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India’s New Theater Commands! What’s Next?

From the ancient days, war theaters are combination of different forces. Though, infantry forms a core component of any fighting force, it needs to be supported by auxiliary forces. These auxiliary forces have evolved from time to time. Earlier days, cavalry and artillery supported the infantry, however later these groups were merged into the ground forces. In the modern days, air superiority over a region proved to be critical in the decision of a war. In last few decades, countries deploy combination of forces to have a swift action, superiority, minimal casualties and desired outcome in a war theater. Clausewitz in his famous On War, describes a war theater as a portion of space where war prevails.

India has a history of deployment of combined forces in a war theater since long time World War I (WWI) or even before. In independent India, 1965 war has demonstrated the synergy between air force and army achieving the faster advance of the forces. In 1971, Bangla Desh liberation war, Navy joined other two services, blocking the advances of enemy forces and holding the water near peninsula. The synergy between three forces resulted in the decisive outcome in the short span of 13 days. In the more recent times, India deployed combination of forces in the Kargil war theater. However, army conducted its own operation named Vijay, while Air Force had operation Safed Sagar. Though they maintained a close coordination with each other, they were commanded and operated through different service lines. This highlighted a need of combined forces in the event of war. The Group of Minister’s (GOM) committee setup after Kargil war, underlined a need better coordination between three forces, recommending a Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) position to look at the comprehensive picture and draw an overall strategy. It took around 20 years for that to happen. CDS will be one point of communication with PMO and work towards better combined operational efficiency between three forces. 

Though there are three different forces, which are well trained and very professional, they can’t be put them together and asked to fight without a unified approach. Government established an Integrated Defense Staff (IDS) which was commanded by a three-star general. However, this unit was more focused on providing domain expertise to the government. There are no dedicated forces and department doesn’t have any operational capabilities. Also, as IDS is commanded by a three-star general, the hierarchical nature of armed forces doesn’t permit an authority to take a service level decision or overwrite the strategy decisions of service chief. To overcome this, a four-star general was appointed as CDS, who is matured with the experience of commanding entire service and dealt with other service chiefs over his career. Though, it will bring a significant hierarchical question in the armed forces. The appointment process of CDS is still unclear, as he will another four-star general, who is one among the equal like Chief Justice of India. If a three-star general will be promoted to CDS or will he be the most senior four-star general is still unclear, but that process will get matured over the time

Integrated Battle Groups to Unified Theaters

In recent years, on the experimental basis, Army started raising Integrated Battle Groups (IBG). The idea behind IBG is to combine, raise and train groups which go to battle together. One commander is responsible for it, irrespective of the different units, forces were drawn from. This is to increase the battle readiness of forces and increase the accountability of the commander. Though, these units are raised and trained in different scenarios, many of them might never interact with each other and won’t know the

strengths and weaknesses of each other. It is difficult to deploy them in a theater if there is no synergy with them. It is still unclear that if IBGs will replace or support the existing strike corps and commanded by a two/three star general or someone at the brigade level. However, no standard pattern for IBG has been decided yet as every front has a different terrain and has different requirements.

After the implementation of IBG, when Gen Bipin Rawat was made CDS, he thought of taking it a level above. IBG had combination of specialized infantry forces, but no interaction with other services in the armed forces. Based on the recent news  , CDS has proposed the theater commands to integrate all operations in a specific area. In 2001, GOM’s Committee recommended “One Border One Force” principle to establish accountability in the border management1. This might be one of catalyst for establishing the command theaters, which will own the entire core operations in the specific segment. So, all air activities, safety and management of airspace will be the primary responsibility of the Air Force. Army and Navy have their respective air aviation/combat wings; however, speculations are that Air Force to lead all air activities with Army/Navy’s air wings reporting to them. Similarly, Indian Navy will own the peninsula command. Indian navy’s aim is to become a blue water navy in the future. It has conducted anti-piracy operations to western coast till African coast, next should be further operations on the eastern front. India’s sea reach has no limit considering the Indian ocean and no exclusive economic zone till the coast of Australia. The new operational theaters will combine all core operations into their respective branches with only minimal aircrafts or ships maintained with the Army which are essential for the troop movement.

Integration of operations will require significant amount of restructuring, mobilization and training. Theater command most likely to be led by officer of a rank equivalent to General Officer Commanding in Chief, i.e. Lieutenant General. The restructuring will converge personnel, logistics and operational activities into one group, under one commander. This creates a training requirement for the officers who have served only within their service line for entire span of their career. Army will require to test the theaters in next few years to decide the feasibility, operational efficiency and training needs of these theaters.

USA’s Goldwater–Nichols Act of 1986 and Restructuring of Armed Forces

Military historians refer Goldwater–Nichols Act as a milestone in modern armed forces restructuring. WWII and cold war highlighted many issues in the command and hierarchy of the armed forces. Services lacked coordination, synergy and cohesion. Each service had their individual communication line with the cabinet and a horrendous red-tape hindered a quick and collaborative decision-making process. Goldwater–Nichols Act eliminated many of these issues and streamlined the processes. It created Chairman of a Joint Chiefs of Staff, who acted as a principal military advisor to the President. This act provided a better control and larger visibility for chairman to decide the overall war strategy than to focus on his own service line. A student of military history can’t avoid drawing a corollary between Indian CDS and Goldwater–Nichols Act. Similarity between CDS and GSA doesn’t end here, GSA has an exact same recommendation as of GOM’ about having a Vice Chief of Defense Staff from the other service than that of CDS. Past three decades since this act, American armed forces have been more effective in an armed conflict due to combined efforts of all services. It is encouraging to see that Indian Army has decided to

adopt the best practices around the world. To horn these skills, both governments conducted Operation Tiger’s Triumph in November 2019. This was first in its kind, bilateral and tri-services exercise. This has paved a way for tri services working in tandem and learning best practices from a country which has operationalized this concept long before. The first CDS will have challenge stand up the entire institution of Department of Military Affairs, develop specific sub-units with his joint secretaries, assist government in defense expenditure. With his team of Joint Secretaries, CDS might even take up some of the administrative decisions like soldier’s pension funds, insurances and other non-executive work. The CDS might accelerate the long-awaited defense procurement deals like new fighter aircrafts, bulletproof jackets and armored vehicles. It is still unclear, if CDS plans to develop a joint military intelligence unit that will receive inputs from all three service specific intelligence branches. These all inputs will be analyzed together to join the dots and create a bigger picture. To assist the intelligence analysis further, even military satellites can be brought under the control of CDS. In the future, it will be quite interesting to see how Chief of Defense Staff and new Theater Commands will cross train soldiers, improve the battle readiness and prepare armed forces for a dynamically evolving world.

Kiran Muthal is a freelance writer who lives in US. He is a Financial Risk Management and Anti Money Laundering Professional. He is a Independent policy Researcher and Thinker who is passionate about Foreign Policy, Geopolitics , Security.

His Twitter handle @KiranMuthal

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