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Theatre Military Commands for Indian Military is a Flawed Concept

Paper No. 6260                                 Dated 22-May-2017

By Dr. Subhash Kapila

The Indian Republic faces today a hostile military environment with two of its major military threats having coalesced raising spectre of war at short notice which thus militates against any tinkering with existing operational “Commands “of the three Services.

The immediate imperatives are adding muscle to the existing “Services Commands” and not create a state of military flux by the nebulous concept of Theatre Commands. India’s Mountain Strike Corps is presently half-baked and the long awaited decision to create Special Forces Command, Cyber Warfare Command and Space Warfare Command still seem to be in a state of limbo. India should first achieve their completion before it attempts creation of Theatre Military Commands.

If “integration” is the buzz-word for advocating Theatre Military Commands then it should also include complete integration and placing under command of all par-military forces and central armed police forces under Theatre Military Commands. Is the Indian political establishment willing to do so?

India’s war-preparedness in the period 2004-14 stood abjectly neglected and the resultant glaring voids in the military inventories of the Indian Armed Forces completely and decisively rule out operationalising any concept of “Theatre Military Commands.”

Theatre Military Commands in its purest essence envisages placing under command of a Theatre  Military Commander dedicated components of the Army, Air forces and where applicable the Navy to prosecute military operations. In my humble assessment Theatre Military Commands are more suited for large scale offensive operations which I envisage India with its current levels of war preparedness would not be unable to launch for another two decades, leaving aside the debatable question of political will to launch and sustain offensive operations.

It also seems on analysis that this concept of Theatre Military Commands has re-surfaced once again due to China’s decision to set up Theatre Military Commands. More notably, the oversized Western Theatre Command weighing down heavily on India’s Northern Borders with China Occupied Tibet. In this context, three points need to be stressed (1) China’s war preparedness is at its peak today affording China to establish Theatre Military Commands (2) China has built up in-theatre military capabilities with sizeable logistics build-up over the years, and (3) One does not visualise the Chinese Theatre Military Command being led by an Air Force or Naval Officer as the operational tasks of this Chinese Western Command are predominantly land-based, both for defensive and offensive military operations against India.

India’s security establishment, both civil and military gets a virtual ‘Seven Year Itch’ to streamline the Indian Armed Forces more stimulated by cut-downs in military budgets in the absence of political will to cap India’s defence budget to 3 % of its GDP. Such advocacy is further compounded by arm-chair strategists of the academia, media and think-tanks expounding it vociferously without a realistic co-relation to the military operational challenges that India faces on its land-borders with China and Pakistan.

India’s geographical size, its geographical configuration with predominant threats from China and Pakistan being land-based, its asymmetric hybrid threats and abounding by the day render the concept of “Theatre Military Commands” a flawed one with serious operational impediments.

It also needs to be stressed that India’s existing separate “Command Headquarters” for the Indian Army, Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force stand operationally time-tested by India’s wars with China and Pakistan. Today there is far more integration that prevails in the Indian Armed Forces resulting from the lessons learnt from past wars.

A brief review of the existing command structures need to outlined to further highlight that existing ‘Command Structures of the three Services militate against the concept of Theatre Military Commands, beginning with the Indian Army.

The Northern Command has a vast commitment encompassing the hilly terrains of Jammu region, the mountainous terrain of the Kashmir region and the glacial and high altitude mountains of the Ladakh region. These land borders need to be manned and defended by a large number of Army formations. It does not lend itself to any Theatre Military Command in all its connotations.

The Western and South Western Commands face Pakistan in the plains and incorporate Strike Corps and Pivot Corps. Operationally, here again, land operations are predominant dictating Army Commanders from the Indian Army.

Eastern Command guarding the entire North and North Eastern threats from China involve high-altitude Indian Army operations. It brooks no Theatre Military Commands.

Central Command is basically a logistics Army base for the Northern, Western and Eastern Commands with some operational commitments against China in the Central Sector.

Southern Command has a vast operational responsibility both with land borders defence, defence of peninsular India and coastal defence—an orphaned subject. Some scope exists here for Theatre Military Command as in the future all three Services could come into play in a major operational role.

Andaman and Nicobar Command is the only Theatre Military Command, closer to the concept and functions as such.

The Navy’s Command structures in terms of Western Naval Command and Eastern Naval Command and Southern Naval Command basically have operational responsibilities for the Arabian Sea. The Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean Region. These need to be retained as such and not tinkered with the concept of Theatre Military Commands. Case exists for creation of another Naval Command---Indian Ocean Naval Command with dedicated assets fir maritime dominance of this pivotal maritime expanse.

The Indian Aid Force Commands as presently structured afford flexibility in terms of allocations of air effort for with the limited combat air assets that the Indian Air Force has. In fact it is the most neglected Service with nearly 150 combat aircraft deficiencies and a requirement of 200 more combat aircraft to meet a joint China-Pakistan Axis military threat. These existed Air Force Commands should not be tinkered with till such time the Indian Air Force reaches a level of at least 60 squadrons. Opting for Theatre Military Commands would need dedicated allocation of combat air assets to each Theatre Military Command and rob the Indian Air Force of the flexibility to meet the China-Pakistan joint threat with depleted numbers.

Concluding, emphasised once again is that the current geopolitical situation and military threats facing India demand the imperatives of retaining existing Service Commands of each of the three Services of the Indian military with the attendant imperative of pumping-in muscle and adrenalin which can be best done by the political establishment.

(Dr Subhash Kapila is a graduate of the Royal British Army Staff College, Camberley and combines a rich experience of Indian Army, Cabinet Secretariat, and diplomatic assignments in Bhutan, Japan, South Korea and USA. Currently, Consultant International Relations & Strategic Affairs with South Asia Analysis Group. He can be reached at drsubhashkapila.007@gmail.com)

 

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