The process of establishing integrated theatre commands is currently in full swing. The effort is to finalise strategies and plans for restructuring the Indian military’s joint planning and integration. As the military leadership addresses intricate concerns like operational hurdles and defining the roles of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and the three Chiefs of Staff, Nitin A Gokhale, the Editor-in-Chief of BharatShakti, offers a comprehensive overview of these ongoing discussions. This detailed report is being presented through a series of articles. The initial segment of this series delved into the establishment and framework of theatre commands. The concluding part provides insights into the various models and presents an argument for an Indian version of the command structure for the seamless operationalisation of theatre commands.
The possibility of forming a higher defence committee for strategic and political guidance to the military leadership is related to the restructuring of HQ IDS. Assuming that HQ IDS, in consultation with the theatre commands, will take local and largely tactical decisions, there is still no clarity on who or which organisation the VCDF or VCDS will report to? Models implemented by the Anglo-Saxon nations do offer some clues. Still, given the peculiarity of the Indian context (two or one-and-a-half hostile nations on its borders), a completely new structure drawing from various elements that are in vogue may have to be evolved.
First, let’s look at the models followed in the US, the UK and Australia just to take three examples. For instance, in the US structure, the Secretary of Defence (SecDef) exercises direct command and control of the armed forces (see charts).
Australians, too, follow a somewhat similar system, with the Chief of Defence Force (CDF) reporting to the Minister of Defence. He also commands the Australian Defence Forces through the Vice Chief of Defence Forces (VCDF).
The UK model is, however, more collegiate. The CDS remains the principal military adviser, but the Permanent Secretary of Defence (a civilian) is the principal policy adviser with the same status as the CDS. The third parallel office at the top of the heap is that of the VCDS. The three collectively command the British armed forces.
In the Indian context, the US model is unlikely to be considered, given that the Raksha Mantri (Defence Minister) is usually an experienced senior politician without substantial experience in military matters.
Indian Model: Civil-Military Fusion?
One option that may have to be considered is to form a higher defence committee comprising key players in the national security apparatus. Can such a committee comprising—for example — the National Security Adviser (NSA), the Cabinet Secretary, the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, the CDS and the three Service Chiefs—be an answer to the conundrum? Other important officials, the Foreign, Home and Defence Secretaries, along with the heads of the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Research and Analyses (R&AW), can be permanent invitees.
An Apex Defence Committee Responsible for Operational Control?
A higher defence committee may be able to provide the much-required civil interface to the military—a necessary prerequisite in a robust democracy like India’s. Fundamentally, the political class in India is more comfortable with the diffused power structure of the military, and it is necessary to provide comfort to the government. Creating a higher defence committee may require tweaking some existing arrangements/structures, such as the National Security Council, the Strategic Policy Group and even the National Security Advisory Board.
It is nobody’s case that the role of the CDS or the COSC should be diluted. They must continue to guide the theatre commanders and HQ IDS in policy and functional matters, but permission from the proposed higher defence committee and, if necessary, the CCS is necessary for operational requirements that may need political clearance.
Critics might argue that such an arrangement will add another layer to the chain of command and may delay quick decision-making. But that is a risk that may be necessary to be taken in a functioning democracy.
Whatever the merit of these different arguments, Indian national security managers will have to come to a definite conclusion soon if the theatre commands are to be raised in a given time frame.
Need For Four-Star Rank Theatre Commanders?
As the military brass wracks its brains in laying out the exact contours of HQ IDS, the role of CDS and the three Service Chiefs, the task of getting a functional and effective structure of theatre commands is equally vital. Placing the theatre commanders in an appropriate rank and empowering them adequately will be crucial to implementing India’s ambitious plans to optimise resources and increase the combat effectiveness of its armed forces.
Though, this task is easier debated than achieved. One proposal is to make theatre commanders four-star officers at par with Service Chiefs with their retirement age as 62, equivalent to service chiefs. Taking this leap of faith will require political heft and administrative deftness within the military hierarchy.
One of the foremost challenges would be to subsume/place the current 17 regional commands across the three services and choose theatre commanders without disturbing the existing seniority principle. The second track involves integrating methods, processes, and operating procedures, achieving commonality in logistics and human resource policies, and assessing annual performance, just to mention a few.
As a former military officer and scholar at the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), Vivek Chadha has said in a book authored in 2021, “it is felt that theatre commanders should be four-star rank officers with similar seniority as the Service Chiefs. It will facilitate the necessary coordination and command and control within the theatres. This includes command over certain regional commands that could be created or retained. This may include the Andaman Nicobar Islands or perhaps even areas like Jammu and Kashmir to cater to the specific requirements of countering terrorism. It is also important to co-relate their functioning with existing Service Chiefs. It is initially envisaged that the Service Chiefs will continue to guide operational aspects as part of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Over time, their role will shift to raise, train and sustain function. The evolving relationship between the CDS and Service Chiefs suggests that having four-star theatre commanders will not become a constraint for ensuring a smooth functional relationship between them and the Service Chiefs.”
Other scholars such as RAdm Sudarshan Shrikhande (retd) have written for us in BharatShakti.in extensively on this debate and concluded that eventually:
- The Service Chiefs would transit to the primary but equally vital roles of “Raise/Train/Sustain” and shed a large part of their operational roles in conflict to HQIDS/ Joint Theatre Commands or JTCs.
- All the functions of the SHQs would benefit from the central strategy planning process for overall military strategies in terms of force planning and force-building processes. Among other things, this would help true indigenisation and self-reliance, without which India cannot be a great power.
- An important consequence of integration and jointness could be—rather must be—the rise in effectiveness accompanied by the optimisation of personnel strength.
In his address to the annual DRDO Directors’ Conclave, CDS General Anil Chauhan recently discussed the importance of theaterisation of conflict. He said, “the concept of theaterisation is a fundamental change that is on the anvil… theaterisation involves the creation of tri-service theatre-specific structures for effective response along the entire spectrum of conflict.”
If that is the fundamental aim, then there would be no better way of handling the business of joint military outputs across the spectrum of peace and conflict than creating joint theatre commands, no matter what it takes.
Nitin A Gokhale