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[Burning Issue] Integrated Theatre Command

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India is set to begin a formal roll-out of its long-awaited theaterisation plan to best utilise its military’s resources amid growing security threats, with the Air Defense Command and the Maritime Theatre Command set to be launched by May.

Present structure

  • The Indian armed forces currently have 17 commands.
  • There are 7 commands each of the Army [Northern, Eastern, Southern, Western, Central, South-western and Army Training Command (ARTRAC)].
  • Air Force has [Western, Eastern, Southern, South-western, Central, Training and Maintenance].
  • The Navy has 3 commands [Western, Eastern and Southern].
  • Each command is headed by a 4-star rank military officer.
  • Interestingly, none of these 17 commands is co-located at the same station, nor are their areas of operational responsibility contiguous.
  • In addition, there are 2 tri-service commands [Strategic Forces Command (SFC)] and Andaman and Nicobar Command (ANC)], which is headed by rotation by officers from the 3 Services.

How do the 17 commands coordinate during the war?

  • Coordination of operations is expected to be carried out at the level of Service Headquarters through the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), which is headed by the senior-most Service Chief who is designated as Chairman, COSC.
  • He is expected to simultaneously perform both the roles of Chief of his Service as well as the Chairman, COSC.
  • The COSC generally functions on the principle of consensus, and this makes decision making on jointness very difficult.
  • India has an integrated theatre command only in ANC.
  • The other tri-service command, the SFC, looks after the delivery and operational control of the country’s nuclear assets.
  • It was created in 2003, but because it has no specific geographic responsibility and a designated role, it is not an integrated theatre command but an integrated functional command.
  • There has been a demand for other integrated functional commands, such as the cyber, aerospace and Special Operations commands, but the government is yet to approve any.

What is a theatre command?

  • An integrated theatre command envisages a unified command of the three Services, under a single commander, for geographical theatres that are of security concern.
  • The commander of such a force will be able to bring to bear all resources at his disposal (from the IAF, the Army and the Navy) with seamless efficacy.
  • It will not be answerable to individual Services and will be free to train, equip and exercise his command to make it a cohesive fighting force capable of achieving designated goals.
  • The logistic resources required to support his operations will also be placed at the disposal of the theatre commander so that he does not have to look for anything when operations are ongoing.
  • This is in contrast to the model of service-specific commands which India currently has, wherein the Army, Air Force and Navy all have their own commands all over the country.
  • In case of war, each Service Chief is expected to control the operations of his Service through individual commands, while they operate jointly.

The committee, which was headed by Lt General DB Shekatkar (retd) has recommended the creation of 3 integrated theatre commands i.e.;  

  1. Northern for the China border,
  2. Western for the Pakistan border and
  3. Southern for the maritime role.

Why is the need to integrate Armed Forces?

  • The remarkable technological advancements in science and technology in the 20th century have revolutionized the art of warfighting.
  • The nature of warfare itself has witnessed a paradigm shift in the planning and execution of operations.
  • The modern concept of warfighting relies on the tenets of real-time battlefield transparency 24 x 7, swift all-weather mobility under all battlefield conditions and immense lethality of firepower independent of range limitations.
  • The modern-day wars will be fought with simultaneity in a non-linear pattern across the spectrum of land, sea and air.
  • The execution of operations would entail well-coordinated offensive-defensive manoeuvres, net-centric operations, information warfare, cyber-attacks, possibly under nuclear overhang etc.
  • India has two hostile nuclear neighbours. Additionally, India’s security threats include Pak sponsored terror in J&K as part of an instrument of state power, Left Wing Extremism (LWE) in almost half the districts in the country and international power play unfolding in the Indian Ocean region (IOR) as well as Asia-Pacific Regions.
  • India today, as an economic & military power, must play a much larger role in the evolving geo-strategic environment in the region, particularly in the maritime domain.
  • In such a complex operational environment, militaries have little option but to adopt methods of integrated warfighting.
  • To effectively counter the list of security challenges, India will have to integrate the Armed Forces.

How is Joint Command different from Integrated Command?

  • Jointness means that while the 3 Services progress and develop in their respective spheres with their independent identity, they function together and so coordinate their operations in war.
  • Integrated commands, on the other hand, seek to merge individual service identities to achieve a composite and cohesive whole.
  • It implies enmeshing the three Services together at different levels and placing them under one commander for the execution of operational plans.

Pros

  • Better acclimatisation of troops to the given battle space, which will assist them to comprehend the operational requirements correctly in the assigned area of operation.
  • Training needs and administrative requirements of the troops can be better understood, which would allow specialisation and suitable honing of battle drills at all levels.
  • Equipment can be procured, maintained and pre-positioned for quick mobilisation and apt application during the envisaged, short-duration, high-intensity war.
  • The allocation of military hardware, in terms of weapon systems, command, control and communication equipment and combat support elements will be theatre specific and result in optimisation of the resources.
  • Unified command of the three Services under one designated commander will allow for prompt and precise decision making and will remove unnecessary tri-services one-man-up ship.
  • Hence, it goes without saying, that the theatre commands will afford better coordination, intelligence sharing, apt advice and seamless conduct of operations in a given theatre of operation.

Challenges

  • The very first challenge is the mindset of the military hierarchy. There is deep-rooted insecurity among the Services, arising out of loss of absolute authority over its Service, loss of identity of each Service in an integrated set up and erosion of empire within each Service. This may lead to unwillingness among the Armed Forces to integrate.
  • Secondly, the lack of political will despite being convinced about the requirement of integration of the Armed Forces. There is a sense of reluctance arising out of insecurity to bestow the complete authority of Armed Forces with one individual.
  • Thirdly, the structure of command, i.e. who will report to who within the tri-services and joint theatre command configurations, and who will have operational command over personnel and machinery, service chiefs or theatre commanders.
  • Fourthly, shortage of resources within the Indian Air Force (IAF) which has only 31 operational squadrons against a modest sanctioned strength of 42, would make it difficult for the IAF to permanently station assets in a particular command with territorial boundaries.
  • The fifth challenge is the inter-services competition wherein each service zealously oversees its own assets and strives for a greater share of the defense budget and influence might prove to be an obstacle in creating synergy among the services.
  • Last but not the least, India’s limited experience with integrated command structures may require a fair bit of mid-course corrections which would require problems to be timely identified and remedied, and slow down the integration process regardless.

Is everybody happy with the proposed idea?

  • While the Army and the Navy are on board with the proposal, the Air Force has certain reservations.
    • One, the Air Force does not want the Air Force chief to lose operational control of Air assets.
    • Two, the Air Force is concerned that all of its assets might be divided within these integrated theatres.
  • All such concerns need to be addressed before such a significant transformation of the defence set-up takes place.

Conclusion

  • Even though both merits and demerits highlight logical arguments, the truth is this was a much-needed reform in Indian Armed Forces.
  • Thus this integration would lead to theaterisation which would further lead to the modernization of forces. Until now, modernization was implemented from the equipment and weapons system per se but this restructuring into unified commands is the other side of modernization of forces.
  • Even though there is a line of difference between Jointmanship among armed forces and Integration of Armed Forces, cooperation is a prerequisite of armed forces.
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