will probably do so, but hence General Naravane’s demand for the government to first write a National Security Strategy taking the first step towards articulating India’s overseas interests.

Also read: Mapping the Theaterisation of Operational Commands

But as stated earlier, the civil bureaucracy and government think tanks are ridiculously incapable of writing such a document. In any case, since the core of such organisation and the National Security Council Staff are composed of serving or retired military officers, the CDS and integrated staff should go ahead and plan theaterisation without any government guidance.

So, the Western theatre envisaged would absorb all the forces currently deployed in the West and South West and consist of approximately four army corps 10 to 12 squadrons of aircraft and the Western Fleet, all of them headed currently by the eight officers of three-star rank, now constituted under one theatre commander. Clearly, this theatre commander will have to be a four-star officer.

This principle can be proved repetitively in the case of the other theatres, of which there would be at least four or five. What we are arriving at is the reduction of the approximately 17 single service commands led by the three-star officers that currently exist into four or five theaters under four four-star officers. The heads of each single service would remain in place, for as the American put it, housekeeping duties, thereby creating seven or eight four-star officers in the new setup. Who would be their boss? Plainly and obviously a five-star CDS, who would for the first time in India, be a person tasked with writing India’s military grand strategy to supersede the current three single-service strategies.

This new five-star CDS would at last be able to answer perennial questions, such as why don’t we counterattack China in the Indian Ocean for continuing aggression on the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Why when China has one theatre commander against India, do we have five or six single service commands against China? How can Beijing dare to set up a base in Djibouti when India sits on China’s jugular in the Malacca Straits?

Some versions of a proposed Indian military grand strategy are already in circulation, written by far-sighted retired officers. With theatersiation under a five-star CDS, all these anomalies and doubts would be removed, giving India a defence policy matching its growing economic and diplomatic status.

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).