The issue of Theatre Commands seems to be moving at a fair pace after the setback it suffered with the demise of the previous Chief of Defence Staff. The methodology adopted by the current CDS is more inclined to a consensual approach. The article provides specific inputs critical for the functional efficiency of these Commands, especially the Maritime Theatre Command.
Upon assuming charge as the first Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS) in January 2020, General Bipin Rawat was given the unenviable task of conceptualising and proposing a model for the theaterisation of the armed forces. A flurry of activities started, and several studies were commissioned by the Army and the Navy. There was a talk about the Air Force being tasked to examine the constitution of an Air Defence Command, but little was heard about that subsequently. There are several quarters which question and even oppose the idea of theaterisation. What is broken, they ask? If a working system is going to be replaced with another, how will that be better than what we have now? Basic and pertinent questions that need to be answered to the satisfaction of the sceptics by the government.
The untimely demise of General Rawat in a helicopter crash in December 2021 put the brakes on the theaterisation discussion till General Anil Chauhan assumed office as the second CDS on 30 September 2022. Each CDS approached theaterisation differently, with General Rawat preferring a wider debate and speedy implementation and General Chauhan opting for a quieter, deliberate and consensual approach. In any case, it is assumed that the decision to theaterise has been taken, and the deliberations must now focus on how and when that should happen. Recent media reports indicate that theaterisation is back on the drawing boards. In a way, it is a welcome step if true since some ideas would have churned over the past three years, and the ‘drawing’ this time around will be better.
Media reports suggest it is intended to set up two Land-based Theatre Commands with geographic nomenclature and one Maritime Theatre Command. The Land-based Theatre Commands would address the western and northern threats across the land borders, while the Maritime Theatre Command would execute the maritime battle plan in all contingencies. These theatre commands would be supported by other functional commands/agencies such as Air Defence, Space, Cyber and Special Forces. Whatever the formulation, the change must be implemented all at once, i.e., all theatre and functional commands, a permanent joint headquarters and devolution of operational powers to the CDS must happen together. While doing so, lessons learnt from the Andaman and Nicobar Command experience must be remembered. Beware the delaying tactics of those who say, “Let’s do one first and see, then we can proceed further.”
The architects working on the Maritime Theatre drawing board would do well to consider the following as they go about their task:
- The Maritime Theatre Commander (MTC) must have a ‘fully staffed’ headquarters and not a ‘lean’ staff, as some people have suggested in the past. Personnel can be re-appropriated from Service headquarters and single-service commands as their operational responsibilities will diminish significantly.
- Operational and Raise-Train-Sustain (R-T-S) functions must be clearly demarcated, with Theatre Commanders entirely responsible and accountable for the former and the Service Chiefs for the latter.
- Planning and execution of all operations should rest with the MTC, which should bear single-point responsibility for all successes and failures.
- Once forces are allocated for operations, they must be controlled directly by the MTC with just the R-T-S link with Naval C-in-Cs. It will reduce decision-making time and enhance responsiveness.
- The Andaman and Nicobar Command must become a subordinate formation to the MTC since it will always fight the maritime battle, regardless of its composition and adversary.
- The Coast Guard must be placed under the MTC in any conflict scenario that requires a collective national response at sea.
- The command structure and the organogram of the MTC must reflect its maritime character. Neither must the ANC model be replicated, nor pro-rata staffing as per the strength of the services be recommended. Similarly, staffing of other theatre commands must reflect the preponderant action in the theatre. There need not be a one-fits-all template across theatre commands.
- The MTC should preferably operate from a greenfield location that must be tailored to theatre requirements from the start. An interim location till then should be acceptable.
Effective joint application of force is dependent on integration among the armed forces. Integration is enabled by common communication and networking protocols, compatibility of equipment, streamlined joint planning mechanisms, well-understood joint doctrines, clear Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), well-defined responsibilities and competent joint workforces in headquarters and formations. These must be in place before theaterisation plans are considered for implementation. Theaterisation has far-reaching consequences for the country’s defence, and it would be wise not to make unnecessary haste.
Vice Admiral Biswajit Dasgupta (Retd)